By Nicki Salcedo, contributor
Though I’m an immigrant and my family did not move to Georgia until I was six years old, I always claim that I’m Southern. I don’t think being Southern is limited to heritage or love of certain cuisines. What we consider the “New South” will one day become the “Old South” to a different generation. I happened to be the generation that skipped Gone with the Wind. The South is fraught with Civil War tales. It wasn’t disdain that kept me away. I grew up in Stone Mountain and spent my childhood under the watchful ghost of Robert E. Lee. I don’t worry about the past, because I’m willing to learn about it. I believe we have other stories. But I’ve wondered about Gone with the Wind. Would I hate it? Would it anger me?
The film version of Gone With the Wind premiered in Atlanta in December of 1939. Eighty years later, I can watch it on my TV, my computer, and my phone with little effort. That’s if you think that 3 hours and 40 minutes of movie is little effort.
Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) is supposed to draw our ire. She’s in love with a man she cannot have and willing to marry a man she does not like. She’s a selfish beast. But she’s a beauty with her dark hair and Irish eyes. She lifts a single eyebrow like a stoic Vulcan. And I couldn’t stop watching. There was death and intrigue and death again. She picks up a copy of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (though in the book version it is Les Misérables by Victor Hugo), and we understand that the tempo of this story is drama and angst. Rinse and repeat. I was hooked.
Since I didn’t know the story, I had no idea what would become of Scarlett. She is infuriated by bad boy Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). They are the same. Rhett is Scarlett. He’s a selfish beast. Her first husband goes off to war and dies. He was the brother of the woman who married the man she thinks she loves. But early on we know Scarlett is incapable of loving anyone.
Scarlett moves to Atlanta with the wife of the man she loves. This is Melanie (Olivia de Havilland). Melanie is amazing. Melanie is the sun and moon. Scarlett is like the gum you find on the bottom of your shoe, only Melanie loves gum stuck to the bottom of your shoe. Then Atlanta burns to the ground. This part is actual history, so that’s not a spoiler.
Rhett 90% saves them. Then the famine after the war comes. Scarlett’s plantation, Tara, is in ruins. A Yankee invader shows up and all I can think is, “Scarlett, you better shoot that guy in the heart.” She one-ups me and shoots him in the face. At that point, I was all in. She’s seen men get their body parts amputated and learned to work in the fields. As she stands in the fiery silhouette of dusk, I think that was a fine movie. I check the time on my Amazon Prime account and we are only 1 hour and 40 minutes into the show. I thought it was over!
Scarlett needs to save Tara and Rhett wants to marry her. Nope. Instead, she marries the man her sister wanted to marry. That’s how dirty Scarlett is. She eventually gets him killed. Since we know he belonged to the Klan, we don’t mourn him too much despite his slight resemblance to Mark Ruffalo.
The entire time Melanie is stealing the show. She graciously loves Scarlett and forgives her. Melanie makes friends with sick people, poor people, Black people, prostitutes, and Rhett. Melanie is Scarlett’s doppelganger. At some point, we are only watching the movie to see how nice Melanie can be and how devious Scarlett will be in return.
The final act is with Rhett. I had no idea she actually marries this joker. I thought the whole point was that they never got together. He spent so much time in a brothel, I wouldn’t trust his nether regions. The film makers make it clear that the brothel was top class. The madame is Belle Watling. She is the next saint right after Melanie.
Scarlett and Rhett get married. There are still more lies, betrayal, death of everybody, and a-way-too-late change of heart. By the time Rhett doesn’t give a damn, Scarlett does. That’s the irony of the line. But Scarlett is a conniving piece of work. The movie ended, and I felt confident that she would march off and finally get her man. Whether or not she deserves him is another story.
Scarlett is memorable because she makes us feel uncomfortable. She’s unsettling to watch. She is bold and sexual. She is savvy and a chameleon. She doesn’t want to be a mother and that part of her never changes. This isn’t a story of the South. It is a story of feminism. It is a story of class, race, sexual politics, and political miscalculations. Margaret Mitchell must have read Les Misérables and thought, “Hold my mint julep.”
Did I love it? Not quite. My favorite scene was between Belle and Melanie. The movie passes the Bechdel test better than some movies that came out this year. I was pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed it as much as I did.
About the racial context of the movie? It wasn’t great. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I didn’t care for the enslaved girls fanning the sleeping socialites. The simplistic portrayals of Pork, Prissy, and Mammy are unfair and inaccurate. By the time Scarlett slaps Prissy in the infamous birthing scene, Scarlett has already slapped every single white guy in the movie and murdered two or three white guys, including the one she shot in the face. In the hierarchy of the film, the lowest people were poor white trash, then Yankees, and carpetbaggers, all of Scarlett’s suitors, and then the Black people.
Scarlett sees Big Sam and holds his hand. “If any of you get sick or hurt, let me know,” she says.
She gives Pork her father’s watch. “Don’t cry. I can stand everybody’s tears, but yours.”
Scarlett lets Prissy ride in the wagon as she leads the horse through the rain and river.
Rhett says he wants to earn Mammy’s respect.
I had a sense that Scarlett cared for the Black people in her life more than she did any of her peers. Mammy is the precursor to the Black sage archetype. Protector of people. Sassy attitude. Wiser than the other characters. As I watched Gone with the Wind, I could see all the ways Mammy has influenced future Black female characters. She is comforting to mainstream audiences. In some ways, films now are no better than they were in 1939. If we must vilify this movie, we must change the way we present people of color and women in film and TV today.
To round out my research, I started to read the book. Over the years, I’ve walked past Margaret Mitchell’s grave in Oakland Cemetery. I’ve stood in the room where she wrote Gone with the Wind. Still I’d never read a single word written by Mitchell. And so I begin: “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it. . .” Check back with me in a few weeks. I only have 1,037 pages to go.
Grade in 1939 A-. I can see why it was the standout film of its time for cinematography and sweeping scenes of peril and beauty.
As for today, it was more fun and more thought-provoking than I anticipated. Not perfect. Not rage inducing. Makes me glad so many new movies and TV shows are being filmed in Georgia. Gone With the Wind can’t be our only legacy. Grade in 2019 B-.
(The author at Margaret Mitchell’s typewriter.)