The Oscar Project 1939: Gone With the Wind

This film is the stuff of legends. Everyone knows this movie even if they’ve never seen it. It has become ingrained in our pop cultural collective consciousness. We all know the famous lines.

“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” – Rhett Butler

“After all, tomorrow is another day!” – Scarlett O’Hara

“You can’t show your bosom before 3 o’clock!” – Mammy

Well, maybe not so much that last one. But for nearly 80 years it has been Hollywood royalty.

From the very first frame of Gone With the Wind it has the look and feel of something glorious and magnificent. It’s not just because it’s in color either. But boy howdy is it a Technicolor epic. This is gorgeous.

But it’s not just a visual work of art. The story itself is epic. While this film has been heralded for decades as a love story for the ages it really isn’t at all. In fact, that is the least of this great film’s themes.

1939 - Gone with the Wind - posterUltimately it is about the southern way of life in the 1860s. It’s much more than just the slavery and the issues that led to the civil war. It’s their entire civilization. It’s a mindset that permeates every aspect of their lives.

“What does it matter who you marry as long as he’s a southerner and thinks like you?” – Gerald O’Hara

 “What gentlemen says and what they thinks is two different things.” – Mammy

Scarlet O’Hara embodies this world as a young, selfish, impulsive, beautiful southern belle. She’s rude and only thinks of herself. She leads on all the beaus in the county but when the one she truly wants (Ashley) choses Melanie (kindness over beauty) she loses her mind. Honestly, an entire book could be written just with the outlandish, egocentric things Scarlett’s says and does in this film.

When Rhett Butler first appears on screen it’s striking. This is the third best picture winner starring Clark Gable and his star power is at its absolute peak. It becomes immediately evident that Rhett is the only man strong enough to handle Scarlett. He loves her but he refuses to put up with her nonsense.

Scarlett: “You sir are no gentleman.”

Rhett: “And you are no lady.”

Scarlett might not be a lady but Vivien Leigh sure is a stunner. To steal a quote from Cimarron, “She’s a lollapalooza!

Her beauty is lightyears beyond every other woman in the film. Yes, Olivia de Havilland was a lovely woman but Vivien Leigh is absolutely spectacular. It’s perfect casting. She may have been the only woman in the world who could have played Scarlett O’Hara. Scarlett’s beauty was head and shoulders above all the other women of Charleston. She was constantly fawned over for years. She always got what she wanted making her the spoiled little monster she would forever be.

It’s also part of what makes her and Rhett’s relationship so compelling. She is intrigued and drawn to a man like Rhett Butler, the first man in her life who didn’t yield to her every whim.

As the war rages on Rhett is in and out of Scarlett’s life and the cause of the south becomes more and more grim.

 “The cause of living in the past is dying right in front of us.” – Rhett Butler

The shot of the Scarlett weaving through the streets of Atlanta lined with the bodies of wounded soldiers is still amazing. So is the collapse of the burning building as they flee the city under siege.

Gone With the Wind is a great film but it could have been two great films. Not only because of the length but because the intermission comes at a perfect ending point in the story.

So if you haven’t gotten around to watching this film because of the 4 hour running time you could legitimately stop it at the 1:45 mark and watch the rest another time. Think of it as the sequel.

Scarlett concludes the first part of the story with a promise…

“As God is my witness, as God is my witness they’re not going to lick me. I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!”

She certainly does keep this promise. Lie. Steal. Cheat. Kill. She does it all.

Even after the war Scarlett faces some tough realities forcing her to grow up. But she’s just unable (or unwilling) to shake her selfishness. It motivates her to succeed, conniving and manipulating to rebuild her life but it also keeps her hopelessly unable to move on from Ashley.

After she gives in and marries Rhett (fulfilling her goal to “never be hungry again”) she revels in their riches.

“I want everybody who’s been mean to me to be pea-green with envy.” – Scarlett O’Hara

In the end both the antebellum southern civilization along with everything good in Scarlett’s life is gone with the wind. Except for Tara.

“Why, land is the only thing in the world worth workin’ for, worth fightin’ for, worth dyin’ for, because it’s the only thing that lasts.” – Gerald O’Hara

Well, it’s not the only thing that’s lasted. Gone With the Wind has stood the test of time and is on many people’s list as the best film ever made. It’s not my #1 but it’s up there.

Just two years prior Victor Fleming had directed Captains Courageous which, although he wasn’t nominated, the film was up for best picture and its star Spencer Tracy was named best actor.

The 1939 ceremony was another big night for Fleming who did win the directing Oscar but had another film up for best picture, The Wizard of Oz. Talk about having a big year.

Adding to this film’s mystique, Victor Fleming was the replacement director. He came on 3 weeks into shooting after the original director George Cukor was fired. But don’t feel too bad for Cukor. He would tally five nominations in his illustrious career making classic films such as Little Women, The Philadelphia Story and My Fair Lady for which he won his one and only Oscar.

This film is loaded with great performances with Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel winning best actress and supporting actress respectively. Hattie became the first person of color to win an Oscar. It wouldn’t happen again for 24 years.

Clark Gable and Olivia de Havilland were also both nominated for their excellent work and the film received a total of 13 nominations winning eight. But going into the night Gone With the Wind wasn’t the runaway picture of the year. A number of films scored several nods.

  • Smith Goes to Washington (11)
  • Wuthering Heights (8)
  • Goodbye, Mr. Chips (7)
  • Stagecoach (7)
  • Love Affair (6)
  • The Rains Came (6)
  • The Wizard of Oz (6)

This was due in part to the fact the Academy had expanded their awards to 20 categories.

When it was all said and done the 1939 Academy Awards would belong to Gone With the Wind, winning 8 Oscars. Stagecoach and The Wizard of Oz were the only other films to win more than one award, both taking home two statuettes.

It was a record setting night. It would take 11 years before All About Eve would set a new nomination record (14) and two full decades before Gigi would win 9 Oscars.

There are still only 7 films ever that won more Oscars than Gone With the Wind.

There’s a reason why in 1998 AFI named this the #4 film of all time.

Besides not giving a damn, Rhett Butler has some killer quotes.

“You need kissing. Badly. That’s what’s wrong with you. You should be kissed and often and by someone who knows how.”

“I can’t go all my life waiting to catch you between husbands.”

“Never, at any crisis of your life, have I known you to have a handkerchief.”

1939 really was an amazing year for films. The best picture category that year was loaded with 10 nominees including Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz and Wuthering Heights.

Blu-Ray available from Netflix.

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Now…in the interest of arbitrarily ranking movies here is how the Oscar winners from the 1930s (+2 years for good measure) rank.

1930s BEST PICTURES

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