Lost in the Movies: Gone With the Wind

Gone With the Wind

Gone With the Wind, 1939, directed by Victor Fleming (with uncredited assistance from George Cukor and Sam Wood)

Story: In an age of “cotton and cavaliers,” spoiled Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) is the belle of the plantation barbecue. But then war – the Civil War – comes to her chivalric South, and her way of life is swept away, or gone with the wind, as author Margaret Mitchell put it in her bestselling novel. Soon this young beauty (who was once fanned by slaves during afternoon naps) is vowing to the angry sky, “As God as my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!” Even as she pursues the married and genteel Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), and is alternately seduced and bedeviled by the charming anti-gentleman Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), Scarlett does her best to keep good to this promise.

Gone With the Wind is the absolute pinnacle of Hollywood's golden age, and while it's said that pinnacles are often aberrations - a pleasingly counterintuitive notion - Gone With the Wind is truthfully more of an epitome than a departure. Thirties films had a surprising (by today's standards) number of heroines, and many of these female protagonists were quite strong-willed and independent. Few, however, took matters as far as Scarlett O'Hara and the film seldom lets us forget it - resulting in a rare and fascinating (if sometimes exhausting) love-hate relationship with our main character.

And is she ever the main character! Early in the film there's a scene in which haughty Southern men, enclosed in a drawing room, argue politics and challenge one another to duels. However, we only see this because the film prefaces it with Scarlett sneaking down a stairway and spying on their actions (naturally, she couldn't care a whit about the debates, but only wants to see her beloved Ashley in action). Not much in the movie happens without Scarlett being present to observe or get involved - she's never let out of our sight and that which escapes her, usually escapes us too. This subjectivity keeps the film, an otherwise sprawling epic, in focus - as in one memorable scene, in which the men go out to ransack a shanty town, and we're left at home with a sewing circle simply because Scarlett doesn't know what they're doing (though this could be seen as anti-dramatic, it is in fact far more exciting and suspenseful than it would have been to witness the raid).

As with any long-term (the film lasts four hours) relationship this close, we alternately want to kiss Scarlett and wring her neck. Appropriately, this is exactly what Rhett Butler - by this point, Scarlett's husband - does one night, driven by jealousy and liquor to threaten strangulation, only to change his mind and carry her upstairs to their long-forsaken marriage bed. Such violent passion marks the relationship of Scarlett and Rhett, two individuals as selfish as they are charming - in other words, ideal onscreen vessels for our fantasies and fascinations. We rarely go to the movies for ethical demonstrations or moral lessons; knowing this, Gone With the Wind gives us what we want, and keeps the lukewarm Ashley Wilkes, ostensible object of Scarlett's desires, on the sidelines.

The screening of this film was held Wednesday, July 1 at the Music Hall (to an absolutely packed house; one would like to credit this author's promotion of the event earlier this week, but a careful analysis of the page view to audience size ratio would not seem to bear out this conclusion, sadly). In an apparent coincidence, this day was Olivia De Havilland's 93rd birthday (happy birthday, Olivia). De Havilland, a star at the time but billed after superstar Gable and fiery newcomer Leigh, plays Melanie Wilkes, Ashley's warm-hearted wife. Throughout the picture, we are told repeatedly how good she is - even Scarlett, grasping for Melanie's husband, feels pangs of guilt - and indeed de Havilland invests the part with a warm, guileless humanity, so any sympathy we can manage for the character is due to her efforts.

That said, de Havilland and Melanie are not done any favors by the screenplay or the director(s) - she's written as too sticky-sweet and is always photographed to look wan and frumpy next to the dazzling Scarlett - so it's a relief when we return to our guilty pleasures, the exasperating and exuberant Rhett and Scarlett. They're at their best counterposed to the naive heroics and stoic responsibilities of the Civil War South in the film's first half; the second half, which dwells mostly on their relationship in the initially hardscrabble and eventually gaudy Reconstruction era, is choppier and more erratic in its storytelling, losing some of the forward momentum provided by history. Still, their fierce attraction and antipathy are by necessity at the film's centre, and when Rhett finally sobers up, takes a long hard look at the pleading Scarlett, and deadpans "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," before walking off into the soundstage fog, the movie must be over, and, within a few minutes, it is.

