Sunday, September 28, 2014

Happy 75th GWTW: You Reign Supreme Forever Because of the Love Story, and the Acting

Thank goodness for TCM. What a national treasure to help lovers of classic movies come together and celebrate great American classic films outside of individual living rooms.

Two years ago I was very grateful when they sponsored bringing Casablanca back into theaters for its 70 birthday.

That was an interesting experience because I was sitting near a group of 20something friends, who were chatting away and had come to mock the picture, but  from Bogart's first entrance, they got quieter and quieter. Great films have that effect, even on the current crop of jejunes.

Anniversary Screenings, Across the Country #GWTW75
I didn't know what to expect for the 2:00pm Sunday showing of GWTW in Times Square in conjunction with Fathom Events & Warner Home Video, one of only four total times this anniversary treat is showing. The actual premiere was on December 15, 1939, in Atlanta, an event to which Hattie McDaniel was not invited.

I'm happy to say that every age, race, and ethnicity you can think of was in attendance in Times Square.  Much applause in all the right places, much laughter in all the right places. And the weeping. Even the geeky/tech-looking young guy of Indian descent sitting next to me didn't make it through the crane shot of Scarlett going to the Atlanta depot without some very furtive tear wiping. But that's what it's all about, isn't it? 

Though I have not seen 12 Years a Slave, I appreciate in contrast the cultural damage that GWTW's sentimental depiction of slavery has had. But the film endures because, like the novel, it is not a story about slavery. It is a deeply resonant depiction of the battle of the sexes, with a most astonishing, strong, stunted, selfish female character in Scarlett. It's the relationships between all the characters that pulls you in for the fastest four hours in cinema history, even with the intermission.

And it will endure because of the acting. Vivian Leigh is absolutely compelling in every frame. She conveys a multitude of subtle yet complex emotions with every facial gesture, as does Clark Gable.  Their chemistry together is for the ages. Their talent simply radiates off the screen, it is dazzling in a way that no modern counterparts match. Their kind of Hollywood of 1939 is itself gone with the wind, and another reason why this  film will still be around in another 75 years.

The restoration is the most astonishing I have seen. It is the most vibrant Technicolor I have ever witnessed, and the overall acuity of the frames breathtaking. The aspect ration means that the picture goes top to bottom of the screen, but not side to side. By having the black letterbox effect only left and right, the figures look even more larger than life than they do when the image fills the screen, or in IMAX. It is a thrilling, "natural" looking movie experience like no other. The film is simply a sequence of superlatives for me.

Below is from a broader appreciation I wrote about the novel & the movie in 2007.

Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae sub Regno Cynarae

I don’t brook no literary snobs who dismiss Margaret Mitchell’s tale. Yes, I first found it in junior high school, like many other girls. But the serious reader does not hold that factoid against it.

What I could appreciate only later was how exquisitely, masterfully, Mitchell captures the painful zig and zag between ill-fated lovers. Scarlett’s constant fear and loathing of Rhett’s mocking of her (both real and imagined) matched point for point Rhett’s constant fear that Scarlett had only contempt for the men who worshipped her.

With these two, Mitchell captures that sickening, life-destroying panic you feel when you can't trust the one who’s next to you, no matter how well suited you are for each other. For Rhett and Scarlett, when one starts to trust just a little, the other answers with cruelty. It's a dark, dark tennis match.

Thus GWTW is a tragedy of the most human kind—-of two people who throw happiness away with both hands. Rhett is right that they are two of a kind, and Scarlett can't see it because of the fog of Ashley in her head, clouding her vision, until she finally "sees" that it's been Rhett all along, just as he is done, with a capital "D."

The storytelling overall is stellar, especially the early chapters about Scarlett’s mother Ellen (played by Barbara O'Neill, which always ticked me), and how she came to marry Gerald O’Hara.

The Civil War is there too. But that I have no personal experience of that . . . .

Margaret Mitchell is a unique figure in literary history. She wrote the novel while recuperating from ankle surgery, with no intention of anyone besides her husband reading it.

She had gone to Smith College in 1918, engaged to a Harvard man, Lt. Clifford Henry. He was killed in France, and shortly after her mother died of the pandemic flu, before MM got back to Atlanta to see her. She knew too well much of what she wrote for Scarlett, and her life hints at the theme of haunted love: the fiancĂ© who died, then her first marriage ended in divorce, and the second was to her ex‘s friend. But Mitchell raised the idea of shadows in love to an art in Scarlett's attachment to Ashley.

Mitchell ultimately took her book title from a poem by Ernest Dowson, “Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae sub Regno Cynarae,” which is from the opening of Horace’s Odes, Book 4.1: “I am not the same as I was in the days of Cynara.” (Well, she was a Smith girl, although she left when her mother died, before she graduated.) Dowson was an English poet of the Decadent Movement, which included Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde. His poem is about a lover who is “desolate and sick of an old passion.” (Think Bob Dylan’s haunting “Visions of Johanna.”)

The third stanza, which begins “I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,” touched Mitchell: it was the "far away, faintly sad sound I wanted."

And so we were given the words that scrolled majestically across the screen to Max Steiner’s superlative score. The film is one of the all-time great realizations of a novel, which for me is rooted in Vivian Leigh’s captivating energy and Clark Gable’s controlled, knowing, beautifully tailored passion.

MM said she wrote the last chapter of GWTW first. It is intriguing that she started with that bone weary, completely burnt-out feeling of her leading man, and then imagined the path and depth of a great love-—of his love—that had been so completely thwarted by a selfish, stunted woman.

I haven't re-read GWTW for quite a while. But in that personal way you have with certain stories, I hold out hope that whenever I do, Mammy will hear Scarlett when she calls out for Rhett after her miscarriage, and the star-crossed lovers can find some happiness. Isn't it pretty to think so.


Anonymous said...

I happened on your page when looking up the title quote and feel that although he might have been entertained by being called Audrey (my understanding is that his sexuality was not mainstream, having a preference for pretty young boys) you should know that it is actually Aubrey Beardsley

M.A.Peel said...

Yes, I do know that. It was a typo, now fixed. Thanks for pointing it out.

I do marvel at how many people find this blog through the Horace quote. I hope you'll come back.

julie said...

Where do I advertize an item that
belonged to Margeret Mitchell.
for her fans to see?

Phyllis said...

Congratulations, M.A., for a blog @ GWTW as fascinating as the book! Despite its glorification of Southern sensibilities it still resonates for all the reasons you mention.....whatever "side" you are on.......

4rx said...

"Sorry dear, but I don't give a damn"what a great phrase hahaha