The film, set in the American South during the time of the Civil War, tells the story of Scarlett O’Hara (played by Vivien Leigh), the headstrong and willful daughter of the owner of the plantation Tara. The story begins in 1861. Scarlett is in love with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), but she learns that he intends to marry his cousin Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland). At a party at Ashley’s home, Scarlett’s overtures to Ashley are seen by another guest, Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). Ashley rebuffs Scarlett, and she therefore agrees to marry Melanie’s brother Charles (Rand Brooks). War is declared, and the men go off to enlist. Charles dies of measles during the war, and the widowed Scarlett goes to Melanie’s home in Atlanta. She meets Rhett at a charity fund-raising bazaar, and she dances with him, violating the customary rules of mourning. Rhett, a successful blockade runner, continues to visit Scarlett over the next few months, as Atlanta comes increasingly under siege. Ashley returns home on a Christmas furlough and asks Scarlett to take care of Melanie, who is pregnant. Melanie goes into labour as Atlanta is being evacuated, and Scarlett and her servant Prissy (Butterfly McQueen) must attend the birth on their own. Scarlett summons Rhett to take her, Melanie, Prissy, and the baby back to Tara, and they flee through the burning city, only to find that Tara has been pillaged by Union soldiers. Scarlett’s mother has died, and her father has fallen into a depression. The only people remaining there are her father, her sisters, and the former slaves Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) and Pork (Oscar Polk).
Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind (1939).MGM/The Kobal Collection
Gone with the WindVivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939).© 1939 Selznick International Pictures with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc.
In the second half of the movie, Scarlett tries to resurrect Tara. She and her sisters and the house servants work in the fields. Ashley returns when the war ends but is unable to offer Scarlett help in paying the exorbitant Reconstruction taxes. Scarlett decides to ask Rhett for money, and she and Mammy construct a dress from velvet curtains for her to wear to meet Rhett. However, Rhett has become a Union prisoner and cannot help her. In desperation, Scarlett marries her sister’s wealthy beau, Frank (Carroll Nye). She uses his money to save Tara and then establishes a lumber business in Atlanta. After Scarlett is attacked while riding in her carriage near a shantytown, Frank, Ashley, and some other men attack the shantytown, and Frank is killed in the raid. Rhett then marries Scarlett, and they have a daughter, but Scarlett continues to pine for Ashley, and the marriage is stormy. Their daughter dies after having been thrown from a pony, and later Melanie dies in childbirth. Scarlett realizes that Ashley loves only Melanie and that she loves Rhett, but Rhett refuses her and leaves her alone at Tara with the words, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
Hattie McDaniel, Olivia de Havilland, and Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind(From left) Hattie McDaniel, Olivia de Havilland, and Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind.Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc.
The film’s producer, David O. Selznick, bought the film rights a month after the publication of Mitchell’s novel. Several roles in the film—notably that of Scarlett—involved lengthy searches and elaborate deal making. As many as five directors and 13 writers toiled to bring the epic to life. Shooting for the film took 140 days. The famous “burning of Atlanta” scene required the fiery destruction of a 30-acre back lot. Three days of festivities were held for the film’s premiere in Atlanta. Gone with the Wind was the first colour movie to win the Oscar for best picture, and Hattie McDaniel was the first African American to be nominated for and to win an Oscar.