The Unenthusiastic Critic is an occasional series in which I convince my highly reluctant girlfriend N. to finally watch movies that nearly every other person on the planet has already seen. (For a fuller explanation of this particular form of relationship suicide, read the introduction to the series here.)
In this edition, we sit down for N.'s first viewing of ten-time Oscar-winner Gone with the Wind. This is (to my girlfriend's horror) the longest movie we've ever done, and (to my own horror) the longest article in the series so far. For your sake as much as mine, I'm splitting this post into two parts. Look for Part Two to follow soon.
What We Watched
Gone with the Wind (1939), Two-Disc 70th Anniversary Edition from Warner Home Video. Directed by Victor Fleming, George Cukor (uncredited), and Sam Wood (uncredited). Written by Sidney Howard, Oliver H.P. Garrett (uncredited), Ben Hecht (uncredited), Barbara Keon (uncredited), and Jo Swerling (uncredited), based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell. Starring Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland, Hattie McDaniel, Thomas Mitchell, and Butterfly McQueen.
Why I Chose It
The films I pick for this series always fall into at least one of three basic categories: 1) movies I myself genuinely love; 2) movies that are considered universally adored classics; and/or 3) movies I'm fairly certain will provoke an angry tirade from my good sport of a girlfriend. Most movies I pick fall into at least two of these categories; we score the occasional success with a film that falls into Category 3 alone—that is, movies I choose solely because I'm sure she'll hate them—but it's a risky proposition. (It worked with The Help; however, it was an unqualified disaster when we attempted to watch the Twilight movies, as I discuss here.)
Gone with the Wind is a film that ticks the last two boxes. Certainly, it is widely beloved classic, one that frequently places high on "Best Of" lists of American movies. (In the American Film Institute's original "100 Years, 100 Movies" ranking in 1998, Gone with the Wind came in at #4, behind only Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and The Godfather; when the list was updated in 2008, it had slipped to #6 to make room for Raging Bull and Singing in the Rain.) Based on Margaret Mitchell's Pulitzer Prize winning 1936 novel, David O. Selznick's production of Gone with the Wind had a famously troubled road to the big screen—two directors and a truckload of writers were fired along the way—but turned out to be an unqualified success. The film won ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture, in a year that is widely considered the greatest in Hollywood's history. (That year—1939—also saw the release of The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, Dark Victory, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Wuthering Heights, and many, many other classics.) Adjusted for inflation, Gone with the Wind is still the all-time box office champion, having sold over 200 million tickets in its various theatrical runs.
So Gone with the Wind obviously fit the "classic" criterion of Category 2, and I felt fairly certain that any film in which the heroine is a white slave-owner trying to save her plantation was likely to satisfy the "piss-off-my-angry-black-girlfriend" requirements of Category 3.
But Category 1? Gone with the Wind was never a particular favorite of mine: in fact, prior to watching it with N., I don't think I'd seen it in 30 years or so. Since this almost amounts to having never seen it at all—a shameful admission for even a self-appointed film critic—I thought this would be a good opportunity to reacquaint myself with a beloved American classic and torture my long-suffering girlfriend.
What My Girlfriend Knew About Gone with the Wind Prior to Viewing
Before beginning each film, I always quiz N. to discover what spoilers, preconceptions, and misconceptions she has picked up from simple cultural osmosis. In this case, however, the most important thing she didn't know beforehand was something I hadn't remembered either:
She: So…how long is this movie?
Me: Ummm… [Nervously checking the back of the DVD box]. Two-hours-and-thirty-three minutes. No, wait: it says, "233 minutes." So that would be just shy of…four hours?
She: No, it isn't. That's not funny. You're kidding me, right?
Me: Alas, no.
She: Fuck that shit. I'm not doing it.
Me: I have to admit, if I'd realized it was that long, I might not have chosen this movie.
She: That's longer than The Sound of Music, and watching The Sound of Music was the longest experience of my life.
Me: But that was because of the singing. There's no singing in this. (At least, I don't think there is.)
She: I'm not doing this. In the time it would take to watch this movie, the polar icecaps would be melting further, and we could all end up dying in a flood. And my last activity on this earth would be watching Gone with the Fucking Wind. And it would be your fault.
Me: Well, look: it's considered one of the greatest films in American history. So…the more the better, right?
She: No, that's not really how that works.
Me: Haven't you ever been watching a great movie, and said to yourself, "Wow, what a great movie! If only it was twice as long as it is!"
She: No. I'm more likely to be watching a great movie, and saying, "Wow, that's a great movie, and they really knew how to fucking edit."
Me: I don't see why, if you're excited to watch a movie, you wouldn't be more excited to discover it was four hours long.
