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Passing Wind

Tom Degan:

I'm sorry if the title of this piece seems a bit rude. I'm just in one of those moods today, I guess.

Passing Wind

The fact of the matter is that I love Gone With the Wind and believe it to be a fine example of film making. When it first came out on video cassette in the late 1980s, I was living in New York City, On the day it was released I rushed down the block and around the corner to the old Video Shack on Broadway and 49th to purchase a copy. Likewise when it came out on DVD a number of years later. There's no rational argument against the truth that it is a very entertaining movie. My only problem with Gone With the Wind is that, as historical fiction, it's pure bunk. But since this month is the 75th anniversary of its release, I can't help pausing for a bit of reflection.

Although not the greatest movie ever made, it has got to be one of the best examples of how to go about telling a good story on film. The characters within this plot have got to be the most reprehensible people one could contrive in fiction.

Scarlett is, from the beginning to the end, completely selfish, incapable of empathy or any real compassion; Rhett is an opportunistic rascal; Ashley is a simpering wimp. Even the Scarlett and Rhett's daughter, little Bonnie Blue Butler, is a spoiled brat. I mean, don't get me wrong, I thought it was terrible when the poor kid got thrown from that pony; but let's be honest: The little gal was insufferable. The only two people in the entire film who posses any appeal (at least for my tastes) are Melanie and Mammy.

Although Gone With The Wind is not the greatest movie ever made, it has got to be one of the best examples of how to go about telling a good story on film. The characters within this plot have got to be the most reprehensible people one could contrive in fiction

And yet for almost four solid hours we are drawn into the drama in the lives of these horrifically flawed people. We just can't take our eyes off them! Three-quarters-of-a-century after the film's release, at a time when all but one of the principle cast members are long dead, the fact that we're still talking about Gone With the Wind is impressive in itself.

Buster Keaton, in referring to his Civil War Comedy, The General, once remarked to an interviewer that the only way one could make a successful film dealing with that period of American history is to tell the story from the Southern point of view. What he left unsaid was the sad fact that - at least at during Hollywood's "golden" age - very few people in the South would bother to watch a film that depicted those nasty Yankees as anything less than blood-thirsty savages. This is, more-or-less, the idea put forward in Gone With the Wind. Margaret Mitchell may have been a competent writer but she was a lousy historian. The same could be said, I suppose, for Sidney Howard, who wrote the film's script.

Consider the film's opening scene. Slaves are depicted laboring away on the O'Hara family plantation. One of them decides that it's time to call it a day.

Slave: Quitin' time! Quitin' Time
Big Sam Who says it's quitin' time?
Slave: I's says it's quitin' time!
Big Sam: I's the foreman of Tara.
I's says when it's quitin' time. QUITIN' TIME!!!

At the outset, the nation's worst, most unpardonable sin is treated as some sort of screwball comedy. The depiction of the old south as a paradise of "master and slave" is a screaming flaw in an otherwise impressive production. Incredibly, the caricature of the banjo playin', happy-go-lucky Uncle Tom - shufflin 'cross the ol' plantation - was still in vogue in 1939.

Passing Wind

Much controversy has been generated across the decades by Hattie McDaniel's work in the Hollywood of the thirties and forties. Personally, I always admired her image in film as the straight talking, "take-no-shit-from-these-honkies" kinda gal she usually portrayed. Ir real life, she and Clark Gable were close, devoted friends - years before Gone With the Wind. It is said that Clark never missed Hattie's annual Christmas party. They adored one another.

When Gable got word that the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce refused McDaniel an invitation to the premiere, he hit the roof. He adamantly refused to attend without his dear friend. No one could change his mind - no one, except, Hattie. She gently persuaded him that it was probably the best thing for the film's success that he attend. Only then did Clark Gable agree.

Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to receive the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She deserved it.

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The irony of Gone with the Wind is that the best actor in the film gives the weakest performance. Forty-six year old Leslie Howard thought that he was too old and too British for the part of Georgia-born Ashely Wilkes. He only agreed to do the film when producer David O. Selznick promised him that he would be allowed to produce "Intermezzo", co-starring Ingrid Bergman, which also went into production in 1939 and was completed by the end of that year. It is obvious throughout the film that poor old Les is less than comfortable in the role of Ashley.

Even Clark Gable did not want to do the film he is most remembered for. He was literally forced to play Rhett Butler. Under contract at the time to MGM, the head of the studio was Louis B. Mayer - Selznick's father-in-law. To the end of his life, Gable did not regard Gone With the Wind as one of his career's milestones.

Could the people who had a hand in making this film have possibly known in 1939 that, seventy-five years later, it would it would still be as fresh on the public's mind as it was then? It's easy to imagine that - flawed history notwithstanding - they knew they were onto something bigger than themselves. The passage of three-quarters of a century reaffirms what an outstanding technical achievement it was - and is.

One wonders if there was a curse on this film. So many of the cast would die young.

Leslie Howard was killed in 1943 when the plane in which he was a passenger was shot down over the Bay of Biscay by the Nazis. His body was never recovered.

Hattie McDaniel died at the age of fifty-seven in 1952, a victim of breast cancer. Her final wish was to be buried in the Hollywood Cemetery. She was refused that honor because of her skin color. Some forty years later, the owners of that establishment (in a fit of guilt probably) offered to pay to have her body exhumed and re-interred there. Her descendants politely declined.

Clark Gable died suddenly in November of 1960 of a massive heart attack. He was fifty-nine.

After decades of chronic alcoholism and declining mental health, Vivien Leigh died on July 8, 1967. She was fifty-three.

As of this writing, only Olivia deHavilland survives.

As for the producer, David O. Selznick's most famous movie would end up being a mixed blessing for him. Every subsequent film in his career would be judged by critics and film-goers alike as inferior to Gone With the Wind.

tom-degan

So rent it, buy it, and savor it as a high mark in the history of American film making. Just don't use it as a history lesson, okay? It falls dreadfully short.

Tom Degan
The Rant