Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Classic ... 70 Years Later

This is the trailer from the 1961 re–issue of "Gone With the Wind."

Some folks will tell you that "Gone With the Wind" is the greatest American film ever made.

Whether it is or not, it is certainly highly regarded.

It didn't finish in the top slot in the American Film Institute's Top 100 movies of all time list — but it did end up in the Top 10.

And most movie buffs agree that "Citizen Kane," "Casablanca" and "The Godfather" were better.

But "GWTW" — as some movie fans like to call it — has been a classic virtually since it premièred at Loew's Grand Theatre in Atlanta 70 years ago today.

It set a record for Academy Awards — winning 10 — that stood for two decades until "Ben–Hur" came along. That was quite an achievement, considering that 1939 is still regarded as Hollywood's greatest year by many movie aficionados. It told a story about a critical period in American history that may well have been romanticized, but even today, the movie is recalled by students of film as one of the most enduring symbols of the golden age of Hollywood.

The film caused quite a commotion on Dec. 15, 1939, when it premiered in Atlanta. The actual premiere came at the end of three days of festivities that former President Jimmy Carter, who was a Georgia teenager at the time, called "the biggest event to happen in the South in my lifetime."

Ironically, the Jim Crow laws on the books at the time kept the black members of the cast from attending the premiere. Clark Gable was going to boycott the premiere in protest, but Hattie McDaniel, who won Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Mammy, persuaded him to attend.

To my knowledge, no festivities were planned in Atlanta today. Apparently, a 70th anniversary celebration was held last month in nearby Marietta.

Well, "Gone With the Wind" always did seem to write its own rules.

Can anyone deny its lasting influence on American culture, especially when one thinks of such lines as:
  • "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."

  • "After all, tomorrow is another day!" and

  • "As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again."
So much of "Gone With the Wind" has become familiar over the years that it naturally lent itself to parody — the best of which, undeniably, was the one Carol Burnett and her colleagues did in the 1970s.

Imitation, they say, is the most sincere form of flattery. And I'm sure the cast would have been flattered, but most were dead by the time that parody aired. The film's last survivng principal cast member was Olivia de Havilland — and I don't know if she ever saw it.

Well, the now 93–year–old de Havilland was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar four times in her movie career, and she won the statuette twice.

But mark my words.

When she dies, the first line of her obituary will not say that she was a two–time Best Actress winner.

It will say she was "Melanie Hamilton" in "Gone With the Wind."