She: When was I ever excited about watching this movie? I was never at any point excited about watching this film. I believe that, the first time you mentioned it, my exact words were: "I DON'T WANT TO WATCH THAT. Please don't make us watch that."
Me: You know, what I should have done is just not told you it was four hours long. You probably would have been so swept up in the romance and epicness you wouldn't even have noticed.
She: I'm pretty sure that, after an hour, I would have looked up and said, "How much more of this fucking thing do we have to go?" And then it would have come out, and you would have been in trouble.
So the truth is, neither of us are very excited about this prospect going in. I remind N. that she only has to sit through it once: I, on the other hand, have to watch it with her, and then not only watch it several times more but also spend many hours transcribing four hours of our recorded conversation in order to write this post. N. is decidedly unsympathetic about the terrible burden this places on me, but we agree—reluctantly—to proceed.
Me: So, what do you know about Gone with the Wind?
She: "Frankly, my Scarlett, I don't give a damn" [sic]. That's the only thing I've ever heard anyone say about that movie. And I think she makes a dress out of some drapes, or some shit. And the plantation burns to the fucking ground, or something.
Me: Well, that's good, right? I mean, you're in favor of that. You're firmly on the side of burning plantations to the ground.
She: Not when it takes four hours to do. The fucking Nat Turner rebellion went quicker than that.
Me: I don't think it did, actually, but I take your meaning.
She: Oh, and I know this movie won the first Oscar for an African-American, which is very important. That's probably where the value of this movie begins and ends for me.
Me: Hattie McDaniel. A black woman didn't win another one until Whoopi came along.
She: So tell me, why is this considered such a great movie? What is it about it that makes it so great?
Me: You know, to be honest, I don't even know. I haven't seen it since I was about twelve years old.
She: So you're pushing dogma you don't even believe—
Me: I'm not pushing anything…
She: —in service of a four-hour movie about a plantation!
Me: No, I mean it's considered a masterpiece of filmmaking. Visually beautiful, fantastic production design. And, of course, Scarlett O'Hara is widely considered to be one of the great heroines of literature and film.
She: Is she? I mean, from what I've gleaned, she sounds like kind of a whiny twat. I feel like people have said she's just kind of whiny and bitchy?
Me: What people have said that? From whom did you glean this?
She: People. People say things. I glean.
Me: It won Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Screenplay…Ten Oscars in all. And this was 1939, which people consider one of the greatest years in film.
She: That shit don't mean shit to me. People thought Driving Miss Daisy was super-awesome too. People though Crash was a great movie.
Me: Well, okay, even just from the perspective of your interest in race, aren't you interested in it as a cultural marker?
She: Yes, I am interested in racial issues, and I am interested in authentic stories about our country's past, however ugly it was and still is. And if that's what this is, then that's great. But I don't think that's what this is.
Me: Well, how do you define "authentic?"
She: Do you remember The Help?
She: Well, if it's closer to The Help on the spectrum, I'm going to be pissed off.
Me: OK. I guess that's what we're here to find out. And again: this is not a situation where I'm presenting this as one of my favorite movies. Like I said, I haven't seen it since I was about 12, and I don't remember loving it then. So you can't hold me responsible.
She: Oh, I'll hold you responsible either way. And what the fuck kind of 12-year-old boy sits down to watch Gone with the Wind?
Me: A 12-year-old movie geek. I started watching a lot of classic movies around then.
She: You should have played outside more. I wouldn't be doing this now if you'd played outside more. I'm pretty sure my whole life would be different if you'd just played outside more.
Me: I don't feel like you're going into this in the right spirit.
She: This is the only spirit that I can muster.
Me: What's the name of this series again?
She: [Sigh] "The Unenthusiastic Critic."
Me: And how would you describe your state-of-mind right now?
She: Deeply, deeply unenthusiastic.
Me: Perfect. So let's begin.
She: Suck a dick.
How It Went
We get off to perhaps the least promising beginning of any film in The Unenthusiastic Critic's canon. Normally, we at least get to a line of dialogue, or a character, or the opening shot of the actual movie before N. starts to lose her patience, but here I don't even get to push "Play" before we're in trouble. As I pop the DVD in, and the most famous segment of composer Max Steiner's "Tara's Theme" explodes into insistent romantic bombast, my beloved girlfriend is already fuming.
She: I'm already annoyed.
Me: You can't possibly be annoyed already. The movie hasn't even started.
She: I'm annoyed with the title card.
Me: It's not even the title card. It's the DVD menu screen.
She: ThenI'm annoyed with the DVD menu screen. I sort of want to punch her in the face.
And pushing "Play" does not help matters any: now that she understands that she's in for a four-hour ordeal, N. is not pleased to see that Gone with the Wind opens with a lengthy overture that plays over a static image.
