Gone With The Wind is still going strong, and we still give a damn
In 1940, at the 12th Oscars, the winner for Best Supporting Actress was Hattie McDaniel, for her superlative performance as Mammy in Gone With The Wind — the film adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer-winning book of the same name. McDaniel became the first African American to win an Oscar, although she was not allowed to sit with the rest of the cast at the ceremony because of her race. That contradiction is one of the more obvious ones that continues to dog this great film that released on this day in 1939, to rapturous audiences in the USA. The film continues to be voted ‘best film ever’ in poll after internet poll; and remains to this day the most successful film ever made (after adjusting box-office collections for inflation).
In Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara (an English woman playing a southern American belle, another contradiction), film history gets what might be its first authentic antihero. Scarlett O’Hara marries for convenience, undercuts her siblings, earns money through any available means, has obvious social impropriety, refuses to be subservient – except as a ruse. She is as much a feminist icon as a good, old-fashioned scandal. For this is 1939. Women didn’t even vote in the US then, far less become captains of industry. Scarlett’s feisty feminism that Leigh portrays with such unforgettable spunk is just one of the things that makes Gone With The Wind a film for the ages. In Clark Gable’s dashing Rhett Butler, the film gave audiences a poster boy and romantic hero to pine after forever. Even as it is every bit a romantic story of star crossed lovers, Gone With The Wind is also a war movie. The dulcet tones of music and summer balls are intertwined with the starkness of war and a society learning to cope with a fundamental change in the fabric of its culture. And yet, its cringeworthy treatment of African American characters and the callousness around the problems of race make the film a contradiction that even its most ardent fans cannot ignore. Even as Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar for her role, Malcolm X wrote in his autobiography about Butterfly McQueen’s character Prissy that “when Butterfly McQueen went into her act, I felt like crawling under the rug”.
Eight decades after it first released, its legacy is more than just as a film that brought to life a much-beloved book. Helmed by three directors, scripted and revised by many writers, and having taken two years to cast the two leads, the almost four hour long film is what would now be known as a smash hit across the world. Underscoring the complications of how cinema can reflect the society in which it is made, Gone With The Wind, in spite of all its problems, remains a highly influential piece of American motion picture art.