AFI 4-GONE WITH THE WIND

PART ONE: THE FILM

 

 

 

 

 

 

I first saw GWTW (as its producer David Selznick liked to call it) with my mother in 1954 ( and the first film I remember seeing) and then on my own in 1961 at the time of the films 5th re-e-release. I was fortunate as the first-run showings used “metro color” prints which were made using Eastman-Kodak mono-pack stock. But since the “by Technicolor” prints used in the 1954 re-release remained in good shape, these prints were used in the 3rd and 4th run theaters where I saw it at the Wakefield Theater on White Plains Road in the Bronx. As these images are literally printed on the film using dyes far superior to the mono-pack prints, I can still remember how vivid the colors were. It’s this 1954 color palate which was used in the latest digital restoration of the film. (And it was the 54 print that made its way to NBC and then CBS for its network TV showings. This was all before the recent restorations.) Unfortunately, the 1939 and 1947 prints used a much subtler and more pastel pallet and a 1939 was used for the 1985 VHS/Laser release, which is no longer available. Unfortunately for me because this is the color version I prefer. Nevertheless, I did convert the laser to a DVD so I do have a copy but not in Blu-Ray.

 

 

Watching the film as a pre-teen in 1961 I was simply blown away. To this day I am amazed by this fact as the film, with intermission, is almost four hours long. In fact, not only did I come back the following day to see GWTW again but, I went right out and bought a paperback copy of the book and read it not once but twice. What a story, what a movie.

 

 

Cute story: During the 1964 New York World’s fair, when I was on line for the bell telephone exhibit, two women in front of me were talking about one of their daughters who was reading Gone With The Wind for the third time. The mother had asked the daughter, “What do you think will happen when you read the book again; the South is going to win.” I felt a little awkward as I was onto my second read at the time and didn’t have the courage to defend that daughter and my position vise-a-vie the book. Today, I would let her have it with both barrels.

 

 

I saw GWTW again in 1967 when I was considerably older. This was at New York’s Rivoli Theater in October 1967 as a reserved seat roadshow. This was when the film was reframed for 70MM and the sound enhanced for 7 track stereo. Frankly, and don’t crucify me, I was not particularly offended by the reframing as the curved screen on which it was being shown was enormous and the image crystal clear. Of note is the fact that the color in some scenes was quite faded and, as for the rest of the film, I don’t remember it being the vivid colors that I saw in 1961. Nevertheless, I saw the film several times while it was still playing Roadshow which it did for over a year before going into general release in 1968/69. In fact from that point on GWTW was never taken out of release until it was sold to NBC for two TV showings in 1975 for five million dollars and then to CBS in 1978 for 35 million and a 20 year license. (In the late 1980s Turner, the new owner of MGM, made an arrangement with CBS to take back the film in exchange for giving CBS additional runs of the Wizard OF OZ. So today about the only TV stations one can see GWTW on are TCM or TNT.)

I caught GWTW again in the early 1969 when it went into general release and it was returned to the 1:85 ratio it had been shown since 1954. Then again in the early 70s when it was shown on an immense screen; even bigger than the 70MM screen I saw it on at the Rivoli. My feeling watching it at that time was, “the bigger the better.” I did see it again in 70MM when MGM released it as part of the “Big Four” which included GWTW, DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, 2001 and RYAN’S DAUGHTER; all released in 70MM.

 

 

I saw it once last time in a theater before it was sold to television and I am ashamed to admit that this time I saw it stoned on pot. It was my first and only time seeing the film that way. In fact by the time the intermission came along, the high was almost gone so me, my wife and a friend got in the car and raced back to the house to toke up again. We made it back to the theater just after the second part had began with a full buzz. Let me tell you, stoned on pot, I found GONE WITH THE WIND even more enthralling than I ever did straight. I mean, I was right up there on that screen with my full attention on it. That is the only good thing I ever found about pot, it allows you to completely focus. Let me add that I haven’t used inebriants of any kind for over 40 years. (But for another viewing of GWTW I might relent just once.)  By the way Selznick said when they decided to put in the intermission, the human bladder could do its job for so long before it needed relieving. What he didn’t mention was getting toked up again.

