Close-Up Blog-a-thon: Shimmy: Seven Ways of Looking At An Image

As part of ringmaster Matt Zoller Seitz's "Close-Up Blog-a-thon", where might this clip take us?

The filming of Gone With the Wind was like a party on the set that Selznick was giving each day. Especially since the dialogue was always being handed to us at the last minute as if he was thinking of some charade to play.
--Evelyn Keyes

Close-Up One
We open on a shot of Scarlett's rear, an apt beginning for a scene that is designed to show off bustles of every kind. It's an ostentatious arrangement of figure, color, set and costume design, and movement-- the epitome of the kind of party that Keyes describes above. As we move from the carriage to the interior of the Wilkes' "Twelve Oaks" plantation, we stay centered on Scarlett, her lilting southern belle voice slightly disembodied as we see only the back of her head, her wavy brown curls covered by the enormous hat which holds our attention in the middle of the screen. Scarlett turns in profile to say hello to Virginia Wilkes-- "What a lovely dress, I just can't take my eyes off it!" It's a compliment that the camera twice reveals as a lie: Scarlett's not even looking at the dress as she says it, her eyes already darting about the entrance to see who's there, to make sure the path inside is cleared; and while Virginia moves to the foreground of the screen, the camera soon darts around her to stay focused on Scarlett, whose stark white dress with green sash leaps out amidst the pastel outfits that surround her. Everything is symmetrical: the pillars on either side of the doorway she walks through, the staircase that snakes its way up either side of the screen to frame her indoors, even the more loosely arranged figures that mill about on either side of the room. It's a lovely visual invocation of the order about to be torn asunder, and Scarlett's literal place at the middle of it all. A tracking shot to the right is suddenly interrupted by an awkward cut to a medium shot: what could possibly disarray Scarlett's space like this, her very red lipstick mouth forming a desperate "O"?

Her next word is "Ashley!," and there is a cut to her object of desire. Not her love-- we know that before she does, because the camera doesn't move towards him: framed in a long shot, this wan southern gentlemen is forced to come to it, lacking the power to move the image forward. As he comes downscreen, the camera does dolly closer a bit, but only because Scarlett enters the frame (the camera longs to follow her-- she has a cinephiliac power he doesn't). But even as she looks up at him with rapt attention, he never looks at the camera, choosing to frame himself in noble profile (even when he turns his head, he looks off-camera, afraid to look the lens in the eye). He tries to pull Scarlett downstage right, to meet Melanie, which might mean pulling Scarlett out of the center of the frame; like any good movie star, Scarlett is perturbed at having to go off-camera: pouting, she mews, "Ooh, do we have to?" The camera cuts to Melanie, and she too must move forward to make her "close-up." What kind of world is this, where "gentlemen can always fight better than a Yankee!," but lack the charisma to control the new technological force that has entered American society in the mid-19th century: photography? Clearly, there's a more powerful cinephiliac counterpart for Scarlett waiting in the wings, someone who can drag the camera to him.

Close-Up Two

1933 was something of a watershed year in Classic Hollywood. There were corporate shake-ups, with producer Irving Thalberg taking time off from MGM, David O. Selznick arriving at that studio, and Darryl Zanuck leaving Warner Brothers to create what would become 20th Century Fox; there were creative breakthroughs, particularly in musicals, as Busby Berkeley established his abstract style in 42nd Street and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made their debut as a couple in Flying Down To Rio (it was Selznick who first cast Astaire in a film, giving him a number that year as “Fred” in MGM’s Dancing Lady); Cary Grant first caught the public’s eye in She Done Him Wrong and the Marx Brothers made their final film for Paramount, Duck Soup; Clark Gable got false teeth; and it was the last year before the Production Code was finally enforced, the last year audiences could enjoy such risqué pleasures as Female, Baby Face, and Bombshell. Upon arriving at MGM, Selznick begins production on Dinner at Eight, a Grand Hotel-style ensemble drama that will be nominated for Best Picture at the following year's Academy Awards. It loses that Oscar to Cavalcade, an adaptation of Noel Coward’s stage success (a production Selznick was involved before leaving RKO, King Kong, is not even nominated).

