'Gone With the Wind' at 75: A first-time viewer and an expert discuss
HILLARY: Neil: It breaks my heart (but doesn’t totally surprise me) to hear that you’ve never seen or read Gone With the Wind. I’m gonna start by asking you a simple question: What do you know (or think you know) about Margaret Mitchell’s classic story?
NEIL: I’ll choose not to explore the subtext suggested by your (appropriate) lack of surprise and instead get right to it: I spent 15 minutes staring at the case of the DVD you gave me, rifling through my memory bank for any piece of Gone trivia, and ultimately had to resign myself to the fact that I know far, far less than I thought about the film.
The version of Gone With the Wind I can describe: It’s the Civil War, and in some order, a mansion burns down and there’s romancing between Rhett Butler (a plantation owner? who says, at one point, “Frankly dear, I don’t give a damn”?) and Scarlett O’Hara (who yells, at one point, “Rhett!”).
That’s … it. To be clear: I’m embarrassed. This is a movie I should have seen by now, no question, and even though I haven’t, I should still know more about it.
But this exercise did get me thinking about the place of Gone in contemporary pop culture and the modern entertainment lexicon. Though most everyone knows of the movie, how often is it evoked in our day-to-day? What opportunities would I, just as anyone else, have to organically gather pieces of string about the movie’s plot? The best point of reference I have for the aesthetic and mannerisms found in Gone is that sketch from the Carol Burnett show, which itself aired nearly 40 years ago.
Anyway, point is: I don’t know shit about Gone With the Wind.
HILLARY: I’m as delighted as Katie Scarlett O’Hara dancing the Virginia Reel to hear your sentence-long quasi-summary—enough so that I don’t really want to tell you any more before you experience the movie for yourself. Know, though, that you may be surprised to see quotes you recognize (and that have been referenced/parodied to death over the past 75 years) popping up throughout the movie, including “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again,” “tomorrow is another day,” and “I don’t know nothin’ bout birthin’ babies!” Not to mention iconic and frequently spoofed visuals like the burning of Atlanta, and Scarlett’s green dress, and the scene excellently parodied by The Simpsons here:
Please watch, then return to me immediately—because I’m feeling a hankering to see this movie for the 24th time.
NEIL: I’m about to dig in, but before doing so I want to mention two more (potentially related) plot points that for some reason sound familiar: Rhett and Scarlett’s relationship is star-crossed, and Rhett dies.
The truth is just four hours away.
Neil watches the movie. The following texts are exchanged.
The next day:
NEIL: Hillary, I email you this afternoon as someone who has now seen Gone With the Wind. I watched the first half at the office last night, used intermission as an opportunity to swing through a Parquet Courts concert, went home, watched the first half of the second half last night, and then finished it this morning. I imagine most people consume it on a similar schedule.
I’ll get this out of the way first: I really enjoyed it. I’m hardly swimming against the tide when I say that it’s a great movie, but knowing as little as I did going in—and having previously not felt any urgency to see it under the misguided assumption that it wouldn’t be my jam—I was pleasantly surprised by just how many things I enjoyed about it. This was not the movie I expected, to the point that I’d argue that many of the aspects that endure most prominently in popular culture almost do it a disservice. I could talk about it for days. You can clear your weekend schedule, yeah?
HILLARY: It warms the cockles of my poor country girl’s heart to hear that, Neil. So maybe we should start the conversation with the last thing you mentioned—how the popular perception of GWTW isn’t really representative of the movie itself. What do you mean by that? Posters like this one that make the film look like a bodice-ripper?
NEIL: That’s exactly it. I expected a Harlequin Romance-type swoon-fest. (And it did deliver on the fainting.) More to the point, I for whatever reason assumed that the movie would trade in the same sort of southern propriety that it depicted. (And it did have that, too: “You need kissing, badly. That’s what’s wrong with you. You should be kissed and often, and by someone who knows how” should be in the sanitization Hall of Fame.) In actuality the movie felt somewhat subversive—I’m guessing that Rhett and Scarlett’s respective life philosophies were almost as counter-cultural in the 1930s, especially in the south, as they would have been during the 1860s. It’s four hours of societal rebellion by our leads. (I would say “protagonists,” but I’m not sure someone as antagonistic as Scarlett deserves the title. More on that later.)
