Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Day Thirty-Two: Gone With the Wind

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #156
Year: 1939
Director: Victor Fleming
Starring: Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable

Sportswriter Bill Simmons has a cardinal rule about movies: If you're going to be longer than two-and-a-half hours, you'd better have a damn good reason. After going through two discs and four hours of Gone With the Wind, which feels more like a modern miniseries than a true motion picture, I can't help but think of how much the Sports Guy would hate it. Now, I don't know his opinion on the film, but if I'm using his rule – one which I don't generally abide by, as I like to think of myself as a more patient connoisseur of film – this epic of the American South is a prime offender. For starters, it is the only film I've ever seen with a so-called "overture" before its opening credits to go with its completely unironic intermission, both of which have the same sappy string quartet music as the rest of the film. Those are big red flags, warning of the overly long film that lies ahead.

You'll notice I haven't said that anything about this movie is bad except for the soundtrack, and that's because nothing really is. As a series of vignettes about the antebellum, wartime, and Reconstruction South, it's a very effective movie. But watching Vivien Leigh's immortal Scarlett O'Hara pine for the same lover for four hours does start to get tiresome, and long before the denouement. In essence, it's a masterpiece of a two hour movie trapped in a merely great four hour movie's running time. Leigh, Clark Gable, and the venerable Hattie McDaniel all give stellar performances, and despite some dated devices like title cards used to progress the plot and sometimes-garish Technicolor, the film holds up remarkably well in 2010.

If there's anything to complain about, it's that the South is portrayed as a kingdom befitting only the most noble people when in reality it was a place where people could legally own people and make them do their hard work for them. While director Victor Fleming does an adequate job of communicating the way that war tears everyone asunder, no matter whether they were on the traditionally just or unjust side, the title cards especially make the Confederacy sound like the one sane place in an increasingly crazy world. That's inaccurate at best, and borderline racist at worst. Eventual Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel famously wasn't allowed to attend the premiere because she was black, so it's obvious that this movie was made in a very different time than our own from a racial standpoint. That shouldn't justify the movie's thinly veiled portrayal of the Old South as Camelot, and I think it's perfectly reasonable to feel uncomfortable about such comparisons.

It's interesting to me that this movie only comes in at #156 on the list, since it's usually considered by AFI types to be right up there with Casablanca as an all-time greatest movie; a classicist's classic. IMDb types aren't AFI types, though, and if Inception and Toy Story 3 are top 10 movies, it shouldn't really be that surprising that Gone With the Wind isn't. It's still definitely worth watching, even if the marathon length makes it so you can only watch it once.

The Good: Hattie McDaniel's performance as Mammy is virtuosic and touching. It basically feels like she's playing herself; it's that good.

The Bad: I don't usually like to invoke Bill Simmons' ADD tendencies, but it is definitely too long.

The Skinny: I would put it a lot higher than it is just because it's such an important Hollywood staple. #156 feels like it's almost writing it off. It might be overrated by old-timers, but it deserves better.


  1. 2001 has an overture. So does the Kingdom of Heaven Director's cut.

  2. Haven't seen those yet. Well, 2001 yet, Kingdom of Heaven period. If there was something to look at during the overture, it would be forgivable. In an opera, you can at least watch the orchestra play.

  3. Only if you actually have good seats. In any respectable theater, it can be pretty hard to see into the pit. I enjoy it in films. But I suppose classical music isn't your cup of tea.

  4. No, I like classical, but as with any genre, I like good classical and detest bad classical. The score for GWTW did not impress me one bit.

