Monday, December 15, 2014

Burning Down the House

"Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."

Rhett Butler (Clark Gable)

(1939 is widely regarded as the greatest year ever for the motion picture. Ten movies were nominated for Best Picture that year, and today I take a look at the ninth of those 10 movies to hit the theaters.)
That is the greatest movie quote of all time, according to the American Film Institute, and it is hard to argue with that conclusion.

AFI had some great quotes on that list — "I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse," "I've got a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore," "Go ahead, make my day" — but Clark Gable got the nod for the greatest quote.

As I say, it's hard to argue with. But it isn't the only memorable line in "Gone With the Wind," which premiered on this day in 1939. Of course, that almost goes without saying. The movie is darn near four hours long. There had to be at least one more memorable line in there, right? In fact, Scarlett (Vivien Leigh) had several. I'll bet one or two leap to mind with virtually no effort.

Overall, AFI ranked "Gone With the Wind" sixth — behind some other movies with memorable quotes.

But, in the history of movies, few could match "Gone With the Wind" for both memorable lines and iconic images.

Like the burning of Atlanta.

I remember an episode of M*A*S*H in which Hawkeye had been trying unsuccessfully to seduce a nurse with whom he had, apparently, had a previous relationship, and the nurse was taking a "been there, done that" approach.

"'Gone With the Wind' is a great movie, Hawkeye," I remember her saying to him, "but after you've seen 'em burn Atlanta several times, it's not so hot anymore."

See, I disagree with that. Great line for a sitcom, but, in reality, it doesn't hold up. At least, not for me. I think "Gone With the Wind" is great moviemaking, especially given the technological constraints of that time, and it never gets old for me.

"Gone With the Wind" is great storytelling, too, even if there are some historical inaccuracies. In the realm of fiction, one is permitted certain liberties, and "Gone With the Wind" has never, to my knowledge, been marketed as nonfiction.

No one ever pretended that Rhett and Scarlett really existed. But people who were like them — or mostly like them — did exist in the Old South, and Rhett and Scarlett represented them. Good fiction makes it possible to do that plausibly, and much of "Gone With the Wind" was, indeed, good fiction. But some of it was not.

I have always been impressed with the way "Gone With the Wind" presented the pre–war arrogance of the South juxtaposed against the post–war South, humbled by loss. Wow, what a contrast.

For the Southerners who survived the war, it must have been astonishing to experience the reversal of fortune at every level of Southern society. Not every Southerner was a slave owner, of course. That was something that only those with land and money could afford; then as now, not everyone had land and money.

So, while, yes, it is true that "Gone With the Wind" was historically inaccurate at times, it was spot–on accurate at others. Some historians may tell you that does a disservice to the story of the Civil War.

I don't agree with that. To teach, it is often necessary to put a little jam on the bread.