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. Today, we present the conclusion to our look at David O. Selznick’s Oscar-winning production of Gone with the Wind (1939). You can read Part One, covering the first half of this extremely long movie, here.
In his review of Gone with the Wind in the December 20, 1939 edition of the New York Times, critic Frank S. Nugent called the film “a handsome, scrupulous and unstinting version of the 1,037-page novel, matching it almost scene for scene with a literalness that not even Shakespeare or Dickens were accorded in Hollywood.”
I think Mr. Nugent meant that as a compliment, but, sweet Jesus, how that scrupulosity does try the patience of anyone who doesn’t happen to think that Margaret Mitchell’s crotch-crusher of a potboiler deserves to be in the same sentence with Shakespeare and Dickens. N. said in Part One of this post that one mark of great movie-making is the ability to edit, and I concur: no film adaptation is best served by such unimaginative devotion to its source material.
It’s in the second half of the film that Gone with the Wind’s rigorous fidelity to Mitchell’s novel becomes most punishing, as the focus shifts from the intermittently exciting drama of wartime to the tepid domestic melodrama of reconstruction. Part Two of Gone with the Wind oftenfeels like a strained and stretched-out sequel to Part One, a repetitive milking of characters and storylines that could have been dealt with more effectively and more satisfyingly in two hours rather than four. (If Mitchell did this within her own novel, I can only imagine how much worse this over-staying-of-welcome gets with Alexandra Ripley’s estate-authorized sequel Scarlett, published in 1991 and filmed as a television mini-series in 1994.)
However much the novel’s fans appreciated the movie’s slavish—the pun is unintended but appropriate—devotion, N. and I did not. We took a half-hour break between Discs One and Two, but it didn’t help much: we were bored and irritable by this point, and we had less to say about the remainder of the film. As such, we’re going to be less slavish ourselves, and pick up the pace considerably in this account of the rest of the film.
Gone with the Wind began with a musical Overture, which we dutifully watched, as I insisted the Filmwatcher’s Code required us to view the film as intended in order to judge it fairly. Part One ended with a musical Intermission, and we let that play too (though we certainly talked through it). Now, Part Two begins with a musical Entr’acte—once again playing over a static image—and we have had enough.
Me: I think we can fast-forward through this.
She: Oh, but it’s part of the movie: that’s what you said before.
Me: Well, I mean, people in theaters would have been pissing during this part, right? It’s a nineteen-hour movie: people needed to get up and piss. So let’s pretend that’s what we’re doing, and skip this part.
She: What about the “Filmwatcher’s Code?”
Me: Fuck the code. Let’s get on with it.
Some title cards set the stage: “SHERMAN!” reads one (and the fiery backdrops subtly inform us that we are supposed to read this precisely as we would read a card that said “SATAN!”). We learn how “the Great Invader” marched through Georgia, leaving a path of destruction, and how “Tara had survived to face the hell and famine of defeat.”
The “hell of defeat” means unimaginable indignities:
Me: Aw, look what they’re doing.
She: White women pickin’ their own cotton. What has the world come to?
“Look at my hands!” Scarlett’s sister Suellen whines. Scarlett, however, has become Simon Legree, and smacks her sister for daring to complain.
She: She’s a slappin’ bitch.
Me: She does seem a little slap-happy: is there anyone she hasn’t slapped yet?
A few scenes later, the personification of their torment arrives in the form of a deserter from the Northern army. The film’s sympathies are firmly with the South, so of course this representative of the North is a sub-human troll looking to loot and rape and defile the sanctity of Tara with his vile Yankee presence. When he approaches Scarlett with obviously evil intentions, she shoots him right in the face.
Melanie—still weak from childbirth and the crushing weight of her own goodness—hears the shot and comes rushing out, brandishing a sword: these Southern Ladies are ready to defend their honor and land from the monstrous invaders. (Watching this movie, I can’t help but think the South should have sent its women into battle, and let fops like Ashley stay home to nurse the wounded.) Now, Scarlett and Melanie have the problem of Dead Yankee Disposal, and wrap the miscreant in Melanie’s nightgown to bury him in the arbor.
“Well, I guess I’ve done murder,” Scarlett says. “I won’t think about that now. I’ll think about that tomorrow.”
She: You’ve also done chattel slavery, for the record.
Me: Yeah, but she won’t think about that now.
She: That’s the one she won’t think about ever.
