This month marks the 70th anniversary of the release of the 1939 motion picture Gone With the Wind, based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Margaret Mitchell. Considered one of the great classics of early cinema, the full-color film has stood the test of time and never seen a remake — nor, I suspect, will it ever, since there is no better Scarlett in existence than Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable was after all, “born for the part.”
There are two kinds of people on this earth. Those who like Gone With the Wind and those who don’t. Consider my life-size posters of the two main characters, my four disk collector’s edition set, my annual calendar of scenes from the film, and the six collectible plates I inherited from my grandmother, I am one of the former.
My introduction to the film came with its VHS re-release in the mid-90’s. I had never seen it before (understandably, since before VHS came along no one had) and was enraptured and hardly able to believe I was “allowed” to watch the movie as it unfolded. Mom turned out to be one of those people who “doesn’t” like the story, who believes Scarlett is wretched and finds the entire plot “thoroughly depressing.” Mom is one of those “happily ever after people.” I have a streak of that in me too, but also enjoy a good melodrama once in awhile. I am more like Dad, who enjoys Gone With the Wind, because Scarlett has “gumption.” He has always been the sort of man to like women who don’t take things sitting down, but who stand up for themselves and survives in spite of all odds — and Scarlett certainly fits that description.
When she struggles out into the midst of that field and retches up the radishes she just stuffed into her mouth, then comes up into the center of the screen with tearful eyes and dogged determination written into her mud-streaked face and says, “I’ll never go hungry again!” — she means it, and she doesn’t. I cannot admire how she goes about that (marrying her sister’s beau and going pandering to Rhett for money) but she does take care of her family. Then Rhett comes along and marries her and for once, Scarlett has an easy life — until she stupidly tosses it aside, and comes to the realization that what she wanted all along was an ideal. That Ashley merely represents the life she abandoned long ago. She is no longer the stupid, flighty girl surrounded by admirers at the BBQ and now can see Ashley for what he truly is — a broken and weak man. But it is too late to make amends with Rhett and so with those infamous words (“Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn!”) he leaves her forever.
Or so he claims. The audience knows better. Scarlett has always gotten whatever she wanted and there’s no reason to imagine she won’t win him back. Even so, that doesn’t prevent the more romantic among us from shedding a discreet tear or hiding the moisture in our eyes from our viewing companions. I didn’t understand the movie the first time I saw it, as a young girl. I didn’t understand all of it as a teenager when it was released on DVD. In fact, it took reading the book in my teen years and then watching it several years ago as an adult for me to truly grasp the nuances of just what the storyline, and Scarlett, and Rhett, and Ashley are truly all about. And for the first time, I got a lump in my throat at the end, because I finally saw Scarlett as something more than a home wrecking tramp. I cannot explain it, but that time, I saw it not as a child, not as a teenager, but as a grown up, through the eyes of someone who has experienced some of the same situations and emotions Scarlett experienced. I lost my grandmother several years earlier and it was one of her favorite films. I never got to watch it with her, but memories of how much she loved the story lingered on with me and tinctured the experience with a rosy hue.
I am an objective fan. I can see the minimal faults in the production and do not mind expounding on them to anyone who will listen. I believe it is a strong script and with one exception, very well cast. And that odd character out is, I am sorry to say, Leslie Howard. Originally, he did not want the role and was “convinced” to play Ashley — and it shows. His concern that he was too old for the role is relevant, as is the fact that he simply depicts the character as tired and spineless. It was not until I read the book that I started to understand why Scarlett pursued him for so long. The Ashley of the book has much more fire and passion, more enthusiasm for life, more frustration. He is torn between nobility and longing for the past, and his overwhelming lust for Scarlett. He is divided between wanting to be his own man and his adoration for Melanie, and his attachment to Scarlett and all she stands for — a reminder of the South as it once was, beautiful and carefree and flirtatious.
Some of the fault lies with the script in having to downplay certain aspects of the novel in order to be considered “morally appropriate” for the audiences of the 1930’s. Younger viewers, me included, would have absolutely no idea that the instance of Ashley, Frank, and others “cleaning up Shantytown” was in fact a raid by the Klu Klux Klan. Modern audiences read that and take a rapid second glance, horrified to realize that Mitchell describes its actions as legitimate. Our postmodern sensibilities revolving around political correctness balk at that, and at the stereotyped slaves rampant throughout Tara and the surrounding South. But raging in the midst of un-politically correct instances is a genuine image of what the South faced, survived, and was left with once the war ceased. There was illness, poverty, less than elegant Yankee soldiers and stragglers, oppression, rampant illiteracy, and the buying of votes from the newly freed slaves (“You want forty acres and a mule? I’ll give you forty acres and a mule, because I’m your friend. And friends vote like their friends do!”).
Do you cringe a little bit whenever you watch it? Me too. But if you stop and think about it, Mitchell’s novel is not a slam against the blacks or even full of racism, since the most influential and wisest individual in the entire saga apart from Melanie is actually Mammy — the enormous, lovable and rather suspicious nanny who looks after Scarlett, takes care of her children, and even forms a soft spot in her heart for “Master” Rhett. It is Mammy that figures out what Scarlett is up to, whether it is refusing to eat before the BBQ or deciding to go to Atlanta (“So’s you can wait for [Ashley], just like a spider!”). It is Mammy who keeps the servants in line and attempts to be a moral compass for Scarlett once her mother is gone. It’s also Mammy who goes running to Melanie after Bonnie’s death, knowing she is the only person who can prevent Rhett from doing something terrible.
The characters are part of what makes the story so endearing. Scarlett is the main center of our attention, true, but the rest are just as important. Rhett is a scoundrel and knows it, but the thing is — with a bit of tender loving care, I think he could be a proper gentleman, a decent provider, and a good husband. Yes, we all know he spends his free time with a prostitute named Belle, but I think his behavior toward Bonnie and even Scarlett shows us that he has a good heart beneath the scandalous reputation. More than that, how he reacts to Melanie is significant. His love for her is not romantic, but out of admiration for the only “truly good person” he has ever known. Melanie is honest and sweet, pure of heart and innocent — deliberately so, even when she knows what is actually going on. I thought for awhile growing up that Melanie was merely a fool, but when I grew older came to realize — she never was unaware of what Scarlett was trying to do, or how her husband felt about Scarlett. Melanie knew everything that was going on — and instead of shunning or shaming them, she chose to love them anyway and think the best of them in spite of all evidence to the alternative.
In some ways, I think Melanie and Scarlett are both extremes. Together, they would be an ideal woman — Melanie’s sense of honesty would counter Scarlett’s darker tendencies, and Scarlett’s ambition and pluck would allow Melanie to survive in spite of tremendous odds. Whether or not that was intentional, it resonates with the introspective audience. The same could be said of Rhett and Ashley — polar opposites, but Rhett at least says what he wants, whereas Ashley merely pines for it and is indecisive as to whether or not to follow his desires or the moral code of his heart. Rhett is a rake in the same way that Scarlett is a rake, and Ashley is a gentleman in the same way that Melanie is a lady. In that respect, Rhett’s assurance to Scarlett that they “deserve” one another is all true. In an ideal world, Ashley and Melanie would be sweet and naive and innocent together, and Rhett and Scarlett would be society’s ruthless “power couple.”
Multitudes could and have been written about this epic story of love, loss, temptation, ambition, survival and lust, but in the end you either love or hate it. I happen to love it. My best friend hates it.
How about you?