Gone With The Wind (1939)

The Great American Movie

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

GWTW

The Great American Movie

So it’s about time I finally got around to reviewing the big cheese itself, the towering achievement of American cinema, those four glorious syllables – Gone With The Wind.

Gone With the Wind testament to how much filmmaking had changed in just 10 years from the beginning to the talkie period. From the astounding cinematic shots such as the long take of the bodies of fallen soldiers lying in the streets of Atlanta to those red Technicolor skies which I could stare at all day and huge matte paintings which are hard to distinguish from real sets – it’s a world to get lost in (I can even ignore the very clear continuity error at the beginning of the film when it goes from dusk back to early evening to dusk again). Even those opening titles themselves are breathtaking, let alone for a time when opening titles where a basic on-screen title card.

Gone With the Wind is a film with a fascinating history as it’s backdrop. The pink elephant in the room however for many modern viewers is the troublesome historical image of the American South both pre and post-antebellum, whether just or unjust. The emphasis on the Wilkes family marrying their cousins doesn’t help things but the real but the real point of contention is the dreaded “R” word, racism. To dismiss Gone With the Wind as a racist film is such a reductive argument, especially when certain commentators liken it to The Birth of a Nation, a film which shows black members of the House of Representatives eating fried chicken. To actually watch Gone With the Wind and study it closely, the way the film examines the racial issues is more 3 dimensional than popular critique contends.

Gone With the Wind is told from the point of view of slave owners who don’t see anything wrong with owning slaves (nor is it ever made clear if the plantation owners start paying their former slaves following the end of the war). The slave owners are a product of their time which the movie doesn’t pass judgment on. Only one line of dialogue in the film deals with the question of morality when it comes to slavery in which Ashley responds to Scarlett’s use of prisoners for labour which implies Ashley sees nothing wrong with slavery providing the slaves are treated well;

“Scarlett, I will not make money out of the enforced labour and misery of others”

“You won’t so particular about owning slaves”

“That was different; we didn’t treat them that way

I find by far the most interesting aspect the portrayal of race in Gone With The Wind is the stark contrast between the black carpetbaggers (northerners who came to the south following the war who were perceived to be exploiting the local populace) and the recently freed slaves who are still childlike, dim-witted and happy to help out their masters of whom they are dependent on. The first black carpetbagger seen in the film features a sharply dressed, liberated northern black man traveling with a white accomplish but more significantly, in a scene not long after this Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) sneers at a pair of African-American carpetbaggers who are wearing fancy suits, smoking cigars and laughing. Mammy, who just had to beg for money along with Scarlett, sneers at this black men having the time of their lives. While the phrase is not used in the movie, these individuals would be referred to in many quarters as “Uncle Toms”, perceived sellouts to their black brethren. The appearance of independent, well to do black men from the North goes against the narrative of Gone With The Wind being a racist film. I’m not qualified to comment on the historical accuracy of Gone With the Wind or how well it portrayed the time and place it depicts but there’s too much nuance within the film’s depiction to simply shout “wasis!” rather than having a more productive conversation or what the film did or did not do right. To quote the late, great Roger Ebert, “A politically correct “GWTW” would not be worth making, and might largely be a lie.”

The film’s opening prologue and the scenic shots of Tara could be seen as Confederate propaganda with its Utopian presentation of a world alongside the opening prologue which reads;

“There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind.”

Yet if there’s any authorial or filmmaking intent to propagate Confederate lost cause mythology (historical revisionism that the Confederacy’s cause during the civil war was a just and heroic one) is countered by much of the film’s content. There’s no explicit condemnation of slavery or the confederacy but does the movie have to do this? The biggest Uncle Tom in Gone With The Wind in Scarlet O’Hara herself for doing business with the northern carpetbaggers in order to save Tara and rise above poverty. What makes Scarlett O’Hara a character I can empathize with? By many accounts, I shouldn’t as she’s bratty, entitled and manipulative, yet you can’t help but admire her desire to survive and make better of herself despite what onlookers might say (her gumption as Margret Mitchell describes it). Scarlet is shown to have little interest in the southern cause (as does Rhett Butler). This is memorably symbolized in the shot in which war has just been announced as everyone runs frantically through the foyer of Twelve Oaks and Scarlett angrily walks by them as if they aren’t even there. Really the one cause Scarlett is dedicated to is that set of her family of Irish immigrants who came to America and accomplished the American Dream of owning land (“Land is the only thing in the world worth working for, worth fighting for, worth dying for”).