  5. Gone with the Wind has one of the most memorable and reused scores of all time.
    Don't hate.

  6. Actually, I'm gonna come back to this one.
    Throughout this whole process so far I've been just a spectator commenting here and there but I just need to come back to this one.
    First of all, if this is really your first movie with an Overture... get ready... almost every musical on the top 250 has one. Also, 2001 has one. But I think that the fact that modern audiences see an Overture as a "warning" for a long movie is unfair and displays just how "ADD" this world has become.
    Back in the day, people truly appreciated scores for films. Today you will be lucky if your score sells a single copy.
    Gone With the Wind has an absolutely timeless score. It's been repeated and redone and mixed into other films throughout time, and it isn't stopping anytime soon. Shoot, it JUST happened two years ago with Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End.
    Also, it is unfair to say that the movie's length is arbitrary or unnecessary. You are taking the film out of context.
    This movie was made in the year 1939, a year that most people refer to as the year of great films. That year changed the definition of what film could acheive. From the astounding adaptions of Hunchback of Notre Dame and Of Mice and Men to the breathtaking color and magic of The Wizard of Oz. Yet, this movie was able to beat out all of them.
    Gone With the Wind was considered an unfilmable book. It was long, it had a, purposefully, unlikeable main character and involved children dying, the civil war, implied rape, and a positive depiction of the confederacy (which was still considered controversial at the time). The book was huge, and gushy and so romanticized that it became a chore to finish it. The movie changed that. The film actually managed to turn all of these things into a lush, well filmed, astounding cinematic achievement, and possibly the greatest love story ever told.
    And have I not mentioned the ending yet? People hated it. How could this woman not end up with the man she loved? It was not considered possible in those days for a Hollywood film to end like that... but this one did.
    Your complaint of the "positive light on confederacy" is a flaw in this review because that's part of what made the film so controversial in the first place.
    I used to watch this movie every Sunday and I still pop it in occasionally.
    And while you say that you don't want to come off as ADD and that you consider yourself a patient film viewer this review suggests otherwise.
    I'm sorry for the rant but I don't think this review was long enough and the majority of it was full of criticism that I didn't particularly understand.

  7. Naturally, any time you read a less-than-glowing review of something you personally love, you're going to respond with vitriol. I appreciate you taking the time to run me through all of those points, man, I really do. I didn't really realize quite how much it pushed the boundaries of its era, and I can respect it for that. But I'm not watching it in 1939; I'm watching in 2010, and yes, some dormant ADD kicked in about 3 hours in. Some of my favorite movies are very long, but this didn't give me quite as much with its long running time as I would have liked. Still, I respect the hell out of it, and I even did before you shared all that - note that I think it should be a lot higher than it is on the list in "The Skinny" - it just won't be going into my personal DVD collection or my all-time favorites list is all.

  8. And dude, I'm sorry, I've been schooled on this several times now, but I still thought the fact that it had an Overture was pretentious as hell. Every movie has an overture, it's called the opening credits, and generally something visually stimulating happens and we have something to read. I didn't like the GWTW score, so just hearing five minutes of it while I looked at a tree was murderous.

  9. In 2001 the overture isn't even a sampling of the score. It's just some creepy chords elongated over a black screen. Nothing to look at at all just darkness.
    And, trust me, if you end up giving 2001 a negative review and saying it shouldn't be on the list, you will lose many readers.
    Possibly me but only for a few days ;) I'm too in love with this blog to stop reading entirely.

  10. Ha, appreciate it, man. I'm sure that's mostly because of the shared experience.

    I don't think I have any intention of not saying 2001 should be on the list, either. I love Kubrick, and that's one of the few that has evaded my viewing to this point. We're arguing too much over this tiny point anyway. The Overture that said "Overture" on the screen annoyed me, but it obviously wasn't a dealbreaker, like I decided to dislike the movie right then and there.

  11. Brad, would you still cling to your opinion that GWTW having an overture was “pretentious as hell” if you knew that such overtures were designed as (and called, in movie-makers’ parlance) “walking-in music?” The idea was to get everyone, latecomers included, seated without disrupting anyone’s enjoyment of the feature.

    In GWTW as well as in many other movies I’ve seen over the past 70 years, the word “Overture” remained onscreen to let those entering the theater know that it was not the feature itself, thus preventing a noisy scramble for seats.

    On another note, I was disturbed by your response to Andrew Slaughter, i.e., “Naturally, any time you read a less-than-glowing review of something you personally love, you're going to respond with vitriol.” Not only did Mr. Slaughter’s comments contain no vitriol whatsoever, but the idea expressed in your statement—that it’s natural to react to a negative review with vitriol—is not worthy of a civilized man.