The uncomfortable truth about many a film classic, be it Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 or Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, is that they’re often more easily admired than genuinely enjoyed. Not so Gone With The Wind, the classic tale of the death of the Old South and the survival of the feisty Scarlet O’Hara, which is, relatively speaking, the biggest grossing film of all time, so far notching up $6,718 million at inflation-adjusted rates.
Gone With The Wind’s several virtues – which include a supremely fluent narrative, a witty script, a clutch of great performances and sheer visual splendour – are not only undiminished by the passage of time, but perhaps seem all the more remarkable for it. 1939, the year of Gone With The Wind’s original release, also saw the release of such films as Wuthering Heights, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach and Of Mice and Men.
For all that, its worth remembering that Gone With The Wind didn’t come clean away from the marble, like some cinematic Michelangelo, but was the unlikely result of a long drawn-out production process beset by indecision, unholy strife and considerable compromise. ‘No civil war picture ever made a nickel’ MGM production chief Irving G Thalberg warned producer David O Selznick even as he was agreeing to pay $50,000 for the rights to Margaret Mitchell’s original novel.
Meanwhile, Selznick agonised over the casting of the film (Susan Hayward and Katherine Hepburn were both considered for the role eventually won by Vivien Leigh, while Bette Davis would probably have been the first choice), and dismissed scriptwriters with apparent abandon. F Scott Fitzgerald lasted two weeks, as did the original director George Cukor. The director who took over, Victor Fleming, claimed to have suffered a nervous breakdown before shooting was completed.
In the light of such torments, Selznick et al’s eventual triumph may be surprising, but it’s churlish to scan the finished film for signs of the chaos out of which it was born. Some of Gone With The Wind’s current appeal may be the result of a veneer of camp that certainly overlays it, and the film is by no means psychologically complex or original. But there’s no denying its effectiveness as pure and popular entertainment, or indeed the radical and richly expressive quality of the film’s overall look. Scarlett’s ‘As God is my witness’ speech may spring few surprises first or second time round, but the way she is dramatically silhouetted against a gradually brightening, exaggeratedly colourful morning sky is still worthy of wonder.