She: Oh, Jesus. This is the same kind of shit the fucking Sound of Music had.
Me: It's the overture. The movie came in a little short, so they had to pad it out a little bit with a musical overture.
She: Can we fast-forward?
Me: Oh, no. That would be wrong. That would be against the Filmwatcher's Code.
She: There's no code.
Me: There's a code. This is part of the movie. You're supposed to be using this time to ease into the mood of the thing. See, your problem is, you're not easing. If you would just stop fighting it and embrace it, it would put you right in the mood.
The overture goes on for two-and-a-half minutes.
Me: Stop glaring at me.
She: WHAT THE FUCK IS THE POINT OF THIS?
There is a brief pause while I adjust the screen ratio. (My TV insists on trying to make Gone with the Wind a widescreen movie—and I've always remembered it as one—but in fact it was filmed in 4:3, like most films of the era.)
She: Oh yeah, fix that ratio. Make sure we get all that white supremacy on screen.
The truth is, the opening of Gone with the Wind—long before the movie actually begins, and way before we even see a single character—is basically designed from top to bottom to guarantee that my girlfriend will hate it with a fiery passion. I know her better than perhaps anyone on the planet, and yet if I were tasked with designing the opening sequence for a movie I didn't want my girlfriend to watch, I could not do better than this one.
After the interminable overture, after all, we are faced with a series of images that are basically one giant, sepia-toned "fuck you" after another to my girlfriend, all African-Americans, and any sane human being with a set of eyes, a conscience, and a third-grader's rudimentary understanding of American history.
Me: Are you feeling the romance of the Old South yet?
She: Am I looking at slaves working the fields right now?
Me: Why, yes, as a matter of fact you are.
She: And I'm supposed to find that romantic?
Me: Yes, I think you are.
She: I don't. Weird. Weird that I don't find the subjugation of human beings romantic.
The credits themselves—which play over more golden-hued depictions of happily enslaved souls—list the names of the dramatis personae for this four-hour romantic epic. The white characters are named things like "Ashley" and "Scarlett" and "Aunt 'Pittypat' Hamilton," while the "house servants" are called "Mammy," and "Prissy," and "Pork."
She: His name is "Pork?"
And then the indelible strains of "Dixie" kick in—sung like a hymn by a heavenly choir—and we get this precious scrolling text:
"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…"
To her credit, N. has not left the room yet, but I have to admit I wouldn't blame her a bit if she did. I sort of want to myself.
Me: You know, the recording isn't going to pick up that swearing you're doing under your breath. You really need to speak up, or this is going to be a tremendous waste of time.
She: "Gallantry took its last bow…a dream remembered…a civilization gone with the wind." How sad that slavery had to end. Wasn't that a beautiful time?
Me: I don't know why you're getting mad at me. I wasn't responsible for an entire economy being built on slave labor. My people were on the other side—the winning side.
She: Oh, so all your people did was exterminate the Native Americans. No problem there.
Me: I can't win with you.
A confession, before we get much further. My role in this series is usually to play the straight man, and defend whichever movie we're watching from the complaints, protestations, and mockeries of my much better half. But that's not a role I found myself able to play very effectively with Gone with the Wind, even for the purpose of argument.
I had remembered and expected, of course, that Gone with the Wind would be a problematic movie—it was a romance of the Old South from the Southerner's viewpoint, after all—but I guess I had not remembered how it layers every frame, every line, every character with a candy-colored nostalgia for the quaint gentility of pre-war society, without ever acknowledging that that "quaintness" was entirely dependent on the enslavement of an entire race. I knew the film was about that way of life, of course, but I had not realized the extent to which it champions that way of life, longs unabashedly to return to it, and promotes it as better in every way than the 70-plus years that had passed between the end of Civil War and the publication of Gone with the Wind.
I think, to be honest, I had misremembered somehow, assuming that the film's mixed feelings about Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh)—who is not, after all, an entirely (or even frequently) sympathetic character—were somehow also a judgement on the antebellum South. But no: however censorious the film may occasionally be about its heroine, it is unashamedly propagandist in its view of the society that produced her, and it looks back at the institution of slavery with wistful longing, if not with downright horniness.
With a flippant "Fiddle-de-dee" we are introduced to Katie Scarlett O'Hara, holding court for some of her gentleman callers on the porch of Tara, her family's plantation. No age for the character is given; she's presumably a teen-ager—in the book Scarlett is 16—but Vivien Leigh was about 24 when cast in the role, and the discrepancy is, for me, the first problem with the film. Scarlett—spoiled, frivolous, and self-obsessed—would be a difficult character played by an adolescent, but is positively insufferable when played by an adult. Women married young in the 19th century, and despite the constant swarm of beaux around her, Scarlett comes across to me less as a debutante and more as someone who is bitter and desperate because she's already been passed over by the eligible men of Clayton County, Georgia—and with good reason.