Gone With The Wind is one of few films in which every character, no matter how minor is significant in their own way, with Star Wars or The Ten Commandments being one of few other films which achieve this. Now if only I could do without Prissy (Butterfly McQueen), one of the most cowardly, unlikeable characters ever – and that nails on chalkboard voice! Thankfully Scarlett gives her a good slap.

Then there’s my boy, Rhett Butler; the cinematc embodiment alongside Han Solo and Indiana Jones of masculinity and individualism (and what an introductory shot!). Men want to be him and women want to be with him. A man out for himself and a realist doesn’t really believe in the Confederate cause and is by far the most self-aware character in the film. In a defining scene Rhett points out how the south isn’t equipped for war while the other southern gentlemen are blinded by illusions of grandeur and he’s not afraid to call them out on it, while remaining a gentleman the whole time and removes himself from the meeting after the other gentlemen feel insulted by his comments. Even when Rhett joins the Confederate Army near the end of the war as he describes himself as having a weakness for lost causes, he’s still self-aware of how foolish his actions are. Just before Rhett leaves Scarlet at the carriage after escaping from Atlanta, the film treats us to what I consider the greatest kiss in film history with its layers on intensity; melodramatic dialogue, sweeping music, and the blood-red sky.

Rhett’s actions do however lead to one scene which gets many viewers in a tussle; Rhett’s drunken marital rape of Scarlett after she refuses to have sex with him. Not to mention Scarlett is seen the following the morning have enjoyed the experience! I don’t believe however the film at all rewards or gratifies Rhett for his actions and subtlety condemns it. Not only does Rhett show remorse for his actions the following morning, but the rape is also the final act which leads to the destruction of a marriage which was already on shaky ground.

Leslie Howard’s Ashley Wilkes who is in many ways the counterpoint of Rhett Butler as the tender, effeminate, proud southerner (with a transatlantic accent, go figure). Ashley is a romantic who is crippled by his nostalgia for the old south. Ashley spends most of the film listlessly adrift through the harsher realities of the reconstruction era. Unlike Scarlett, he has no goals or ambitions for the future. All he can do is remember the elegance of his life as it once was and wish that he could return to those old days.

Rounding out the film’s four main cast members is Olivia de Havilland in her undersung performance as Melanie Wilkes, crossing the line of being saintly without ever being sickly. Did she know about Scarlett and Ashley or not? Was she really a saint, or just naive, or perhaps exceptionally wise? Scarlet is the sister Melanie always wanted with each of them possessing qualities the other lacked, especially during their bond over joint survival during and after the war. Scarlett saved Melanie’s life and Melanie kept her cool under fire in a way that earned Scarlett’s private (though reluctant) admiration. She also did not hesitate to do hard work she never would have had to touch before the war. She was, therefore, more valuable to the family’s survival than Scarlett’s two sisters. The speculative question of whether Melanie knew about Scarlett’s obsession with Ashley. Perhaps Melanie knew she could trust Ashley while seeing that Rhett was the right man for Scarlett by trying to promote their relationship.

Larceny Inc. (1942)

Under Pressure

How can you resist a film like Larceny Inc once you’ve heard the plot? It’s one of those quirky film concepts I just love. A cocky criminal and his two buffoons buy a luggage store so they can dig their way into the bank next door. Perhaps the film’s greatest strength is how it plays out like a live action cartoon. Nothing ever goes beyond the scene in the moment; for example in one scene a set of oil pipes are burst during the digging process and the basement from which they are digging from is drenched in oil and yet this is never mentioned again. Even as one character who is not involved in the ban heist comes across the two drenched in the oil he bizarrely does not comment on their appearance; that’s the twisted cartoon world Larceny Inc incorporates. I’ve always thought actors from the 1930’s resembled cartoon characters with their exaggerated facial features and distinctive accents; very true with this cast including Edward G. Robinson, Jack Carson, and even a young Jackie Gleason; all live action caricatures.  Actors who emerged after the war generally didn’t have this and instead were actually more lifelike. You really get a sense of the world the movie takes place in with a street populated with such memorable and mostly ethnic characters giving the movie that Shop Around the Corner edge to it.

