The golden standard for classic Hollywood bombast, this one. An extremely difficult film to grade when seeing it for the first time in 2011 at the ripe old age of 31—yes, it was an egregious gap for far too long. It’s sumptuous, gorgeous to look at, and packed to the brim with over-the-top, yet glorious, melodrama at its grandest scale. And the acting! Clark Gable, as the mischievous millionaire with a penchant for spitting on the honor that defined the 1860′s South, is positively riveting. Right behind him is Vivien Leigh as the spoiled firecracker Scarlett O’Hara, an electric bombshell who likes to fashion herself a lady befitting the era, but can’t resist acting like a rebellious schoolgirl. Trouble is, Scarlett’s longing for a more noble life keeps her obsessed with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), a Gentleman in every sense of the word…who happens to be married to Scarlett’s astonishingly sweet and kindly cousin Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland).The chemistry between all four is something to behold, and the supporting cast isn’t far behind: standouts include Hattie McDaniel as the O’Hara’s gruff, loyal and loving slave (more on this in a bit) Mammy, Ona Bunson as the smoky Belle Watling, and the ubiquitous-for-the-30′s-and-40′s Thomas Mitchell (Make Way for Tomorrow, It’s a Wonderful Life, etc) as Gerald O’Hara. Even the Technicolor still pops in a way many films of the time don’t anymore, the swelling music and sweeping shots almost impossible to resist.
And yet…it’s very difficult to overlook the extreme racism and the romanticism of American history’s darkest times that drip through every scene. The title sequence warns the contemporary viewer what we’re in for, claiming that the finest days are “gone with the wind.” Said days, of course, refer to the magical times of plantations, ravishing houses for whites, and a complete lack of rights for blacks. The aforementioned honor referred only to those born into it, which required white skin. And Gone With the Wind glorifies it all: every slave loves their master dearly, even sticking with them after the South loses the Civil War. In fact, there’s a nary a perceptible change in the actions of the film’s enslaved throughout the entire four-hour runtime. They’re all portrayed as part of the family, caring for the children like they’re their own, feeling the pain of loss and the joys of success like a parent. Such a view, of course, is utterly ludicrous, and makes it difficult to really take much of the film seriously once you dig beneath the surface. As a historical artifact, it’s a must-watch, and its numerous strengths make it well-worth seeing, especially if it makes an appearance on the big screen in your area. But though I enjoyed it a good deal, I can’t bring myself to truly love a movie so deeply steeped in prejudice…and, truth be told, it occasionally feels too bombastic, even when viewed through the prism of its genre. See it, love it for its wonders, loathe it for its backdrop and politics, and check it off your list.