Perhaps this explains why she is so horrified to hear that someone called Ashley Wilkes is planning to marry his cousin, Melanie Hamilton. "You know the Wilkes always marry their cousins!" one of Scarlett's gossiping suitors says.
Me: Way to reinforce all my preconceptions about the South.
Scarlett, convinced that Ashley really loves her, sets out to ensnare him at the Wilkes family's barbecue the following day. She is reined in slightly by her Mammy (Hattie McDaniel), who acts in many ways (though by no means all ways) as the conscience of the film. It is Mammy who speaks for the social proprieties of the time, all of which Scarlett will cheerfully break; as she gets Scarlett ready for the barbecue, she says, "You can't show your bosom before three o'clock!"
McDaniel is good in the movie, but as much as her Oscar-winning performance represents a major watershed in the recognition of black actors, her character is probably one of the most disingenuous and damaging ever put on screen. Mitchell not only created the original "sassy black woman," and the stereotypical image of the devoted Mammy who unconditionally loves the white family that enslaves her, but she also makes Mammy the staunchest defender of this entire way of life. She's the slave who lives to serve white people, who believes wholeheartedly in the institution of slavery, who fiercely advocates for the aristocratic rights and airs of the rural Southern gentry. ("If you don't care what people think of this family, I do!" she tells her white mistress.) Generations of Americans have taken their notions of what black people are like—or should be like—from characters like Mammy, and so there's a symmetry in our choice to watch Gone with the Wind for this series: other white fantasies of black servants we've considered, like the maids in The Help and Samuel L. Jackson's house slave in Django Unchained, are Mammy's unmistakable cultural descendants.
If I'm talking too much—and I am—it's in part because my beloved girlfriend was quieter than usual throughout Gone with the Wind.
Me: Are you on a silence strike? Because that really defeats the purpose.
But what is there to say? Most of N.'s interjections throughout the first hour of Gone with the Wind concern Scarlett O'Hara. "She's horrible," N. says, as Scarlett flirts with and cock-teases all the men at the Wilkes family's party, and other women pull their ravenous beaus away from her.
She: That's what happens when you show your bosom before three o'clock.
Another problem with Gone with the Wind is that, when we finally meet the famous Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), it's hard to fathom what all the fuss is about. Howard was a fine actor, but even recognizing that he's supposed to represent the gentile aristocracy of the antebellum South, it's not easy to buy him as the object of any woman's lust and obsession: he is sexless, passionless, and dull as dirt. (It does not help that Howard was in his mid-40s when Gone with the Wind was filmed—at least 20 years too old to have been the childhood beau of Scarlett.) Besides, he and the saintly Melanie (Olivia de Havilland) are clearly devoted to each other.
Ashley even tries to tell Scarlett this. "She's like me, Scarlett. She's part of my blood. We understand each other."
She: Because she's your cousin?
Me: Because they're both pasty and insipid.
Nonetheless, Scarlett is determined to seduce him. In the afternoon, all the ladies at the party are supposed to take off their fancy dresses and lay down upstairs for a little siesta.
Me: I don't understand: they just stop the party in the middle, and everyone takes a nap?
She: You'd be tired too if your lungs were being squeezed up into your throat. And I'm sorry, are the slaves fanning the ladies as they sleep?
Me: Well, it's hot, and they didn't have central air in the eighteen-hundreds.
But Scarlett, heedless of propriety, sneaks out to go throw herself at Ashley. Downstairs, the men have been arguing about the forthcoming war: most of them are eager for it, and confident they will be victorious over the barbarous Yankees. "Gentlemen can always fight better than rabble!" they proclaim. The only voices of dissent are those of Ashley—who is too gentile to enjoy the prospect of war—and Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), who thinks all these gentlemen are deluding themselves about whether the South is truly prepared for war. Rhett gets into an argument with Melanie's brother Charles Hamilton (Rand Brooks), a chinless dandy who casts aspersions on Rhett's character.
So—with less cause—does my girlfriend.
She: He looks like a pedophile.
Me: He's not a pedophile.
She: I didn't say he was a pedophile. I said he looks like a pedophile. He looks skeevy.
Me: You take irrational dislikes to people. It's poor Captain Von Trapp all over again.
Rhett leaves the gathering before he's forced to shoot the dweeb, and Ashley follows, and it is then that Scarlett waylays her intended with protestations of love. Ashley is kind to Scarlett—in the way that one might be kind to a small child or a mentally defective basset hound of whom one is fond—but makes it clear that he intends to marry Melanie. Scarlett, of course, explodes into a rage, insulting Melanie, slapping Ashley, and breaking a tacky but no doubt priceless china figurine.
