BOOKS AND ARTS APRIL 1, 2011
I wish to report editorial pressure on me to review the film version of “Gone with the Wind,” from which I have been shrinking ever since the first year of hot gossip over who was to play Clark Gable. The editors don’t really care whether it is a good thing for me to see or what line I take on it. What they want is an office guinea pig; they want someone to go sit through that four hours of four million dollars, to see what the shooting’s fer—as naturally no one as smart as an editor would subject himself to such a business without visual proof that it won’t kill you. So, pressure; memos; unfortunate shifts of conversation at lunch. Wait, I say; let’s keep our buttons sewed on. This masterpiece in the common art does not get to the common people for another year. The producers even boast of this fact. So easy does it.
But this does not go down. Read the papers sometime, they say. A sensation. Even to the common people god bless them the film is news. Must be covered. News and other angles get quite a plug; but the real point is still who is going to be the canary in the mine? And when, today? Tomorrow? Be specific; this is serious.
In a minute, I say. Please do not shove: the situation is under control. This mixture of vague compliance and being a known difficult type has held the fort for you readers so far. But under pressure, readers.
Actually there is one reason why GWTW is something for a national gander. The reason is $4,000,000. And that is simply all. Of course the book was wildfire in the seller lists, and of course this may be a good and even dramatic version of it. But there have been best sellers before and dramatic versions before, and actors acting before, costumes, shootings, wigs. And who runs a temperature? Did “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” sell a few copies as a book, and did people act and wave their arms in a movie made from it in these thirties? All right, who produced it for a mere bucket of clams, and when, and at what loss, and who cared? You tell me. As to the living art of movies, I don’t review pictures I don’t see, but any loose dime you’ve got will get you a dollar that the only contribution to movie art possible in anything staggering under such demands of hoop and hoorah and the super-spectacular is a new record for running-time in the theatre. Good folding dollar bills, if you’re the sporting type.
I said the thing is $4,000,000. Now when you have that kind of money sunk in nothing but a flicker and a promise, you’ve got to light a fire under it, get out in the territory and talk fast. I should say that the general news, radio and gossip coverage in this case, and the staging of the premeer in Atlanta, would make P. T. Barnum look like an advance man for Norman Thomas lecture bookings. They handled the blanket so well that their smoke signals now really look like hell burning. And there is something in people you can bank on: they are always happy suckers for a fire engine. But what you use for money is one thing and what you use it for is another; and from where I’m sitting it looks as though a good part of that $4,000,000 was spent toward the end of simply getting it back. Well, it isn’t my $4,000,000.
Those with an active interest in the motion picture as an art form, the cause and effect of the good ones and bad ones and especially the different ones, can relax. It used to be you could whip up interest and reviewers with well timed releases about a budget sheet running to a cool million. Then it was two million; then two-odd, three. Outside of laying more money and press agents along the same line of ordinary drama, there has never been anything very startling to do in pictures—outside of making good pictures. The process of making good pictures, I’m proud to say, is still going on. But not this way.
As I said, the situation is under control. Perfectly. In the line of duty we will have our personally conducted tour through the Clark of Seven Gables. But in a minute.
This article originally ran in the January 8, 1940, issue of the magazine.