In the midst the dramatic shifts noted above, Cavalcade seems slightly antiquated, a talky drama that looks back with nostalgia to pre-war British class hierarchies. There is none of the visual wit of Kong in Cavalcade’s mise-en-scene, with the exception of one sequence near the beginning, the death of a little girl, which utilizes the cramped space and echo of the soundstage street to create real delirium (it is notable that such “cinematic” effects are associated in Cavalcade with danger and destruction). It is a prime American example of what Francois Truffaut would later criticize in French cinema as “the tradition of quality,” an observation borne out by the statement of Cavalcade’s director, Frank Lloyd, as quoted in David Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of Film: “The director is essentially an interpreter. To him is given the task of making logical and understandable, pictorially, what the author and the continuity writers have set down…He must be a barometer of public opinion”. As the following year’s Best Picture winner, Mutiny on the Bounty, would prove, Lloyd was not a bad director, but his statement seems tailor-made for the Academy, particularly his last remark about public opinion. The Academy was only one institutionalization of what would come to be known as “middle-brow” taste in the 1920s (the Book of the Month Club—for which Gone With The Wind would be a selection in 1936-- was another), and Cavalcade, with its yearning for a lost order, reflects this middlebrow taste perfectly. The film adaptation of Gone With The Wind would reflect a similar nostalgia for a supposedly “lost” past, and would also be adapted from a successful “pre-sold” property, but its ostentatious mise-en-scene, quivering on the line between “propriety” and “vulgarity,” places it between Kong’s surreal fever dreams, and Cavalcade’s heavy-handed history—like Fay Wray, shimmying between the sets of The Most Dangerous Game and King Kong, GWTW is both an old-fashioned brunette and a platinum blonde.

The Academy Awards began in 1927, as the brainchild of Louis B. Mayer, as an attempt to thwart the growing unionism in Hollywood; according to one version of the story, relayed in Mason Wiley and Damien Bona’s Inside Oscar, Mayer was upset that the studio laborers working on his new home were costing too much, and this was the spur that made him realize the increased power of such unions. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (or, as one typographical error initially put it, “Motion Picture Arts and/or Sciences”) was designed, Wiley and Bona suggest, to act as a negotiating board between unions and studios, as well as a body that would support technical advances and promote a noble image of Hollywood to rest of the country. In order to increase membership in such a body—and to confer prestige on studio product—they would also give out awards at an annual banquet. MGM art director Cedric Gibbons designed the statues.

I’ve gone on about this because the “prestige” associated with the Academy Awards is central to Selznick’s image as a producer, and it also speaks to more general desires among studio executives in Hollywood in the 1930s, desires visualized in the clip above, and desires linked, as Neal Gabler notes in An Empire of Their Own, to responses to anti-Semitism:

Their own lives became a kind of art, and the process affected every aspect of Hollywood. They lived in large, palatial homes that imitated (some would say “vulgarized”) the estates of the eastern establishment. They became members of a lavish new country club called Hillcrest that mimicked the gentile clubs that barred them. They subscribed to a cultural life, centered around the Hollywood Bowl, that simulated the cultural life of the eastern aristocracy. For their social life, they organized a system of estates, a rigid hierarchy, that could easily have been modeled after the court of Louis XIV (6).

While at RKO and MGM, and even more so when he began Selznick International Pictures in the mid-30s, Selznick found that such “prestige” could be created by “unit” production, which, as Alan David Vertrees notes, “allowed individual producers to devote full attention to a limited number of film projects and to perfect their own work." Kong had been such a unit production at RKO, and Vertrees quotes Budd Schulberg’s evocative description of such production: “a ‘system of creative decontrol."

