THE BEST PICTURE PROJECT – ‘Gone with the Wind’ (1939)

In 1940, the 12th Academy Awards ceremony was held at The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Honouring the films released between January 1, 1939 and December 31, 1939 the awards were held on February 29. The ceremony was hosted by popular comedian Bob Hope for the very first time. He would go on to host a further 18 times, more than anyone else.

Gone with the Wind set a new record for the most nominations for a single film, receiving 13 nominations in total, and the most wins with eight awards. The film’s screenwriter, Sidney Howard, became the first posthumous Academy Award winner. Howard passed away in August, 1939, before the film had premiered. The film also delivered the first ever win for an African-American, with Hattie McDaniel taking home Best Supporting Actress for her performance as house servant Mammy. McDaniel was also the first African-American to be invited to and attend the Oscar ceremony. Shamefully, she was segregated from her co-stars, and forced to sit at a separate table at the back of the room.

With the rise of colour films in cinema, the Academy made the decision to split the Best Cinematography category, awarding one prize for a colour film (Gone with the Wind) and another for a black-and-white film (Wuthering Heights). It also introduced the category of Best Special Effects (now Best Visual Effects), which did not go to The Wizard of Oz, but rather The Rains Came – a disaster epic featuring a small Indian town decimated by a major earthquake and subsequent flood.

The nominees:
Dark Victory
Gone with the Wind
Goodbye, Mr. Chips
Love Affair
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Of Mice and Men
The Wizard of Oz
Wuthering Heights

The winner:
Gone with the Wind

Based on Margaret Mitchell’s wildly popular 1936 novel, Gone with the Wind is the epic love story of Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) and Rhett Butler (Clark Cable), set against the backdrop of America’s Civil War. Living on her family’s cotton plantation farm named Tara in Atlanta, Georgia, Scarlett is spoiled and conceited, without a care in the world. Her father, Gerald (Thomas Mitchell), sees more in his daughter than most, and teaches her the ins-and-outs of running the plantation, with the hope that one day she will be his successor. Scarlett is madly in love with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), who is set to marry his cousin (yes, his cousin), Melanie Hamilton. At a party celebrating the pair’s engagement, Scarlett confesses her feelings to Ashley, but he rebukes her. Scarlett is incensed and humiliated when she realises Rhett, also a guest at the party, has overheard the entire conversation. Both headstrong and obstinate, the pair have a heated argument, and Rhett can’t help but fall madly in love with her.

The party is interrupted by the declaration of the war, and the men rush off to enlist to fight for the South. At the war rages, and Tara is ravaged by Union troops, it ultimately falls to Scarlett to save the family home and tend to the plantation. Entwined in the epic story of the Civil War is a sweeping and complicated romantic quadrangle. Scarlett still pines for Ashley, but he will never leave Melanie. Lonely for company with Ashley away at war, Melanie ultimately becomes a close friend of Scarlett, completely unaware of Scarlett’s feelings for her husband. Despite her stand-offish attitude towards him, Rhett is still completely smitten by Scarlett, and determined to win her over. But just how long is he willing to wait?

Why did it win?
The Titanic of its era, Gone with the Wind was simply the biggest and most successful film of the 1939, and the next several decades. As big a year in cinema as 1939 was (more on that shortly), there was nothing quite as grand and epic as Gone with the Wind. There had never been anything like it. It challenged the cinematic ideals of scale, scope, and running time. It was a kind of event cinema that captured America like nothing else had. Even today, its success with the public is unrivalled.

The film’s premiere on December 15, 1939 in Atlanta attracted over 300,000 people, and was one of the biggest public events in the South of the 20th century. And they weren’t even there to see the film itself, but rather bathe in the spectacle of the lavish red carpet event. When it opened, it was a box-office phenomenon like never before. Adjusted for inflation, the film is the highest grossing film of all time. Its box-office equates to over $4 billion worldwide by today’s standards. The number of tickets it ultimately sold (roughly 200 million in the US and Canada) is double that of Avatar and Titanic – the two films we consider to be the biggest box-office films of all time. It ultimately broke box-office attendance records, and quickly became the most profitable film of all time.

