Monday, April 5, 2010
Gone With the Wind: American Duality
What to make of the film which is unquestionably—for better or worse—the most popular ever made in the history of American cinema?
Perhaps it is best to start at the beginning. As is typical of the mega-epics of yore, there is an overture featuring some of Max Steiner’s themes in the score, followed by a two sentence preface: “There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton fields called the Old South…Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind…” Okay, nothing special so far. Dreams remembered, lost civilizations, cavaliers, stories in books—these are the things epic films are made of; it’s what you expect to see watching a film like Gone With the Wind. But then Steiner’s score swells with “Tara’s Theme” and the single most gargantuan “G” ever written scrolls onto the screen from the right of the frame. The letters, filling the screen, spell GONE WITH THE WIND, but they scream “THIS IS THE BIGGEST FUCKING MOVIE EVER MADE!!!” On the initial screening of the film the audience burst into rapturous applause at this sight—and I think even the most jaded of filmgoers will admit to being swept away by the opening credits of Gone With the Wind.
The film’s opening title sequence has only one legitimate rival in terms of sheer power—the Star Wars films, each opening with “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” and then that cacophonous first chord in John Williams’ score and the yellow STAR WARS title filling the outer space on the screen. Not at all coincidentally, Star Wars is the only serious rival to Gone With the Wind in terms of being America’s most popular motion picture.
There’s a lesson here: If you’re making a movie and you aspire it to be the biggest fucking movie ever made, you might as well announce it as such in the main titles. David O. Selznick, producer of Gone With the Wind, most certainly held this ambition. Everything in Gone With the Wind is a superlative; nothing is small in this film.
I’ll do a quick rundown of how monstrous the production of the film was:
• Margaret Mitchell’s novel—a tome at well over 1,000 pages—was purchased by Selznick for a then-record price of $50,000. Selznick once thought the film would have to be split into two pictures.
• The screenwriting process was laborious, and passed through the hands over a dozen authors. When Sidney Howard, the credited screenwriter, turned in his first draft, the resulting film would have been 5½ hours long. (Some Oscar trivia—Howard was the first person to receive an Oscar posthumously. He was killed in a tractor accident on his farm before the film opened.)
• Selznick ran through three principal directors—George Cukor, Victor Fleming, and Sam Wood (who filled in for Fleming after he became too ill to work). At one point, five units were shooting footage.
• Eventually, over 500,000 feet of film were shot for Gone With the Wind. The final cut was whittled down to merely 20,000 feet.
• The film has over 50 speaking roles and 2,400 extras.
• The budget to create the women’s costumes alone was over $100,000. Additionally, it cost $10,000 to launder them over the course of the shoot.
• Each of the principal roles—Scarlett O’Hara, Rhett Butler, Melanie Hamilton and Ashley Wilkes—each had challenges to overcome before Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Olivia de Havilland, and Leslie Howard were settled on.
• The casting of Scarlett involved 1,400 actresses interviewed, 400 giving readings, dozens being screen tested over a nearly two year process before Vivien Leigh—an out of left field candidate—won the role.
• Conversely, Clark Gable was always Selznick’s choice for Rhett. Gable was indisputably the most popular star of the 1930’s, but he hated “women’s pictures” and thought the film would hurt his image. He agreed to do the film only after he received a bonus of $50,000 to secure a divorce from his first wife and marry Carole Lombard. His studio, MGM, was also paid off and given distribution rights for the film.
• Olivia de Havilland, under contract with Warner Brothers, had to plead with Jack Warner’s wife to let her out of her contract.
• Leslie Howard felt he was too old to play Ashley (in Mitchell’s novel, Ashley is 21; in real-life, Howard was 46), so Selznick appeased him by giving him a producer’s credit for the film Intermezzo.
• The final budget for the picture was $3.9 million dollars
• When the film held its premiere in Atlanta on December 15th, 1939, the Governor of Georgia declared it a state holiday.
