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Scarlett and Black: Why The Wind Done Endured

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At the very end of her 7 February 2003 Salon interview, in which she expressed thoughtful opposition to the war in Iraq (ignoring her haruspical intonings about the shuttle disaster), Camille Paglia said,

If I could, I would assign everyone to watch “Gone With the Wind“–which is dismissed these days as an apologia for slavery. But that movie beautifully demonstrates the horrors of war…. It shows the destruction of a civilization, the slaughter of a whole generation of young men, and people reduced to squalid, animal-like subsistence conditions. And that’s what’s missing right now, as we prepare to march off to Baghdad — a recognition of the horrors and tragic waste of war.

I disagree that such awareness is missing, and I also think that the horrors of war you see in Gone With the Wind have to do with a civil war (e.g., starving soldiers scavenging as they straggle home across the blasted countryside) and with a war fought with pre-modern weaponry and before modern medicine (the amputation scene still makes my thighs ache). The scene in which the women breathlessly scan the casualty list after the battle of Gettysburg absolutely communicates to people who have never endured having loved ones in battle, but a movie about the Nazi Blitzkrieg against England would probably be more apposite to what the Iraqi people will face. (To make her point Paglia might recommend William Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver, a phony but earnest homefront movie from 1942; John Boorman’s 1987 Hope and Glory is the infinitely better movie, but it preserves the mixed feelings that survivors of the winning side can have. Boorman shows the bombing of London autobiographically from his childhood perspective, and it’s exciting and dazzling, like living inside a fireworks display. But then Paglia has never clearly understood the difference between a movie’s aesthetic merit and its utility in making a point.) Still, she’s right that Gone With the Wind is a powerful movie, and you can watch it uninterrupted in a version with restored Technicolor tomorrow afternoon on Turner Classic Movies.

Gone With the Wind is the most spectacular and multifaceted of what used to be called women’s pictures. At the basic level Scarlett is a tempestuous heroine out of a bodice-ripping historical novel, a focus for fantasy projection on the part of far more sedate women. (I once heard a young woman from the San Fernando Valley tell about a party she had gone to where you were to come dressed as a character from Gone With the Wind and the hostess was disappointed that every single female showed up as Scarlett.) This aspect is clearest in the scene in which Rhett carries Scarlett upstairs and forces himself on her and she wakes up the next morning purring with satisfaction.

But the story works because Scarlett isn’t just a soap opera vixen, she’s actually divided about the feminine wiles she makes use of to get whatever it is she thinks she wants. While still a girl she senses there’s something pointless about acting silly to get a husband; she says so in the scene in which Mammy makes her eat before the barbecue at Twelve Oaks so she’ll no more than peck at the food in front of all the eligible young men. Scarlett is good at flirting but it leaves something unexpressed and connects her to men who don’t have the temperament to fulfill her. At the same time she backs away from Rhett who cuts through her hypocrisy and appeals directly to her sensual side.

Jezebel, the temperamental-Southern-belle picture made by Warner Brothers in 1938 to beat Gone With the Wind to theaters, features a great performance by Bette Davis, probably William Wyler’s best direction, and has a lot less audience-pleasing fussy-fancy trimming. But at its center it’s fundamentally squarer about its heroine than Gone With the Wind. Julie’s fault is expressing her will; she flouts convention by wearing a red dress to a ball and afterwards her beau is through with her. Feeling her mistakes, she later apologizes to him in virginal white, not knowing that he’s come back to New Orleans with a bride. The point in Jezebel is not that the conventions of female decorum are too constricting but that Julie realizes their importance too late.

Scarlett is the more meaningfully modern character: she undervalues honor but sees through decorum too late. Her problem is that although she has a natural aptitude for kittenish Southern female propriety, she’s also aware of the limitations it places on her, which is especially galling during the war and then the Reconstruction era when she’s the most capable person around. (The men are dead or defeated, or, like Ashley and her second husband Frank Kennedy, less ambitious and capable in the first place, while the women are passive or, like her sister Suellen, resentful of her determination.) So Scarlett is from the start half in and half out of the Southern belle act, and the movie interestingly leaves that unresolved. At the end she wants Rhett, but she’s really tied to Tara, the plantation she worked back from nearly-Trojan devastation, and to the lumber mill she built up over her husband’s objections (and that she operates in a way the other characters find deplorable, for reasons we’re meant to share, i.e., using convict labor, and for reasons we aren’t, i.e., it’s unseemly for a woman to be in business). “What does woman want” turns out to be a much more pressing and complex question for women from the inside than for men from the outside.