As I said above, history in Gone with the Wind is being written by the losers, so Yankees do not come across well in this story. In addition to the Rapey Hobbit that Scarlett dispatches, we see carpetbaggers spill into Georgia in the wake of Lee’s surrender, among them the odious Mr. Wilkerson (Victor Jory).
A former overseer at Tara—at the beginning of the film we hear that he has impregnated a “poor white-trash” girl, and been fired—Wilkerson comes back to town in the company of one of the only free black men we see in the movie: a cigar-smoking fat cat with a gold-handled-cane, come to profit off the misery of the South. Asked to give a ride to a dying Confederate soldier, the two men nearly trample the wounded men beneath their carriage instead. This fantasy of white-trash Northerners and freed black men getting rich from the war—putting on tacky airs like they’re “new money” gentlemen—must have been the ultimate nightmare of the Southern gentry.
Me: This is some fair and balanced storytelling here, let me tell you.
Also returning from the war are Frank Kennedy (Carroll Nye), Suellen’s beau, and that irresistible object of womanly lust, Ashley Wilkes. Ashley’s chief purpose—when he’s not making himself useful at Tara as the least convincing rail-splitter ever—is to monologue in purple prose about how his whole way of life is gone, and how there isn’t any place for him now. Scarlett’s solution to the problem, however, is for them both to betray Melanie and abandon everyone they know. “There’s only one way you can help me,” Scarlett tells him. “Take me away; there’s nothing to keep us here!”
“Nothing,” Ashley says mournfully. “Nothing except honor.”
She: This is horrible.
Me: However do you mean?
She: It’s just horrible. She’s horrible. The writing is horrible. It’s all horrible.
Meanwhile, Scarlett has fallen $300 behind on the taxes on Tara, and is in danger of losing the property. White-Trash Wilkerson shows up with his White-Trash Wife, offering to buy the place, and Scarlett orders them off the property. As they’re driving away, Scarlett’s crazy father jumps on a horse to give chase and yell at the Yankee scum, but is thrown from the animal and killed. My girlfriend is understandably devastated by this turn.
Me: I don’t know why the fuck he was chasing them in the first place; they were already leaving.
She: Gotta make that final point, I guess.
Me: I hope it was worth it.
After the funeral, Scarlett gives her father’s gold watch to Pork, who doesn’t want to accept it. “Lawsy, Ms. Scarlett, dat’s Mr. Gerald’s watch,” Pork says. “You ain’t got no business partin’ from this watch now, Ms. Scarlett—you needs all your valuables to sell fer dat tax money!”
She: Consider it back wages for forty years of unpaid labor.
Mammy comes up to Scarlett immediately after.
Me: “Hey, bitch, where’s my goddamned watch? I’ve never been paid either.”
Scarlett has a new plan to come up with the back taxes: she’s going to get it from her old friend Rhett Butler. But to seduce him, she needs to look good, and to get the money from him she needs to look like she doesn’t need the money, so she pulls down the curtains so Mammy can make her a new dress.
(Long before I ever saw Gone with the Wind, I knew this plot development from The Carol Burnett Show: perhaps the reason I dislike Vivien Leigh so much is that Burnett is still the definitive Scarlett to me.)
Before I posted Part One of our review, N. and I had a discussion about whether it was fair and proper to call Scarlett O’Hara a “whore.” I had done so in my write-up—several times, in fact—but N. took issue with it. While agreeing Scarlett was a horrible person, she quite rightly thought it was unfair to call her a “whore” just because she owned her own sexuality so confidently, and I eventually agreed not to partake in such slut-shaming. (There’s nothing wrong with a woman showing her bosom before three o’clock in my book: in fact, I’m all for it.)
However, that was in Part One, when Scarlett was just an over-eager debutante: in Part Two, I have absolutely no compunctions about calling her a whore, since she spends much of the second half of the film attempting to categorically whore herself. It starts with Rhett Butler, whom Scarlett finds living large in a Union Army jail cell. Dressed in her fine drape dress, she flirts and teases and coquettes her way around the cell, acting like she doesn’t have a care in the world, until Rhett notices from her rough hands that she’s been working “like a field hand.”