Overhearing all of this, of course, is Rhett Butler, who seems amused by and enamored of Scarlett's "fiery" spirit. Scarlett fumes at him, and he laughs at her, and one of the allegedly great romances in history is born. My girlfriend, of course, is less enamored.
She: She's awful.
And I have to agree. We'll have plenty of opportunities to discuss Scarlett's questionable character, but I have to pause to say a word about Vivien Leigh's performance: she is awful. Leigh won an Oscar for playing Scarlett, and she would later win another one for playing Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, but I confess I've always found her kind of a terrible actress, all surface and no soul. (Elia Kazan, who directed Streetcar, reportedly said that, as an actress, she had great determination but "a small talent." That sounds about right to me.)
Immediately following her first meeting with Rhett, for example, Scarlett overhears the other women at the party basically calling her a whore. "Men may flirt with girls like that, but they don't marry them." Scarlett sheds a tear at hearing this assessment: in a better actress's hands, it's a moment that could have gone a long way towards humanizing Scarlett and making her at least slightly sympathetic: here, Leigh's tears just seem petulant and self-pitying. She's not hurt, and she doesn't learn anything, she's just feeling sorry for herself and throwing a tantrum.
Nearly every actress in Hollywood was considered for this role, and much better actresses—like Katherine Hepburn—lobbied hard to get it. I doubt N. or I would have adored Gone with the Wind evenwith Hepburn in the lead, but I have to think an actress of Hepburn's caliber might have made the character the strong, complex, desirable woman she is supposed to be.
Scarlett is so self-involved and embarrassed that she barely acknowledges the news that war has broken out, but her pride is hurt enough to hear Chinless Charles Hamilton when he proposes marriage. Still petulant about Ashley and Melanie, and still pissed about the comments she overheard from her rivals, she quickly and joylessly agrees to wed the simpering Mr. Hamilton.
N., romantic though she is, seems to be pessimistic about their prospects.
She: He doesn't really know how to read people, does he?
Me: What do you mean? She's obviously madly in love with him.
She: "Yes, I'll marry you, Charles. And I hope you die in the war."
Since we've come to a natural act break, I check in with my girlfriend on what she thinks of the movie so far.
She: Horrible. I don't like her. I don't like the movie. I'm glad the South loses.
Me: Spoiler alert! But how can they lose? They're gentlemen. Gentlemen always beat—
She: —their slaves?
Me: No, that wasn't the point I was making, actually.
We cut straight from Scarlett's joyless wedding—Scarlett is pissy, and Clueless Charles thinks it's because she's worried about him—to a letter explaining that Captain Hamilton has died. My girlfriend, of course, is every bit as inconsolable as Scarlett herself.
She: Which one was that?
Me: Her new husband. The one you said you hoped died in the war.
She: What happened?
Me: He died in the war.
She: Oh, good for her!
Scarlett is upset, of course: she's upset about having to wear mourning clothes and miss out on all the parties. "My whole life is over!" she whines to her mother. "Nothing will ever happen to me anymore!"
She: If only.
But she gets herself shipped off to stay with Melanie's Great Aunt Pittypat in Atlanta, and at a ball to raise money for the war effort she once again encounters Rhett Butler, now a blockade runner and hero of the Confederacy. Confidentially to Scarlett, Rhett protests that he is "neither noble nor heroic," but in it solely for the profit. Foreshadowing roguish cinematic heroes from Rick Blaine to Han Solo, Rhett's motives are initially completely selfish. "I believe in Rhett Butler: he's the only cause I know."
Melanie and Scarlett, however, both donate their wedding rings to the cause: Melanie because she's a saint, and Scarlett because she doesn't give a wet shit for Charles' memory. When an auction is held for men to bid on dance partners, one of the old women there objects that such a thing is indecent. "How can you permit your husband to conduct this slave auction?"
She: BITCH! Are you kidding me? They're outraged over fake slave auctions, but not real slave auctions?
Me: Well, it's treating the white girls like they're black girls: that ain't right.
She: I can't…I can't even.
Me: By the way, is that fat blonde lady a Who of Whoville? Is that Cindy Lou Who's Great Aunt Pittypat Who?
Rhett bids a small fortune on Scarlett, of course, and she scandalizes Atlanta by dancing with him even though she's still in mourning. They argue, they flirt, and Rhett tells her he longs to hear her proclaim her love to him the way she did to Ashley. "That's something you'll never hear from me, Captain Butler, as long as you live," Scarlett tells him.