Close-Up Three

Rachel Cohen, in her anecdotal history of American arts and letters, A Chance Meeting, describes Mathew Brady’s “recording fury” during the Civil War, “pushing, pushing to get people into his collection before they went to the grave” (28). Like a prestige producer, Brady’s field portraits, Cohen notes, were “suffused with the faith that their subjects were justly celebrated” (27). Brady sent teams of photographers out into the field, equipped with wagons full of equipment, and many of the most famous battlefield pictures, such as those taken at Antietam in 1862, were actually photographed by Brady’s assistant, Alexander Gardner, whose grittier, more “realistic” work led to fights with the more romantic Brady, and to Gardner’s eventual departure from Brady’s studio (Panzer 106). Decades later, Selznick and his cinematographer on Gone With The Wind, Lee Garmes, would reach a similar impasse regarding the latter’s “neutral” use of Technicolor. In his recounting of the film’s production, film historian Gavin Lambert interviews Garmes about this impasse, for which Garmes was removed from the film:

“We were using a new type of film,” Garmes has explained, “with softer tones, softer quality, but David had been accustomed to working with picture postcard colors. He tried to blame me because the picture was looking too quiet in texture. I liked the look; I thought it was wonderful.” In the first half hour of the picture, above all the scenes at the Wilkes barbecue, Garmes’s images subtly blend tones and shades, rather than primary colors, and are far ahead of anything else being done at the time; yet it was the Twelve Oaks sequence that Selznick particularly complained about in a memo to [Victor] Fleming and [Ray] Klune: “We should have seen beautiful reds and blues and yellows and greens in costumes so designed that the audience would’ve gasped at their beauty” (Lambert 105).

What Selznick desired from Garmes was the cinematic, Technicolor equivalent of the cartes de visite, a stylish form of announcement imported to the U.S. from France in 1859 and used by Brady’s clientele in Washington before the war: a new camera used four lenses, creating four small reproductions of the image instead of just two, and the smaller images were cut and placed on greeting cards (Panzer 11-12). As Walter Benjamin would later observe, the image, even near photography’s beginning, was displacing other forms of identification, including the name; it was becoming proof of one’s actions and identity.

The power of portraiture—and its relationship to precisely the elements of the “new age” which critic and historian Alan Trachtenberg describes—was not lost on mid-century cultural figures. In a remarkable passage in A Chance Meeting, Rachel Cohen traces out the history and import of Brady’s 1864 battlefield portrait of Ulysses S. Grant. Noting the political importance of such portraiture for the war effort, Cohen finds in Brady and Grant’s manipulation of the smallest detail—a movement of the hand, the wings of a tent in the background, or a refocusing of the subject’s attention (Cohen 32)—a pathway into thinking about the American military effort during the Civil War. “Grant and Brady…would have appreciated each other’s immediate apparent organizational capability, which was, in both of them, akin to a visual sense,” she writes. “They marshaled equipment and supplies, they kept assistants and telegrams moving back and forth between the front, their field headquarters, and Washington, and, somehow, they kept the map of the whole country and its battles in mind” (30).

No one understood the importance of modern technology to this effort better than Grant, and the “alchemy” of which Trachtenberg writes about photography and new technologies—its “demonic force,” as Trachtenberg describes the daguerrotype—would find its military embodiment in Grant. Historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch observes that the Civil War was one of “total warfare,” one “driven by mass media and mass democracy” (28). Such warfare “readily adapted modern industrial methods to the conduct of war” (57). Grant’s complete visual recall of any battlefield—ability enhanced by his sketching talents (Cohen 30)—dovetailed with his utilization of engineers (to build bridges and tunnels), photographers (not just for publicity, but for aerial reconnaissance from hot-air balloons), and even something as simple as the watch (to synchronize the movement of troop regiments) (Cohen 30). As Cohen notes, “Victory was on the side of motion” (30).

Close-Up Four
David Selznick also marshaled an enormous amount of manpower, money and technology to “fight” a Civil War battle, but any victory that might arise out of this immense series of activities would rely, not on motion, but on slowing the action down. One of the more infamous stories about David Selznick comes from his screenwriter on Gone With The Wind, Sidney Howard, who arrived in Hollywood in 1937 to begin work on adapting Margaret Mitchell’s novel. Instead, he was roped into rewrites on Selznick’s current project, The Prisoner of Zenda. Howard agreed to help, and asked how Selznick wanted a scene rewritten. “I don’t know,” Selznick replied. “I haven’t read it yet” (Thomson 233-234).