The Scarlett-Rhett love story is thus full of friction, like the Streisand-Redford love story in The Way We Were. But Streisand and Redford’s characters are wrong for each other. What holds them together is how much she wants him, how she feels validated by his attention. (Probably nobody but Streisand could play this masochistic role and hold her own as a star. In fact, the masochism serves as a channel for her powerhouse emotionalism.) Scarlett and Rhett are right for each other, it’s just that she won’t admit it because it doesn’t fit with her idea of what she should be, in public anyway.

As Scarlett Vivien Leigh has the ideal ability to tailor every gesture, every delivery, for the audience she’s playing to. Leigh also has wonderful skill at showing Scarlett’s moments of inattention when she thinks her audience isn’t worth much effort, perhaps most amusingly in the scene when Charles Hamilton proposes to her while she’s despondently watching for Ashley before he goes off to war, when she says in a manner so convictionless it’s could almost be facetious, “I’ll cry into my pillow every night.” Scarlett can flirt while sleepwalking. Leigh’s evident technique is perfect for this headstrong young woman who is trapped improvising an ill-fitting role as the scenery goes up in flames around her.

The movie is famous for its production values, but aside from the design, and the hectic scenes of the siege of Atlanta, which benefit from the effects you can get only from using extensive sets packed with well-directed extras, the moviemaking can’t compare technically to such other large-scale works about war and social upheaval as Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), Visconti’s The Leopard (1963), Bertolucci’s 1900 (Novecento; 1976), or the Taviani Brothers’ Night of the Shooting Stars (La Notte di San Lorenzo; 1982). (The Visconti and Taviani pictures also have scripts of an imaginative subtlety Mitchell’s material can’t approach.) The alertly put together scene in which the women wait for the men to come back from cleaning up the shantytown after Scarlett has been attacked is the standout. All the same, it’s not as if its effect on audiences were based only on sumptuous sets and costumes.

The work may be at bottom a low-grade historical novel, but the point-of-view of a defeated people gives it a basis in genuine feeling that holds all the characters and incidents and historical details together–the entire movie has stayed vividly in memory since I first saw it as a child. (By comparison, Titanic, with thousands of souls on board, managed to come up with only two and two-half characters, and the only thing that has stuck in my head is the technological fact that the ship broke in two before sinking to the bottom.) But watching Gone With the Wind as an adult I have also noticed clever aspects that went by me as a kid. In the first part of the movie, for instance, much of the exposition is given to Mammy, but you don’t experience it as boring background info because Hattie McDaniel delivers it all as irascible mumbling. The last part of the movie lacks the measured flow of the rest and there are other movieish mistakes. The burning of Atlanta, for instance, suffers because they resort to the cheap suspense of whether the horse will get past the explosives before they go off, as if a historic catastrophe weren’t interesting enough by itself. But these mistakes don’t throw you out of the movie.

Some of the campiest parts might, and these turn out to involve not Scarlett or Mammy or even Prissy, but Ashley and Melanie. Leslie Howard as Ashley is just plain bad I think, perhaps because he has the most wooden-Victorian lines–I love your passion for life, Scarlett, but a Wilkes cannot think only of his own desires, etc. He also stands for a supposedly liberal Southern position that even in 1939 would have been hard to take seriously–that he would have freed his slaves when his father died. Freed them to do what? Ashley is of course supposed to be an etiolated branch, but this seems to drain Howard, who was the only other real actor besides Leigh in the cast. Clark Gable’s more limited star acting comes off much better in a movie like this. He gets us on his side just by scoffing at the notion of “gentleman,” which the movie’s beloved vanished South is otherwise so invested in.

Olivia de Havilland is actually good as Melanie who seems like a sweet woman rather than just some phony ideal of the moviemakers. We believe in her generosity when she accepts a donation from the madam Belle Watling and most movingly when she says she feeds Union soldiers hoping that in the North some woman is feeding Ashley. De Havilland also makes seamless transitions to the moments when Melanie lies or abets Scarlett in concealing and profiting from a murder. What makes her a hoot is that she’s wrong when she’s generous to “our darling Scarlett,” who is, after all, trying to steal her husband. The movie never gives an account of whether Melanie knows all and forgives all, maybe out of Christian charity, or has some other reason for holding to a vision of Scarlett that’s better than reality, or is just dense, her head full of buttercream. All this said, the moment when Melanie spots Ashley coming home is extremely effective, one in the long line of homecomings in American movies, such as The Birth of a Nation, Hallelujah! (1929), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Sounder (1972), that tie black and white experience together by the commonality of human bonds.