(A side-note: out of curiosity, I checked the comparable quote from the novel, and of course there Rhett does not say Scarlett has been working “like a field hand”: he says she’s been working “like a nigger.” The novel Gone with the Wind uses the word liberally, and originally Selznick had intended to use it in the movie, but caved in to censors, activists, and the objections of his own black actors, including McDaniel and McQueen. [For a good discussion of this issue, see Leonard J. Leff’s article “Gone with the Wind and Hollywood’s Racial Politics” in The Atlantic here.] As that article mentions, Butterfly McQueen objected to the word “because it seemed so authentic.” To me, the very authenticity McQueen objected to is what is sorely missing from Gone with the Wind, and Selznick’s attempts at political correctness now have the unfortunate effect of contributing to the overall feeling that the film is revisionist history, trying to soften the experience of blacks in the Civil War South and sanitize the unforgivable racism of the novel.)
(But I digress: let us return to our discussion of Scarlett’s prostituting herself for money.)
Scarlett begs Rhett for the $300 to save her plantation, offering him her earrings and the mortgage on Tara as collateral; when he refuses, she offers him herself. “You haven’t forgotten I’m not a marrying man?” he asks her, and she replies no, she hasn’t forgotten. Rhett, to his eternal credit, informs Scarlett that she’s not worth $300. Leaving the jail, Scarlett passes Rhett’s friend Belle Watling going in: the juxtapositioning is clear, but at least Belle is an honest whore.
Her first sucker being too smart to fall for her act, Scarlett turns her sights on the dumbest man in Georgia: her sister’s fiancee, Frank Kennedy. Frank, she discovers, has started a moderately successful hardware store, with a side business in lumber, and that’s good enough for Scarlett: she quickly ensnares him, telling him that Suellen has another beau. When next we see them, Scarlett is writing a check for her taxes, signing it “Scarlett O’Hara Kennedy.”
She: She’s a horrible person.
Me: You keep saying that.
She: Well, she is.
Me: Oh, I’m not arguing: she’s a bitch from hell.
Now a woman of means, Scarlett sets Ashley up in Frank’s lumber business: he doesn’t want to accept her help, but she manipulates Melanie into making him accept the job. He and Scarlett differ, however, on labor practices: he wants to hire “free darkies,” but now that they would have to pay black men, Scarlett says they’re too expensive. She leases convicts instead, and puts a tyrannical overseer in place to keep them in line.
As they argue about it, Ashley says something that we can’t believe he has said: we actually have to rewind the DVD to make sure we heard what we thought we’d heard:
“He’ll starve them and whip them,” Ashley says, of the overseer. “Scarlett, I will not make money out of the enforced labor and misery of others!”
We have to pause for a moment to process this. My girlfriend isn’t even fuming: she’s just sad.
She: Can you really only recognize injustice when it is done to someone who looks like you? Is that the only time you notice? Is that just where your notion of humanity stops?
Surprisingly, Scarlett calls him (mildly) on the hypocrisy: “You weren’t so particular about owning slaves,” she says. But Ashley actually goes on to say that it was different with the slaves, because slaves were treated better, and because Ashley was planning to free his anyway. This is disingenuous about a dozen different ways, obviously, and it is unfathomable and unforgivable to think that generations of Americans might have believed—because of this book and movie, which present no other view—that white convicts were treated worse than black slaves, or that slave-owners were all gentle poets like Ashley Wilkes. Of all the problematic, bullshit characters in Gone with the Wind, Ashley Wilkes may be the worst: he represents the Southern slave-owner as a gentle, noble, honorable soul, and mourns the passing of this romanticized society without ever really acknowledging—let alone grappling with—the evils upon which that society was founded.
Comparing Gone with the Wind: The Movie to Gone with the Wind: The Novel opens up an abyss of discussion that I promised myself I wasn’t going to gaze into too deeply in this post, but I think it’s occasionally useful if only to support our view that the movie is a horrible, harmful thing. The novel—steeped to the gills in overt racism—is a more obviously problematic thing, a manifesto of white supremacist attitudes that would have been reprehensible in 1865, let alone when Mitchell published the book in 1936. (For a good, angry overview of some of the more fucked-up notions and passages of the novel, see this blog post by Pierre Cloutier, which I found extremely helpful for remembering some of the worst bits without having to re-read the novel myself.)
But the way in which the movie whitewashes—pun intended—the novel, while still retaining its overall view of history, may be even more unforgivable. Whatever his motives, Selznick sanded many of the rough edges off Mitchell’s story, while staying faithful to the text in other ways and clinging to its overall romantic notions about white southerners and their society. The result is a Trojan horse of a movie, a gussied-up piece of white supremacist propaganda dressed in the curtains of a romance.
