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'Gone with the Wind' at 75: Scarlett and Rhett Forever

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LIFE Gone With The Wind
LIFE

We give a damn. We really give a damn. Frankly, movies come and go every weekend, fluttering away from our public consciousness as soon as the credits roll. Not so for Gone with the Wind, whose magnolia-rich scent continues to pervade every aspect of our popular culture 75 years since its release. From book sequels to TV movies and miniseries to divine (and divinely absurd) parodies, Scarlett O’Hara has more than borne out her stubborn promise of tomorrow.

Gone with the Wind is such a three-dimensional story,” explains Steve Wilson, curator of film at the University of Texas’s Harry Ransom Center, which organized a lavish GWTW exhibit in September 2014. “You get wrapped up in the whole world, even though it’s not a pleasant one all the time. It’s about all these issues that affect people—war, hunger, a disconnection from the land, feeling lovelorn—and this woman who would do what she had to do to survive and keep her house and never go hungry again. All that created a world you just don’t want to leave when it’s over.”

The furor for a sequel erupted immediately after the film’s triumphant opening. David O. Selznick long pushed Margaret Mitchell, who insisted that she had already left Scarlett and Rhett “to their ultimate fate,” to extend the epic, but to no avail. Her death in 1949 seemed to shut the door on a second act, until 1975, when Mitchell’s brother, Stephens, authorized a sequel in book and movie form, the latter to be jointly produced by MGM and Universal for $12 million. Anne Edwards, a noted celebrity biographer who’d written books on both Mitchell and Vivien Leigh, was commissioned to write the new novel, which would then be adapted into the screenplay. Her manuscript, a 775-page opus clumsily titled Tara: The Continuation of “Gone with the Wind,” was rejected as being not up to snuff.

In 1991, the authorized sequel Scarlett finally made it onto bookshelves. Written by Alexandra Ripley, who was ordered by the Mitchell estate to not include scenes depicting either graphic sex or miscegenation, the book was ravaged by critics—though it did sell 2.2 million copies in hardcover. In 1994, Scarlett was adapted into a reasonably enjoyable television miniseries starring Joanne Whalley and Timothy Dalton. The main takeaway for die-hard fans, though, was the egregiousness of Whalley’s brown eyes—an insult to Scarlett’s legendary emeralds. (Leigh’s blue eyes were made to look green in the film.)

Perhaps looking to wrest back control of the plot, and to regain dignity after Scarlett’s critical thrashing, the Mitchell estate sold the rights for another authorized sequel to St. Martin’s Press for $4.5 million. The task first went to British novelist Emma Tennant, whose manuscript took such a drubbing from editors that she was fired. The publisher went next to Southern giant Pat Conroy, whose mother had been so obsessed with Mitchell’s tale that he once claimed to be “the only person you’ll meet who was raised by Scarlett O’Hara.”

“I was going to write the autobiography of Rhett Butler and tell the story in the first person. And then, I was going to dedicate it to my mother,” Conroy says today. He was reportedly promised $10 million for his services and spent four years trying to bring a sequel to fruition, but soon found himself at an impasse with the Mitchell estate. “I had to sign this document stating that I would not do miscegenation or homosexuality,” Conroy recalls. “I said, ‘Don’t tell me about miscegenation and homosexuality. I’m going to put Rhett Butler in a dress the next time you do it. And I’m going to have Scarlett have a sex-change operation.’ I was glad to clear out of it.”

During this long, inelegant process, first-time novelist Alice Randall turned Gone with the Wind on its cruel head of white privilege. In the 2001 novel The Wind Done Gone, Randall reimagined the plot from the perspective of a slave born of Scarlett’s father and Mammy. The Mitchell estate sued Randall’s publisher to block publication but settled. Terms were not disclosed, but Houghton Mifflin continued to include a cover seal identifying the book as “an unauthorized parody.” Randall’s audacious debut earned mostly positive reviews.

Meanwhile, St. Martin’s Press hired historical novelist Donald McCaig, who took on the gamble of turning the gaze away from Scarlett and fleshing out the background of Rhett’s story. “Being the arrogant, stupid son of a bitch that I am,” he told a reporter, “I thought: I could do that.” Published in 2007, the well-enough-received Rhett Butler’s People was an instant best-seller. Now McCaig has written a prequel, 2014’s Ruth’s Journey. It is told from the point of view of Mammy, whose tale begins when she is brought to Atlanta as a child from her birthplace in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). It’s a risky undertaking for an old Southern white gentleman to try to breathe life into a slave, but what a relief for Mammy to at least have a name beyond her role at Tara.

The Windies—Gone with the Wind’s equivalent of Star Trek’s Trekkies—always come out in full force for any event that invigorates the world of Margaret Mitchell. Oftentimes Windies are serious collectors, ponying up enormous sums for anything from production designer Dorothea Holt’s original set sketches (average price: $33,000) or one of costume designer Walter Plunkett’s ornate Scarlett hats (average price: $56,000). King of pop Michael Jackson may have been something of a Windie himself: In 1999 he purchased Selznick’s Best Picture Oscar for a cool $1.5 million.

