The continuing hold of the pre-Civil War South on our collective unconscious is puzzling. That society's prosperity was created by a great evil—slave labor—which President Abraham Lincoln, among others, described as a curse upon our land.
Yet, the legend persists that it was a culture based upon honor. Its upper-class men are idealized as the 19th-century equivalents of chivalrous knights and its upper-class women admired as super-feminine fair maidens, skillful at flirting and at holding a family together as well. The other social classes, including the slaves, are falsely depicted as happy within this rigid hierarchy.
Margaret Mitchell's 1936 Pulitzer Prize-winning, best-selling novel, Gone With the Wind, has perpetuated these myths for several generations. A new version of the 1939 movie of her romance is currently in release. It restores the original frame size and renews the color. The film, which won eight Oscars, is the biggest box-office hit in history if its grosses are adjusted to reflect the difference between the value of the dollar then and now.
Gone With the Wind was voted best film of all time in a recent Gallup poll of ordinary moviegoers and placed among the top five in last month's more industry-oriented American Film Institute survey. The movie's guiding genius was producer David Selznick (A Duel in the Sun), who hired and fired 11 writers (Sidney Howard received sole screen credit) and four directors (Victor Fleming got the final nod).
Katie Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) is the most beautiful daughter of an ante-bellum Georgia plantation owner. At parties all the unmarried men in the county hover around her. But she is in love with a neighboring landholder, Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), a serious, sensitive aristocrat who is engaged to his “goodie- goodie” cousin, Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland).
Despite Scarlett's carefully calculated flirtations, Ashley refuses to dump Melanie. Observing her unsuccessful machinations is Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), an earthy, maverick blockade-runner who claims to understand Scarlett perfectly.
“You'll never be anything but misery to any man,” he declares while recognizing she is the only woman who has ever really excited him. The destinies of these four characters are closely intertwined as we follow them through several decades of changing fortunes during the Civil War period.
The film's popularity springs as much from its passionate on-again, off-again love story as from its favorable portrait of the old South. Scarlett and Rhett are often in love with each other but rarely at the same time. To the audience's sadness and delight, they never seem to be able to synchronize their emotions together. This is because, as Rhett puts it, Scarlett is always “throwing away happiness with both hands.”
At the end, when she is finally willing to give herself to him completely, it's too late, and Rhett utters the movie's most memorable line, “Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.”
The Scarlett-Rhett romance allows the film to have it both ways in its treatment of the old South. On the one hand, there are scenes of grand balls and contented slaves working in the fields. But on the other, one of the things that brings the two together is their contempt for its genteel way of life. They hate the emphasis on good manners and social ritual.
Rhett is proud that society matrons often say that he is “not a gentleman,” and Scarlett revels in the fact that she is considered “no lady.” They are both hard-headed predators who despise the plantation culture's inability to face reality. The movie opens at the time of firing on Fort Sumter, and neither shares all the other characters' enthusiasm for the coming conflict nor their belief in easy victory. Yet, they never criticize slavery.
When the movie was first released, the NAACP organized a boycott because of its racial caricatures. Scarlett's mammy (Hattie McDaniel) may be honest about her owners' mis-behavior when everyone keeps silent, but she is essentially an Aunt Jemima stereotype—fat, happy, and loyal, with no life of her own apart from her mistress. Even worse is Prissy (Butterfly McQueen), whose comic flightiness and incompetence suggests black folk are excessively emotional and not as smart as white people.
Scarlett is in many ways not a likable character. At the movie's beginning she is a manipulative flirt, tossing out compliments and batting her eyes with awesome intensity. When the South is conquered and she and her class become impoverished, her female life force becomes a primal will to survive.
“If I have to lie, cheat, steal, or kill,” she declares, “I'll never be hungry again.”
Scarlett succeeds not through virtue, but through persistence and will power. She is a bad wife in all three of her marriages and a disinterested mother who dislikes childbirth because it ruins her waistline. Her conduct is contrasted with the ever-generous Melanie, who is a model of Christian charity and compassion.
Buried deep inside Scarlett is a conscience, but she doesn't listen to it very often. Her mother was a Catholic who held prayers every afternoon for the entire family.
“I always wanted to be like her,” Scarlett says. “I'm afraid I'm going to hell.”
Providence punishes Scarlett for her sins. She loses her only daughter and is never re-united with Rhett. Yet her energy and inventiveness fascinate. She seems to represent the dark side of a certain kind of female survival instinct. It's only because of that her the family plantation, Tara, isn't sold to carpetbaggers and that her friends and relatives prosper. Seen from her complex and contradictory point of view, the legendary old South still appears seductive, even though we know about the evil on which it was based, and is still struggling with its difficult legacy.
Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.
Gone With the Wind is rated G by the Motion Picture Association of America.