Mathematics

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

DOS…Oscar-winning visionary, mad genius, and ODing druggie.

I’ve had a couple of weeks now to digest the fact that America is not celebrating 75 years of the motion picture version of Gone With the Wind. I’ve tried to think of any cast members still with us beyond the indefatigable Olivia de Havilland, little Beau Wilkes, played by now-82-year-old Mickey Kuhn, and littler “Melanie’s Baby,” played by Patrick Curtis. Come to think of it, maybe OdeH is rubbing off on her celluloid kin since the Wilkeses are the only ones left among us. I asked you to help me put Gone With the Wind in perspective and the response was enlightening, and got me to thinking.

Let me run this past you: aside from spine-tingling stories of the sneak preview, David Selznick’s epic run on uppers that should have killed him but didn’t, the coast-to-coast search for Scarlett that ended by firelight in Culver City, and the notorious replacement of George Cukor with man’s man Vic Fleming (note to Vic and his pal Clark Gable: this is still a women’s picture despite the testosterone injection), the motion picture version of Gone With the Wind isn’t as great as the sum of its parts. In some respects it’s sort of…average.

Oh, man, I’m pretty sure my mom just rolled over in her grave. Sorry, Mom.

Gone With the Wind is the big, inspired vision of a filmmaker, but so is David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, James Cameron’s Titanic, and Peter Jackson’s trilogy of the Rings, and I attest that GWTW doesn’t measure higher than any of these later examples. It’s too fixated on the performance of a decent-at-best English stage actress affecting a Southern belle. Selznick and his three directors (counting Sam Wood) threw the picture her way because the country was then ripped through with Scarlett Fever, and there was no cure in sight.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Gable loved winning his statuette for It Happened One Night, then gave it away to a little boy after the death of Carole Lombard.

The epidemic is over, my friends. Miss Leigh is long gone, and her performance, despite the golden doorstop, plays today as antiquated as a sternwheeler. I always found Leslie Howard an embarrassing Ashley, embarrassing because his miscasting damns the picture’s credibility for future generations. For God’s sake where was Randy Scott when we needed him?

Over the years I’ve been surprised to see the shots taken at two-time Academy Award winner Olivia de H. for lack of acting range. For kicks you should peruse the reviews of her Broadway version of Romeo and Juliet in the early 1950s. Yikes! My point being that Livvie was an accomplished actress in her day, but considering that her day was 1939 and by 1951 she was passé, her performance as Melanie isn’t new-school enough to help keep the good ship GWTW afloat.

Then there is The Saving Grace of Gone With the Wind. Well, wait. All those craft Oscars went to people who were saving graces of Gone With the Wind: cinematographers Ernie Haller and Ray Rennahan, art director Lyle Wheeler, and the film’s heroic editors, Hal Kern and James Newcom. Sidney Howard probably helped to save the picture with all that screenplay he wrote, which was then rewritten by a couple dozen other writers and finally Selznick himself. Walter Plunkett’s costumes, Max Steiner’s music—fantastic craftspeople at work, no doubt.

But it’s Clark Gable’s picture to save and looking back from a modern perspective, he’s the best thing about it. In all his glorious insecurity and grousing and grumbling, his Rhett Butler was perfect in 1939 and it’s a bulls-eye 75 years later. I know a lot about Gable now, but I feel there’s more still to learn. I’m tempted to say that Gable rose to the occasion when he spent eight months playing Rhett, but I need to keep reminding myself that the part was fitted to him with great care, staying within the “Gable range,” which was sort of from A to B or maybe, on a good day, C. Parnell was still fresh on everybody’s minds and neither Selznick nor Mayer could survive Gone With the Wind becoming another Parnell.

I’ve never committed myself to MM’s novel, but I very much want to read it now. I know that the book version of Rhett is a good deal darker than the movie-star Rhett drawn up by that football team of screenwriters. What we get from Gable as depicted is a square-shouldered, worldly wise, wry-humored, and slightly tarnished knight in armor. Honorable enough to reclaim wedding rings and rakish enough to look comfortable in Belle Watling’s parlor. Between the Hays Office censors on one side and his MGM bodyguards on the other, Gable was safe as safe can be making Gone With the Wind. But who could have predicted that the greatest role of a not-so-great actor would hold water so well all these decades later?

I’m tempted to call this column, “Disillusioned,” because that’s what I realize I am about Gone With the Wind. All the fuss and bother of my boyhood, all the reverence paid to the picture as it floated for oh so long and oh so watertight on the memories of a couple of generations. Gone With the Wind is now a Technicolor time capsule of 1939 Hollywood, more interesting for what went on behind the cameras as what is captured in front of them. I wish it were otherwise. I wish it were a perfect 10 of a picture that could serve as THE shining example of Old Hollywood. Counting everything, the entire experience of Gone With the Wind, the people and the pre-World War II times, it probably still is. But just as a big stack of cans of celluloid, math has overtaken the movie of the Novel of the Old South, and it’s getting, for me at least, old.

