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#125. Gone with the Wind (1939)
I think Katherine Hepburn would have made a good Scarlett O’Hara and apparently she was kinda in the running for a while, until two consecutive flops (Bringing Up Babyand Holiday) killed her chances. Vivien Leigh got the part when her husband, Laurence Olivier, introduced her to Selznick a few months into SIP’s (Selznick International Pictures) publicity campaign suggesting they wanted to cast a “nobody” for what anyone could see was the role of the decade (the book was a mega best-seller and could maybe be compared to the popularity of Girl with the Dragon tattoo, and the question of who would play Lisbeth Salander in the adaptation).
Much as I do like to imagine what Hepburn might have done here, or Bette Davis or Joan Crawford (both of whom claimed to be in the running but, depending on who you ask, might or might not have been seriously considered), Scarlett, the spoiled southern belle anti-hero of this Civil War-era romance – is given life by Leigh in a way that eclipses any thought of what some other performer might have done. For all the romance and gallantry, spectacle, for all the chutzpah and sweat of its architects, the heart of the movie is in Scarlett. It’s an instance of a terrific subject getting that one extra ingredient that elevates it to like a celestial degree of goodness.
Gone with the Wind is a sprawling masterpiece of a movie, a cornerstone not only for the medium but for the industry, and it’s a movie that’s renewed its allure decade after decade with its re-releases (often in new formats) and most recently, in the era of Trump and Nazi ascendancy, Gone with the Wind submits itself for re-evaluation by a far more critical audience that, though perhaps still appreciative of what an achievement it is, is cautious (to say the least) of the dangers inherent to representing the slave-era south as a place of manners and refinement and lust made all the more lusty for its tingly bodiced suppression.
I’m writing this after seeing the movie twice, in relatively quick succession, for the first couple times in my life. And while there might be some warranted eye-rolling at the choice to discuss these first viewings in a social/political context as opposed to a purely aesthetic one (that eye-rolling comes from me too sometimes) I really did go through a lot of hand-wringing about how to discuss one of the most-viewed and exhaustively-discussed movies of all time and I’m resigning myself, finally,t o the fact that I’m a person living within my historical/cultural moment and that, despite the (persuasive) argument that a lot of this Internet discourse about the racial/gender/sexual politics of movies is just fashion, I do think that it’s the right approach for the times. A focus on race and gender and violence. It’s where our minds are at.
Having said all that: I like this movie a lot. Clark Gable as Rhett Butler does embody something macho and suave that rings an admiring bell with me in the same way that Scarlett’s occasionally-selfish but nonetheless empowering self-assertion and out-spokenness has proven compelling to generations. But let’s temper that allure by remembering that the film’s original director, George Cukor (one of the higher-climbers in Broadway’s queer set, and a notable player in Cary Grant’s biography, who resigned himself to a life of relatively-covert sexuality in Hollywood as opposed to the sexual candor he might have been able to enjoy in the theater; he was often referred to as a “woman’s director” because actresses loved being able to work with somebody who wans’t likely to demand a blowjob at the threat of their careers being ruined – imagine!), was fired from Gone with the Wind, after two years of pre-production, because Gable refused to work with a homosexual.
But anyway. I’m at peace with liking this movie because, like the porn I watch I which everyone is freshly-waxed and –showered and where hairspray and makeup (enemas?) have all been freshly applied, Gone with the Wind is the enactment of a fantasy that, like porn and like Die Hard and like Dawn of the Dead, can do harm if it’s taken too seriously, I seen at too-impressionable an age or if it’s spotlighted during a particularly divisive moment in history. Nonetheless, I enjoy these hazardous and potentially-harmful things. Now’s a time to confront, and find some way of coming to terms with, the fact that I often take joy in media that bring harm to others (insidiously racist, sexist, ageist, xenophobic, jingoistic media; movies directed or produced by or starring men who’ve been convicted of rape and child molestation and domestic abuse and murder [I recently hosted a screening of Naked Gun 2 for an audience comprised mostly of high-schoolers and young college students who thought the appearance of O.J. Simpson’s name in the opening credits was a gag]). A contention I do have with lots of modern discourse about “problematic” art is the idea that one’s affinity for the works of a criminal or deviant artist is somehow a blemish to the viewer’s own morality. That by enjoying, purchasing, and re-watching Chinatown I’m advocating Roman Polanski’s behavior, celebrating rape, attacking a victim.
At the same time, however, to put yourself in the position of a celebrated artist’s victim, it doesn’t take a huge imaginative leap to see what a nightmare it’d be to find your attacker’s name on marquees, their face on magazine covers, their work celebrated.
