Gone with the Wind (1939)

When it’s on: Sunday, 24 December (9.00 am)
Channel: Channel 5
IMDb Link

Gone with the Wind is a film lover’s film. There’s much about it that’s flawed and certainly a very great deal of material that appears woefully out of date. It’s too long, overly melodramatic, glassy eyed about a semi-remembered past that was far from happy for everyone involved, and its main characters aren’t even especially likeable. And yet, for all its shortcomings it may very well be the last word in romantic Hollywood movie making. Production levels were about as lavish as it was possible to get. The performances are universally fantastic, particularly the leads. The use of Technicolor is nothing less than exquisite, notably in the film’s first half bathing the Old South in soft, fleshy tones that give way to the red and orange tinted violence of the approaching Civil War. Clearly, making the picture was the definition of a labour of love, a drive by all involved, from producer David O Selznick downwards, to honour Margaret Mitchell’s bestselling novel in suitable fashion, and the result is a feast for the senses.

A couple of years ago I got the opportunity to see it on the big screen. For once, it was the chance to catch a movie like Gone with the Wind in the way it was meant to be exhibited, with all those real life  problems left outside the cinema and escaping into the idealised world presented to us… Of course it should always be like that, but this is one of those films in which you can really lose yourself. It’s nearly four hours long, much of it scored by Max Steiner’s elaborate music, which weaves in a string of tunes recalling the patriotic surge from the American Confederacy prior to and during the Civil War.  The production is sumptuous from start to finish, whilst its narrative can find resonance with just about every viewer, in particular the main plotline depicting the fall and rise of its ‘heroine’, Scarlett O’Hara, all her imperfections laid bare on the screen as her innate indomitability prevents her from falling into despair and ruin, and makes her a character just about worth cheering on. Watching Scarlett in self-absorbed action, you know Melanie is the film’s real champion, that Rhett deserves better and that a future with Ashley would be no future at all, yet she’s performed with such gusto and the camera loves her to such an extent that you end up cheering on this really quite awful woman as she pushes, schemes and cheats her way towards some ever-elusive goal. She might, to borrow a quote from Oliver Stone’s Nixon, be the darkness reaching out for the darkness, but rarely has ‘the darkness’ been this much of a joy to watch.

Mitchell’s original novel was a saga about well heeled families in Georgia on the cusp of the Civil War, the conflict that ruins their wealth and way of life, and what happens next. It was a runaway hit, optioned by Selznick as soon as it was published (despite Val Lewton, then a staff member at the studio, saying it was a bad idea) and taking three years to bring to the screen. The book was so popular that speculation about the adaptation was an ever present companion. Fans followed the tales of endless casting sessions, the search for the perfect Scarlett that seemed to take in just about every young actress available at the time, the knowledge Selznick carried that Gone with the Wind was a potential millstone – get it wrong and feel the wrath of millions of readers. For such a notable perfectionist the production could have killed him, Selznick’s notoriety for constant revisions and meddling coming to the fore as he struggled over all aspects of its development. Writers came and went. Sidney Howard earns the main credit for the script and wisely refused to leave his farm in putting it together, putting him at a merciful distance from Selznick’s orbit, but this was a screenplay that kept being dabbled with, leading to the near chaos of Selznick making further amendments while filming took place. George Cukor was the original choice as director. He would be replaced with Victor Fleming, who ended up being one of a number of unit directors as the production had so much to shoot in its race to be completed.

And then there’s the casting. Clark Gable was the early favourite with book readers for the role of Rhett Butler, its morally ambiguous yet charismatic anti-hero, but he had major misgivings about accepting the part and only came fully on board with the recruitment of Fleming, a ‘man’s director’ who in sensibility was a close call for Butler himself and who put the actor instantly at ease. Vivien Leigh’s recruitment as Scarlett took the most convoluted of developments. Numerous A-List actors were considered – Bette Davies, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn were the best known – and fascinating footage remains of the test screenings made with various people. In an alternative reality Scarlett could have been played by Lana Turner, whose test shows just how far she was from possessing the command required to fill the shoes of such a big character. Leigh was a relatively late consideration, due no doubt to the lack of knowledge about her in America. Her background, patrician English after a wealthy upbringing in colonial India, was about as far from Scarlett O’Hara as it was possible to be, and yet Leigh’s star was on the rise. A success on stage and making a fine transition to the screen in Fire Over England, she was just as famous for her real-life romance with Laurence Olivier, which would lead to the pair becoming for a time the world’s most famous couple. As difficult as it might be now to imagine anyone else playing Scarlett, for some time Leigh was an obscure outside bet, yet in hindsight most certainly the right choice and worth the Herculean effort they made in working towards her.

