Monday, 12 March 2012

Gone With The Wind (1939)

Dir. Victor Fleming
Starring: Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland

My mistake was to start watching Gone with the Wind at 9.30 on a Sunday evening. The damn film is almost four hours long!

This is to be expected. Everything about GWTW screams ‘epic!’ It is the most epic of epics. Its plot spreads over twelve tumultous years of American history, from the start of the US Civil War up until 1873. It purports to be some sort of elegy for a now-vanished Southern society. It has a lush, orchestral score. Its Technicolor scenes burst with kaleidoscopic hues – and bear in mind that it was released in the same year as the resolutely black and white Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In fact To Kill A Mockingbird was released some 23 years later, and that was still shot in black and white. And the film contains epic scenes – most notably of the besieged Atlanta and the flight through the flames and fires of its destruction and out to Tara.

The protagonist is Miss Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), a flirtatious Southern beauty with remarkable Snow White colouration. She comes of age as the United States fractures into civil war. As the gallant gentlemen of the neighbouring Georgia estates rush off to enlist she accepts the marriage proposal of the besotted Charles Hamilton (Rand Brooks); this is purely reflexive however as she is in love with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), who has just announced his engagement to his cousin Melanie (Olivia de Havilland). Scarlett’s marriage seems to last about forty seconds however, as Charles dies of pneumonia at the front, leaving her a widow, even though she is little more than a pouty teenager frustrated by the societal codes which regulate how she is expected to behave.

There is one other individual who delights in flouting convention – Rhett Butler. Butler is estranged from his own family in Charleston (South Carolina), associates with, ahem, ladies of less respectable background, and attracts criticism from the giddy Southern gentry for stating that the South’s lack of industry will hand any advantage over to the Yankee forces. He later crops up in Scarlett’s life after she moves to Atlanta having reinvented himself as a successful blockade-runner. He does this more for his own profit, however, than from any deep-seated attachment to the Southern cause. He is cynical, roguish and – it soon transpires – practically the only man Scarlett can rely on as the South starts to collapse under General William Sherman’s Union assault. Refugees start to flee Atlanta as the city starts to burn, leaving Scarlett to act as midwife to Melanie. She pleads with Butler to get them out of the city and back to her home estate, Tara. This he does, and then leaves to finally sign up for the Confederate army.

Reaching Tara, Scarlett finds her mother dead of the typhoid, her father out of his mind and the land pillaged by the advancing Union troopers. She determines to rebuild her home. Together with Melanie, her sisters, and a returned Ashley she starts to put it back on its feet – until the news comes in that its taxes have been raised to $300 to fund the reconstruction of the South. With nowhere near that kind of money Scarlett seeks out Rhett, but he reveals to her that his money is tied up in London. Desperate she makes a play for Frank Kennedy (Carroll Nye), the middle-aged paramour of her younger sister who has established a thriving business. And on she goes to husband number two. When he dies Rhett tells her plainly of his attraction to her. Despite still being hung up over Ashley she consents to become Mrs Butler. She now has all the money she could wish for, and a grand palatial mansion in Atlanta. She even bears Rhett a child, Bonnie Blue. But their marriage is full of discord. She does not want a second child. He wants to improve their disreputable and money-grubbing reputation for the sake of his daughter. It takes two deaths in quick succession to bring matters to a head. With Bonnie’s death Rhett realises that was all that was tying him to a woman who was still clearly in love with Ashley; with Melanie’s death Scarlett finally realises that the love she harboured for Ashley was just an illusion, compared to the stronger, deeper love she had really always felt for Rhett. Rhett is, however, unwilling to swallow his pride one more time, and walks out of her life with possibly the most famous parting exchange of all time: “Rhett, if you go, where shall I go? What shall I do?” “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!”

In her defence, Scarlett doesn't marry all of them...