But Rhett comes a courtin', bringing Scarlett the latest Paris fashions and returning both her and Melanie's wedding rings. He's turning on the charm, and it's working—Scarlett would probably blow Ulysses S. Grant himself for a new Paris hat—but he plays hard to get. "No, I don't think I will kiss you," he tells her. "Though you need kissing, badly. You should be kissed, and often, and by someone who knows how." But he grows sullen when he realizes she's still hung up on Ashley Wilkes. Ashey, Rhett informs her angrily, is currently off fighting with a Confederate unit in a little town called Gettysburg.
She: Dum dum DUM!
Me: And what do we think of Rhett?
She: Um…I like Rhett. I appreciate his straightforward nature. I'm just not sure what he sees in her.
It's a fair question. I hate to harp on this, but again, I can't help but think that another actress might have turned Scarlett's petulant brattiness into the fire and spirit Rhett claims he sees in her. (Compare Hepburn's performance as a difficult but formidable woman in The Philadelphia Story, and tell me she wouldn't have transformed this movie for the better.) But Leigh simply isn't up to the task: she just comes across as the silliest and most vapid bitch in all of the Confederacy. Rhett will—but shouldn't have to—spend another three hours figuring out that he's clearly too good for her.
We get a title card, explaining that Atlanta "turned painful eyes towards the far-away little town of Gettysburg." The entire city gathers, awaiting the arrival of the casualty lists.
Me: Geez, who died?
She: Everyone. Everyone died.
Me: Yeah, they did. We came, we saw, we kicked their Southern asses.
Melanie and Scarlett look through the lists, relieved not to see Ashley's name among the dead. "Oh, Scarlett, you're so sweet to worry about Ashley like this for me," Melanie says, not understanding—or pretending not to understand—that Scarlett would probably bash Melanie's head in with a rock and fuck Ashley on her grave given half a chance.
She: She's a horrible human being.
Nearby, the elderly Dr. Meade (Harry Davenport) and his wife (Leona Roberts) are mourning the death of their son. "I was makin' these mittens for him," a weeping Mrs. Meade says. "He won't need 'em now."
Right on cue, my girlfriend laughs.
She: "You don't need no mittens when yer dead!"
Me: You're a horrible human being.
At this point in the film, I am beginning to suspect that Rhett Butler just follows Scarlett around, and waits for opportune moments to pop up: he's like an angel (or a demon) who suddenly appears out of nowhere on Scarlett's shoulder to provoke her. For much of the film, he's not a character at all, just a combination of plot device and Greek chorus. Here he appears to say what will turn out to be the closest Gone with the Wind comes to expressing a moral opinion about the Civil War. "The cause of living in the past is dying right in front of us…I'm angry. Waste always makes me angry, and that's all this is: sheer waste." (One wonders if he's talking about the war or the movie, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt.)
Ashley Wilkes comes home on leave for Christmas, and Scarlett continues to blatantly compete with the saintly Melanie for his affections. Melanie makes Ashley a new coat, and Scarlett—not to be outdone—makes him a sash. Scarlett also plants a passionate kiss on Ashley's lipless mouth: he doesn't exactly protest, but he doesn't seem particularly interested in her either.
Me: That ain't right.
She: She's a bitch.
And—again—she is. Melanie has been nothing but kind to her, yet Scarlett never once hesitates to betray her. "Oh Scarlett, you're so fine and strong and beautiful," Ashley tells her. "Not just your sweet face, my dear, but you." And this is one of my chief frustrations with Gone with the Wind: Scarlett never once does anything to justify the high opinion all these people seem to have of her. Ashley loves her, and Melanie loves her, and Rhett loves her, but the movie doesn't give us any reason to love her. She's totally immoral, and not even particularly talented at pretending she's not.
(Before I'm accused of completely missing the point—which I'm certainly capable of doing—I do understand that Scarlett's wilfulness and ruthless determination are part of her appeal as a character, and there is something to be said for a woman who owns her sexuality in a way few screen heroines were allowed to do at the time. I also understand that one can read the entirety of Gone with the Wind as Scarlett getting her comeuppance for her selfish, manipulative life, and that her being a horrible human being is the point. We'll discuss this further when we get to the end of the movie—which feels like years away, at the moment—but for now I'll simply say this: Margaret Mitchell, and the movie, were trying to have it both ways with this character, and neither way works for me. We are meant to both admire and judge Scarlett, but the way the screenplay presents her, and the way Leigh plays her, I'm neither impressed with her allegedly indomitable spirit nor satisfied with her eventual humbling.)