Then there is James Tumblin, owner of the world’s largest privately held Gone with the Wind memorabilia collection. His saga began some six decades ago when the former Universal Studios hair-and-makeup artist spotted a gray dress casually tossed on the floor at a costume house. He picked it up and paid $20 for it (and a rack of other costumes), even before he realized it was the gown Leigh’s Scarlett had worn while riding through Shantytown in her carriage. “It’s all my mother’s fault, or credit, depending upon your point of view,” says Tumblin. “She always taught me to be very respectful of other people’s property.” Today, Tumblin loans out his collection to museums nationwide. Items range from Leigh’s Oscar to pieces of Mitchell’s correspondence, and Hattie McDaniel’s script. “I’m just a lucky fellow who fell into a hobby that has provided me with so much enjoyment via sharing it with others,” he says. “I get to sit in the corner of the exhibit and watch smiles. It doesn’t get any better than that!”

Windies travel to Gone with the Wind museums across the country on annual pilgrimages. They are subscribers to a newsletter called, delightfully, The Scarlett Letter. Longtime Windie Novella Perrin is a retired university dean and former owner of a Gone with the Wind memorabilia museum in Branson, Mo. She is herself a devoted collector who counts among her prized possessions a pair of pants worn by Clark Gable in the film, which she bought for a little more than $6,000. “I’ve finally gotten over sleeping with them,” she says with a terrific laugh.

Often it is the more lighthearted nods to Gone with the Wind that are the most winning, as in a great I Love Lucy episode in which our daffy heroine is inspired to write a novel about her neighbors the Mertzes called Real Gone with the Wind. Or later, when Lucille Ball cast her comedic eye on Tara yet again on Here’s Lucy, with Flip Wilson dressing up as Prissy. After 5 million television viewers tuned in to the network premiere of the movie in 1976, Carol Burnett did a marvelous parody on her variety show called “Went with the Wind,” which reimagined some of the movie’s most iconic moments. In one scene, Burnett’s Starlett greets Harvey Korman’s Rat in a curtain dress with the rod still attached. “That-that-that gown is gorgeous!” Rat purrs to her. “Thank you,” replies Starlett. “I saw it in the window and I just couldn’t resist it.”

The Muppets would spoof the classic over and over again, from a promotional poster for 1979’s The Muppet Movie featuring Kermit and Miss Piggy in period costume with the quote “Frankly, Miss Piggy, I don’t give a hoot!” to a duet between Miss Piggy and Dudley Moore, dressed up as Scarlett and Rhett, in 1981’s The Muppets Go to the Movies. And a special shout-out to a wonderful throwaway in a Sesame Street episode in which a little worm cinema next to Oscar’s trash can is playing Gone with the Worm.

Not to be outdone, The Simpsons has served up its own affectionate parodies over the years. “Tomorrow is another school day!” a spurned Principal Skinner cries in season 2. That same season, Homer commits to a needed diet and declares, “As God is my witness, I’ll always be hungry again!”

Would that the GWTW musical that opened on London’s West End in 2008 had been a comedy. Perhaps it would have fared better with critics, who gave it one of the worst thrashings in theater history. It closed three months early, and plans for a New York production were immediately canceled.

Gone with the Wind has flashed through our pop-culture history in more somber, and sometimes provocative, fashion as well. In S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, another classic American story, Johnny buys Ponyboy a copy of Mitchell’s novel. Literary theories abound that Hinton’s tale of two sides of an Oklahoma track is its own version of the Civil War, as the Greasers and Socs battle each other to a tragic end. More recently, there’s the piercing moment in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained when the word MISSISSIPPI scrolls slowly, in large, raging letters, across the screen. It’s a stirring visual reference to the iconic opening sequence of the 1939 film—and all the more powerful coming from a movie that tackles race head-on.

For better and for worse, Gone with the Wind remains one of our Great American Movies. Enough so that in 1990 the U.S. Postal Service printed a stamp of Scarlett and Rhett’s embrace that looks like a movie poster. Enough so that in the ’90s, TBS made parodies of Rhett’s “Frankly, my dear…” with chimps. Enough so that when you enter gone with the wind on Amazon.com, 27,671 results—from a Scarlett wig to a baby onesie bearing Rhett’s famous line of seduction, “you should be kissed, and often, and by someone who knows how”—pop up.

Of course, anybody who’s seen the movie knows what a kiss should look like and how one should swoon in response. Windie Novella Perrin has a favorite memory from her years of owning her museum in Missouri. One day an elderly couple entered her tiny shop with great purpose. It turned out that 65 years earlier the gentleman had proposed marriage to his beloved during the intermission of Gone with the Wind’s original theatrical release. So there in the museum, surrounded by a theater seat from the Atlanta premiere, Aunt Pittypat’s umbrella, and Rhett Butler’s top hat, he bent down on tired knee and proposed to his wife all over again. And then he sealed his proposal with a kiss.

And that, perhaps, is where we can best hear the echoes of Scarlett’s determination, Rhett’s weary sayonara and the bugles of the ill-fated boys marching off to war—not in books or TV or lovingly curated exhibits. They reverberate loudest in the hearts of those who know not just what it is to fall in love, but to fall in love with the movies. The grand spectacle of Gone with the Wind—its wit and huge, fickle heart, its soaring score and sumptuous design—is a movie lover’s romance for the ages.

Gone with the Wind premiered on Dec. 15, 1939. Karen Valby’s essay is part of LIFE‘s stunning new celebration of the classic film, The Great American Movie 75 Years Later.

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