To get into this discussion we can look at the scenes where Scarlett is attacked while driving her buggy alone through a shantytown. She is assaulted by two men, one white and one black: the black man holds her horse, while the evil white man comes after Scarlett, obviously intending to rape her. She is saved by her former slave Big Sam.
I’m going to pause here for a note about Big Sam, and all the slaves of Tara who remain loyal to Scarlett, because this is a good example of what I mean about the film retaining the racist attitudes of the book while eschewing the overtly racist language. In the book, for example, Big Sam seems to think freedom is the worst thing that ever happened to him: “Ah done had nuff freedom,” he tells Scarlett, after returning from up north. “Ah wants somebody ter feed me good vittles reg’lar, and tell me whut ter do an’ whut not ter do, an’ look affer me w’en Ah gits sick.”
In the film, we don’t hear the “good” black characters openly expressing these problematic views, but they embody those views completely. Mammy, Prissy, Pork, and Big Sam seem to love being slaves; they show no resentment for the lifetimes they have spent enslaved, they exhibit no desire to leave Tara even after the war is over, and they have nothing but gratitude and admiration for their white overlords. Tara’s “house servants” are contemptuous of other blacks, especially free blacks: most uses of the word “nigger” in the novel, in fact, are by Mammy, Prissy, Sam, and the others, referring to those they judge to be inferior members of their race. Freemen, as both the novel and film present them, are lazy, shiftless, unreliable workers at best, and vicious, raping scum at worst. The novel presents very clearly and firmly the belief that freedom is something bad for African-Americans: that they are basically animals and savages who can’t look out for themselves, and will—without the firm hand of whites to guide them—quickly revert to their animalistic jungle ways.
So Sam’s saving Scarlett from the threat of rape is a deliberate contrast between the “good” blacks of Tara and the “bad” free blacks of Shantytown, who live and behave no better than animals. The film sidesteps this point slightly by making it the white man who actually attempts to rape Scarlett—in the novel she refers to her attacker as “a black ape”—but this doesn’t change the rampant white supremacy that powers this story. For Mitchell’s potboiler is absolutely marinated in the fantasy that black men live for no other purpose but to rape white women. For example, the film omits a character named Tony Fontaine, who gets in trouble with the Yankees for killing Wilkerson. Part of his defense is that Wilkerson was telling free black men that they had a right to white women.
“If anybody had told me I’d ever live to see the day when I’d hate darkies! Damn their black souls, they believe anything those scoundrels tell them and forget every living thing we’ve done for them. […] And if they give the negroes the vote, it’s the end of us. Damn it, it’s our state! It doesn’t belong to the Yankees! By God, Scarlett, it isn’t to be borne! And it won’t be borne! We’ll do something about it if it means another war. Soon we’ll be having nigger judges, nigger legislators—black apes out of the jungle—”
“Please—hurry, tell me! What did you do?” […]
“Well, the word got around that Wilkerson had gone a bit too far with his nigger-equality business. Oh, yes, he talks it to those black fools by the hour. He had the gall—the—” Tony spluttered helplessly, “to say niggers had a right to—to—white women.”
Scarlett reflects on this:
Now she knew what Reconstruction meant, knew as well as if the house were ringed about by naked savages, squatting in breech clouts […] The negroes were on top and behind them were the Yankee bayonets. She could be killed, she could be raped and, very probably, nothing would ever be done about it. And anyone who avenged her would be hanged by the Yankees, hanged without benefit of trial by judge and jury. “What can we do?” she thought, wringing her hands in an agony of helpless fear. “What can we do with devils who’d hang a nice boy like Tony just for killing a drunken buck and a scoundrelly Scallawag to protect his women folks?”
And, in Mitchell’s feverish fantasy, the answer to Scarlett’s question is the Ku Klux Klan. The novel’s attitude towards the Klan is slightly ambiguous—characters eventually decide it does more harm than good—but it is presented as, at worst, a necessary evil. In Mitchell’s feverish imagination, after all, the Klan existed almost exclusively to protect white women from the threat of rape.
It was the large number of outrages on women and the ever-present fear for the safety of their wives and daughters that drove Southern men to cold and trembling fury and caused the Ku Klux Klan to spring up overnight. The North wanted every member of the Ku Klux hunted down and hanged, because they had dared take the punishment of crime into their own hands at a time when the ordinary processes of law and order had been overthrown by the invaders. Here was the astonishing spectacle of half a nation attempting, at the point of bayonet, to force upon the other half the rule of negroes, many of them scarcely one generation out of the African jungles.
