It is a remarkable phenomenon of American society that a film can transcend its own medium and establish a cultural crossroads where new aesthetic, historical, technological and philosophical sensibilities may at once converge. As such, a movie can capture Zeigeist and reflect the tenor of its era at a magnitude unmatched by any other creative form. Such is the case with the 1939 epic Gone With the Wind, a grand historical fiction that managed to simultaneously tap into the country’s psyche and sense of its own historical past while altering the notion of what was morally acceptable for a film to portray. No other film to date had attempted to tell a story of such grandeur via such a long, winding narrative path, or dared to evoke sexual passion quite so brazenly. Gone With the Wind established new standards in terms of storytelling and sexuality on screen and, in the 72 years since its release, has become one of the great cultural icons of American culture.
Margaret Mitchell’s novel of the same name was wildly popular, but received harsh criticism in many literary quarters for what was considered a wanton use of melodramatic elements and, especially, for the book’s controversial racial sub-theme. The story is clearly the product of Mitchell’s southern perspective, though the film’s screenwriter Sidney Howard told Mitchell that her characterizations of blacks were “the only ones I have ever read which seemed to come through uncolored by white patronizing” (Leff, 1999). Still, the racial element
was enough of a concern that the black man who assaults Scarlett at Tara in the book was changed to a white, Union soldier in the film. Still, race was only one component of a true landmark of American culture.
It is perhaps a by-product of the sheer breadth of the Gone With the Wind experience that so many literary and film critics have panned the story, and the unprecedented hoopla that it caused. Many observers may be “biased against ‘Gone With the Wind’ as an appropriate subject for academic inquiry because of the exploitative, commercial nature of most of the popular books published on this film’s making and the bold aesthetic claims thatattended the picture’s release” (Vertrees, 5). Others claimed that “the persistence of auteurism,” specifically, the pervasive influence of producer David O. Selznick compromised the film’s artistic integrity (5). Others have insisted that the opposite is the case, and that the film’s multiple directors, who included Victor Fleming and George Cukor, robbed the story of any real unity of artistic vision. Whatever the specific criticism, the general impression of Gone With the Wind is of the archetypal blockbuster, a movie that was given three years of advance publicity and “Hollywood myth-making,” followed by a gala premiere the likes of which had never been seen. All of this has combined to marginalize the artistic merits of the movie itself in the eyes of scholars.
Myriad vision -
The film’s string of directors each contributed something to its distinctive and compelling visual experience. William Cameron Menzies, for instance, contributed his unique perspective on shot composition, which is in evidence in the scene where Scarlett finds Big Sam and the other slaves marching off to defend Atlanta. This shot begins from a low angle, with a
roughly left-to-right orientation along the street, which adds to the desperate and dramatic
atmosphere of the scene. Menzies also won an award for his dramatic and vivid use of color in the enhancement of the film’s overall mood. Menzies may have charted a distinctive aesthetic course for Gone With the Wind, but it was Victor Fleming, the man given credit as the film’s “official” director, who marshaled what many believed to be an ungovernable situation.
Fleming often does not receive credit for the film’s artistic direction and cinematic look, much of which, admittedly, was established before Fleming came on the scene. In a Time review of a Victor Fleming biography, no less an expert than F. Scott Fitzgerald is quoted explaining why Fleming was such a valuable asset during the studio system’s heyday. “(Fleming was a) fine adaptable mechanism – which in the morning could direct the action of two thousand extras, and in the afternoon decide on the colors of the buttons of Clark Gable’s coat and the shadows on Vivien Leigh’s neck” (Snyder, 2008). Fitzgerald went on to remark that “the tensile strength of this great effort has been furnished by the director (Fleming)” (2008). The biography brings attention to the fact that most written accounts of the production tend to focus on Selznick’s auteurism and its impact on the first half of the film, while paying too little tribute to the significant contribution made by Fleming to the second half. Indeed, those strengths that Fleming brought to the production - organization, vision and order - were just the qualities that it most needed.
One of the most striking elements of Gone With the Wind is its breathtaking use of the then-revolutionary Technicolor technology. Herbert Kalmus’ color system challenged the
studios’ classic black-and-white photography, which many at the time associated with artistic integrity. Kalmus spent years looking for an opportunity to break through, to prove what Technicolor could add to a movie’s intrinsic value. With Gone With the Wind, he got his chance. It took Kalmus nearly a quarter century to perfect his system, but by 1939 he had invented a camera that could film in blue, green and red simultaneously. This was perfect for Selznick’s elaborate production, which “really turned it around for Technicolor. (Kalmus) was really working off the kindness of investors for many years” (King, 1998).