Maxwell aka Pressure’s gift wrapping has to be the comedic highlight of Robinson’s career; a comedy moment which couldn’t be timed more perfectly. His uttering of “$9:75”  is funny enough as it is but his pathetic attempt at gifting wrapping which follows had me in stitches. I also love Jack Carson’s attempt at hitting on Jane Wyman. This scene has nothing to do with the rest of the movie but has got to be the ultimate “skipping the pleasantries” monologue I’ve ever heard.

There are so many layers within Larceny Inc. Is the movie a celebration or an indictment on capitalism? The gangsters’ involvement in legitimate business is what makes them renounce their past ways but only after they’ve essentially been seduced and consumed by the capitalist system. Larceny Inc was released in 1942 just months after the US got involved in the war but the film’s production began prior to that with its themes of business and consumerism are completely counterproductive to the war effort, something I’ve noticed with many films released in 1942. There is also the irony that the gangster is the one who brings the community together and the authority figures in the movie are played as fools.

Larceny Inc can also join films like Rocky IV and Die Hard as Christmas movies which aren’t about Christmas, and Edward G Robinson dressed as Santa Claus? Sold!

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

The Mob Doesn’t Think. It Has No Mind of Its Own. The great Spencer Tracy said in Fury!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

When I think to myself what are the most pessimistic films, The Ox-Bow Incident is one of the first to come to mind. This is the type of film you never forget. Whenever I hear a story in the news related to mob mentality, I always think ‘The Ox-Bow Incident’! In the same way how any news story of political corruption or ineffectiveness makes me think Mr Smith Goes to Washington. The eerie music throughout the film sets the tone that something bad is going to happen.

This is the type of film that needs public exposure. It showcases how people can be pack animals who will rally behind something whether or not it’s true; demanding quick, speedy justice regardless of the consequences, with an ending which is a pessimistic punch to the gut, making you feel bad about humanity. The characters having no patience for the legal system and bend the law to fit their own agendas by allowing a deputy sheriff to deputise others. The result: three men are lynched on flimsily evidence that later turn out to be innocent. And if that wasn’t bad enough; the man they were accused of murdering is actually still alive. Remember just how easily false information can spread – do you hear that internet?

All the cast members of The Ox-Bow Incident have their moment in the sun, although it’s Dana Andrews is the one of who steals the show for me – just what you expect for a man threatened with lynching for a crime he is not proven to have committed. The hung bodies themselves don’t appear on screen as this would have been too graphic for the time. Only their shadows appear which is no less a powerful image.

Henry Fonda’s character is like the man in the painting in the saloon who is about to reach out for a woman – “In reach but can’t do anything about it”. Henry Fonda was not a producer on The Ox-Bow Incident but it’s likely had more of a role than just an actor. At the age of 14, Fonda’s father took him to witness the lynching of a young black man accused of rape – an event which had a profound impact on him, so it’s clear the material of The Ox-Bow Incident was of prime interest to him. Even in the film’s trailer he appears as himself talking about the book and film, and states “it’s not ethical for an actor to talk about a picture he’s in”. Yikes, times have changed!

Lynching was still prevalent in 1943 and the movie takes a jab at southerners with much of the posse being southern stereotypes. One of them even says at one point “Down in Texas where I come from we just get a man and string him up”, and even the unofficial leader of the posse Major Tetley wears a Confederate uniform.

The movie also packs a punch with its critique on machismo. The character of Major Tetley tries to make himself out to be more than he is while trying pathetically to be manly and tough. He tries to make a man out his effeminate and possibly gay adopted son (Tetley refers to him at one point as a “female boy”) by forcing him to be part of the lynching mob; needless to say things end in a tragic state. The son barely utters a word throughout the film until the end in which he gives a monologue to his father on what a depraved animal he is – such a release of anger. Likewise, Jane Darwell plays an annoying loud-mouthed old hag (ugh, that laugh) who is essentially one of the guys and believe you me: you just want to tape her mouth shut.

At only 75 minutes the film doesn’t screw around and gets straight to the point. The only disruption in the film’s pacing is a subplot regarding Henry Fonda’s character and his ex-girlfriend. I haven’t got any answers to how this is relevant to the rest of the plot. Westerns are not my favourite genre so to enjoy one they have to be incredibly well done or stand out of the crowd. In The Ox-Bow Incident, the western setting is merely a backdrop. The film has a low budget complete with obviously fake backdrops but it’s unlike anything else being made in Hollywood at the time. The film I found it held the most resemblance towards was Paths of Glory but preceding it by 14 years. The world wasn’t ready for The Ox-Bow Incident in 1943 – but is it still ready?