The film is a love story to a bygone age. The chivalry and gallantry – sorry, I mean “Gallantry” - of the well-bred Southern gentry is painted as the last flourish of knighthood. It is described as “no more than a dream remembered”. Everything about it is seen as romantic and noble – not least the romantic nobility of bravely dying for a lost cause. It is this which finally causes Rhett to sign up (“I’ve always had a weakness for lost causes, once they’re really lost”). Notably, the Northerners / Unionists / ‘Yankees’ do not attract the same nostalgic glow. The first Yankee we meet is the unshaven overseer Wilkerson (Victor Jory) who, it transpires, has fathered a child out of wedlock with a local girl from the “poor white trash”. He later reappears, having done palpably well out of the war and reconstruction, manipulating the tax rise on Tara so that he might buy it from her destitute owners. We meet a Union deserter / looter, whom Scarlett shoots dead. We see uncharitable ‘carpetbaggers’ with loud checked suits and bowler hats. We see rabble-rousers promising “Forty acres and a mule” to newly enfranchised blacks who vote the way they corral them to vote. And we even see these confident cigar-chomping blacks ambling down the street without fear or deference (shock horror!).

It is this issue that leads to me having trouble understanding the glory of the Southern cause I’m afraid. It seems to consist, in Rhett’s phrase, of “cotton and slaves and arrogance” and not much more. The nobility that the film clings to seems to be the preserve of the idle rich, whose pre-war life revolves around flirtation, parties and fashion. We see very few of the poor white trash. The gentry display courage and humility – witness Melanie donating her wedding ring to raise funds for the war effort. The madame Belle Watling (Ona Munson) is portrayed as generous and caring, but she is painted as a notable exception to normal societal rules. But what is their effort in aid of? A resistance to bullying from the northern states, yes, but there is also issue of slavery. It must not be forgotten that that ‘peculiar institution’ of slavery must have been more like a nightmare remembered than a dream for so many people. While their masters are off partying, the fields are being ploughed by black slaves. Even in the war they were not wanted for fighting. In Atlanta we meet Big Sam from Tara, a muscular mountain of a man. He and his fellows are going to the front – but only to dig trenches for the white folks. War is a matter for dashing white noblemen on horseback – though his later efforts to save Scarlett’s life mean that I personally would have been more scared of coming up against one Big Sam than both foppish Tarleton striplings. In the film all the black characters are happy about this state of affairs, cursing those damn Yankees who want to come and grant them their freedom. There is a casual racism about the story. Rhett blithely calls the maid Prissy (Butterfly McQueen) a “simple-minded darkie”, and Scarlet slaps her face for not fetching a doctor when asked (Scarlet is unable to bring a doctor either, but no one slaps her). Pork (Oscar Polk) cannot do the simplest thing, wailing about who is expected to milk the cow Scarlett has fetched, because he is a house servant. And Frank is killed and Ashley wounded by Union troops when their “political meeting” tries to clear away the shanty town – it is not specified in the film, but I believe that in Margaret Mitchell’s novel it is made clear that these heroic vigilantes are members of the Ku Klux Klan. Maybe we should not be surprised at this treatment of 1860s issues in a 1930s novel / film. The black cast members were even prevented from attending the film’s premiere in Atlanta due to state segregation laws.

The characters are strongly drawn, even if not really immediately sympathetic (Rhett describes them both as “Bad lots… Selfish and shrewd”). Scarlet is, essentially, a spoilt brat. Vivien Leigh does a great job of capturing her teenaged impetuousness however; she had me commenting that teenagers have not changed much in the last 150 years. Yet after her return to Tara she vows that she will never be hungry again: “If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!” And she lives up to this. She lies to Frank, telling him that Suellen has given up on waiting for him. She cheats by employing Southern convicts at her lumber mill, despite being warned by Ashley that the overseer will starve them. And she kills a Union deserter. She matures into a steely-eyed hard-faced businesswoman, willing to do anything to earn enough money to save Tara. Only after Frank dies does she feel guilt – or rather fear of eternal punishment. As Rhett surmises, she is “like the thief who who isn’t the least bit sorry he stole, but is terribly, terribly sorry he’s going to jail.” Gable’s Rhett Butler is full of great lines like this, a cocksure, slit-eyed opportunist. But how can you not love his sheer macho confidence? “I don’t think I will kiss you, although you need kissing, badly. That’s what’s wrong with you. You should be kissed, and often, and by someone who knows how.” “I want you to faint. This is what you were meant for. None of the fools you’ve ever known have kissed you like this, have they? Your Charles or your Frank or your stupid Ashley?” His descent into a tortured, love-sick loon is somewhat disappointing in this respect. Ashley I found insipid. Melanie should have been the same – but her quiet dignity and genuine care in seeing the best of everybody, even madame Belle Watling, even Scarlett, won me over. One of the strongest characters is the black mother-hen Mammy (Hattie McDaniel). For her role in this film McDaniel became the first black person to ever win an Academy Award.

