For want of a live hockey game (the Canucks losing at Winnipeg on Friday night were stashed in the mysterious recesses of the DVR), I turned the television to TCM on Saturday night. Gone with the Wind was about to start, and I figured I’d watch the start of the movie, as I usually catch it in medias res, and, thus, have seen the end far more often than the beginning. Perhaps predictably, I stuck with the movie from overture to exit music, missing only a portion of the intermission music when I used the intermission for, well, its intended purpose.
Watching Gone with the Wind for its 238-minute running time, I was struck anew by how wonderful it is. I can count myself as a member of the last generation to have experienced the movie for the first time on the big screen, as, prior to 1976, the movie was never shown on television, and one had to depend upon theatrical re-releases to see it — and to see it in its glorious entirety. My mother was a huge fan of the movie (she was fond of reading the grandiloquent titles aloud), and, so, when the final re-release rolled around in 1974, it was deemed important that I be taken to see it. I recall going with my mother to a matinee at the cinema on Beverly Drive and Wilshire Boulevard (which has long been gone with the wind itself), fascinated by the notion of a movie with an intermission. I was so taken with the movie that I believe a trip to an also gone-with-the-wind Pickwick Books on Beverly Drive to purchase the novel ended the day’s festivities. (I should confess that I never got around to reading the book. Writing this, I wonder whether the time might finally have come to do so. Not that I have any idea what became of the paperback with the yellow cover my mother bought for me that evening in 1974.)
As there’s nearly four hours of it, it makes sense that each viewing of Gone with the Wind makes you aware of a different aspect of the movie. The one which struck me the most this time was that, in it, our young country (it was younger still when Margaret Mitchell’s novel was first published in 1936) has one of its true epics. I once heard it argued that the Western was the American national epic, and, while I don’t disagree with the premise, Gone with the Wind is an actual discrete text, which is founded in history and which constructs a national mythology. It certainly is the epic of the Old South, but it’s also a national epic: the Yankees may be the bad guys in the story, but the struggles and indomitable courage of Scarlett O’Hara are a glorification of a uniquely American spirit, regardless of the character’s Southern Belle trappings. The enormous success of the book and movie throughout the country proves that beyond any imaginable doubt.
A curiosity — and a sign of the youth of our country — is that the Gone with the Wind which is perhaps the foremost American epic isn’t Margaret Mitchell’s novel, but, rather, the 1939 movie. Millions and millions more have seen the movie than have read the book (myself included.) The movie itself is mythological in length (is there a mainstream Hollywood movie with a longer running length?) and the myth was reinforced by its having been kept off of television for so long. To younger Americans with access to TCM and home video, that aspect of the movie’s cachet is gone (I suppose I shouldn’t add “with the wind” again), which is something of a shame.
(Gone with the Wind wasn’t unique in its having to be seen in the theater during its periodic re-releases: just as carefully guarded from desecration by commercials was the Disney canon, a corpus of movies which represent another aspect of America’s multi-media approach to epic narrative.)
If Gone with the Wind is to be read as an epic, it fosters the anomaly (by comparison to the Old World epics which define the genre) of having an epic heroine in place of an epic hero. Scarlett O’Hara embodies both the heart of the Old South and the the indomitable American spirit. She’s Odysseus or Aeneas, the protagonist and survivor of a series of adventures, which (just as in Virgil) define the bedrock of a civilization: Tara (or, rather, Tara Regained) is Rome. Yes, the last line of the movie is “tomorrow is another day,” but the last image of the movie is Scarlett overlooking the rebuilt Tara, and the last thing we hear is a triumphant restatement of Max Steiner’s pretty much immortal Tara theme. (Oddity for those of my generation: while Gone with the Wind was jealously kept from television, Steiner’s score wasn’t, and most of my contemporaries first got to know the Tara theme as the lead-in to the Million Dollar Movie. That might even have been a clever strategy to use television to keep Gone with the Wind in the national consciousness without ever putting the movie into America’s living rooms.)
When I first saw the movie, I was duly caught up in the romance of the Old South as bottled by those grandiloquent titles my mother used to like to read. Older and having developed a political conscience, I must now admit to some unease with the way in which Gone with the Wind glorifies a society which was built with and on slave labor. The objective fact is that the O’Haras and the Wilkses are morally reprehensible people who deserve to be reviled rather than glorified. Philosopher Ashley does say in the second half of the movie that he would have freed his slaves upon his father’s death, but, certainly, Scarlett shows no remorse with regard to forced labor when she engages convicts to work at her lumber mill. Perhaps it is the notion of Tara Regained which makes the property’s warped vision of the Old South palatable: the Tara to which our latter-day female Aeneas (re)turns is one in which the “happy darkies” (if the expression can be pardoned) are paid for their services, although it might be wise not to ask whether they’ve gained salary parity with the white workers on the plantation.
