When Hollywood is at its best, it shoots for the moon, not the lowest common denominator. Perhaps its greatest achievement is 1939’s Gone With the Wind, which wants to be about no less than the definitive event in our nation’s history, told through a civil war fought in the soul of one person, Scarlett O’Hara, who pits the things she wants against the things she believes she deserves.
That she receives what she truly deserves is as inevitable as the North winning the war, but she receives it partly because, paraphrasing Faulkner, she erected her economic edifice not on the rock of stern morality but on the shifting sands of opportunism and moral brigandage; she was born of that civilization. No, Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) must be brought down because she dares to transcend the era that produced her, because she has the gall to see the world around her and attempt to control her own destiny within it, because she has the audacity to, frankly, my dear, act like a man in a man’s world. It’s a concert of performance and design that these just desserts are equal parts heartbreaking and satisfying.
Few movies have the sweep of Gone With the Wind, which is big in every way, taking us from the antebellum South, through the Civil War and Reconstruction, when the South is peopled with garrulous, outraged, baffled ghosts. In that time we follow Scarlett working her way through three marriages, all entered into with something less than love. We watch her scheme and deliver her Sutpenesque designs, have everything taken from her by those barbarous Yankees, vow to never go hungry again, lose even more but always carry on because, after all, tomorrow is another day.
Scarlett would be more inspiring if it wasn’t for her backstabbing, her deviousness or her fealty to just one person, Scarlett O’Hara. Still, when Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), the only man who has the misfortune to see her for who she is and love her anyway, remarks with astonishment, “What a woman,” we have to agree. Yes, it’s unforgivable the way she casually uses and discards men, the way she takes every advantage of sweet Melanie (Olivia de Havilland) in her life’s conquest to possess the boring Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), Melanie’s husband. When Scarlett is being honest with herself, even she acknowledges that Ashley will never make her happy, or happy for very long, but he is what she has set her sights on, and she gets what she wants.
That’s what makes Scarlett O’Hara such an eternal figure. We want her to succeed almost as much as we want her to be put in her place. It’s precisely this paradoxical desire that makes the central relationship of Scarlett and Rhett so appealing. She is the ultimate hellion, and the audience, like fortune, favors the bold, breathlessly anticipating what scandalous outrage she’ll cook up next. Yet, we know that our own sense of civility will be threatened if she ultimately succeeds, so we need Rhett, her match, to swat her down. Rhett immediately prescribes what’s necessary for Scarlett, arrogantly telling her, “You should be kissed and often and by someone who knows how,” not subtly asserting that he knows just the man to do it.
When he finally reveals, however dubiously, that he doesn’t give a damn, it’s both gratifying and devastating, as we know our heroine has pushed away the only person who could give her a good match. Many a good movie would have ended on Rhett waking into that improbable Atlanta fog (plenty of people wrongly think it does anyway), but Gone With the Wind needs the next scene of Scarlett’s resolve. Though she may be down, we have no doubt she’ll start another campaign tomorrow and that this isn’t the last Miss Scarlett O’Hara has seen of Captain Rhett Butler. They need each other, two nonconformists, living in a time when civility is a sham and only opportunism, both in business and in the bedroom, will save them from sinking into the earth of what’s left of the Old South.
In many ways, Gone With the Wind, the most coveted Hollywood property of the 1930s, the biggest movie of all time, one made with the expressed purpose to appeal to as many people as possible, is about nonconformity. We are given two people who seem to act as if the war was fought just as a backdrop for their sexual sparring. The two make their fortunes by doing what others are simply too decent to do. It’s not that they’re not shameful, or have no pride, just the opposite, but Scarlett’s pride is exclusively tied to the ends, not the means. Even saintly Melanie is almost as much of a rule breaker as Scarlett. It’s just that Scarlett’s hammer against the world is a craven brazenness and a remarkable right eyebrow, arched and bobbing like a cobra, that can reduce men to mush and give the most headstrong of ladies reason to think twice. Melanie’s tool against society is an impossible decency (albeit, a decency that can make peace with slavery), disarming and powerful. It’s what allows her to ingratiate herself to the callous Scarlett and protect her marriage against the forces that would destroy it. Only the bromidic Ashley is truly a man of his time, a fact that makes us deem him unworthy of the affection heaped upon him by both Melanie and Scarlett.