 

 

Watching it a few years later on NBC I must tell you on the little screen it wasn’t the film that I had seen on the big screen and those commercials were simply impossible. But I watched it and the story still worked; the only difference being that I wasn’t able to identify with Scarlet—it was as if I was now seeing her at a distance—and found her for the first time to be a character that I simply couldn’t empathize with. But, I watched it a few more times on TV because this was the only way to see it back then so I made do.

 

 

I caught it again on the big screen—when it was chemically restored in 1989—at Radio City Music Hall. The film was in limited release being shown on a reserved seat basis at a few theaters in select cities. It was great to see the film on a massive movie screen but the color still wasn’t what I remember from 1961. It was too bright and too modern; as if it had been timed to meet present day tastes. Subsequent to this the film was re-released for a 7th time in the late 90s after it was digitally restored for the first time. Unfortunately I didn’t catch it again that time around.

Fifteen or so years later the film’s owners Warner Brothers went back to the camera negatives, re-scanned each of the three separation negatives at 4K and working on the print until it finally matched the color to 1954 color palate. Let me tell you, on Blu-Ray on a big screen TV it was, for me, like watching GWTW for the first time. The vivid but soft colors literally come out at you and the image—especially if it’s a 4K TV—makes it hard to believe that the film is 78 years old.

 

 

And let’s not forget Max Steiner. He even restructured the score for a recording released for the 1961 re-release. For the 1967 70 MM widescreen re-release, MGM went back to the M&E soundtrack and removing the voice and affects, played with the music and turned it into two-track. It was in this way they were able to release an original sound track recording which was, the original soundtrack. Then of course there is the score and GWTW itself. At the core that score matched the film almost frame for frame and that opening with the moving title is an all time WOW!  It still knocks out audiences.

As it is my all-time favorite film, (with Lawrence of Arabia second and the director cuts of Heaven’s Gate and Kingdom OF Heaven tied for third), I wrote my master thesis on the movie which focused on how Selznick, in faithfully translating the book to film, kept the basic literary and subtext elements of the book intact. For example when reading the bios of Margaret Mitchell it is immediately apparent the Mitchell was at times Scarlet and at other times Melanie. So, in the film, when the two work together combined, they function almost as a single personality. The most notable example is the killing Yankee deserter. Scarlett shoots the Yankee, doesn’t know quite what to do, Melanie appears, takes over, calms the situation and basically tells Scarlet what to do until Scarlet again regains control. It is, character wise, one of the best scenes in the movie.

 

 

 

 

This element is one of the many aspects of the film that Molly Haskell deals with in her amazing book on Gone with the Wind (FRANKLY MY DEAR: GONE WITH THE WIND REVISTED”). In it she correctly argues that GWTW is the product of three people; Margaret Mitchel, David Selznick and Vivian Leigh. Without either the GONE WITH THE WIND we know today wouldn’t exist. Rather than me summarize Haskell, I’ll let you read the book. Of all the GONE WITH THE WIND books that I have read—and I have 10 or so in my bookcase—hers is definitely the most insightful. Although the others are quite wonderful and very informative, Haskell’s is the one that is a brilliant and must read re-think of GWTW if you love the movie.

The truth is I have read GONE WITH THE WIND three times and seen the film—due to Home Video—nearly 100. During these viewings I am always swept up in the story of Scarlet and her travails as the film is pure Hollywood narrative picture making at its very best. Vivid characters, epic in length and spectacular in the size; it’s a once in a life time film that has never been equaled by any film produced in the Hollywood studio system.

There are many who often dismiss the film for its portrayal of Blacks and, even in the book, Mitchell’s justification of the first incarnation of the Klan during re-construction is a Southern view and quite questionable. In no way shape or form can slavery be justified and as for the Klan—it was nothing more than a means for white Southerners to exert white supremacy on recently freed black populations. And in white washing this issue the book and film can properly be taken to task. Nevertheless, they are both a product of their times and, seen and appreciated that way, allow us to see how far we have come during the intervening years.

 

 

 

 

It should not be forgotten that GWTW is basically a love story and a tale of about survival set against the back drop of the civil war and reconstruction. Its depiction of slavery was very much the sentiments of the day by American southerners and even northerners. Therefore, its look at slavery—as mentioned above—is historically a very dubious element of the film. Nevertheless, the “darkies” as they are called in the movie are treated with respect and as for “Mammy” she is the moral center of the film and next to Scarlett the films strongest female character.  Played by the great Hattie MacDaniels she deservedly won an academy award for her performance.  That has to say something.

