No one denies that "Gone With the Wind" holds an honored—even sacred—place in the pantheon of beloved American movies. Adjusted for inflation, its domestic box-office gross is variously estimated at $1.3 billion to $1.5 billion—vastly more than the sum earned by "Titanic." Still more impressive are its initial ticket sales, which totaled more than 200 million at a time when the U.S. population was just 130 million. And then there are those eight Oscars, including best picture, in a year widely acknowledged as Hollywood's greatest. But affection and respect are different things, and it is perhaps only now—70 years after its initial release on Dec. 15, 1939—that this film is acquiring a patina of venerability.
In large part, this delay can be attributed to the complicated feelings the picture engenders. Unlike, say, "The Wizard of Oz," from that same year, or "Casablanca," from three years later, "Gone With the Wind" is not unobjectionable. How could it be? Its primary characters are rich white Southerners living through the Civil War and into Reconstruction—not material that goes down easy for many Americans then or now.
Yet part of the movie's allure is bound up with those conflicting emotions. As Molly Haskell has written in her recent book "Frankly, My Dear" (its title a tip of the hat to the picture's most famous line), "Gone With the Wind" "is both different things to different people and different things to the same person at different times in that person's life."
Certainly the film has long had detractors, and likely always will. Black Americans were from the outset concerned about, and sometimes uncomfortable with, the movie's depiction of slaves and slavery. But others have also objected. Stanley Kubrick told the writer Frederic Raphael that he thought it "really a terrible movie." The picture's flaws—its perceived racial insensitivity, mawkish fascination with plantation life, and melodrama—readily leap to mind. (They are also present, in exaggerated form, in the best-selling novel by Margaret Mitchell that inspired the movie.)
Yet closer examination suggests these "failings" are more nuanced than decriers would have it. Characters such as Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) and Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland)—the former scheming ceaselessly in her unrequited pursuit of the effete Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard); the latter, Ashley's impossibly saintly wife—are patently romantic figures. Naturalistic portrayal would betray their essence. As for the glorification of the South's "peculiar institution" and mode of life generally, the film fully acknowledges the Confederacy's hopelessness and portrays the haughty belligerence of its cavaliers as feckless at best and more often destructive.
The movie's portrayal of blacks is a touchier subject. Some appear to have dismissed the film merely for acknowledging Southern slavery—as if ignoring past injustices somehow erases them. Others have objected to the bowing and scraping of the household servants and the seeming contentment of the singing field hands. But with the possible exception of Scarlett, the feistiest, most resourceful character in this picture is Mammy, the story's rock—a role played with such pluck and dignity by Hattie McDaniel that she became the first African-American actor to earn an Oscar.
Nor is Mammy the only black character with whom the O'Haras bond. In one of the film's most touching scenes, Scarlett places the gold pocket watch of her just-deceased father (Thomas Mitchell) in the hands of Pork (Oscar Polk), the recently emancipated, long-serving manor-house butler. He at first refuses the keepsake, but Scarlett insists, asking who else—white or black—is more deserving.
Not everything about this picture is subject to disagreement. Among its unalloyed triumphs is its impeccable cast, starting with the central quartet: Leigh's Scarlett, Ms. de Havilland's Melanie, Howard's Ashley, and—perhaps most important of all—Clark Gable's inimitable Rhett Butler. To go on at length about their attributes, individually or in combination, seems unnecessary, for these portrayals are so familiar as to be archetypes now, textbook star-turns from Hollywood's golden age.
Much the same can be said of William Cameron Menzies' production design, which distinguishes itself equally whether depicting the antebellum opulence of the O'Hara and Wilkes plantations (Tara and Twelve Oaks) or the grim deprivation of the war and its aftermath—though nothing rivals the spectacular burning of Atlanta, which still ranks among the greatest, and most terrifying, set pieces in cinema history.
And consider how elegantly the screenplay—credited to Sidney Howard, but with considerable uncredited assistance, including some work from F. Scott Fitzgerald—winnows Mitchell's 1,000-plus-page novel to its essence, without sacrificing scale or scope. Here, as with everything concerning this movie's production, the producer David O. Selznick proved the indispensable man. His stamp is all over the finished product, his contributions—from securing Mitchell's novel and selecting Leigh as Scarlett to elaborately storyboarding the production with Menzies before filming—even more significant than those of Victor Fleming (who directed most of the film) and George Cukor (who began it).
A word, too, about the indelible score. Save for the opening statement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, no four notes are as immediately recognizable as the ones Max Steiner wrote to begin Tara's theme. And let's not forget the amusing bazaar scene, where the Virginia reel and a subsequent waltz help suggest the growing sexual chemistry between Rhett and Scarlett.
Ms. Haskell makes the point that this movie is constantly shape-shifting, with some of its issues receding in relevance while others emerge with renewed topicality. I thought of that when viewing the scene in which Dr. and Mrs. Meade, gathered at the Atlanta depot among the multitudes awaiting casualty lists, learn of their son's death at Gettysburg. Watch it yourself to feel history reach across three centuries, and ponder how little some things have changed.
But first and foremost "Gone With the Wind" remains superb entertainment, its flaws (whatever they may be) notwithstanding. Indeed, in many ways it's those jagged edges that provoke us to such strong feelings toward this picture, which somehow matters more in every respect because it is not smooth and perfect. Its greatness—like that of so many other masterpieces—lies as much in its aspirations as in its considerable achievements.—Mr. Mermelstein writes for the Journal on film and classical music.