For all the staggering human costs that went into the creation of the film, the reason Gone With the Wind has endured in popularity is because of its main character, one Katie Scarlett O’Hara. Of course, without Vivien Leigh, the character wouldn’t be. This is a case where actress and character become unmistakably one. Although Leigh would win another Best Actress Oscar (as the equally iconic Blanche DuBois in the 1951 film adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire), through Scarlett, she achieved immortality. I have to admit—it’s a hell of a role, and Leigh is peerless in the part.
Scarlett also represents another theme of Gone With the Wind from which the film is inseparable: duality. My mother lists Scarlett O’Hara as one of her heroes (along with Lucille Ball and—yuck—Barbie, and this is where I thank God I am male). She frequently watches my nearly six year-old niece, and I asked my mother if she thought Scarlett was a good role model for her granddaughter. “Absolutely,” she replied, without hesitation. I also have an infant daughter, and Scarlett O’Hara is the last person I would wish for her to be like. Look at the facts—Scarlett, in the very opening scene of the film, is surrounded by beaus, and she flirts, pouts, toys, and plays them off another to get what she wants.
Throughout the film, her desire is to win over Ashley Wilkes, whom Scarlett considers an ideal match because of his social class and breeding. Although Ashley loves another woman (Melanie)—and compared to the other men in the film he is seen as weak and effeminate (why Scarlett would continue to want him when she has Rhett right there for the taking is mindboggling), Scarlett knows no bounds in her pursuit of him. She steals away other men already engaged to be married (twice, once from Ashley’s sister and once from her own). Scarlett lies, Scarlett cheats, and Scarlett loves to be at the center of scandal—which she often deliberately creates. Her entire friendship with Melanie exists solely because Scarlett hopes to one day steal Ashley from her (Melanie’s kindheartedness and willingness to turn a blind eye to Scarlett’s desires for Ashley act as a perfect foil to Scarlett’s character). Even when she is married to Rhett, she keeps a picture of Ashley in her vanity and her inability to completely close her feelings off to him dissolves their marriage and indirectly leads to the death of their daughter, Bonnie Blue (who Scarlett could care less about). Scarlett only feels validated through the eyes of another man, and her need for love from an unattainable man is her tragic flaw.
However, for all of Scarlett’s scheming and pettiness—and believe me, Scarlett O’Hara is the undisputed heavyweight champion of scheming and pettiness—I have to admit that my mother may be right. Scarlett O’Hara can be an excellent role model. For as much as Scarlett needs to be defined by her relationships with men, she also needs to adopt the role of a man to survive. The film is haunted by the backdrop of the Civil War. The men in the film—even eventually Rhett, the mercenary—are off fighting the war while the women are charged with sustaining their way of life. Although marriage brings Scarlett away from Tara to Atlanta with Melanie, when the city finally falls, Scarlett has but one desire—which is in many ways, the great, overarching theme of all 1930’s cinema: to return home.
Her journey is fraught with peril. First, she needs to help Melanie deliver her baby—for which neither she nor her servant Prissy (more on this scene a bit later) are entirely capable of doing. She must do this alone, as all of the doctors in the city are tending to the Confederate soldiers defending the besieged city (the slow, deliberate pull back as Scarlett is desperately searching for help among hundreds and hundreds of dying and wounded is the most effective shot in the film). She then enlists Rhett’s help to escape with Melanie, Prissy, and the baby as Atlanta literally burns to the ground (this famous sequence was achieved when Selznick ordered a set-to-be-destroyed soundstage on the MGM backlot burned to the ground at the cost of $25,000). Rhett though, ultimately abandons the women—he finally leaves to join the Confederate soldiers—leaving Scarlett to navigate a perilous road back to Tara. Once there, Scarlett finds her home ravaged—her mother is dead, her father is lame and both the home and crops are in disarray (the Wilkes home, Twelve Oaks, has been razed). She must also contend with Union soldiers intent on rape and pillage (and later, carpetbaggers), and the first half of the film concludes with her famous, defiant line: “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!”
I gotta admit—Scarlett, in that moment is absolutely empowering.