 

 

 

In addition Butterfly McQueen was much criticized over the years for her portrayal of a “simple minded darkie.” In addition to being the most educated person involved with the film (she had a Masters Degree) her portrayal is nothing less than brilliant. She utterly caught her character and rightly never wavered from that portrayal. In a four hour movie she is on screen for slightly more than five minutes and remains one of the most memorable performers in the film. That is called great acting. As For Hattie McDaniel, she steals the movie in every scene she is in and her walk with Melanie up the stairs after Bonnie’s death is an incredible piece of work. Filmed in one take, it always leaves me in tears and I believe this is the scene that won the woman her Oscar.

As I have already written there are many books written on the making of the film. So rather than me rattle on, I suggest if you want to learn more about how the film came into being you go on Amazon or eBay and buy one. Of note, the best chapter, in my opinion, in the single greatest film book ever published is the GONE WITH THE WIND chapter in DAVID SELZNICK’S HOLLYWOOD. If you haven’t read it, you can get a copy dirt cheap on eBay. When I bought it in 1980 I paid 80 dollars (and that was quite a sum back then) and it goes into the coffin with me. It’s that good. A fitting tribute to both David Selznick and his masterpiece GWTW.

Every great film maker has tried their GONE WITH THE WIND. Some like David Lean have succeeded others have failed. But when they succeed, you get a LAWRENCE OF ARABIA or the Directors cut of KINGDOM OF HEAVEN.

 

 

One of the best film documentaries was made in the late 80s by Selznick’s sons for TNT and they had complete access to all the Selznick files and memos now held in (I think) Texas A&M. It was stupendous and is on the special Blu-Ray edition along with a terrible TV movie with Tony Curtis as Selznick called the SCARLETT OHARA WARS.

 

PART 2: THE BOOK

 

 

In order to understand why GONE WIWTH THE WIND was published one has to also understand that Margaret Mitchell (or as everyone called her Peggy Marsh—Marsh being her married name and Peggy her nickname since childhood) was both Scarlett and Melanie. Peggy’s Scarlet part was the independent thinking strong willed woman she had been in her youth. Her Melanie part was the gracious, selfless, Southern Lady she was all her life.

 

 

 

Everyone knows the story of her fall from a horse (shades of Gerald O’Hara and Bonnie Butler’s death) and her long leg-in-a-cast recuperation during which time she wrote the book. With the entire book in her head. Peggy’s Scarlet part – with just the writing experience gained as a cub reporter for an Atlanta newspaper – wrote the last chapter first. Over the two year-long writing period Peggy would stuff each completed chapter into a manila envelope. Once she was well, and the book substantially finished—it still needed a first chapter—Peggy, literally, forgot about it.

What couldn’t be forgotten were those manila envelopes, so many in fact that they couldn’t all fit in the small closet of the very small apartment in which the Marsch’s lived and which they called quite appropriately “the dump.” (What is left of the building is now an Atlanta tourist attraction.) Eventually these manila envelopes were used to prop up a broken table and chairs and finally piled against a wall near the telephone where Peggy used them to write down phone numbers and even recipes. When friends asked what they were Peggy’s Melanie part would tell them nothing important.

 

 

OK, years pass. During these years one of Peggy’s Atlanta friends moved to New York and got herself a job with the large Publishing firm of Macmillan and Co. In the spring of 1935, when Howard Latham the chief editor of Macmillan’s regional publishing division, was planning a book finding tour of the South, Peggy’s friend told him all about Peggy’s “famous” book adding, that if it reads like she talks, the book’s got to be something. Back in the days of yore, regional publishing was the equivalent of the B movie in Hollywood. These books, of interest only to specific sections of the country, had print low print runs of two and three thousand. Nevertheless, as royalties were low, if enough of these titles were published a publishing company could cover a substantial part of its overhead.

When Latham arrived in Atlanta he immediately called Peggy and asked her about her book. The Melanie part of Peggy denied that she had written a book but, instead, offered to introduce Latham to all the local writers she knew by helping organizes a dinner where they could meet Latham. At the dinner Peggy was sitting next to Latham and Latham, a persistent man, kept hammering at her about the book while, just as Melanie might do, Peggy continued to deny that there was any such book. But after the dinner, as Peggy was driving some of these local writers home, something happened that would change both American publishing as well as the American Cinema forever.