I’m not going to spend too much time here talking about what happens in the film. It’s one of cinema’s best known entries, something enjoyed by millions of people and while adjusted for inflation all-time box office lists throw up any number of variations, Gone with the Wind is invariably near the top.  Chances are you have already seen it, and if you haven’t then you’ll know Tara’s Theme, ‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn‘ and be likely to have a good impression of its arcs and themes – it is that famous. For many viewers it may be their favourite slice of cinema, an opinion I don’t share, indeed I wouldn’t even call it my choice of the year – in fairness, 1939 was famously a banner year for cinema, with the likes of Stagecoach, Goodbye Mr Chips and The Hound of the Baskervilles up there as personal selections.

It was certainly an enduring winner with audiences and the Academy however, until Ben-Hur remaining the record holder for the most Oscars won, a reflection of the sheer human and technical achievement it represents, and certainly on the latter score it’s a marvel. The fire in Atlanta, heralding the arrival of Sherman’s Union army, was achieved when the crew burned down sets and props from previous MGM productions; that enormous structure collapsing in flames was in a past life the massive gates from which Fay Wray was tied up in anticipation of King Kong‘s arrival. This was shot months in advance of the rest of the production, the scenes featuring the actors added in later. One of the film’s most enduring scenes shows Scarlett staring aghast into a street filled with injured and dead Confederate soldiers, thousands of them, a moment demanding more extras than the production could source, meaning some of the wounded were dummies with limbs that could be artificially moved. The complicated crane shot had to pick up the sea of human victims and come to rest with the tattered Confederacy flag in the foreground, ensuring that none of Culver City, which lay just beyond the set, was accidentally shown. Occasionally, the technical trickery doesn’t quite work. One shot has party-goers driving in their coaches along the long drive to the Twelve Oaks ranch, but they start to vanish and become translucent as the footage is spliced into the the separate image behind.

The film isn’t without its controversy, especially for current audiences. The Old South was notoriously a slave-owning culture, and its ‘darkies’ can be seen happily at work, almost certainly a depiction of the good treatment meted out at Scarlett’s home of Tara but giving little impression of the horrors suffered by slaves as a matter of routine. Scenes depicting the Klansmen were edited out, avoiding comparisons with the difficulties watching The Birth of a Nation and certainly a good thing. Selznick ordered a production that was for its time sensitive to black people, though it still leaves an uncomfortable taste, notably in its setting of Scarlett’s world as a lost paradise, an idyll that can never return in the aftermath of the Civil war, while clearly it wasn’t so for all its denizens. In the film’s favour, this is the South as seen from its heroine’s perspective, a young woman who in its early scenes is very much still a child with a lot of growing up to do, and her feelings about Rhett are also made clear here. While everyone grows excited about the prospects of war and the opportunities for gallantry it represents, only Butler, hardened and cynical, says openly that the Union will win. It’s a jaded, real world view that’s obviously right, backed up with cold facts rather than romance and honour, but it jars with the audience and with Scarlett, who’s both fascinated with Rhett and repulsed by him.