Selznick, as Sidney Howard’s story suggests, had a tendency to get lost in details, and an epic prestige production like Gone With The Wind offered him plenty of chances. The search for Scarlett O’Hara alone took nearly two years, $92,000, and 162,000 feet of film for screen tests (for a total running time of more than 24 hours (Lambert 36); the famous crane shot of Confederate wounded at the Atlanta train station utilized 1,500 extras and 1,000 specially rigged dummies (Lambert 104); production designer William Cameron Menzies created 3,000 sketches for the film, which were used to design 200 sets (90 of which were actually built) (Lambert 137); 59 leading cast members and 2,500 extras would wear 5,500 items of costuming, ride 1,100 horses and utilize 450 vehicles (Lambert 137); and the production would shoot 449, 512 feet of film, cut to 20,300 feet to create a 222 minute movie (Lambert 137) whose budget would swell over the course of three years from $1.5 million to $4.25 million (Thomson 319).

“Photography still required a long exposure; it remained impossible to take pictures of the active battlefield,” Cohen writes of Brady (29). Alan Trachtenberg notes that the problems the Civil War presented “to comprehension in all manner of word and picture” (73) was compounded by practical difficulties of shooting in the field:

Large cameras on tripods, lenses designed for landscape views, the necessity of preparing the glass plate in a portable darkroom, then rushing with it to the camera—all these physical barriers to spontaneous pictures of action encouraged a resort to easily applied conventions of historical painting, casual sketches and even studio portraits. “The photographer who follows in the wake of modern armies,” noted the London Times in December 1862, “must be content with conditions of repose, and with the still life which remains when the fighting is over…When the artist essays to represent motion, he bewilders the plate and makes chaos” (Trachtenberg 73).

Such phrasing evokes historical models, and the challenge to an anecdotal history of the film, which, as I’ve already suggested, works to undo such conditions of repose, like that camera shimmying down the staircase towards Rhett (as Cohen wrote of Grant, victory is on the side of motion). To write of Gone With The Wind in this way might seem counterintuitive, for the Times description quoted by Alan Trachtenberg is also an apt description of the GWTW’s visual style, weighted down by the thousands of elements listed earlier. Selznick’s greatest advantage in comparison to Matthew Brady was also a potential Achilles’ heel—he shot on sets, not battlefields, and could keep reshooting as long as the money was there. The look Selznick wanted from Lee Garmes—the bright colors, opulently displayed costumes, and ability to make the audience gasp—he got from Garmes’ replacement, Ernest Haller, who had never shot a Technicolor film before (Lambert 105). Initial director George Cukor was well known for his skill with actresses, and took tremendous care with Vivien Leigh’s performance, but he worked very slowly, and the sheer scale of the enterprise eventually demanded multiple directors (all of whom still had to deal with Selznick’s micromanaging and obsessively detailed memos). Cukor was, in the slowness and halting movement of his direction, the George McClellan of Gone With the Wind—brilliant, admired, and eventually overwhelmed by the needs of the job. Selznick desperately needed a Grant, and found him in brash, foul-mouthed, hard-drinking Victor Fleming, disliked by Leigh, but loved by Gable, and capable of shooting footage at a quicker rate.

Close-Up Five
Moments of spectacular, dynamic movement in Wind are rare: the race out of burning Atlanta, of course (interestingly, the first scene filmed, shot on the old sets of King Kong, and supervised primarily by William Cameron Menzies); Bonnie’s fall off the horse in the second half of the film, which leads to her death, and Rhett’s shoving of Scarlett down the grand staircase, which causes her miscarriage; Ashley’s frantic run home to meet Melanie after the war’s end; and the tracking shots that follow Mr. O’Hara as he races his horse through the Georgia countryside. In his extensive study of Gone With The Wind’s production, Alan David Vertrees writes of the impact production designer William Cameron Menzies had on the film’s look, and quotes Menzies’ credo as an art director: “I am interested in the photoplay as a series of pictures—as a series of fixed and moving patterns—as a fluid composition….When the art director receives the finished scenario, he begins to transpose the written words into a series of mental pictures…collecting in his mind the opportunities for interesting compositions” (qtd. in Vertees 57). Vertees challenges the legends of how closely the film follows Menzies’ storyboards—using the burning of Atlanta as a test case, he documents the ways in which storyboard and film differ (69)—but still respects Menzies’ tremendous impact on the film, and the ways in which his artistic and fiscal goals dovetailed with David Selznick’s desires for a “pre-cut picture” (60).