Along those lines, what I really didn’t see coming was the cleverness of the writing. At various points before intermission I texted to both you and my wife that the movie was hilarious. My wife, who has seen the movie multiple times, responded, “Wait. Gone With the Wind?” Having now finished the movie, I get that. But between the dialogue and Scarlett’s petulance, it’s a genuinely funny first half. Nearly every phrase out of Rhett’s mouth was a zinger, and even Scarlett’s expressions of exasperation often had wit to them. “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” is a memorable line, but it wouldn’t be out of place in a generic bodice-ripper. It’s Rhett’s subtle ripostes—the lines like “I apologize again for my shortcomings” and “a minor point at such a moment,” which don’t crop up nearly as much these days—that I found so amusing.
Which is also what I find unfortunate. As I mentioned last night to Esther, who was still at the office when I finished the first half of the movie, I had no idea that Rhett was so cool. If we were doing our “What’s the last movie that made you feel badass” PopWatch Confessional today, I may well have said Rhett. Yet I had no idea about that. Most of what (little) I previously believed about the movie involved either sweeping romance or cartoonish Southern gentility. I thought Rhett died (as you greeted me this morning, “You thought Rhett died?!?”) only because I had a vague notion that Scarlett ended up alone. But it turns out that Scarlett’s solitude is the capper of what is actually a profoundly un-romantic movie.
Not only does marrying Scarlett O’Hara ensure death almost as certainly as drumming for Spinal Tap, but her first two marriages were machinations aimed at making some stiff jealous and getting money to pay for the taxes on Tara; the third was framed as a concession in the name of preserving her lifestyle. This was no treacly southern soap. Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler are the legendary on-screen couple I knew them to be, but it’s not because they’re madly in love—it’s because Scarlett is a TOTAL SOCIOPATH.
It’s my understanding that you keep a sepia-toned photo of Scarlett in your vanity, and thus disagree with this assessment.
HILLARY: Why, Mr. Janowitz, how you do go on!
But okay: Happy as I am to hear you praise GWTW‘s totally underrated script (many of the lines you loved, by the way, come verbatim from Margaret Mitchell’s novel), I have to stand up for my girl Scarlett. She is, to be sure, a supremely unlikable character by any metric, devious and jealous and petty and, of course, mind-bogglingly self-centered. However. Being a jerk does not make one a sociopath, and I’d argue that Scarlett does have a conscience. The trouble is that she never really bothers listening to that conscience until after someone she cares about has died. (Poor, pitiful Frank Kennedy.)
Maybe more importantly, though, Scarlett’s so great because she’s a natural-born HBIC. It’s a cruel twist of fate that hers is a world that can’t appreciate her decidedly un-feminine tenacity, gumption, and razor-sharp business acumen; you have to figure that if she’d been born outside Atlanta 200 years later, Scarlett would have made her first million before the age of 25, made history by becoming the first female CEO of Coca Cola … and be sending emails that would make Sony chief Amy Pascal blush. I won’t entirely excuse her actions by claiming Scarlett as a victim of circumstance—but you can’t deny that she’s the very definition of a strong female character, even if also you can’t stand her.
Liking a character and being invested in what happens to that character, though, are two different things. So I’m wondering: Even though you thought Scarlett was a sociopath, did you care what happened to her? And if you didn’t, then would you say you liked the movie despite her?
NEIL: Make no mistake: Scarlett’s an incredible character. My extreme response to her stemmed entirely from expectations I had going in. I assumed, based on posters and romance talk and because I never encountered any indications otherwise, that Scarlett was a demure Southern belle. She’s … not.