A little background. When Peggy was writing the book, as soon as the cast was off, she could be found in the Atlanta Public Library every day reading bound volumes of the Atlanta Newspapers of the Civil War and Post-Civil war period. Peggy was a tireless researcher who—added to her interviewing skills learned as a reporter—got the books history down pat. Even today, as to its historical accuracy t, GONE WITH THE WIND is one of the best researched books of its kind. While she was doing this research another woman who was also writing a book—and who didn’t like doing her own research was always asking Peggy for facts that Peggy had taken days if not weeks to unearth. Peggy’s Scarlet part considered the woman a pest but, being the gracious lady that she was, Peggy’s Melanie part gave the woman whatever help she could.

 

 

Anyway in that car after the dinner, and with the other women Peggy was driving home, this woman announced, “Peggy I’m so glad that you didn’t let him read your book. I have some experience as to these matters. I’ve been turned down by the very best publishers. You’re just not a serious enough person to write a good book. Really; if you had let him read it, his rejection would have really hurt you and I didn’t want to see that happen.”  Peggy Marsh was so overcome with anger and outrage that Peggy’s Scarlet part hit the brakes—and finding this situation completely absurd—started to laugh. She laughed long and she laughed hard.

So, bright and early the next morning, just before Latham was scheduled to leave Atlanta, he got a phone call from Peggy. She was in the hotel lobby and wanted to speak to him. Latham shot down to the lobby and there found Peggy Marsh—who was under five feet tall—sitting on a hotel lobby couch with a pile of ragged manila envelopes next to her that reached almost to the top of her head.

Peggy said to Latham; “Take them before I change my mind.”

To “take them” Latham had to immediately purchase a large suitcase in the hotel store. On the train Latham started reading. Latham would later say that it was, without question, the worst manuscript he had ever read with respect to its condition. In addition to food stains, Peggy had never prepared a finished draft. The manuscript that Latham was reading was all first draft—right of the typewriter—with Peggy’s corrections and polishing written all over each page. Nevertheless, Latham would also say that once he started reading—corrections and all—he couldn’t stop until the train reached Macon where a telegram from Peggy was waiting for him.  “Have changed my mind.” Latham wired back, “Too Late.”

What happened in the subsequent months was really the food of legend. Initially, Macmillan planned to publish Peggy’s book as a regional book. In addition to asking Peggy to write a first chapter, Latham also asked her to make a few changes as to the names of characters and places. He also wanted a title. If memory serves the book didn’t have a title when Peggy had given it to Latham. She had some suggestions; i.e., Tote That Weary Load, Bugles blow at Dawn, and Tomorrow Is Another Day. Peggy finally got the title from the closing lines of a poem that she much liked, “I have forgot much, Cynara! Gone with the wind.” As for the name changes, among them Fontenoy Hall became Tara and Pansy O’Hara became Scarlet O’Hara.

 

The Real and not “Back Lot” 1865 Atlanta

Because the book was still planned as a regional with only a thousand or so copies printed; the majority of them going to the libraries, secondary schools and colleges located in the mid Georgia region, Peggy reasoned that GONE WITH THE WIND would be many of its readers first introduction to the Civil War history of the Atlanta and Clayton County region. Thus, wanting her readers to have as accurate an introduction as possible, during that year that she had to revise the book—in addition to the changesof the title and characters—Peggy re-checked every fact in the book not only against the newspapers of the period but also with the most knowledgeable historians for that period regarding Atlanta and Clayton County history. Accepting that the book’s story might be heavily criticized, Peggy wanted to make sure that its historical context was un-impeachable. The manuscript was finally finished in March 1936.

When the galleries were finally ready, they made the rounds and something happened that no one had foreseen. The Book Of The Month Club accepted this first novel by an unknown author—originally planned as only a regional book—for its June 1936 featured selection. Since that meant a guaranteed sale of 25,000 or more copies, a best seller number in 1936, the books distribution pattern as well as its  publishing numbers were quickly changed. The first printing was now set at 50,000 copies. Then a bidding war began among the film companies and, pushed to make the purchase by his millionaire partner Jack Whitney, independent producer David O. Selznick bought the film rights for $50,000 a record sum for a first, unpublished novel. In todays dollars that would be more than a million.