 

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

OdeH: two Oscars in four years, but she would never get an award-quality role again.

 

2 comments

  1. I have never read Margaret Mitchell’s very thick novel (even though it has been sitting on one of my bookshelves for years) so I can only judge its story by the film version. Aside from the lumpiness of the film’s soapy second half, one of the chief problems that I have always had with GWTW is that I find Scarlet O’Hara to be so questionable a choice for that rascally man’s man Rhett Butler to put up with, let alone hope to eventually win her love.

    Like yourself, Robert, I love Gable’s performance but one has to wonder just how masochistic his character is to put up with all the self-centred nonsense that he does with a woman that more than a few have dismissed with the “b” word. And what a “b” she is, too.

    Oh, I know she’s high spirited, strong willed and gutsy. But she is also, particularly in the film’s second half, not a very nice person. I know that Butler has no illusions that he is a particularly noble creature either, but Gable wins me over with his strut and charm. His cynical anit-hero portrayal remains a classic for me.

    I take nothing away from Vivien Leigh’s performance. I am far from attracted to her character, though. Many may be strongly attracted to the strength of her character as a survivor, and I fully understand that. That moment in which Leigh gags on a turnip and then swears to God that she will never starve again, accompanied by the swelling Steiner musical score, is one of the great moments in the movies.

    But as time goes on Scarlet is just so ruthless and self absorbed. While it may be interesting to watch the Scarlet and Rhett tear away at each other in a first viewing, and possibly even a second one, my general dislike of Scarlet (particularly in the film’s second half) prevents me from ever getting fully emotionally invested in the production. I guess I’m waiting for that moment of emancipation that comes from Rhett at the end. I just wonder why it took him so long to get there.

    Having said that, GWTW is still an incredibly handsome production, from the viewpoint of both sets and costumes, not to mention the sophistication of the film’s incredible matte paintings, a joy for the eye. As well as the ear, with Max Steiner’s great, glorious, sweeping musical score.

    Controversial as the character of Mammy has always been, I still admire Hattie McDaniels’ feisty performance, as well as that of Olivia de Havilland, whose sensitivity and intelligence makes Melanie more interesting than she might otherwise have been. Leslie Howard, well, that’s another matter, a dull performance from a clearly disinterested actor.

    Skillful as I find Vivien Leigh to be in the role, I still dislike Scarlet. Truth is, I’m hard pressed to think of any Vivien Leigh character that I have ever really liked. Perhaps I have an issue with that actress. I have often wondered about Selznick’s other choice to have played Scarlet, the actress who lost out on the role because, among other things, she couldn’t produce a marriage license to prove her marriage to Chaplin.

    Would I still feel the same way about Scarlet if she had been played by the charming, vivacious Paulette Goddard? She might not have had quite the same dramatic chops as Leigh, but she had the likeability factor by the bucketful. And, quite frankly, I doubt that I would have questioned Rhett’s sanity quite as much if it had been Goddard that had been the prize.

    Ironically, too, years later Gable and Goddard dated one another for a brief while. It may well be that Gable may have shared my taste when it came to the ideal actress to have played the screen’s most famous (if scheming) southern belle.

  2. I read GWTW as a teen-ager and was a huge fan until I realized as an educated adult how racist and historically inaccurate the movie is. Yet, I still find parts of it irresistible. Unlike male viewers, I am drawn to Scarlett, who is strong, tough, yes, a “b”, but knows how to get what she wants. I find Leigh an intense and watchable actress. Scarlett is a great role for an actress, but I actually find her more compelling in Waterloo Bridge, and in a little pre-GWTW film, Sidewalks of London, where her intensity almost blows Charles Laughton out of the water. I used to see Melanie as dull, but I now see her character, as played by Olivia deHavilland, as equally courageous, perhaps in some ways more brave and honest than Scarlett. Yes, it’s a woman’s picture, despite the firing of Cukor. I think Gable’s great in it, but he makes me uncomfortable in some scenes, particularly when he threatens to crack her head like a walnut before the “rape” scene. By the way,Rhett is much darker in the book, and there are lots of suggestions about the sexual relationship between Rhett and Scarlett verging on the violent side, maybe a model for the “bodice rippers” of a later generation. It was assigned on the 8th grade reading list at one of the schools in my town, and I was rather surprised. I don’t see GWTW as the greatest movie ever made; it doesn’t hold up for me the way Casablanca does, for instance. Yet, I do see the appeal, particularly for the female audience.

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