Menzies’ description of a film as a “series of pictures”—discrete visual episodes that alternate in patterns of static and dynamic compositions—echoes what David Thomson calls Selznick’s life-long quest for “perfect stills” (414), and the ways in which Selznick’s prestige pictures alternate between the melodramatic and the almost casually episodic; writing of Since You Went Away, (but the passage also applies to Wind) Thomson describes this tug-and-pull perfectly as Selznick’s “attempt to contain all of Americana but the determination to do it all on a studio soundstage” (403).

It is at the shoot for the burning of Atlanta— the most ambitious of those physical creations, and a process that necessitated, among many technical decisions, the utilization of all seven Technicolor cameras then in existence (Lambert 54)-- that what is perhaps the most famous of all the film’s anecdotes was staged: the introduction to Selznick of his Scarlett, Vivien Leigh. I use the word “staged” deliberately, for in many recountings of this tale, David’s brother Myron plots to surprise David by presenting Leigh to him like a carte de visite of a character not yet made flesh: “As the fire began to wane and the shooting ended, Myron arrived, slightly drunk, with his dinner guests. He led them up to the platform, ignoring David’s reproaches and excitedly seizing his arm. “I want you to meet your Scarlett O’Hara!” he said loudly, causing everybody to turn around (Lambert 55).”

The drama of this story, and its dovetail with so many myths of unknowns discovered in drugstores or on city sidewalks and transformed into stars, obscures the reality that Leigh was already a known quantity to Selznick: her name had come up in the search for Scarlett, and Selznick had looked at two of her British films (Lambert 56). Still, it was not until that night, according to legend, that Selznick, seeing Leigh in the dying embers of “blazing fragments soared into darkness” (Lambert 55), was struck by her presence; in a phrase that echoes both the awestruck tone of movie magazines and the analytical language of Walter Benjamin, Selznick recalled, “If you have a picture of someone in mind and then suddenly you see that person, no more evidence is necessary….I’ll never recover from that first look” (Lambert 56).

Close-Up Six

Writing of early daguerreotypes, Alan Trachtenberg notes Brady’s particular skill in evoking the proper expression from his nervous subjects: “The look was all-important…Sitters were encouraged and cajoled to will themselves, as it were, into a desired expression—in short, a role and a mask which accord with one’s self-image” (26). “The term ‘expression,’” he writes, “came to represent the chief goal of the portrait: a look of animation, intelligence, inner character” (27). The unsettling quality of the daguerreotype derived, he notes, from its specific technical processes:

A copper plate coated with highly polished silver, bearing a floating image developed in fumes of mercury and toned in gold, the daguerreotype contained within itself the alchemical hierarchy of metals, from low to high, from base to noble. It also resembled a looking glass, another object charged with magical associations. By a slight shift of focus from the image to the surface on which it appears, beholders see their own reflections…The effect was apparitional in another sense as well: at the merest tilt of the plate, the photographic image flickers away, fades into a shadowed negative of itself while still entangled in the living image of the beholder (13).

Such a process, and the end result—“that the image flickered” (23)—created, Trachtenberg writes, “a moment of shudder and refusal” (23) in its subjects. It would be through portraiture, however, that photography would gain commercial, then artistic, legitimacy, and Trachtenberg’s quotation from Mathew Brady’s 1853 “Address to the Public” predicts many of the concerns that would obsess Hollywood’s “prestige producers” in the 1930s, particularly David Selznick: “I wish to vindicate true art, and leave the community to decide whether it is best to encourage real excellence or its opposite: to preserve and perfect an art, or permit it to degenerate by inferiority or materials which must correspond with the meanness of the price” (26). In so doing, Trachtenberg notes, photography acted as one means of meeting the “antebellum crisis of social confidence” (27) engendered by the rise of cities, the fears of crime, and the economic crash of 1837 (Trachtenberg 21). Brady’s New York studio had become, by 1853, “a meeting place where people of all classes and grades of cultivation mingled freely” (Trachtenberg 39), and “a theater of desire…a new kind of city place devoted to performance: the making of oneself over into a social image” (Trachtenberg 40, emphasis mine).

