(This article marks our 500th blog post!)
Oscars 1940, Robert Donat; Vivien Leigh; Hattie McDaniel; Thomas Mitchell / Alfred Bendiner / Pencil, crayon and opaque white on illustration board, 1940 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the Alfred Bendiner Foundation / © Alfred and Elizabeth Bendiner Foundation
Although the Civil War was a national tragedy, it made a popular comeback seventy-five years ago. In 1939, there were some Americans alive who had personal memories of the war, but it was a work of fiction rather than history that rejuvenated interest in the war between the North and the South in American culture. “There is no Confederacy now—though you’d never know it, to hear some people talk,” Rhett Butler states flatly in Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 classic, Gone with the Wind. Mitchell not only resurrected the Confederacy, but also the entire Civil War experience.
By 1939, Mitchell’s work had made it to the silver screen, and the film, its cast, and its crew were nominated for many awards for both the richness of the drama and the technical mastery with which it was produced. Directed by Victor Fleming and produced by David O. Selznick, Gone with the Wind stands atop the list of Civil War movies; it received ten Academy Awards, including honors for best picture, best actress, and best supporting actress.
Frank Nugent, reviewing for the New York Times, noted:
Mr. Selznick’s film is a handsome, scrupulous and unstinting version of the 1,037-page novel, matching it almost scene for scene with a literalness that not even Shakespeare or Dickens were accorded in Hollywood, casting it so brilliantly one would have to know the history of the production not to suspect that Miss Mitchell had written her story just to provide a vehicle for the stars already assembled under Mr. Selznick’s hospitable roof. To have treated so long a book with such astonishing fidelity required courage . . . and yet, so great a hold has Miss Mitchell on her public, it might have taken more courage still to have changed a line or scene of it.
From an age when Hollywood was flexing its young muscles and becoming the undisputed entertainment capital of the world, Gone with the Wind was an epic undertaking. It was a true cinematic event, and the venture was responsible for enhancing the young visual process called Technicolor; Gone with the Wind received two Oscars for technical achievements in the creation of color cinematography.
However, the film was appreciated in its debut and is still remembered more for the passions of its protagonist than for its outstanding musical score and the masterful use of effects. As Nugent noted in his review, “Miss Leigh’s Scarlett is the pivot of the picture, as she was of the novel, and it is a column of strength in a film that is part history, part spectacle and all biography.” Scarlett O’Hara’s quest to win Ashley Wilkes’s love and Scarlett’s fight for her home,Tara, are the movie’s primary plot ingredients; these storylines are convoluted by Scarlett’s three marriages and William Tecumseh Sherman’s march through Georgia.
Vivien Leigh’s proud, manipulative, and resilient portrayal of Scarlett is one of the two Academy Award–winning performances in the film. Though Clark Gable and Olivia de Havilland were both nominated for Oscars, Hattie McDaniel won the film’s only Academy Award, for best supporting actress for her performance as Mammy, the O’Hara household slave. McDaniel was the first African American to win an Oscar.
The accompanying 1940 pencil, crayon, and opaque white drawing on illustration board is from the collection of the National Portrait Gallery. The work, by Alfred Bendiner, depicts the four winners of the acting Oscars from 1939 films. Other than Leigh and McDaniel, the image also includes the two winners for best lead actor and best supporting actor, Robert Donat and Thomas Mitchell, respectively. Donat won the Oscar for playing Charles Edward Chipping in Goodbye Mr. Chips, while Thomas Mitchell—who played Scarlett O’Hara’s father, Gerald, in Gone with the Wind—won the best supporting actor Oscar for his work in Stagecoach.
—Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery
Nugent, Frank S. "David Selznick's 'Gone With the Wind' Has Its Long-Awaited Premiere at Astor and Capitol, Recalling Civil War and Plantation Days of South--Seen as Treating Book With Great Fidelity?" New York Times, December 20, 1939.