Scarlett is surprised to discover that her men are in the Klan. “Of course, Mr. Kennedy is in the Klan and Ashley, too, and all the men we know,” she is told. “They are men, aren’t they? And white men and Southerners.”
The film retains all of this, but doesn’t mention the Klan by name. Following Scarlett’s attack, Frank Kennedy and Ashley go off to attend a “political meeting.” After they’ve been gone a while, Rhett shows up to tell Scarlett and Melanie that the men had gone to clean out the shantytown. Yankee soldiers come looking for them—a development that really only makes sense if we understand that this was a Klan raid—and Rhett goes off to bring them home safely while the women, scared for their menfolk, sit around listening to Melanie read aloud.
She: This is the tensest reading of David Copperfield ever.
Rhett brings Ashley home, playing drunk, and to fool the Yankees they concoct a story about how they’ve all been at Belle Watling’s place. In truth, however, Ashley has been shot in the raid on the shantytown, and Scarlett is horrified. No mention is made, however, of Frank Kennedy.
She: Where’s bitchface’s husband?
Me: I don’t know, but you can see she’s really concerned about him.
Rhett notices that Scarlett hasn’t even asked about Frank Kennedy, and informs her that her husband is lying dead on a road, shot through the head.
She: Her husbands tend to die.
Me: Yeah, she does tend to go through them, doesn’t she?
And yet they keep lining up. Now, in the wake of Frank’s death, it’s Rhett who arrives to propose marriage to the “grieving” widow. “Now that you’ve got your lumber mill and Frank’s money, you won’t come to me as you did in the jail,” he says—meaning that, since she won’t whore herself for money, he has no choice but to propose marriage.
She: This is super romantic.
Rhett also implies that her problem is that she’s just never been laid properly. “Did you ever think of marrying just for fun?” he asks. “You’ve been married to a boy and an old man. Why not try a husband of the right age, with a way with woman?” He may have a point, because when he lays a forceful kiss on her, she stops protesting and agrees to marry him. (Though she also admits she’s doing it mostly for the money.)
Soon, Scarlett and Rhett are living large on Rhett’s millions, and parading around Georgia like high-society folk.
She: That is a fugly-ass dress. I like the one she made from curtains better.
Scarlett has Rhett build her the biggest and most vulgar house Atlanta has ever seen, and moves her favorite slaves into it with them. “Lordy, we sure is rich now!” Prissy exclaims, upon seeing the house.
She: OK, I knew Prissy was high, but she must be smoking some good shit to think there’s any “we” here. It’s like Cliff Huxtable told his kids: “You’re mother and I are rich: you have nothing.”
But then N. draws my attention to something I hadn’t noticed: as the scene fades on Prissy’s line, Mammy gives Prissy a look. It’s just a couple of seconds, but it’s such a priceless moment it has inspired me to learn how to make a GIF:
She: Ha! Did you see that look Mammy gave her? “Bitch, please! What the fuck you mean we? We ain’t rich. Ain’t no we in slavery!”
Scarlett has a child, Bonnie, who becomes the apple of Rhett’s eye. “The first person who has ever completely belonged to me,” Rhett says.
Me: I guess he never had any slaves of his own.
However, once Scarlett realizes that childbirth has put an inch or two on her waspish frame, and that she can no longer be strapped into her fugly dresses, she informs Rhett that she does not intend to have any more children. Translation: “No more nookie for you.” Rhett hears this announcement just after he catches her gazing longingly at a picture of Ashley Wilkes, and chastises her for throwing away happiness for a dream of someone she wouldn’t even want if she had him. He also threatens to divorce her for shirking her marital duties, but ultimately says he will “find comfort elsewhere.”
The very next scene finds Rhett back visiting Belle Watling, who must be relieved that her business won’t suffer from Rhett’s marriage after all. She reminds him that “the child is worth ten of the mother,” and so Rhett decides to channel all of his energies into giving Bonnie a good place in society. He brown-noses all the local bigwigs and rich old ladies, and it must be working: we hear that someone named Napoleon Picard is throwing a party for Bonnie.
Me: Are you laughing at “Napoleon Picard?”
She: Yes. And everyone else should, too.
Meanwhile, while Rhett is teaching little Bonnie to ride a pony—which I’m sure will turn out to have been an awesome idea—Scarlett is still flirting with Ashley Wilkes, and Ashley is still waxing rhapsodic about the good old days: “Yes, we’ve traveled a long road since the old days, haven’t we, Scarlett?” he asks her. “Oh, the lazy days. The warm, still, country twilight; the high, soft negro laughter from the quarters; the golden warmth and security of those days…”
She: What the fuck did he just say?