The work by Leigh and Gable aside, there’s some excellent support from Olivia de Havilland and Hattie McDaniel. The former eschews much of the glamour and beauty associated with her usual roles to play the delicate, ailing Melanie, Scarlett’s love rival for the favours of Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard). As Mammy, Tara’s house servant and peddler of pearls of earthy wisdom, McDaniel is absolutely memorable, with a tough veneer that cracks sparingly but those moments, when they come, are earned. Thomas Mitchell is reliable and idiosyncratic as Scarlett’s father, doomed to madness as his safe world collapses around him, and there’s a sensitive performance from Ona Munson as Belle, in the film’s early scenes a ‘fallen woman’ who secretly loves Rhett and would probably have made the better match with him, if he hadn’t in turn spent the film’s running time chasing Scarlett in this ever-spiralling game of ill-fated loves and obsessions. If there is a duff note then it’s Howard’s Ashley, not a fault of the actor but a role in which he’s tasked to play the stolid, spectacularly dull symbol of the South’s virtue. Unlike Leigh, Howard does little to cover his British accent and in terms of raw charisma and spark is effortlessly relegated into second billing by Gable. This makes something of a mockery of Scarlett’s enduring obsession with him – he just doesn’t stand up next to the mustachioed main man, but then Gone with the Wind is a film of tragedies and this is just one of them.

In the end it’s possible to see it as both a long-winded and a very long bore. It tells of a world that no longer exists, told at a time that similarly belongs in the past, and a number of the concerns expressed in the film have little relevance today. And yet it’s the sort of picture that demands that everyone watches it at least once. The first reason is for its rightful status as a cinematic landmark, something that utterly captivated contemporary audiences and is still exhibited on big screens, particularly in its ‘home town’ of Atlanta, which is no mean feat for a work that’s pushing eighty years old. There’s also a timeless quality to it, a strange statement to make of a story about the long lost Old South, yet the characters of Scarlett and Rhett, both selfish and far from heroic, have swathes of fascinating nuance, look great, and are perfectly played. Finally, for film lovers there’s simply too much to enjoy here. If for no other reason then for those iconic shots of characters in silhouette, filmed against the kind of painterly vanilla skies you never see in real life, it’s a beautiful looking movie, a testament to Fleming’s direction and the painstaking production values by Selznick. The latter, credited for a number of wildly successful film offerings and remembered as a neurotic meddler in his studio’s projects, was never better rewarded for his relentless work ethic and eye for detail than he was here, and when it comes to rendering personal visions onto the grandest stage possible that’s something worth celebrating.

Gone with the Wind: ****

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 24 December (1.50 pm)
Channel: Channel 5
IMDb Link

Channel 5 dominate their Christmas Eve schedules with three stonewall classics. they start at 9.30 am with the epic Gone with the Wind, a stretch at more than four hours long but well worth the sofa creasing investment for a genuine slice of Golden Age cinema. Later in the afternoon, there’s the 1951 adaptation of Scrooge, routinely considered the best amidst a sea of Christmas Carol flicks with the always fantastic Alistair Sim at its crotchety centre. But if there’s one film in which to invest the time, for me it’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, a box office smash from 1938 that redefined the matinee swashbuckler, it’s nothing less than an absolute treat.

Even as early as the thirties, the legends surrounding Robin Hood had already been committed to celluloid several times, the earliest entry dating from 1906 whilst the 1922 version starring Douglas Fairbanks had set the standard for all to follow. By the mid-1930s, Warner Brothers’ track record of scoring ticket selling gold with gritty crime dramas started to fall foul of the Hays Code, which imposed censorship standards upon studios based on moral acceptability. Searching for material that would meet the criteria, Warners opted for a new version of Robin Hood, tapping into the Boys Own potential of a pure-hearted, good versus evil action movie whilst chopping away the excesses that had made the Fairbanks film a bit of a trawl at times. Lopping off the lengthy introduction to the tale that involved Robin returning from the Crusades to focus on his adventures in Sherwood Forest, the studio went on to create a smash hit that would also gain approval at the Academy Awards. Three key elements would go on to set it apart – sound, colour and Errol Flynn.

