“Gone With the Wind” presents a sentimental view of the Civil War, in which the “Old South” takes the place of Camelot and the war was fought not so much to defeat the Confederacy and free the slaves as to give Miss Scarlett O’Hara her comeuppance. But we’ve known that for years; the tainted nostalgia comes with the territory. It is still a towering landmark of film, quite simply because it tells a good story, and tells it wonderfully well.
For the story it wanted to tell, it was the right film at the right time. Scarlett O’Hara is not a creature of the 1860s but of the 1930s: a free-spirited, willful modern woman. The way was prepared for her by the flappers of Fitzgerald’s jazz age, by the bold movie actresses of the period, and by the economic reality of the Depression, which for the first time put lots of women to work outside their homes.
Scarlett’s lusts and headstrong passions have little to do with myths of delicate Southern flowers, and everything to do with the sex symbols of the movies that shaped her creator, Margaret Mitchell: actresses such as Clara Bow, Jean Harlow, Louise Brooks and Mae West. She was a woman who wanted to control her own sexual adventures, and that is the key element in her appeal. She also sought to control her economic destiny in the years after the South collapsed, first by planting cotton and later by running a successful lumber business. She was the symbol the nation needed as it headed into World War II; the spiritual sister of Rosie the Riveter.
Of course, she could not quite be allowed to get away with marrying three times, coveting sweet Melanie’s husband Ashley, shooting a plundering Yankee, and banning her third husband from the marital bed in order to protect her petite waistline from the toll of childbearing. It fascinated audiences (it fascinates us still) to see her high-wire defiance in a male chauvinist world, but eventually such behavior had to be punished, and that is what “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” is all about. If “GWTW” had ended with Scarlett’s unquestioned triumph, it might not have been nearly as successful. Its original audiences (women, I suspect, even more than men) wanted to see her swatted down–even though, of course, tomorrow would be another day.
Rhett Butler was just the man to do it. As he tells Scarlett in a key early scene, “You need kissing badly. That’s what’s wrong with you. You should be kissed, and often, and by someone who knows how.” For “kissed,” substitute the word you’re thinking of. Dialogue like that reaches something deep and fundamental in most people; it stirs their fantasies about being brought to sexual pleasure despite themselves. (“Know why women love the horse whisperer?” I was asked by a woman friend not long ago. “They figure, if that’s what he can do with a horse, think what he could do with me.”) Scarlett’s confusion is between her sentimental fixation on a tepid “Southern gentleman” (Ashley Wilkes) and her unladylike lust for a bold man (Rhett Butler). The most thrilling struggle in “GWTW” is not between North and South, but between Scarlett’s lust and her vanity.
Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh were well matched in the two most coveted movie roles of the era. Both were well-served by a studio system that pumped out idealized profiles and biographies, but we now know what outlaws they were: Gable, the hard-drinking playboy whose studio covered up his scandals; Leigh, the neurotic, drug-abusing beauty who was the despair of every man who loved her.
They brought experience, well-formed tastes and strong egos to their roles, and the camera, which cannot lie and often shows more than the story intends, caught the flash of an eye and the readiness of body language that suggested sexual challenge. Consider the early scene where they first lay eyes on one another during the barbecue at Twelve Oaks. Rhett “exchanges a cool, challenging stare with Scarlett,” observes the critic Tim Dirks. “She notices him undressing her with his eyes: `He looks as if–as if he knows what I look like without my shimmy.’ “
If the central drama of “Gone With the Wind” is the rise and fall of a sexual adventuress, the counterpoint is a slanted but passionate view of the Old South. Unlike most historical epics, “GWTW” has a genuine sweep, a convincing feel for the passage of time. It shows the South before, during and after the war, all seen through Scarlett’s eyes. And Scarlett is a Southerner. So was Margaret Mitchell. The movie signals its values in the printed narration that opens the film, in language that seems astonishing in its bland, unquestioned assumptions:
“There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind.”
Yes, with the capital letters and all. One does not have to ask if the Slaves saw it the same way. The movie sidesteps the inconvenient fact that plantation gentility was purchased with the sweat of slaves (there is more sympathy for Scarlett getting calluses on her pretty little hands than for all the crimes of slavery). But to its major African-American characters it does at least grant humanity and complexity. Hattie McDaniel, as Mammy, is the most sensible and clear-sighted person in the entire story (she won one of the film’s eight Oscars), and although Butterfly McQueen, as Prissy, will always be associated with the line “I don’t know nothin’ about birthin’ babies,” the character as a whole is engaging and subtly subversive.
Remember that when “GWTW” was made, segregation was still the law in the South and the reality in the North. That the Ku Klux Klan was written out of one scene for fear of giving offense to elected officials who belonged to it. The movie comes from a world with values and assumptions fundamentally different from our own–and yet, of course, so does all great classic fiction, starting with Homer and Shakespeare. A politically correct “GWTW” would not be worth making, and might largely be a lie.
As an example of filmmaking craft, “GWTW” is still astonishing. Several directors worked on the film; George Cukor incurred Clark Gable’s dislike and was replaced by Victor Fleming, who collapsed from nervous exhaustion and was relieved by Sam Wood and Cameron Menzies. The real auteur was the producer, David O. Selznick, the Steven Spielberg of his day, who understood that the key to mass appeal was the linking of melodrama with state-of-the-art production values. Some of the individual shots in “GWTW” still have the power to leave us breathless, including the burning of Atlanta, the flight to Tara and the “street of dying men” shot, as Scarlett wanders into the street and the camera pulls back until the whole Confederacy seems to lie broken and bleeding as far as the eye can see.
And there is a joyous flamboyance in the visual style that is appealing in these days when so many directors have trained on the blandness of television. Consider an early shot where Scarlett and her father look out over the land, and the camera pulls back, the two figures and a tree held in black silhouette with the landscape behind them. Or the way the flames of Atlanta are framed to backdrop Scarlett’s flight in the carriage.
“Gone With the Wind” will be around for years to come, a superb example of Hollywood’s art and a time capsule of weathering sentimentality for a Civilization gone with the wind, all right–gone, but not forgotten.