I’ll answer your first question by saying this: At the end, when Rhett (finally) peaced and Scarlett was left alone in the doorway, my first thought was, “Well, yes, what did you expect?” It felt like an appropriate conclusion. If I cared at all about what happened to her, it was with a morbid curiosity—I figured that at some point she’d stop getting away with everything, and her behavior made me want to see that happen. No, she wasn’t all bad. In addition to being a strong, resourceful character, there were specific moments that redeemed her. She was wonderful when taking care of Melanie during the birth of her child. It’s just that in aggregate, her off-putting moments drowned out the charming ones.
In an alternate universe where Gone With the Wind is a six-hour movie (and really, once you hit the four-hour mark, why stop?) that has a happy ending (ha!), it’s not hard to extrapolate the rest of Scarlett’s character arc. Finally humbled by the combined efforts of Ashley (who told her he didn’t actually love her) and Rhett (the first man to stop tolerating her shit), Scarlett retrenches at Tara, soul-searches, comes away a better person, and then … travels around Georgia anonymously doing good deeds like an Old South Yvain? I don’t know. Point is, though Scarlett displays moments of insecurity and vulnerability throughout, nothing forces her to change until the very end, when she finally loses a husband not to random death but to outright rejection. That limits the amount of sympathy I can muster for her.
But though I came away with questions about her motivation, I certainly didn’t find Scarlett so off-putting that it affected how I felt about the movie. I liked the movie for a number of reasons—Rhett was an equally great character, there’s snappy dialogue, it’s shot beautifully, and above all, the movie WENT FOR IT. (You know what I mean.) Scarlett was just another element that made it work so well.
Of course, Gone was a thirty-course meal that I’m still digesting for the first time. You’ve dined on it many times. (I’m already regretting this food metaphor.) We’ve been talking about what makes it so great. Now I’m curious to know what faults you find with it.
HILLARY: Before I answer that last question: You should know that there is an alternate universe in which Scarlett’s story continues past “tomorrow is another day!” It’s called Scarlett, and it’s a GWTW sequel that kills off Mammy (NOOO!), sends Scarlett off to Ireland to reconnect with her O’Hara roots (what?), and, in the end, reunites our antiheroine with the love of her life. Also, at one point, Rhett and Scarlett “swim to an island, where they make love in a cave.” It is … not a good book.
All right, enough stalling. While I’d love to only find fault with the movie for casting Leslie Howard, who is way too old and not nearly hot enough to convincingly play Ashley as he’s described in the book, I can’t ignore the racist elephant in the room: Gone With the Wind is a story about an idealized antebellum south populated by noble, honorable masters and loyal, childlike slaves who need those masters just as much as their masters need them. (See how the field hands who run off to join the Yankees after Sherman’s march are vilified, while Pork, Mammy, and Prissy are celebrated for staying at Tara, where they belong.) It’s a story that doesn’t just sympathize with the Ku Klux Klan—it treats the “political organization” as a necessary evil with entirely good intentions. (Granted, this is a lot more obvious in the book than the movie, where Frank Kennedy’s little club isn’t named. To wit: “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. And it was against this nocturnal organization that the newspapers of the North cried out most loudly, never realizing the tragic necessity that brought it into being.” Eeeeeeeeesh.)
It’s not surprising that a prewar production would advocate this point of view, especially given the story’s focus on Southern aristocracy (as opposed to, say, poor whites or slaves themselves). But that doesn’t make its depictions of African-Americans—especially Prissy, a lazy, dim-witted girl who exemplifies every negative racial stereotype—any less horrifying. Hell, even the black characters we’re supposed to like get the short end of the stick: Mammy doesn’t even get a name. She’s defined totally by her subservience. Hattie McDaniel won a well-deserved Oscar for her role in the film, but you can’t help wondering whether she felt any residual guilt for appearing in a movie advocating the idea that, you know what? Slavery wasn’t that bad.
What do you think about all this, Neil? In this day and age—especially in a post-12 Years a Slave-world—can we still celebrate Gone With the Wind for its gorgeous visuals, its sharp writing, and its indelible characters even though its politics are just awful?