Scarlett’s choices from then on—and she only gets nastier in the second half of Gone With the Wind— are ultimately motivated with the intent of protecting Tara. Scarlett proves to be as stupid and petty as one of today’s reality television starlets (imagine Kim Kardashian as a Civil War debutante) but also as ruthless and intelligent as some women who have ascended into political office (I think Indira Gandhi would be the best comparison). I don’t think Scarlett O’Hara is ever compassionate enough to be called a feminist icon (I think Melanie and Mammy best represent those ideals in Gone With the Wind), but she is most certainly a character of tremendous and enduring power. Even when you hate her—and in Gone With the Wind I hated her often—you can’t ever pry your eyes from Scarlett. She is the reason that the popularity of the film has never waned and will continue to endure. A millennia from now, humans will know of Scarlett O’Hara.
Scarlett is not the only Janus-faced element of Gone With the Wind. Unsurprisingly, a film this large is littered with complications. First off—the two halves of the film may as well be two entirely different movies. Part One is chiefly concerned with the fall of Scarlett O’Hara and the demise of Tara. Scarlett’s journey mirrors the fall of the Confederacy in the Civil War, and the beginning of the decline of the genteel civilization in the South. The second half of the film is concerned with Scarlett rebuilding her home and regaining her wealth, just as the South is entering Reconstruction. The first half of the film is leaner, tighter, and more purposeful. The second half of the film is far less focused, episodic, and prone to melodrama. Gone With the Wind is essentially two separate films telling entirely different stories.
Selznick strove to present a historically accurate picture as possible, but there are many crucial details glossed over. Scarlett and Melanie come off the best once the war begins rolling in the film. When Scarlett becomes the de facto head of both Tara and Twelve Oaks, she assumed a role many other women in the South were forced to undertake. Her role as a business owner is also not radical. Yet Selznick omits any mention of the darker elements of Reconstruction. The “meeting” Ashley and Scarlett’s second husband attend is for recruitment into the Ku Klux Klan, but that name is never once uttered in the film, as is any KKK iconography.
In fact, race is the single most divisive issue—and will always be so—in Gone With the Wind. From the opening credits, every slave is presented as a happy one. The principal black characters in the film—Mammy, Prissy, Pork, and Big Sam, slaves all—are never once shown as unhappy with their situation in life and are all quite eager to please their masters. In the film, the African-American characters are presented as subservient and wholly dependent on whites, thus reinforcing centuries-old stereotypes. The implied white supremacy in the film is never more apparent in the scene where Scarlett slaps a hysterical Prissy into submission (and of Prissy, Malcolm X is said to have cringed when actress Butterfly McQueen “went into her act”). Hell, even the black female characters aren’t given proper names, only titles that describe their job—“Mammy”—or their disposition—“Prissy”. In the world of Gone With the Wind, the black characters are given names that reflect a lack of identity.
I think another uncomfortable truth accounting for the popularity of the film is that audiences want to see the African American characters presented as inferior. The popularity of the film has never diminished over time, and the film has never been cut or altered from its original presentation. Would the film really be different if say, the slapping sequence was cut? When the film made its debut in Atlanta, the city was all too eager to recreate the Reconstruction era. Storefronts were made over with temporary antebellum architecture, a gala costume ball, a parade down Atlanta streets lined with Confederate flags, were part of the debut festivities—which President Jimmy Carter recalled as “the biggest event to happen to the South in my lifetime.” However segregation was the rule in the theater, where Hattie McDaniel was prevented from attending the premiere with her cast mates by Jim Crow laws (Clark Gable threatened to boycott, but McDaniel urged him to go, and a young Martin Luther King Jr. attended the cotillion ball for the film as a guest of his father). Many audiences are guilty of falling in love with the romanticized South presented in the film yet completely overlook or disregard that Gone With the Wind is racist.