Me: I believe he said something about missing the soft negro laughter from the quarters.
She: Because those were the lazy days.
Me: Well, I suppose they would be pretty lazy days, wouldn’t they?
She: I’m just saying that when they start to fondly reminisce about the days when the slaves were laughing in their quarters, and that was the soundtrack of their lives, that’s a problem. That’s a sign that this narrative is maybe skewed in the wrong direction.
All this fond nostalgia for those golden, slave-ownin’ days works Scarlett and Ashley into quite the lather, and they end up embracing—but they are caught by Melanie’s mother and sister (both of whom hate Scarlett anyway). That night is Ashley’s big birthday party, and Rhett—who has heard the gossip all over town–forces Scarlett to go alone to face the music.
But Melanie, of course, welcomes Scarlett like a sister, avoiding the big scene and scandal that everyone was expecting. Which makes this as good a time as any for me to say that Melanie is an insufferably saintly and obscenely insipid character, but Olivia de Havilland is actually quite good: she brings a maturity and intelligence to the role that just barely makes Melanie tolerable. It is horrifying to think how another actress—one of Leigh’s caliber, for example—would have played this role as a pious simpleton, but de Havilland actually makes it seem like Melanie is a smart, decent woman who is genuinely operating on a higher level than everyone else.
Scarlett has avoided the Wrath of Melanie and the open judgement of high society, but she still has Rhett to contend with. That night, he is drunk, angry, and brutal: he takes Scarlett’s head between his hands and threatens to crush her skull like a walnut in order to erase Ashley Wilkes from her mind.
She: Do it!
Me: You know, that would be a great ending. That would almost make the seventeen hours we’ve been watching this movie worthwhile.
Instead, Rhett decides his best bet is to screw Ashley Wilkes out of her. “This is one night you’re not turning me out,” he tells her, and he carries her struggling up the bedroom.
She: Well, that was rapey.
And indeed, this is one of the more widely controversial scenes in the movie: “marital rape” was not really a hot topic in 1936—let alone in the 1870s—but it’s just another example of just how badly this film has aged, and yet another good reason (among so many good reasons) why I can’t help but seriously worry about anyone in the 21st century who tells me they love Gone with the Wind, or tries to argue that Scarlett is a strong feminist icon.
And it’s all the more troubling because, the next morning, Scarlett is positively glowing, as though it were the first time she was ever enjoyed herself in the sack.
She: Oh, okay, she’s into that. That’s fine. Whatever does it for you.
Me: At least the film is consistent in its fucked-up notions. It’s an equal-opportunity offender: black people love being slaves, and women love being raped.
But then Rhett—who doesn’t seem to realize that he has forced his way into Scarlett’s heart by forcing his way into Scarlett—makes the mistake of apologizing. His own brutish behavior has convinced him that it’s time to call it quits, and he suggests they get a divorce. He also announces he is taking Bonnie to London. Scarlett protests, but Rhett informs her that Bonnie doesn’t need her. “Why, a cat’s a better mother than you are,” he says, insulting felines everywhere.
Rhett and Bonnie go to London—which is just another example of A LENGTHY SCENE THAT THE MOVIE COULD HAVE SKIPPED WITH NO PROBLEM WHATSOEVER—and when they return Scarlett is happy to see both of them. But Rhett is cold to her, even when Scarlett informs him that she is going to have a baby.
She: Aw, a rape baby!
“Cheer up,” Rhett says. “Maybe you’ll have an accident.” And immediately after he says these words, Scarlett lunges at him unconvincingly and falls down the stairs.
My girlfriend, all of her womanly sympathies appropriately engaged, laughs loudly at this absurdly melodramatic development, and there is more to come. In the aftermath of Scarlett’s miscarriage, Rhett and Scarlett are discussing reconciling, when Bonnie rides up on her pony and announces she’s going to do some jumping.
“I don’t think you should do much jumping,” Rhett cautions the child. “You only just learned to ride sidesaddle.” (Interesting side-note: it was Mammy—the arbiter of Southern propriety—who insisted the child learn to ride sidesaddle, because “it just ain’t fittin’ for a girl-child to ride astraddle with her dress flyin’ up.” So really, what happens is all Mammy’s fault, because—propriety be damned—sidesaddle is a really, really stupid way to ride a horse.) The child takes off to do her jumps, and Scarlett observes that she’s “just like Pa.” Then a look of horrified premonition comes over her face: “Just like Pa!”