The film is suffused with the interplay of color and lighting emphasizing narrative elements. Early in the story, Scarlett is shown bantering with the Tarlton brothers in a white prayer dress, a color which hints at her innocence. Later, she is shown in a red dress that Rhett has forced her to wear in retribution for her liaison with Ashley (Higgins, 182). These admirably
represent the complexity of Scarlett’s persona. But it is in the use of colored lighting, and the colored simulation of such elements as fire and moonlight, that Gone With the Wind truly broke new ground. Color and background lighting served the dual purpose of reflecting and focusing Scarlett O’Hara’s psychological and emotional state while evincing the mood of the scene and helping to move the story along. It can be argued that Gone With the Wind was something of a “coming out” party for color as a filmic ingredient. “In instances where lighting, composition or music might have highlighted a dramatic development, color could now be counted on as well” (Higgins, 6).
Special effects -
Selznick’s concept and the story produced by Sidney Howard and others was so broad and ambitious that it proved prohibitive for physical sets in terms of cost and logistics. Necessity being the mother of invention, Selznick’s cinematographers turned to special effects on a lavish scale never before seen, and successfully enough that Gone With the Wind won an Academy Award for cinematography. Matte paintings accounted for some of the film’s most memorable backdrops and landscape shots, including parts of the Wilkes’ Twelve Oaks plantation; the old armory in Atlanta; the train station; and burning houses in Atlanta. Matte painting had previously been used for backgrounds almost exclusively, but Gone With the Wind took it to a new level. The part of a shot to be painted in was covered with black matte, then a color illustration of the area to be filled in was “shot onto” the negative. As such, “Visualization of shot compositions.limited the requirements of set construction when drawings served as designs for ‘process photography,’” (Vertrees, 117).
Of course, one of the most memorable scenes in the entire film is the conflagration in Atlanta the night before Sherman takes the city, through which Rhett helps Scarlett escape looters and the rising flames. The storyboards for this scene comprise what has been called “the most famous continuity sketches in film history” (Vertrees, 109). In all, it took 66 watercolor and “gouache” sketches to create continuity for the fire sequence (69). Although documented proof has been lost to the passage of time, it is thought that the artwork for this sequence was produced by Joseph MacMillan Johnson, a draftsman who worked on a number of subsequent Selznick films. The concert of artwork, color, lighting and cinematography produced what is probably the most thrilling action scene in the movie.
Gone With the Wind was that rare example of a popular work of literary fiction producing an even more popular film interpretation. The movie’s release and 70 years in the public eye have shown it to be a spectacle of unsurpassed cultural dimension and cinematic importance. Alone, it advanced the technology of filmmaking, having introduced a number of innovations and expanded on many production techniques. But beyond the realm of the purely technical, Gone With the Wind broadened the idea of film as “event,” essentially creating the concept of the blockbuster film, a distinction supported by the fact that it is still the highest-grossing movie of all time. Television stations still reserve it for “special” airings, which often coincide with some related anniversary or other relevant event. It is often the subject of documentaries, ranging from the scholarly to the salacious, on cable television networks. Its persistent grip on the American psyche is unlike that of any other movie, due quite possibly to the dramatic, even controversial
legacy of the American Civil War and the unresolved nature of race relations in the United States.
Barlett, Olivia. “Film Studies Faculty Speaks on Technicolor Process at Museum of the Moving
Image. Wesleyan Connection. Wesleyan University. 5 November 2007.
Higgins, Scott. Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow: Color Design in the 1930s. Austin, TX:
Univ. of Texas Press, 2007.
King, Susan. “The Rise of Technicolor is Colorful Hollywood History.” Los Angeles Times. 4
Leff, Leonard F. “’Gone With the Wind’ and Hollywood’s Racial Politics.” The Atlantic
Online. The Atlantic Monthly. December 1999. Retrieved 23 October 2012 from http://www.theatlantic.com.
Snyder, Jeff. “Why Victor Fleming was Hollywood’s Hidden Genius.” Time. 22 December
Vertrees, Alan David. Selznick’s Vision: Gone With the Wind and Hollywood Filmmaking.
Austin, TX: Univ. of Texas Press, 1997.