Racist though the film may be—it is a bit folly to dismiss Gone With the Wind as entirely such. Again, there is a bit of duality at work here. Look at Mammy, and the actress who played her, Hattie McDaniel. While Mammy is representative of the stereotypical female slave who worked inside a plantation, the film makes no bones about who really keeps Tara running. Mammy is also the only character to stand up to Scarlett—and the only character that can see through her bullshit. Scarlett and Mammy share a considerable amount of power. Mammy is also allowed to show flashes of personality outside of her role. A brief, but key scene has Rhett (who is easily the most progressive character in the film) giving Mammy a red silk slip—which she outwardly rejects but inwardly loves. Later, Mammy reveals that she wears the silk underneath her dress wherever she goes, and the slip represents a fiery personality underneath the mask she wears for Scarlett. Because the silk is also a gift from a white man, it does signify that there is at least one white person who sees Mammy as an equal, as a human being.
The character won Hattie McDaniel the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. McDaniel was the first African-American to win an Oscar in any category. McDaniel continues to exert influence among black actors today. Mo’Nique, the most recent winner in the Supporting Actress category, thanked McDaniel in her acceptance speech. At the Oscar ceremony in 1940, McDaniel represented not only the first black actor to be nominated, but the first black person to attend the ceremony. In her acceptance speech, McDaniel said:
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, fellow members of the motion picture industry and honored guests: This is one of the happiest moments of my life, and I want to thank each one of you who had a part in selecting me for one of their awards, for your kindness. It has made me feel very, very humble; and I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel, and may I say thank you and God bless you.
With her victory, McDaniel opened the doors to minority performers. I think there is a small measure of justice that for all of the racist and stereotypical prejudices within Gone With the Wind, McDaniel’s performance shattered the barrier to African-Americans. Her Oscar ensures that Gone With the Wind is a crucial part of black history, and in a small way serves as a counterbalance to the negative stereotypes contained within the film.
More than anything, Gone With the Wind represents an America filled with complications and contradictions. For as much as Selznick wanted to portray an idyllic civilization of “Cavaliers and Cotton fields”, the characters in the film are far from perfect and the drama within their lives is not easily resolved. For as much as the many fans of the film buy into the fantasy created by Scarlett and Rhett and Tara, they represent a reality that a Hollywood film rarely showed. As much as one may think Scarlett is a spoiled princess, they must also see her as a survivor and a woman of tremendous power. For as much as Gone With the Wind is about the life during the Civil War, it is also about life during the Reconstruction. For as racist as the film is, Hattie McDaniel’s performance represents a small step toward barriers being eroded for African-Americans.
I’ve often tried to reconcile how a film so offensive and divisive could be the most popular ever in our country? What does that say about us? Do women really wish that they could be exactly like Scarlett O’Hara? Do we, as a country, see our complicated past as idyllic and nostalgic? Do we look past the stereotypes in the film because we may, at our cores, condone racism? For as much as Gone With the Wind is about opposites, it is far too easy to dismiss the film because of its flaws. The film, in many ways, has held a mirror up to the face of our country and forced us to examine our own flaws. Scarlett should be admired because she ultimately becomes more real than a spoiled southern belle. Nostalgia becomes folly. And the ugly racism in the film serves as a reminder of exactly what is completely unacceptable in society today, and that the struggle to eradicate prejudice is ongoing.
We live in a complicated, two-faced country. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that our most popular film ever reflects the duality of its citizens.
Gone With the Wind (1939)
Director: Victor Fleming
Starring: Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Olivia de Havilland, Leslie Howard, Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen
Studio: Selznick International Pictures (distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Total Oscars: 10 (8 competitive: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress—Vivien Leigh, Best Supporting Actress—Hattie McDaniel, Best Adapted Screenplay—Sidney Howard (posthumous), Best Color Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Interior Decoration; 1 honorary—William Cameron Menzies for use of color photography; 1 technical achievement—Don Musgrave) out of 13 nominations (Best Actor—Clark Gable, Best Supporting Actress—Olivia de Havilland, Best Special Effects, Best Score, Best Sound Recording). Selznick was also awarded the Irving G. Thalberg Award that year.