And, sure enough, Bonnie crashes head first into the fence, and we cut immediately to a shot of a funeral wreath.
And, sure enough, my girlfriend laughs again.
She: This movie is RIDICULOUS.
Me: You’re a cold-hearted woman.
Rhett is devastated, and locks himself in the nursery for days, holed up with Bonnie’s body. Mammy is the only one smart enough to summon the saintly Mrs. Wilkes to deal with this situation, and Hattie McDaniel earns her Oscar with a scene of copious weeping as she explains how terrible things have been between Rhett and Scarlett, and how Rhett is a broken man. “He ain’t gonna let us bury that child. You gotta help us, Miss Melly!” It’s a good scene—and McDaniel exhibits some of the only genuine emotions to be found in the film—but I can’t help but think the movie might have been better served if all the drama and heartbreak Mammy is describing had happened on-screen. It’s the devastating climax to the Rhett/Scarlett marriage, and we don’t see it play out.
Melanie goes into the nursery, and comes out hours later announcing that Rhett has agreed to let the funeral take place. “Hallelujah!” Mammy says.
She: Yeah, Hallelujah, because that kid was getting pretty ripe.
The final hour of Gone with the Wind is just melodrama after melodrama: the second Melanie has accomplished this mission of mercy, she herself collapses. She’s dying, of course. Scarlett visits Melanie on her deathbed, and afterwards she and Ashley have a talk in which she realizes—finally—that he really loves his wife. “Oh, Ashley, you really love her, don’t you?…And I’ve loved something that doesn’t really exist. And somehow, I don’t care…It doesn’t matter one bit.”
She: She has a way of making everything about her, doesn’t she? His wife is dying, and it’s all about her.
Me: Plus, I could have sworn he told her he loved Melanie, ABOUT FORTY TIMES THROUGHOUT THE MOVIE.
After Melanie dies, Scarlett runs to Rhett, and the two have their final scene together: she throws herself at his feet and tells him she loves him, but he’s having none of it. “As long as there was Bonnie, there was a chance we might be happy,” he says. “I like to think Bonnie was you, a little girl again, before the war and poverty had done things to you.”
Me: SHE WAS A BITCH BEFORE THE WAR TOO!
And then we get the most famous line in the film, and one of the most famous lines in cinema history. As Rhett is leaving, Scarlett runs after him, begging. “Rhett, if you go, where shall I go? What shall I do?”
“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” Rhett says, and leaves.
Me: You and me both, Rhett. And if you’d only said that three hours ago, we both would have been better off.
Scarlett is left with nothing—nothing but (as her father told her, and reminds her now from beyond the grave in unnecessary voice-over) Tara. She’ll go home, she decides, and think about how to get Rhett back tomorrow. “After all, tomorrow is another day!”
And the movie is finally—mercifully—over.
This is the nineteenth post we’ve written for The Unenthusiastic Critic, and—as entertaining as I find the process—I must admit that I sometimes feel guilty for taking beloved films and allowing my girlfriend—or my girlfriend and me—to crap all over them. Watching Blade Runner through my partner’s eyes, for example, more or less completely ruined that film for me, removing the gauzy film of nostalgia from my eyes and allowing me to see past the technical achievement and actually hear the truly hamfisted writing. And sometimes—once in a while, at least—I feel slightly bad about the idea that we might be doing that for other people as well.
I have no such mixed feelings about Gone with the Wind: I want to ruin Gone with the Wind for you. I want to ruin it for everyone. My only mixed feelings now, as we approach the end of this interminable post, is that we were too bored and disengaged with the film to ruin it as properly and thoroughly as we might have done.
The problem is not simply that I found Gone with the Wind to be a problematic movie—though it certainly is that—and it’s not that I found it to be a surprisingly bad movie—though I think it’s that too. It’s that Gone with the Wind is a fundamentally evil movie. I happen to think movies are important: Americans, in particular, form a large percentage of our understanding of history from popular culture, and what countless millions of Americans have taken from Gone with the Wind—the book and the movie—is revisionist history, unforgivably racist attitudes and stereotypes, and an unabashed longing for, and justification of, the entire institution of slavery. If Gone with the Wind is indeed one of the most successful and widely-viewed films of all time, then it’s also one of the most dangerous and damaging works of art every produced: it’s The Birth of a Nation soaked in sugar to make it more palatable. The thought that people in 21st century America can still love it un-ironically fills me with shame and horror.