NEIL: We can, though I’m sure some people want to make that more subjective of an issue than it needs to be. Here’s why: It’s Gone With the Wind. Regardless of how much they know about the movie, any critical viewer is going to be aware that it’s a very old movie. It’s impossible to view the film without doing so through the lens that it was made in a different time, when the collective conscience took a much different form.
It’s important to remember that loving Gone as a movie isn’t an endorsement for awful, stereotypical depictions of slaves. And even on that front, my feelings vary. To be honest, Mammy’s character didn’t bother me that much. She was a caricature, no question, and that’s always going to carry with it unfortunate subtext when it’s applied to a slave. At the same time, she didn’t feel like that far of a cry from similarly fussy old (white) maids found in other movies featuring upper class divas.
Pork had some unfortunate moments, like when Scarlett returned to Tara with a cow and asked him to milk it and he responded, “We’s houseworkers” in the most helpless way possible. Prissy, though. Prissy I felt uncomfortable watching. Prissy is someone you enjoy the movie despite, because she forces you to wonder about the intent behind her depiction. But, to come full circle, we’ve also been conditioned to be sensitive to that. Such was obviously not the case 75 years ago. You cannot separate the movie from the era in which it was produced. You have to judge it accordingly, and then be glad that society has since progressed.
While we’re talking about judging: A couple weeks back I discovered that Olivia de Havilland was one of only two living Gone cast members. When I asked you if she had a big role in the film, you lit up, saying, “She was Melanie!” Which I now understand: big role. But I’m not sure how I feel about her. Scarlett was not discreet in her fawning over Ashley, yet Melanie sat to the side, implicitly enabling it. She’s a likable character—very kind, but also … spineless? Or simply genteel to a fault?
HILLARY: Oh, Melanie. I think she’s the sort of character you may respond differently to depending on what stage of life you’re in. If you first watch and read Gone With the Wind when you’re, say, a 12-year-old mean girl (hypothetically), you’ll think Melanie is the ultimate drip—as Scarlett describes her, a “silly little fool who can’t open her mouth except to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and raise a passel of mealy-mouthed brats just like her.” But get a little older and, perhaps, a little wiser, and you’ll realize—like Scarlett does, eventually—that Melanie actually may be this story’s secret heroine. She’s a strong, principled, eternally gracious, fiercely loyal pinnacle of femininity—a steel magnolia, to use the parlance of a later time. In short, Melanie’s the ultimate exemplar of Southern womanhood as defined by GWTW‘s universe—and if nothing else, she definitely deserves a medal for putting up with all of Scarlett’s shit for some 12-odd years. (Fun fact: Scarlett’s supposed to be 16 at the beginning of the story and 28 when it ends. In the book, at least, Rhett’s 17 years older than her. Kinda brings a different dimension to their relationship, doesn’t it?)
Bringing up Melanie makes me realize that there are a ton of supporting characters we haven’t even had time to talk about yet—the old biddies in Atlanta, and Gerald O’Hara, and Bonnie (BONNIE!!), and Scarlett’s worthless sisters, and Belle Watling… the movie isn’t short, of course, but did you wish you had had more time to spend with any of them? Or are you strictly a Rhett guy?
NEIL: Aren’t we all Rhett people?
Before I forget, your mention of Belle reminded me of a scene I neglected to consider when assessing Melanie: The one when she goes outside to see Belle in her carriage. Earlier I wondered whether Melanie was spineless or just too proper; in that moment with Belle, she was decidedly neither. I’m on board with your suggestion that she’s strong and principled, and beyond just being loyal—which can connote weakness when you’re talking about someone who allows her friend to behave like Scarlett—I’m thinking it’s a matter of her choosing to see the best in people. Considering the fragility of their situation, that’s not a bad way to go about life—and while it may have done some people in her life (SCARLETT LOOKING AT YOU SCARLETT) a disservice, in the long run it’s going to do more good (treating Belle kindly) than bad.