Given that Scarlett O’Hara is one of America’s greatest epic figures, it is curious that her portrayal onscreen should be as unsatisfactory as it is. Yes, I am going to criticize Vivien Leigh, sacrosanct though her Scarlett may be. The performance’s sacrosanct status was no doubt confirmed by her having been awarded that year’s Best Actress (not Best Female Actor) Oscar. TCM showed Dark Victory and Love Affair following Gone with the Wind, allowing me to consider the other nominees in the category. Dark Victory is, I’m afraid, tedious (I fell asleep halfway through, although I was sure to wake up in time for Love Affair), and Bette Davis did better work elsewhere. (I’m also not a fan of her fussy and unregal Queen Elizabeth, also from 1939, for which she was justifiably not nominated.) I am a fan of Love Affair, however, but, while charming, Irene Dunne’s performance is hardly the stuff of immortality. Were I a member of the Academy in 1939, I might have voted for Greer Garson’s brief but enchanting performance in Goodbye, Mr. Chips…were it not that the last nominee was Garbo, for Ninotchka. To my mind, it’s frankly preposterous that Vivien Leigh received the Oscar over one of the greatest performances by one of the screen’s greatest actresses In Ninotchka, Garbo transcends even her own considerable self, and really and truly acts; as Scarlett, Leigh (it hurts me to say it) poses, preens, and really doesn’t get to the heart of the matter.
The near-epic search for a Scarlett is well documented, and, with every female star in Hollywood at his disposal, Selznick chose not to choose, and brought in a virtual unknown to fill what may have been the most coveted role in the history of the American cinema. And therein lay his mistake: American cinema, American epic…and an English actress?? Scarlet O’Hara is the very heart and soul of the Old South, and, on a larger scale, the very heart and soul of the indomitable American spirit, and, bottom line, only an American actress could truly fathom and embody the role. The fascinating tests made by Paulette Goddard have acquired some currency, and show what would have been a much tougher Scarlett. Goddard, one feels, would have stressed Scarlet-as-survivor (her true nature) rather than Scarlet-as-Southern-belle (which is what Leigh does.) Leigh is too preoccupied with being a lady (as an Englishwoman would be), but Scarlett reveals herself to be a hard-drinking murderess: along with Rhett Butler, we wonder whether Leigh really would be able to face a line of Yankee troops in order to make her way back to Tara with “a sick woman, a baby and a half-witted darkie.” If she’d stayed true to her tests, Rhett wouldn’t have needed to express a moment’s doubt as to Goddard’s making it back home.
TCM’s Star of the Month for January was Joan Crawford, and I’d sat up into the wee hours last Thursday watching her final — sometimes painful — movies. I thus had her in my mind’s eye watching Gone with the Wind two nights later, and (yes, I know it’s sacrilege) I found myself thinking that Crawford would have made a better Scarlett than Leigh as well. True, at 35, Crawford was simply too old to play the young Scarlet of the movie’s first three-quarters of an hour, but thereinafter she’d have given the kind of no-nonsense, strong and yet subtle performance she could give when afforded a juicy role. We have too little to go on to imagine Goddard in the whole movie; there’s so much Crawford from the ’30s that it is possible to project her into Gone with the Wind. Try it: it will show you just where Leigh comes up short.
Looking at the Oscars for 1939, it’s also hard to believe that Robert Donat walked away with the Best Actor statuette. Goodbye, Mr. Chips is certainly an enjoyable movie; perhaps it was because of all the make-up and playing Chips over a 50-year period that so impressed Academy voters. As a result, Olivier’s Heathcliff was snubbed (it’s one of his best — and certainly his sexiest — performances), along with Mickey Rooney in Babes in Arms, although, there, the mystery is how he got nominated in the first place. Also snubbed was Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington…and, somewhat infamously, Gable’s Rhett Butler. The fact is, however, that it’s Gable’s performance which makes Gone with the Wind: he makes no attempt at a Southern accent and was reportedly half-drunk throughout shooting, and, yet, he simply is Rhett Butler. Perhaps the greatest of all American epics has, in the era’s greatest leading man, the perfect antagonist to Leigh’s flawed heroine. Gable’s Rhett is the essence of the unethical and unscrupulous but true-hearted American. In my opinion, he all but walks away with the movie.