Scarlett’s attraction to Ashley is strictly one of prestige; she wants him also because she cannot have him. She is similarly repulsed by Rhett because he tells her she must have him. That Rhett is the only person who could hold Scarlett’s interest dawns upon her too late, but she is most threatened by him because she cannot manipulate him, and worse, he can stir things in her that she’d rather not feel. In every other relationship, she is the commander of sexual passion, in complete control of its levers and buttons, swelling it when it suits her purposes, sapping it when she sees fit. Only Rhett won’t allow that; further, he is in at least partial command of those feelings inside her.
One of the most unsettling sequences in the movie directly comments on this. Rhett has been shut out of their marital bed because pregnancy would threaten Scarlett’s figure (which is a veiled acknowledgement that Scarlett, though married to Rhett, still has designs to attract Ashley after Rhett is out of the picture). He tells her he’s had enough. “This is one night you’re not turning me out,” he growls and picks her up and carries her up the stairs. He rapes her but the sensation in the audience is not exactly of disgust, nor do we exactly think less of Rhett. We’ve been conditioned for three hours to understand that Scarlett responds only to strength and our minds drift uneasily into a space where inhuman thoughts like, “She asked for it” or “That’s just what she needed” reside. The only other time I’ve had this unseemly sensation during a Hollywood movie was watching Hitchcock’s psychosexual Marnie (1964), which has a similar scene designed to elicit a similarly disturbing reaction.
For all its grand gesturing, Gone With the Wind is a movie of ambiguity, and its sexual battles aren’t the only place it provides the viewer with images she must reconcile with her conscience. The time of its release cannot excuse the movie’s casual racism; the war is made out to have occurred for no other reason than Yankee arrogance and imperialism. Still, modern audiences can find sad ironies (intended by the filmmakers or not) in the movie. Before the war, Melanie and Ashley look out on Twelve Oaks, the Wilkes plantation and wax about its beauty. “I love it as, as more than a house,” Melanie says. “It’s a whole world that wants only to be graceful and beautiful.” It remains unsaid, and perhaps even unrecognized, that it’s a world built on the sweat and bondage of others. Black people are seen constantly in the periphery of the lives of Scarlett and her ilk, ringing bells, playing music for dances, even, horribly, marching to fight for the Confederacy. It’s as if they are electricity; ubiquitous and essential, but not given much thought. Ashley even has the conceit to suggest that slavery was on the cusp of being naturally weeded out, if the big bad North had given the South the chance. These opinions and attitudes existed (and still do, I’m afraid), and for Gone With the Wind to not show it, even if it tacitly agrees with them, would be wrong.
The movie wants to rewrite the South as the story of one woman’s sexual destiny, but it can’t forget the nature of the place that woman came from. Still, less than a generation after the nearly unwatchable Birth of a Nation (1915), we have a scene of a woman in danger in the woods, rescued by a black man, a stark reminder of and rebuff against Nation’s most odiously infamous sequence. And while many of the compliments the other characters heap upon the maid Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) are mere platitudes, though true, Mammy’s character is allowed dignity and McDaniel’s marvelous performance suggests further depths.
The production was besot with a game of musical directors chairs, as a roster of Hollywood professionals helmed the project until they incurred the dislike of one powerful person or another. Usually, this is a recipe for failure (and the movie never achieves a stylistic coherence), but the production was guided by the firm hand of producer David O. Selznick, who more than anyone, can be said to be the auteur of Gone With the Wind (the fire-breathing Vivien Leigh would finish second). His productions were known for their visual flourishes, and there are images from Gone With the Wind that are as much in the fabric of the American consciousness as any other: the remarkable zoom-in at the bottom of the stairs that introduces Rhett Butler, the sensational escape from the burning Atlanta, the jaw-dropping scope of the train station teeming with what seems like every wounded rebel from Savannah to Fort Sumter.
My mind stays with the majestic colors of the sky and the magnificent tree in front of Scarlett’s beloved Tara, which seems to reflect the health of the plantation itself. It’s for these reasons that Gone With the Wind endures the way it has and why it remains a seminal piece of Americana. Critics of other nations don’t hold it in the same esteem that we do. It takes an American sensibility to see phrases like, “Here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow,” as the title cards read. “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,” and recognize it as revisionist bunk, but powerful bunk that speaks to our American idolatry of the past while we bulldoze into the future. The movie is about an entire civilization, yet it’s also about fierce individuals. The not-so-hidden secret is that it’s people like Scarlett O’Hara who are the gale force that blew that land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields into the realm of books and dreams remembered.