If Gone With the Wind is surprisingly and refreshingly unsentimental, it is nonetheless deeply romantic. Mainly, what it romanticizes is the nostalgically rendered Old South, displayed in all its breathtaking and beautiful glory in the film's early passages. An opening crawl - the most famous this side of Star Wars - sets the tone, with its stirring and evocative yearning for long-gone glory days: "Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies fair, of Master and Slave..."


Indeed, one would expect Gone With the Wind's racial politics to be hard to take today, but in fact what's most disturbing is how easily they go down. Compare it to The Birth of a Nation, that notoriously racist masterpiece of D.W. Griffith, a silent film which celebrated the Ku Klux Klan and was the Gone With the Wind of its day, in terms of popularity. That film goes so far in its bigotry that it remains quite disturbing, but Gone With the Wind knows not to go too far, and in this sense it is the more dangerous of the two films. There was much laughter - uncomfortable laughter, but laughter nonetheless - in the theater at the antics of the "silly Negroes." Gone With the Wind could certainly be accused of delivering white supremacy with a spoonful of sugar.

Yet at the same time, there's another side to the audience's laughter. Whereas in Birth, the African-American characters are mostly played by scowling and inhuman-looking white actors in blackface, Gone With the Wind casts talented black performers in the parts of the stereotypical slaves, and they invest their roles with gusto and humanity. Prissy (Butterfly McQueen) is an absolutely rancid portrayal of the black woman as screaming, stupid ninny, yet McQueen is funny enough in the part to grant it a partial redemption. The conviction with which she inhabits the character takes Prissy, on occasion, outside the realm of racist stereotype and into a recognizably human type: the dreamy girl shouldering responsibilities beyond her means, a familiar and likeably exasperating figure. By individualizing the role, she also universalizes it and is able to remove some, though not all, of the stigma.

Better still is Hattie McDaniel, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress of 1939 and is famed for saying, "I'd rather play a maid than be a maid." Written as a rank cliche - the grumpily sensible, no-shit but knows-her-place "Mammy" - the part nonetheless has some very good lines, which McDaniel makes the most of. However, it's her expressions we'll remember: the silent shock as Scarlett woos a second husband for his money, the grimace of a forced smile worn while gently informing Scarlett of her mother's death, and especially the twinkle in her eye as she lifts up her dress to show Rhett her petticoat. Notice too the way she gulps down Rhett's brandy in one swift movement, because, though she'd never stress the point (and he doesn't even seem to notice), she could drink with the best of them. McDaniel's performance alone is worth the price of admission, and we can relax when she's onscreen because we laugh with her, not at her (indeed, we often laugh with her at the white characters' expense; she short-circuits their condescension). When McDaniel let us take a peek at her bright red petticoat, she was allowing a generation of moviegoers to glimpse a black character's humanity, and doing her part to lessen the load of societal prejudice.

Still, the film's world is indeed far from our own, and as New Englanders, we're bound to watch some of the scenes with wry bemusement. Those dastardly yankees they're always denigrating are, in fact...us! Or as one audience member was overheard remarking to friends after the show, "I kept having the sensation that all the good guys were offscreen..." Indeed, this is true in more ways than one of the dastardly but dashing Rhett and especially the queen bee bitch Scarlett - but as has been demonstrated, that's not such a bad thing after all.

This review was originally published at the Boston Examiner. It was later cross-posed at Wonders in the Dark, where you can read the comments.


STinG said...

I never thought there could possibly be an excuse for Butterfly McQueen's performance ('I felt like crawling under the rug.' -Malcolm X), but this is actually going to convince me to give her a second glance.

See if I see the same you see. Maybe, maybe not, but you give a convincing redemption argument for Prissy.

Joel Bocko said...

Yeah, don't get me wrong - I still consider the character cringeworthy and her scenes were difficult to watch. But that said, watching Gone with the Wind in the wake of seeing more 30s/40s films, in which so many black actors are reduced to grinning ciphers hovering in the backgrond or making an appearance for a quick one-note gag, I really appreciated the way that McQueen was able to make this stereotype come alive as a human being.

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