But we’re not really here to hear what I think. (No one gives a rat’s ass what I think.) What did my girlfriend think?
She: That was fucking awful. That may have been worse for me than The Sound of Music.
Me: Wow. That’s a bold statement.
She: I think it was. It’s longer. And she’s just terrible. Terrible.
Me: The character?
She: Yes. And even the acting. All the acting is so stilted and melodramatic. There’s nothing natural about it. And it’s this very heavy-handed attempt to depict the South during the Civil War as this noble lost cause, like they were the victims of the horrible North coming to impose upon their civilization. So it’s just an affront to history…
Me: It strikes me as amazing that there’s not even any mention of the reasons for the war, or any discussion of the morality of slavery, or any of that.
She: No, it’s that bullshit revisionist dishonesty, where they won’t simply say, “You know what I’m bummed about? I’m bummed that I won’t have my slaves anymore.” What they will say is, “I’m really nostalgic for…”
Me: …the lazy days.
She: The lazy days, when I could hear the slaves laughing in their quarters.
Me: Not these horrible, non-lazy days, when I actually have to work.
She: Let’s be real. You can’t detach this nostalgia and romanticizing of this entire civilization from the fact that it was born on the back of chattel slavery. So to ignore this whole piece of the narrative, and create this idea that you are the oppressed people is just disgusting.
Me: That’s all true, and that’s fucked up. We totally agree. But, even if you could forget all that—like the movie does—I still think it’s kind of a terrible movie. It’s just a bad movie.
She: It’s just a horrible movie. It’s very soapy. That last half is so melodramatically soapy…Actually, the whole thing is soapy.
Me: All to lead up to her half-assed realization at the end that Ashley actually loved the saintly woman–which, I could have sworn, he told her multiple times, and which should have been painfually obvious anyway. And I know she’s supposed to be awful, but I think she’s supposed to be awful in a way we actually care about whether she’s on fire or not. And I didn’t. I wouldn’t care if she were on fire. This movie makes me wish Sherman had been more thorough: burn everybody, and salt the earth. I kind of wish Prissy had just gone Lizzie Borden and done them all in their sleep.
She: It’s weird. We’re supposed to have sympathy for Scarlett, and she’s supposed to embody the sympathy we’re supposed to have for the South, and I just have no sympathy for either.
Me: And Gable is good—Gable is always good—but he’s not really much of a character. He’s kind of a Himbo, just serving as a device for Scarlett’s story. And I’m okay with Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar.
She: No, she was great. It’s not about hating on Hattie for playing a maid. Unfortunately those were the roles that were offered at the time.
Me: Responding to criticism, she supposedly said, “I’d rather make $700 a week to play a maid than $7 a week being one.”
Me: And actually—as much as that was a totally stereotypical Mammy character, adoring, living totally for the white family she serves—she was much more human than I actually expected her to be. The other one, on the other hand…
She: That was horrible. Prissy, Big Sam, Pork…those were just very one dimensional caricatures.
Me: And who the fuck would long for fucking Ashley Wilkes for that long?
She: He was a twerp. He was a twerpy guy.
Me: And that movie did NOT need to be four hours long.
She: It really didn’t. And I thought maybe the justification for it would be that they were trying to tell the story of the whole Civil War…
Me: But no, they zipped right through the war. They zipped through everything. It’s amazing they had enough shit for four hours. That whole thing where they were starving and suffering? That was like 10 minutes, and then they’re rich again.
She: No, it’s like this bad romantic comedy set against this nostalgia for slavery. It’s horrible.
Me: And some of it is pretty, but like you said [in Part One] it’s that kind of paint-by-numbers pretty that’s phony and meaningless and cheesy and awful. I’m kind of shocked at how terrible a movie it is. I thought I’d at least recognize it as a great movie, even if it wasn’t my cup of tea, and even if it was problematic. I mean, Birth of a Nation is a great movie: evil, but great. But this is just not well written, it’s not well directed, and the character arcs make NO sense.
She: No, it’s shit.
Me: Anything else to say?
She: What else is there to say? That was fucking horrible.
Me: Do you have a favorite part? Was any part good?
She: When she fell down the stairs. That was the best part.
Me: No other final words?
She: I’m not doing this anymore.
Me: Well, those are always your final words.
She: But this is it. This was the final straw. We’re done.
Next for the Unenthusiastic Critic: Something else. (She never means it.)