Breakouts and Outbreaks: Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind

Back in the day of the old, assembly-line studio system, movies were a matter pop-culture in a way that we can no longer imagine. It is a craze that exists now only in the pages of history. In the midst of the Great Depression, films were an escape from the traumas of life all across America. In 1939, the golden year of Hollywood, David O. Selznick produced the grand masterpiece of cinema, Gone with the Wind. The novel was deemed, by author Margaret Mitchell, to be immune to cinematic adaptation. It just couldn’t be successfully done. The project remained in limbo for a while, oddly enough, the biggest obstacle the film had to overcome was finding Scarlett.  The story holds that Vivien Leigh happened to be in the right place at the right time with her, then boyfriend, Laurence Olivier. Selznick happened to see Leigh in the studio, in front of a backdrop and knew immediately that he had found Scarlett. This story is of course a fictionalized account; however, it is true that her casting made international headlines. A star was born.

Gone with the Wind is a seminal film for many reasons. Its run time alone certifies the ambition and scope of the film, and its success resounds beyond the fact that it is the single most successful film ever. But all of this hinges on the performance of Vivien Leigh. It would be an understatement to say that she pulled it off. There are two key elements to her performance: development and likability.

Scarlett finds herself, at the beginning of the film, trapped in the haven of a blissful southern existence, naïve and innocent. By the end of the film she exists in another world altogether. In between she changes from floating through life to fighting for survival. The two are polar opposites, to pull this off believably, Scarlett had to hit rock bottom, the scenes in which this transition is completed occur in the mid section of the film. Beginning with her declaration to “never go hungry again,” and continuing with her taking control of Tara, shooting the robber and finally, mandating the sweatshop style work ethic, she becomes a new woman. This transition is grounded in her declaration and her new-found motivation, this is the turning point. Interestingly enough, there is a second turning point following the death of her second husband. This time, instead of making a verbal declaration to God, she makes the decision to hold on to what she has for dear life, regardless of the costs, even if it means causing the death of her husband and submitting to Rhett Butler. These are the three Scarletts in the film: the Scarlett of pre-war naïve innocence, the fight for survival Scarlett, and the be-better than everyone else Scarlett. Pulling off all three is an impressive feat in and of itself, but Leigh visualizes the transitions believably as well, a vital addition to the films’ achievements.

The second, and more controversial side of the story, is the likability of the character Scarlett. Upon release, it was widely accepted that Scarlett was not supposed to be liked, that her actions, particularly pertaining to the second and third version of Scarlett, were selfish, not lady-like, and rather offensive. A more modern interpretation would be to see her as a woman who did what needed to be done. Either way, the film begs the question: at what point does survival outweigh ethics? I bring this up to show exactly how risky the performance is, it’s legitimately controversial. This is created by the sheer intensity of Leigh in the latter half of the film and the third character transition, in which we are introduced to a fourth Scarlett. Following Rhett’s famous monologue, she declares herself to be a fully independent Scarlett, and Leigh, in the matter of only a few moments, solidifies the entire transition believably. “Tomorrow is another day.”

While a talent such as Vivien Leigh was sure to be noticed on a grand scale eventually, with or without Gone with the Wind, this is still the film that brought her to the world of cinema. And while my fondest moments of the film stem not from Leigh’s performance so much as Clark Gable’s and Hattie McDaniel’s, the fate of the film rested in the power of Leigh’s performance. It is a stunning achievement that lit up the screen seventy-one years ago, in the heat of golden age cinema.  Alas, that time has passed, look for it only in books, no more a dream remembered, a world where the casting of a star was international news, and the movie theater provided blissful escape for only a dime. That, is a civilization now gone with the wind. With the one of the greatest breakouts in history, Vivien Leigh never went hungry again.

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