The war picks up steam—thank God—and Scarlett begins working in the hospital tending to the wounded and dying men of the Confederacy. This, to me, is another misstep of the film, because, while we're supposed to understand that she's been doing this for a while—a fact that would suggest a strain of even reluctant human kindness in Scarlett—we don't see it. All we see is her looking bored and disdainful while Melanie listens to a wounded man talk, and we see her running from the hospital after refusing to help with an amputation. "I've done enough!" she pouts. "I don't want any more men dying!" We, however, haven't seen her do shit. I suppose we could charitably believe that she's just overcome by genuine emotion at the horrors of war, but it doesn't play that way at all: she comes across as simply annoyed and disgusted that she should have to put up with all this crap. There's no care, no human sympathy, and not an ounce of concern for anyone but herself.
Outside the hospital, she runs into a group of black men, marching and singing: among them are some of the slaves of Tara, including Big Sam (Everett Brown). Big Sam is delighted to see her, and apparently delighted to be going off to "dig ditches for the white soldiers to hide in." Big Sam proudly tells Scarlett that "the Confederacy needs us, so we're goin' to dig for the South!"
Me: See, they love the Confederacy, and Ms. Scarlett.
(Technically, I suppose, they are former slaves at this point—the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in January 1863, seven months before Gettysburg—but it's unclear whether anyone has told them that: the words "Emancipation Proclamation" are never mentioned in Gone with the Wind, and you'd never know from the film that any of the black characters had ever even heard of the concept of "freedom," let alone longed for it.)
Scarlett tries to make her way through the town, nearly trampled as the citizens of Atlanta flee the approach of Sherman's army: right on cue, Magical Rhett Butler appears to escort her through the chaos. He offers to take her away to Paris or London. "Let’s get out of here together…with a man who understands you and admires you for just what you are. I figure we belong together, being the same sort." She says she hates him, he laughs and leaves: it's the same interaction they have at least half a dozen times throughout Gone with the Wind.
Aunt Pittypat is fleeing Atlanta, and Scarlett wants to go with her–but Melanie is pregnant, and there's no one to look after her. Scarlett, remembering her promise to Ashley, stays behind, along with her slave Prissy (Butterfly McQueen), who sounds like Minnie Mouse and claims she knows everything about birthing babies…
…until a couple of scenes later, when it's time for the baby to actually be born. First, Prissy—who has been sent to fetch the doctor—is found wandering outside the house singing high-pitched nursery rhymes to herself.
Me: Is she playing Ophelia? Is this the mad scene?
Scarlett goes to find the doctor herself, making her way across a railyard full of dead and wounded men in one of the most famous shots of the movie.
Me: You know, if you're not even going to comment on shots like that, then I don't know what the point of this is.
She: That was VERY powerful. That tattered Confederate flag waving in the wind? Very moving. I got all weepy.
The doctor tells Scarlett that they can't spare anyone to deal with Melanie's labor—which, for the record, he already told her, which is why she stayed in Atlanta in the first place—and Scarlett returns to place Melanie in the very capable and professional hands of Prissy. There's just one problem: Prissy, her back to the wall, is forced to make an uncomfortable admission: "I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies!"
Me: Then why the fuck did you say you knew how in the first place?
She: Probably because she was huffing helium.
Me: Yeah, I don't know what that voice is.
She: That bitch is high.
Somehow, between them, Scarlett and Melanie manage to soldier through the birth, and—because she's proven so reliable so far—Scarlett sends Prissy to fetch Rhett Butler, to get all of them out of Atlanta before Sherman rolls through. Prissy goes to find Rhett at the local brothel run by Belle Watling (Ona Munson), and tells him (and all the assembled johns and whores) how she single-handedly delivered Melanie's baby.
She: I don't understand this character at all. She's basically a human version of the cartoon crows in Dumbo.
A few minutes later, Rhett refers to Prissy as "a simple-minded darkie."
Me: There you go. Now do you understand her character?
She: Yep, she's just a simple-minded darkie. Got it.
And now we come to the action-movie portion of Gone with the Wind, as Rhett races his carriage through the burning city of Atlanta trying to get Scarlett, Melanie, the baby, and the simple-minded darkie to safety. And yes—to pay the film a rare compliment—I'll admit that it's an impressive set-piece, especially for audiences for whom films in Technicolor were still a novelty: the rich vibrant colors of the fire must have been truly breathtaking on the big screen in 1939. (That Gone with the Wind won the Oscar for Best Color Cinematography over its fellow trailblazer The Wizard of Oz is no doubt attributable to this sequence.)
But watching Atlanta burn has given Rhett a change of heart: as soon as they are safely outside of Atlanta, he announces that he's leaving them to go join the army. "Maybe it's because I've always had a weakness for lost causes, once they're really lost," he says, to explain this otherwise inexplicable turn his character takes. (This, to me, is just another example of the clumsy structure of Gone with the Wind, and of Rhett's character in particular: he shows up when the plot needs him, and he disappears just as conveniently when the story wants Scarlett to fend for herself.)