Such a space anticipates the effects of the studio system and its products, particularly movie stars. Vivien Leigh would later shudder and refuse the role to which she was so closely linked—“I never liked Scarlett. I knew it was a marvelous part, but I never cared for her” (Lambert 59)—but it clung to her for the remainder of her film career. Despite the tremendous mechanisms of management that existed in Classic Hollywood—from typecasting and long-term contracts to tightly controlled publicity and studio security—it was also liable to escape the control of the studio in charge of a star’s career. Richard Dyer, while noting the power that Hollywood has in creating and shaping star images, also observes that “this is to present the process of star making as uniform and oneway. Hollywood, even within its boundaries, was much more complex and contradictory than this….If the drift of the image emanates from Hollywood, and with some consistency within Hollywood, still the whole image-making process within and without Hollywood allows for variation, inflection, and contradiction” (4-5).

Close-Up Seven
"He looks like he's seen me without my shimmy!," Scarlett exclaims upon seeing Rhett Butler for the first time. She's escaped from the medium-shot prison of Ashley and Melanie, crowding the space with their smothering goodness and reducing our view of Scarlett to the edge of her hat that juts defiantly in from the right (cut by the frame, its curves resemble those of a film reel). She flirts with other girls' beaus, then returns to her rightful home: the center of a long shot, the center of a crane shot that will carry her up the steps in a grand manner. She teases the Tarelton twins, before they are pulled away by angry dates. As the camera follows her up the stairs, she's shot at a kind of diagonal, the railing providing visual balance for the Wind that's about to sweep through her world.

It's a great introduction: "Kathy, who's that?," she says, her brow furrowed and lips puckered as she looks offscreen, the audience longing to know what she sees (an audience in 1939 would've known already-- Gone With The Wind was a literary smash-- but savored the anticipation anyway). And then the camera that Scarlett has controlled from the first shot offers us her perspective-- and is seduced away by what it sees.

It's a tease at first-- a quick glance at our star waiting at the bottom of the staircase (the camera tilts a bit, as if nodding in respect), and then a cut back to Scarlett's raised eyebrows and deeply curious glances, as Kathy fills her in: "That's Rhett Butler! He's from Charleston!" As if the city is a signifier of desire, the camera cuts back, and it's now that we get the most dramatic shot in the film, a quick dollying in that takes us close to Rhett-- but stops just short, repelled by the force of Gable's wolfish grin. We know immediately that he is Scarlett's destiny-- like her, he is cinephilia embodied-- but while he's a fetishized object of desire, he is not helpless: he turns and leans against the post of the railing, very comfortable, and very much in control. The camera wants to move closer, but pauses, out of respect, fear, or desire for control; unlike Scarlett, Rhett doesn't invite its attentions, but it has them just the same.

In that sense, the close-up is the perfect representation of Gable's experience on the film, one he famously didn't want any part of, but was desired for all the same. In trying to get funding for the film, as described in the excellent documentary Making of A Legend: Gone With The Wind, Selznick talked to Warners (who offered Errol Flynn and Bette Davis) and MGM, but he knew it would be MGM, for he needed their star Gable, for whom fans clammored. Stories of Gable's discomfort on the set-- because of Vivien Leigh, because of George Cukor, because he famously couldn't dance, and so the filmmakers crafted movable floor beneath his feet to make his appearance smoother-- are themselves legendary. In fact, there are so many stories and anecdotes about the making of the film that the movie itself could be replaced by mountains of such anecdotes in memo form: perhaps this would be the famously memo-happy Selznick's dream.