Roger Ebert’s 1998 essay on Gone with the Wind focuses on the depiction of Scarlett: the upside (“she was the symbol the nation needed as it headed into World War II; a spiritual sister of Rosie the Riveter”) and the down (“If ‘GTWT’ had ended with Scarlett’s unquestioned triumph, it might not have been nearly as successful. Its original audiences…wanted to see her swatted down”). Quoting the romantic opening card that describes the Old South as a place of “gallantry,” Ebert points out succinctly that “[one] does not have to ask the salves if they saw it the same way.”
The Orpheus Theater in Memphis TN got some shit last year when, in the wake of a white supremacist rally, they decided not to go forward with their annual screening of Gone with the Wind, a tradition running back three decades. It seems they stood to be attacked with equal vehemence by one side or the other, no matter what choice they made. So it’s hard to tell if their choice to cancel the screening was rooted in an ethical or PR conundrum.
I made a similar choice recently. For the first anniversary of Thousand Movie Project I bought a license to screen one of my favorite comedies, Woody Allen’s Love and Death. As the Harvey Weinstein rape scandal exploded, though, and the #MeToo movement took shape, I decided not to show it. Nobody had given me a hard time about it, and I didn’t suddenly feel like a bad person for having wanted to show it. The choice just felt wrong for the moment. Disrespectful for the side of the #MeToo argument with which I sympathized. But, full disclosure, I was also worried about offending somebody and being labeled an apologist.
I showed, instead, a double-bill of silent Charlie Chaplin comedies, The Circus and The Kid. In reading a Chaplin biography by Peter Ackroyd in the days leading up to the screening, I learned that Chaplin – though never accused of molesting an infant, as Allen has been – did train his sights on young teenage girls. His first wife was 17 when they married, 19 when they divorced. Second wife was 16 when they married, 19 when they divorced. Fourth wife was 18 when they married; Chaplin was 52. Not the sort of behavior that’s commensurate with 21st century standards.
But nobody said anything about celebrating his work, and it seems few people do.
If we go back to study art from the first half of the previous century we’re going to find behavior and opinions that wouldn’t fly today. This is obvious. And we all undoubtedly entertain opinions and practices that, if people are still around in 2118, will seem ludicrous and barbaric. Seems silly to write a screed today about how fucked-up The Birth of a Nation is, wagging a finger. More constructive is a conversation about how and why that movie got made, how it was received (and by whom). Anger about a 75- or 100-year-old cultural artifact seems pointless.
But! There’s also a 21st century reality of Nazis in our streets, of Holocaust deniers, flat-Earthers, apologists for slavery, the misogynistic community of “incels” (involuntary celibates) who attribute their unshakeable virginity to the idea that women are stupid, superficial, and vindictive (at least two terrorist attacks in the past decade have been carried out, on American soil, by self-proclaimed incels). There are people whose identities are built upon hatred, informed by a self-favoring comparison to some demonized Other, and it’s understandable that we should want to withhold from those fucked-up people the sorts of media that might strengthen their hateful resolve.
To have shown Gone with the Wind at the Orpheus would, I think, have been a gesture of bad faith. Would it have converted any 21st century adolescents into Confederate blowhards? No. Would it have added a little heat to the already near-boiling biases of Confederate sympathizers there in the theater? Maybe.
It’s rough terrain. I like Gone with the Wind and am perfectly comfortable defending its artistry but, for a movie made in 1939, surely there was somebody on that set, maybe even just a key grip or a lighting designer, who looked around like, “…are we seriously calling her ‘Mammy’?” As a white guy who’s enjoyed too much privilege to say with any authority that Wind deserves more praise for its achievement than flack for its depictions, I’ll stay mum on it, as I’m sure it’s one of the topics I’ll be back-and-forth on for the rest of my life. And not just with this.
Having watched all the movies on this List up to 1951 I can say that there are few films with African-American actors who get roles we can comfortably refer to as dignified. Each role is one of servility, supplication. Even Dooley Wilson’s Sam in Casablanca. Though he’s clearly a dear friend to Bogart’s Rick, his role in the movie is to stand as an accessory to Rick’s narrative. Look back to the silent era and there’s hardly a film that, were it released today, wouldn’t be picketed, or at least vilified. To take a moral position against their depictions would probably entail a destruction of the canon. Which can’t be allowed to happen.
Hard to sum this all up. I guess my point here is basically just that Gone with the Wind is a great and powerful movie and that with that power comes a degree of volatility. Lots of great work has this. It can be used to trigger bad things, it can be used to inspire. Whatever we choose to do with it, however we choose to think of it, Gone with the Wind is a work of art that lives, challenges, preens and spits and offends. And that in itself, weirdly, seems like something to celebrate.