Before he goes, he announces that he loves her. "Because we're alike. Bad lots, both of us. Selfish and shrewd, but able to look things in the eye and call them by their right name." They kiss, and then she slaps him, and then she calls him terrible names: if you were to splice all of their scenes in the first half of the film together it would simply be this same basic ritual, over and over, without variation or development.
With Rhett gone, the women make their way through the ruined South, through burned fields and empty houses and desolation as far as the eye can see. (I try not to giggle.) But soon they are in sight of home.
She: Oh, there's a fucking rainbow.
Me: Wow. That's subtle.
She: "God gave the South the Rainbow Sign. No more slavery: Jim Crow next time!"
When they finally reach Tara, Scarlett discovers that her mother is dead, and her father (played by the great character actor Thomas Mitchell, of It's a Wonderful Life fame) is not quite in his right mind.
She: I think Pa's gone round the bend.
Me: "Uncle Billy, don't you know me?"
Learning of her mother's death and her father's insanity is bad enough, but Scarlett is horrified to learn from Mammy and Pork that the Northern Army had been camped there, and have taken all the food and most everything of value. "Yankees in Tara!" Scarlett proclaims, aghast at the prospect.
The final indignity comes when she discovers that most of the servants have gone to war or run off. (How dare they?) Faced with the prospect of running a household of six people with only three servants, Scarlett staggers in a rage out into the decrepit garden, and claws a radish out of the ground with her bare hands, retching when she tries to swallow it. She raises a defiant fist to the heavens.
"If I have to lie, steal, cheat, or kill, as God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again!"
And we have reached, mercifully, the Intermission, and the end of Part One. N. is—predictably—anxious to continue.
She: As God is my witness, I'll never watch the second half of that film.
Me: Yes, you will.
She: Fine. But I need a break before Disc Two.
Me: So…impressions so far?
She: I hate it.
Me: What, exactly, do you hate?
She:[Sigh.] So many things. I don't like her character at all. I find her insufferable. And that's a problem, because if you want me to sympathize with the South, you maybe want to give me a sympathetic character to relate to. But she's just horrible.
Me: What's wrong with her?
She: Everything that Rhett loves about her. That's what's wrong with her. She's selfish, self-involved, manipulative…
Me: You're not enamored of her indomitable spirit?
She: Why? Because that bitch has been hungry for, what, a couple of days now? Versus people who have been in slavery for hundreds of years?
Me: She had to dig up that radish with her bare hands. Ladies do not dig up radishes with their bare hands.
She: Yeah. That must have been rough.
Me: You know, you're awfully short on sympathy.
She: For the South? Yes. Yes I am.
Me: But it's so sad, that whole way of life coming to an end.
She: Any way of life dependent on the subjugation of an entire people deserves to come to an end.
Me: But they had awesome parties.
She: Yeah, it was probably easier to have those parties when you had slave labor to do all the work.
Me: I have to be honest: so far, I really don't understand why Scarlett is such a beloved character.
She: Is she?
Me: I think so.
She: No, I don't get it either, then. She's awful.
Me: Is there anything you do like?
She: Whatever. He's fine, I guess. But…I just…no.
Me: There are some pretty shots in the movie, especially for the time.
She: It's pretty, but it's phony pretty. Who's that painter?
Me: What painter?
She: On TV. The white dude with the afro.
Me: Bob Ross?
She: Yeah, it's pretty like that. [Doing a barely recognizable Bob Ross impression] "Let's put a pretty little tree over here…And then let's put some strange fruit on that tree, with a nice little sunset…and maybe a rainbow." It's still fucked up, no matter how nicely you frame it. And it's all in service of this fantastical, beautiful South that we're supposed to be mourning. And I am not in mourning of that South. I am not nostalgic for the good old days. I do not find that romantic. Things like this only feed into people behaving in problematic ways. Like the people who hang up Confederate flags now and say, "Oh, it's about Southern Pride." Maybe, but it's tied into some very real history that you refuse to confront in any real way, and address in any real way, and recognize how your behavior is disrespectful of that history.
Me: You know, I almost think you were somehow predisposed to not like this movie. It's almost like you came in with some preconceived notions about the South that make you unsympathetic towards them, and their cause.
She: Yeah. Weird.
Me: I'm sure it will get better in Part Two.
Next: It gets worse in Part Two.
1 thought on “GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) – Part One”
Michael please tell N she's given me my best birthday present of the day with the line 'You should have played outside more. I wouldn't be doing this now if you'd played outside more. I'm pretty sure my whole life would be different if you'd just played outside more.'