"Variation, inflection, and contradiction”: the star portrait—the kind captured in the still image at the end of this post--- would shape not only its subjects, but also its audience. One of the more interesting books on Gone With the Wind, Helen Taylor's Scarlett’s Women, offers the reading and viewing remembrances of women between 1939 and 1989, and shares the story of one such still—set at the Wilkes barbeque—“being used as the basis for true-and-false questions and extended comprehension in an education textbook” (Taylor 5). In fact, the book suggests that one’s response to the film is entirely shaped by such circumstantial occurrences, as author Helen Taylor notes in her first sentence: “Over the last few years, when I have told people at work, on trains or at parties that I was writing a book about Gone With The Wind, almost always they offered me an anecdote” (1). Taylor is interested in “the process of personal, intimate and yet also collective relationship with a book and film which we call ‘readership’ or ‘viewership’….how GWTW lives in the imaginations, memories and experiences of individuals and groups” (17), especially (but not exclusively) those in her native England. In 1986, she wrote to a number of popular magazines and newspapers, asking for fans’ recollections of their own experiences with the book and the film, and received 427 letters in response (18).

Such a small sampling certainly cannot be read as in any way comprehensive of fan response to either the book or film, but the letters still reveal a wide range of responses and interesting stories: the young girl who, reading the book while caring for her sick mother, burned the family meal because “’I was helping Scarlett to deliver Melanie’s baby’” (23); the American woman who named her triplets “Gone, With and Wind” (30); the many stories about how the film, in the words of one respondent, helped strengthen mother-daughter bonds: “it was the one thing we could talk about during those difficult teenage years” (32). Others note changing responses over the years, as initial delight gives way to shock, dismay and disgust at the film’s treatment of history: “It is racist, sexist and twee” (40). Still others find their feelings transformed by technology, as “Grandeur Screens” give way to home video: “’the dialogue seemed corny, the colour wasn’t bright, the sounds were ‘tinny’” (41). The historical and the visual come together in Taylor’s recounting of her own shifting feelings: seeing the film after years of researching antebellum history, she notes her dismay at the film’s distortions, “Yet, offended as I too was by the political argument, I enjoyed virtually every minute of it, and felt myself swept along by its extraordinary power” (14).

She continues:

The colour, music, costumes spectacular effects—not to mention Clark Gable’s devastating sexiness—moved and haunted me for days to come. In my dreams (a rerun of adolescence) I was carried upstairs by Clark-Rhett’s masterful arms. Together we rode through Atlanta in flames and kissed passionately against a vivid red sunset….however much I know of Hollywood’s historical distortions, nevertheless I still derive great visual pleasure from this brilliant recreation of a mythic American past with its red sunsets, white cotton bolls, and extravagant rural plantation homes and vulgar town houses. In swallowing whole this long and emotionally demanding film, I absorb an interpretation of America’s real and legendary past, more vivid to me than any verbal re-creations I have read in my researches into American history and literature (14-15).

Herb Bridges’ photographic history of the film, The Filming of Gone With The Wind, includes a series of stills snapped by Selznick’s research team prior to the film’s production. Described by Bridges as “three unusual photographs of landscape near Jonesboro, Georgia in 1936” (2), they depict empty, even desolate dirt roads, tiny lakes, and forests whose trees are often bereft of leaves. Like Mary Panzer’s description of Brady’s Gettysburg photos, they are photos which require audience participation and association to give them meaning; as Panzer says of Brady’s work, an “audience could easily fill the image with vivid associations, but without knowing the story to which it refers, modern audiences see only a picturesque image of a fence, pond and field” (Panzer 14). The “unusualness” Bridges notes partially derives from the fact that nothing in Wind looks like these photos, but also from the “vivid associations” with Hollywood style viewers familiar with the movie bring to the images.

The embodiment of all those associations, inflection and contradictions-- cinematic, historical, personal-- is Gable, as the camera dollies in on him in the above ciip. So many of the contradictions in the film can be read through his performance: he is a Northerner playing a Southerner; a financial guarantee and an employee who despised his employer; a contract star from the most prestigious studio in Hollywood, whose persona is to stand in opposition to all forms of pretension; a sex symbol with whiskey breath. No wonder Scarlett (and the camera) is both drawn to and repulsed by him: in a film that is all about visualizing a past and romanticizing a backwards glimpse, he is the one thing in this scene that causes Scarlett (and the camera) to stop their constant movement forward, in order to glance back at what they've passed. Like a daguerrotype, he stops time, makes it tilt and shudder a little. He bewilders Scarlett (and Selznick's film) and creates chaos; he is the ultimate carte de visite; he literally makes the camera shimmy.