With this kind of public response, it’s relatively easy to see why it won Best Picture. But impressive box-office numbers aside, the film was also hugely popular with critics, and ultimately Academy voters. With its gorgeous use of Technicolor cinematography, its incredible production and costume design, and its instantly classic performance from Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable and Hattie McDaniel, it was hailed by critics as a major moment in the history of cinema, and one of the greatest films there had ever been.

Despite stiff competition, the Academy really had no other choice for Best Picture in 1939. Gone with the Wind was simply too big, too beloved, and too damn successful to be ignored.

Did it deserve to win?
Oh, boy. This is the toughest one to call so far. There are few films as “classic” as Gone with the Wind. Almost 80 years later, it still remains one of the most adored films in the history of cinema. Its reputation and adoration are unlike any other film of this era. You’d be hard-pressed to find a person on this planet who isn’t at the very least aware of this film, as well as the millions who have actually seen it. It may be the most definitive piece of Hollywood cinema. But did it actually deserve to win Best Picture in a year many call the Hollywood’s greatest year ever?

One could indeed devote an entire article to the sheer volume of greatness that came out of Hollywood in 1939. Many actually have. It stands as a landmark year for cinema, and, after the collapse of the studio system a few years later, one never to repeated again. Let me just rattle off a few brilliant films released in 1939 – Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Dark Victory, Gunga Din, Wuthering Heights, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Love Affair, Juarez, Only Angles Have Wings, Of Mice and Men, Ninotchka, Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Babes in Arms. Oh, and a little film you may also have heard of called The Wizard of Oz. It was a stunning and remarkable year, making it almost impossible to say one single film deserved to be singled out as Best Picture.

In a modern context, watching Gone with the Wind is actually somewhat cringey and a little uncomfortable. It’s subtle racism is hard to ignore. Romanticising the Civil War, and seemingly ignoring why it was being fought (slavery), is rather abhorrent. It depicts the Confederates as fighting the good fight to defend their traditional values, and casts their Yankee enemies as the real villains in the fight for America. The crucial issue of the fight over slavery is essentially ignored, and it’s hard not to find the film’s bungled treatment of the Civil Wars as somewhat offensive. Yes, it’s a product of its time, and there were many who saw the Civil War as a battle between tradition and modernisation. But let’s be honest. That “tradition” was solely centred around desperately holding onto the notion of slavery, and nothing else. The Confederacy are not a group of people entitled to any sort of romanticism.

For all its advances in its portrayal of women (Scarlett is a bold, new screen heroine, fighting insurmountable odds to ensure the survival of her family home), there is one scene in Gone with the Wind which is downright disgraceful. You know the one I’m talking about. The one where Rhett essentially rapes Scarlett, and then blames it on his drinking. Yep. That happens. And it’s a scene so easily forgotten, given the film’s place in cinema history. Again, it’s dismissed as being a sign of the times, but it’s there. And it’s awful.

Dated offences aside, the film is ultimately an astonishing achievement in cinema, filled with dozens of iconic moments. Who can forget that Atlanta Railroad station, blanketed with scores of wounded Confederate soldiers, all crying out in agony? Or the scene of a silhouetted Scarlett, against that glorious red sunset sky, declaring “as God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!” Or the startling sight of Rhett and Scarlett fleeing Atlanta, as it tragically burns in flames. And, of course, that “frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” line which has become synonymous with the film, and still stands as one of the most famous movie quotes of all time. These are some of the greatest moments in American cinema, and the fact they all are contained within the one film is truly remarkable.

As a spectacle and event, there has still been nothing like Gone with the Wind. It’s a landmark moment in cinema. It’s ultimately the golden highlight of a golden era of Hollywood. It’s a visual triumph, further boosted by its impeccable performances. It’s still a completely dazzling sight to behold. It has its flaws, especially in a modern context, but it’s impossible not to be impressed by the cinematic achievement it represents. There were certainly better films in 1939, but none were crafted with the scale and scope of Gone with the Wind. It had to win Best Picture. And, yes, it did indeed deserve to win.