There were aspects of Gone With The Wind that I found disturbing or disappointing. But what I think did impress me was its ambition. This film sets out its stall early doors to be the most epic of all epics, ever. And to do that with two main characters that are, at heart, largely unlikeable – stubborn, selfish and greedy – takes guts. Yet Scarlett and Rhett clearly struck a chord in the hearts of the public, and continue to do so. What is it that fascinates people about them? Is it the fact that, in the face of a cataclysm that changed their world, these two people did what they had to do to come out on top? They are survivors. They adapt themselves to a changing world like chameleons. The only thing they cannot control are their own tempestuous hearts.

What have I learnt about Georgia?
Georgia was once a perfect land, a land of elegant ladies with 19” waists and 19’ hemlines and dashing gentlemen with manners and fire and contented slaves working happily in the cotton fields to fund their masters’ social gatherings. And all this has been lost, cruelly torn down by jealous and acquisitive Yankees. The fields were left scorched, the grand houses looted, the people impoverished, and the newly-freed blacks victim to any cruel promise.

Ahem. This is one reading of the story. It is, of course, a story written by the white gentry. The word and opinions expressed by the black characters were put in their mouths by a white writer. Why wouldn’t Margaret Mitchell wish to underplay the human cost of slavery? As a result, I find it hard to take any learnings from this film seriously. Yes, the antebellum life of the Southern aristocracy might have been idyllic; but it was built upon the sweat of unfree men and women. And the Civil War and Reconstruction did radically dislocate that society – but in an era of total war I find it hard to feel sympathy for the south, based as it was on a slave-owner society. But what I suppose I learnt most of all is that there are still apologists for the Confederacy, that they have a persuasive narrative, and that they can lay all their woes at the feet of Abraham Lincoln, the North, and the Union.

Can we go there?
Gone With The Wind was entirely filmed in California. The bulk was shot at the studios of Selznick International in Culver City. The burning of Atlanta scene was achieved by consigning their entire store of old sets to the torch. Some scenes were shot nearby in real Californian locations however. The cottonfields of Tara were filmed north of Sacramento around Chico; Scarlett vowed to never go hungry again at sunrise at Lasky Mesa, Calabasas; the gardens of Twelve Oaks were the now-vanished Busch Gardens in Pasadena (which also provided the location for Xanadu in Citizen Kane); and the shantytown where Scarlett was attacked was filmed in the San Bernardino National Forest around Big Bear Lake.

However, the film is intrinsically Georgian. Its scenes occur in Atlanta and on the neighbouring ranches of Tara and Twelve Oaks. Atlanta, of course, is the biggest city in Georgia, with plenty to entertain visitors. The Margaret Mitchell House and Museum might be one such recommended stop – it was here, on 990 Peachtree Street that Mitchell wrote the bulk of her novel. One section of the museum is devoted to the filming of the movie based upon her work and contains real props from the film, such as the grand portrait of Scarlett from the ButlersAtlanta mansion and the front door of Tara. While Tara and Twelve Oaks were fictitious creations, they were quite definitely intended to be located just south of Atlanta, around 5 miles outside of Jonesboro in Clayton County. In fact, the visitor website for Clayton County is called Visit Scarlett and proclaims itself to be the ‘Official Home of Gone With The Wind’. Clayton County have gone so far as to rename the section of US 41 and US 19 south from Interstate 75 through JonesboroTara Boulevard’. Their local airport is also known as Tara Field airport.

Overall Rating: 3/5

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