Works cited in this post:

Bona, Damien and Mason Wiley. Inside Oscar, 10th Anniversary Edition.
Bridges, Herb. The Filming of Gone With The Wind.
Cohen, Rachel. A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists.
Dyer, Richard. Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society.
Gabler, Neal. An Empire of Their Own: How The Jews Invented Hollywood.
Lambert, Gavin. GWTW: The Making of Gone With the Wind.
Panzer, Mary. Matthew Brady (Phaidon 55).
Taylor, Helen. Scarlett's Women: Gone With The Wind and Its Female Fans.
Thomson, David. A Biographical Dictionary of Film
Thomson, David. Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick.
Trachtenberg, Alan. Reading American Photographs: Image as History, Matthew Brady to Walker Evans.
Vertrees, Alan David. Selznick's Vision: Gone With The Wind and Hollywood Filmmaking.


Greg said…
Dear lord, do you realize that was 23 internet pages long? I counted. That's not a post, that's a dissertation. And a fine one at that, Brian. Good job.

Two things: I've never liked Gone with the Wind and yet I find it entertaining. But cinematically I get irritated by the Cukor look to Sam Wood look to Fleming look to Selznick look all in one scene. I think I wrote this before so it may sound familiar but you start a scene in natural light, then it's blue, then the characters are sihouetted against an orange sky, then there's a close-up, then a vista, and on and on. That is one visually confused movie. It's entertaining but it can also make you seasick. There is no look to the film. There's hundreds of them. And the subdued klan stuff with Ashley and the slaves staying on even after the war... a lot of that stuff bugs me too. Either just come out and say it "Ashley's with the klan, the slaves have a horrible existance" or leave it out altogether. It's the whitewashing that annoys. But my personal feelings aside you wrote it up nicely.

I said at the beginning "two things": Here's the second. What's with horning in on my territory with movies of the thirties and all that talk about Oscars?!!??! You keep this up and I'm going to start saying mean things about Tony Stark on Cinema Styles. I will you know! (within these parentheses marks the spot for a deliciously humorous emoticon crossing his eyes and smiling while his tongue wags to the side)

Jokes aside, great well-thought out contribution to the blogathon.
Brian Doan said…
" There is no look to the film. There's hundreds of them."

I think that's right-- it's one of the reasons Kirk Douglas's controlling producer in The Bad and the Beautiful (based on selznick) is so much fun-- that desire to make everything look like a series of discrete moments (what in Bad is called "a movie of all climaxes") does undercut any kind of coherence. But that visually episodic quality actually works for me-- it really plays up the movie's roots in melodrama and an almost serialized narrative. And Gable really does hold it all together for me-- I think the camera dollies in on him because the filmmakers know he's the one solid, coherent center in the movie, with his wit and confidence.

Yes, Jonathan-- I'm on the move and takin' over, man! You can expect to see postings on the south carolina gamecocks soon, and an announcement that I am changing the title of my blog to "Cinema Stylings." It's all over for you, Lapper, all over!! (:
Greg said…
You will rue the day you crossed me Herr Brian von Cinephile! My army of followers will descend upon your blog in a united spam front the likes of which the blogosphere has never seen. Sated by the blood of your slaughtered posts they will let your ravaged, shredded blog remain: A reminder to all that follow of the power of the Lapper.

This idle threat has been brought to you by Cinema Styles and Jonathan Lapper, a nice guy who actually wouldn't hurt a fly - unless it was a Clemson fly.

By the way, that last line of the first paragraph is growing on me: The Power of the Lapper. Maybe I'll write some sort of self-help book: How to waste time at work by commenting on other people's blogs - The Lapper can show you the way.
pc said…
Umm, wow, heck of a post. I will now expect that sort of writing everyday.
Brian Doan said…
Every day?!? *sigh, grumble, sigh* Well, I'll try, my friend. (:
Generic Viagra said…
Gone with the Wind was an stupendous film, where is difficult to find the best part of it, owing to the fact the entire movie has a magnificent ideology, and there are too many evident emotions that make the movie so interesting.
Levitra said…
Honestly I have not watched this film, but based in the good references I have heard about it, I can say it deserves be mentioned as one of the greatest of all times.

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