When the book hit the stands in June 1936 it became an immediate sensation. With re-printings occurring three and sometimes four times a month, GONE WITH THE WIND became the fastest as well as the largest selling book in American Publishing history. And, as they say, the rest is history.

Thus, because a stupid and rather tactless woman opened her big fat mouth, we now have GONE WITH THE WIND book and film.  Thank you stupid lady.

 

PART THREE: SOME GWTW TRIVIA

 

1) The “burning of Atlanta” was the first sequence of GONE WITH THE WIND shot—a good month before the commencement of principal photography. The fire consumed the old sets sitting on the Culver Studios back lot. Train cars were placed in front, the famous stuntman Yakama Canutt doubled for Gable and dove the wagon. He stopped, got off and put his jacket over the horse’s eyes. In the finished film—shot months later—there was a cut to Gable in front of a rear projection screen. The initial plan was to shoot the fire with several cameras for a triptych affect as in Gance’s NAPOLEON. But once the film was assembled and the sequence as exciting as it was, the three camera idea was nixed. What make this interesting for me was that when I first saw the film in 1954 when I was five, it is the only scene that I remember. In addition it was the first memory I have of sitting in a movie theater watching a movie. One can say that it was burned into my memory. Pun very much intended.

 

 

2) Ben Hecht was such a fast writer that David Selznick used to pay him $5,000 a day for a rewrite because he’d have it finished in three or four days. This is what Hecht was paid to do the re-write on GWTW after George Cukor was fired and Victor Fleming was hired. It took Hecht about a week to get the shooting script ready.  What he did, he went back to the original Sidney Howard script, cut it down and turned in a great script that earned Howard an Academy Award.  As usual, Hecht took no credit for the “rewrite.”

 

 

3)  Selznick’s Memos.  Talk about long we’re talking 10-15,000 words each.  Speaking in 1968 Alfred Hitchcock said about David Selznick’s Memos, “I received a Memo from David when I came to America in 1940 and I’m just finishing it now.” Director King Vidor said to David while directing DUEL IN THE SUN, “Look David, I either direct your movie or I read your memos. Which do you want?” There a 100 or more file boxes filled with them in the Selznick archive in Texas. In fact, a rather large book—MEMO BY DAVID O. SELZNICK was published in the 1970s and the writer admitted that it contained the equivalent of just one file box. An entire section of the book was devoted to GONE WITH THE WIND and remains the best insider look at the making of the film ever to find its way into print.

 

 

4) The Mitchell letters. Mitchel had most of her personal correspondence burned as she didn’t want her private opinion of others to offend anyone. Thus the letters left and many of which were published are dry and specifically about business. Well, an agent I once had managed to get ahold of Mitchell’s letters to Marjorie Rawlings author of THE YEARLING. They had become friends and Mitchell was quite open with her. So, when I got these letters, as you might expect, I read them almost as soon as I took them out of the package. WOW! There were tears in my eyes as I read them. I felt that the woman was alive right in front of me. The letters in the book had most of the personal information and the chatty stuff removed. It was more a presentation of the public Mitchell. These letters were so different and, so, I can understand why they didn’t go into the book. They are an absolute treasure.

What I got from the letters book was how much Mitchell fought to retain her privacy and carry on her life without celebrity changing things. She was very successful at that. What I got from the actual letters was how much a hometown girl she was; rarely leaving Atlanta, her family and her friends. That was fascinating as there was the bit in one of the letters where she mentioned what she missed being away from Atlanta for just 24 hours. They are a treasure and I wish that they were available to everyone and not stuck in an archive available to just a few historians.

 After all my readings on Mitchell–and I have read a lot–she never came alive to me as much as she did in those letters. After reading them, I felt that I knew her. The way she talked about her father and his illness and what that illness took out of her and how she felt after his death. How she dealt with her husband’s heart attack. She became a breathing living person—not the public person of the letter book—who jumps right out at you. That whole business about her operation at John Hopkins and their inability to—in her words—step back from their diagnosis to see that she wasn’t really healing and Mitchell’s feelings about the whole thing. Hell, you can’t be more real than that. It’s really is great stuff.

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