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Glossy, Sentimental, Chuckle-headed
by Richard Schickel

ONE measure of a movie's quality is to ask yourself what you retain from it years after seeing it. The answer, for me, for Gone With the Wind is -- "not much": Gable busting down Scarlett's door (and his walkout at the end), that great pullback revealing the wounded stretched out as far as the lens can see in the Atlanta station, and ... and ... little else. The things that make memorable less prestigious movies that I saw around the same time -- unforgettable imagery, dialogue that forever implants itself in mind -- are simply not present in GWTW.

Nor does it satisfy my other rule of thumb about popular art (we do understand, don't we, that we are not discussing Capital A Art?), which is the strength of one's desire to see the thing again. In my case, it is minimal. To be sure, I was too young to be infected by the mass fervor that Margaret Mitchell's novel generated, and I missed out on Selznick's great publicity gimmick, inviting the public to make known its notions for casting the leads. Still, by the time I saw the film in re-release in the late forties, it had become a legend as Hollywood's longest, costliest, most successful sound movie (the silent Birth of a Nation may have outgrossed it; the records for it are in disarray), so my expectations were very positive. And, on the whole, I thought the picture was OK.
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Return to Flashback: "Gone With the Wind."
But no more than that. Why? Well. frankly, my dear, I didn't (and don't) give a damn about the South's yokel notion that it once supported a new age of chivalry and grace. The historical evidence for that contention is slight, and even if such an age had actually flowered, it had no place in America. So I never could join Miss Mitchell in mourning the era gone with her wind, which seemed to me far from an ill wind.

Worse, the movie itself seemed to me curiously lifeless -- mostly talk, and very flowery talk at that. That, I think, is because it reflected not an artist's sensibility but a producer's. Selznick's recently published memos reveal him obsessed with making a film as literally faithful to the novel as possible, and to this end he platooned screenwriters in and out of the project, nudging and fussing over the script, motivated, it would seem, less by any very expansive vision of what the finished work might be than by fear that the public would reject it if he tampered too extensively with their beloved trash. Along the way George Cukor, a good director whose gifts were such that he might have made something strong and genuine out of the emotions afloat in this property, was replaced by the cruder Victor Fleming. Selznick, whose devotion to literacy was largely self-proclaimed (in Hollywood in those days anyone who could read more than two pages without straining was like the one-eyed man in the blind kingdom) and belied by a career-long devotion to talky kitsch drawn from such mighty pens as those of Niven Busch, Robert Nathan, or in his own stable, Ben Hecht, busied himself with his insufferable memos, fretting over such trivia as sets, costumes, and makeup and guaranteeing that men of independence would not stay long at his side. The result was a film entirely worthy of its source -- glossy, sentimental, chuckle-headed -- not one that would transcend, as have so many that have been pulled from literature's bottom drawers, the original work.

Selznick was intelligent enough to see that success depended on a sober acceptance of the popular notion that GWTW was a serious, important work. But there were many in the town then who could have managed that just as uncynically as he did. And some of them were capable of making movies that were what GWTW never was -- deep-down fun. On the whole I guess I wish that someone like Cecil B. De Mille had taken it on -- no "taste," plenty of action and operatic emotion. But it's not important, unless you're writing a social history of Hollywood. Or a commercial history. Gone With the Wind simply has nothing to do with that other, more important kind of history -- the history of art.


Copyright © 1973 by Richard Schickel. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1973; "Glossy, Sentimental, Chuckle-headed"; Volume 231, No. 3; page 71.

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