The Adventures of Robin Hood was of course made at a time when sound came as standard, the ‘Talkies’ now fully ingrained a mere decade after they had began consigning silent cinema to a thing of the past. However, the production made the most of the technology. Professional archer Howard Hill was drafted in to play a small role (he features in the film’s archery contest), but also lent his shooting to the noise made by the arrows as they left bows and found the mark, thanks to the meaty sound produced by the thicker type of wood he favoured. It’s this attention to detail that helped make the film a hit. The arrows suddenly sounded like they had real impact, one felt no doubt by the extras who were paid $150 dollars each to take one in the chest from Hill’s bow. Further gold came from Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score. Born in Vienna, Korngold moved to America to compose the score and narrowly avoided becoming a Jewish victim of Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria, which made him claim that Robin Hood saved the lives of himself and his family. In return, he produced a suite that captured the heraldry completely befitting a tale of legend. The main theme is memorable enough, but his music adds real dramatic heft to the scenes involving Norman oppression over England’s Anglo-Saxon population, whilst there’s delight to be had from the film’s romantic moments, Korngold accompanying the growing love between Flynn and Olivia de Havilland with motifs that suggest the development of her understanding for his cause in fighting the good fight. It seems incredible to learn that Korngold initially begged to be released from his contract as he saw his work as utterly inappropriate to the style of film being made; the pair fit together perfectly.

Technicolor was still something of a novelty in the 1930s, yet it was a process that could make films look fresh and modern. Some, like The Wizard of Oz, used to it brilliant dramatic effect, juxtaposing the black and white of the Kansas based scenes to the bursts of colour when Dorothy has her adventures in the land of Oz. The three-strip process was expensive, and as costs on Robin Hood escalated it was agreed that colour would add to the film’s storybook feel, all those pennants, flags and crests showing up fantastically well. During the location shooting in Chico, California, which stood in for Sherwood Forest, the crew would spray-paint the foliage to make it look ‘greener’. The aim was to replicate the atmosphere evoked from those evocative, watercolour images in the books about the legend, and there’s little doubt it worked perfectly, leading to the film’s Oscar for its production design.

Initially, Warners turned to their marquee star, James Cagney, to play Robin Hood, and the very prospect of this short, angry, wholly American tough guy as England’s medieval outlaw hints at a very different film from the one that emerged. Industry differences ruled Cagney out, however (he walked out on Warners for breach of contract), and had them searching for a new Robin, a trail that led to Errol Flynn. Still an emerging force, the Tasmanian had impressed in 1935’s Captain Blood, a swashbuckler that pitted him against Basil Rathbone (Sir Guy in Robin Hood) and had him demonstrate sizzling chemistry with Olivia de Havilland. All three were contracted for the major starring roles in The Adventures of Robin Hood, de Havilland doing well as a principled and memorable Marion, but it’s Flynn who owns the film with his cheerful and physical performance. Handsome and carefree, he makes every scene he’s in look natural and easy, setting the tone for future Robin Hood portrayals whilst his ‘light as air’ style makes him instantly likeable as the outlaws’ leader. Rathbone is excellent as the brooding Sir Guy, leading a great triumvirate of villains alongside Claude Rains’s camp Prince John and the doltish Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper). Of the merry men, Eugene Pallette almost steals the show as a wisecracking Friar Tuck, forever fending off jokes about his size, and Alan Hale Snr reprises his role from the Fairbanks Hood film as Little John.

The production was originally offered to William Keighley as director, but as the footage was reviewed the lack of urgency and excitement in the action scenes led to his dismissal and replacement with Michael Curtiz, the reliable Hungarian responsible for Captain Blood and who would go on to helm the peerless Casablanca. Curtiz understood that Robin Hood was to be made as a fantasy, with little attention paid to the realities of medieval life and struggles, and instead placing the emphasis on action and fun, the result emerging as a tightly focused effort that ran little over 100 minutes. It must have dazzled contemporary audiences, with its opulent Technicolor palette and sheer joie de vivre. Thanks to the ‘no expenses spared’ approach, the rarely bettered action scenes and Flynn’s ability to fill the lead role so spiffingly, it’s barely dated at all. Comparisons with the many revisions that came later still leave it on top. As far as this writer is concerned, it’s up there with North by Northwest and Raiders of the Lost Ark as near perfect, good-time cinema.

The Adventures of Robin Hood: *****