Many critics avoid writing about Gone With the Wind because it’s so central to the mythology of the supposedly golden age of Hollywood. You don’t want people to think that what you write about it is how your work should be judged, nor do you want to overstate its importance as an example of the art of moviemaking. And at some level it doesn’t make much difference what you say–if you just get people to watch it you probably don’t have to tell them how to enjoy it.

It’s easy to enjoy, but only if you close one eye to the race issue. The view of the slaves is the southern fantasy that they were better off owned than free. The best case for this view could no doubt be made for a house slave like Mammy, and I think that there must have been relatively well-treated slaves who did identify with their masters (who were in a sense entrusted to their, the slaves’, care). Frederick Douglass wrote in his 1845 autobiography, with a mixture of sympathy for the situation and disgust at the result, about slaves who identified with their masters and would fight with each other over whose was richest, smartest, most of a man, etc. As Douglass points out, it is in a sense only human to identify with what is one’s own, and if you can accept that then you can say that Mammy is a well-drawn character. Of course, the character, and the actress, are limited by the bounds of deference that make African-American characters in old Hollywood movies so cringingly subhuman–asexual and with less self-assertion and anger than would be normal in a house pet–and by the patronizing attitude toward them that the moviemakers seem to share with the characters. (Most noticeable when Rhett makes Mammy show him the red taffeta petticoat he gave her.)

At the same time, however, the movie simply ignores Mammy’s status as chattel; in the world of the movie it’s a non-issue. Mammy has more in common with the perennial character of the devoted servant (a word that derives etymologically from the Latin verb related to “servus” meaning “slave”), such as the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, than with the representative slave appropriate to an abstract discussion of the “peculiar institution.” McDaniel’s performance shrewdly suggests the extent of authority a trusted house slave could have assumed in a non-abusive household. Given the social and aesthetic limitations of the studio system in the ’30s, and of producer David O. Selznick’s taste, I believe in her as Mammy.

Prissy remains opaque to me, however–is she meant to be retarded? More likely her problem is that the movie is too invested in plantation-darky humor; you know that from the little “quittin’ time” exchange between two field slaves. It shares this failing with a far greater work, Huckleberry Finn, which is programmatically anti-racist, an odd mixture of attitudes that Arnold Rampersad has written about perceptively. Gone With the Wind is divided enough in its depiction of race that it includes Mammy in a group of three disreputable or despised figures–Rhett, Mammy, and Belle Watling–who are excluded from the plantation romance and yet have more practical honor than anyone else. But the movie will not stand as a rounded, or even particularly sensitive, depiction of African-American experience in the South, despite Selznick’s intention not to dishonor the race. (See Leonard J. Leff’s interesting Atlantic article from December 1999 about the political pressures on Selznick over the race issue; see also Gavin Lambert’s two-part Atlantic article from 1973 about the making of the movie more generally.) About the best you can say is that the movie is not, at any rate, programmatically racist, as The Birth of a Nation is, which makes a point of showing the infantile unfitness of blacks to serve in Congress.

Overall, Gone With the Wind is weakest on race. It draws its power generally from the situation of the South, which was conquered without being annihilated. Rather, it was, more peculiarly, absorbed into an inimical civilization, a situation producing tensions that endure to this day (e.g., Trent Lott’s comments about Strom Thurmond). But it’s the character of Scarlett that accounts for the movie’s enduring hold on our imagination–the flirty-pouty heroine who, despite herself, finds an empire-builder inside the corsets and hoopskirts.

You can find this review and more at The Kitchen Cabinet.

Alan Dale is the author of Comedy Is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in Classic American Movies.

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  • http://www.waking-vision.com Michelle

    Thanks! With your wonderful review you just planted the idea in me that I should get the film on DVD. I love for years, all the bright colors, the epic storytelling and the ambivalent heroine. That makes for a whole evening of good entertaining!

  • http://www.murphyhorner.com murphy

    You named a lot of movies that I want to check out now.

  • http://www.murphyhorner.com murphy

    You named a lot of movies that I want to check out now.

  • dawntuner

    I am not sure about this but I am almost positive. If you have the dvd version of Gone With the Wind look on chapter 20 in the scene where Prissy comes back without the doctor for Melanie and Scarlett get s angry and says; “And don’t you be upsetting her or i’ll whipe the hide off you!” Immediately after that Prissy mutters the words “fuck you” quickly followed by a little song. Pay close attention to her lips and the very low pitch of the first part of the song . There is no doubt this is the first retort against racism ever recorded! lol