To answer your specific question about other people, I appreciated Belle and her impact on the various character dynamics. Case in point: When Scarlett learns that Ashley doesn’t truly love her, and responds with something to the effect of, “I’m just to you what that Belle woman is to Rhett.” Total misunderstanding of the nature of both the Rhett-Belle and Scarlett-Ashley relationships, but even so, Scarlett noticed. Very telling. I could have stood to learn a little more about Belle, and I detected the faintest intimation that there was some longing for Rhett (though it could never be), but for the most part she did what she needed to do for the story. Spending additional time on her would … actually, who are we kidding? It wouldn’t have made any difference on the run time. An extra 5 minutes would make the movie barely 2 percent longer. Show me the director’s cut with two more Belle scenes.
As for other people, I couldn’t tell Scarlett’s sisters apart, the biddies are what I expected the entire movie to be, her dad whatever, and Bonnie, psssh, GTFO. Who knew that horse jumping was one of the leading causes of death in the late 19th century?
Then there’s Rhett. I’ve gone from dismissing Gone With the Wind sight unseen to vaulting its male lead high up on my list of favorite movie characters. Smart, witty, self-sufficient, progressive, principled (in his own way), proud, kind … I’ll stop. Even the notion of him as a Lothario is tempered by the doting, committed way he treats Scarlett. (To a point, at least. And then the spousal rape, and … eh.) But that’s my impression after just a single viewing, one during which I was admittedly distracted by his charms. Is there a consensus on him among the ardent Gone Girls (and Guys)?
Since we’re approaching a word count that even Margaret Mitchell would deem excessive, I’ll also pose this question and let you, the authority, bring us back to Tara: If a studio were to remake Gone With the Wind (is this even as far-fetched of an idea as I want it to be?), what do they change? And to bring us to another alternate universe, one in which Hillary Busis can stomach the idea of a Gone With the Wind remake, what would that Hillary want them to change?
HILLARY: Another dispatch from Someone Who Has Read the Book: It’s implied that Belle’s son (the one who’s away at school) is her child with Rhett. Scandal!
Oh, and obviously, consensus is that Rhett is the greatest—clearly the strongest, most well-rounded male character in the story and the ancestor of every charming, roguish smartass with a heart of gold who’d follow in his wake. Though yes, the benefit of hindsight does make some of his actions questionable at best. (The part when he rapes Scarlett is supposed to be super romantic, because secretly she’s “asking for it.” Just check out how she’s humming happily and brushing her hair the next morning. She’s basically singing The Lonely Island’s “I Just Had Sex.” Oh, the gender politics of the ’30s!)
As for your final pair of questions? I’m going to refuse to answer them on principle—because I firmly believe that in an ideal world, there’d be no other adaptations of Mitchell’s story, period. No wan sequels, no bad TV miniseries based on those wan sequels, no poorly received British stage shows. The 1939 movie isn’t just a masterful translation of the novel. It’s also a perfectly calibrated product of its time—Mitchell’s time, too—with all the pros (the sweeping vistas! The just-over-the-top-enough performances!) and cons (the racism, the sexism) that description implies. It’d be impossible for a modern-day studio to produce something that represents the book so truly, warts and all. I love Gone With the Wind and think it’s incredibly problematic in similar measures, but that doesn’t mean I want to see a version of this story that’s been altered to appease modern sensibilities. Feel free to write another movie about a bitchy Southern belle facing adversity during and after the Civil War; just don’t call it Gone With the Wind, you know?
Take us home, Neil: Agree or disagree with that assessment?
NEIL: There she goes, not taking the bait.
I don’t think it’s impossible for another director to make a great retelling of Gone With the Wind, but it is impossible for me to imagine why they would want to (other than [insert cash register noise]) and what it would look like. Let’s hope we never find out. (We will.)
And I’m pleased to hear that Rhett does not, in fact, have the most terrible reputation.
HILLARY: I mean, he sort of does. My dear, he isn’t received!