Leigh’s performance is, as I said, sacrosanct (even if I disagree with it.) Gable’s is essential. The movie is the classic of all classics. Yet one of its four leading performances is — by universal judgment — catastrophically wrong. Leslie Howard’s woeful miscasting as Ashley doesn’t sink the movie, but it does make nonsense out of two absolutely key plot elements. The first is Scarlett’s infatuation with Ashley: how on Earth could anyone harbor a decades-long love for this middle-aged milksop of a man with the receding hairline when she has Clark Gable at her feet? Howard is, simply, not attractive, in what, when you think about it, is the movie’s glamour role. Ashley also embodies a fictionalized idealism of the Old South: he represents all that was “honorable” in the lost civilization, and maintains its ideals (minus the slavery) into Reconstruction. Perhaps someone thought that lofty ideals would sound loftier when presented in a British accent; rather than lofty, Howard simply sounds lost, and, when he preaches honor and grace, he’s sounds as though he’s talking about manners at afternoon tea. As with Leigh, the idea of casting a non-American in a part which personifies a completely American ideology is ridiculous. Again, only an American could have played the part.
I read somewhere that the role had originally been intended for Robert Taylor. Se non è vero, è ben trovato, and, whenever I mention Taylor as Ashley, people always respond with a suddenly illuminated “oh! — now I get it!.” This time through the movie, I made a mental effort to imagine Taylor in place of Howard’s frankly terrible performance (small wonder that he was the only principal not to have been nominated for an Oscar), and the results were interesting. He’d obviously have looked spectacular, and his beauty would have made a perfect contrast to Gable’s more “interesting” (and sexier) looks. Taylor’s beauty would also have befitted the angelic idealist in Ashley, and would in and of itself have explained Scarlet’s infatuation with him. (Just imagine how he’d have looked in the uniform. QED.) He’d probably have worked on a Southern accent, and, I believe, would have given a performance which would have settled the question Howard’s impossibly wishy-washy performance leaves unanswered: does he really love Scarlett? The great ironic twist of the movie is that he doesn’t, but Scarlet learns it too late. Howard is so weak that, even when he finally reveals himself, it doesn’t ring true. Taylor’s innate decency would have shown that Ashley and Melanie belong together — and that Crawford’s Scarlett harbors a tragic delusion for nearly four hours. It would be more interesting if we were to see that coming.
One can see why Taylor ultimately rejected the role. Not wanting to take second billing to Gable (as the earlier-entrenched Robert Montgomery and Franchot Tone often did) is the answer usually advanced, and, indeed, Taylor only played first leads. No doubt that was a factor, but, assuming Taylor read the script, the scene in which Rhett carries a wounded Ashley into the bedroom (following the vigilante attack on the shanty town dwellers) must have convinced him that he couldn’t play Ashley. Taylor had quickly emerged as MGM’s new leading man and had been put over the top as a sex symbol by his performance in A Yank Goes to Oxford the year before. (That was Vivien Leigh’s first MGM movie; she’s uninteresting in an uninteresting and small part.) Needing to be carried by Gable would have done Taylor’s image perhaps irreparable harm: even if Montgomery and Tone repeatedly lost Joan Crawford to Gable, they were never reduced to such an undignified display of weakness. Looking at what Ashley did to Howard’s career, one realizes that Taylor was right. Alas.
Although Howard wasn’t nominated as Best Supporting Actor, most unusually two actresses from Gone with the Wind were nominated for Best Supporting Actress: Olivia de Havilland and Hattie McDaniel. Although the other nominees included Maria Ouspenskaya for her stupendous turn in Love Affair, the Oscar of course went to Hattie McDaniel’s pretty much sublime Mammy. If she plays up the stereotypes of the time, and even includes a few elements of shtick, she nonetheless becomes the character in a way which is beyond unforgettable. Her utterances are inimitable and yet quotable: I often speak of a “bilin’ pot” when making chicken soup, and “I ain’t never seen hair that color in my life” and “it ain’t fittin’, it just ain’t fittin'” have become part of our American lexicon. McDaniel never leaves us in doubt that, although a slave, Mammy is wiser and simply worth more than either Scarlett or Rhett. If Gone with the Wind were one of the Old World epics, McDaniel/Mammy would be an omniscient earth goddess; here, she is the personification of Tara’s conscience, and has a goddess-like way of knowing more than everyone else. The movie is unthinkable without her.
McDaniel’s well deserved Oscar frequently eclipses the fact that De Havilland was nominated. Her Melanie has often been the object of derision: Carol Burnett’s pushing Dinah Shore’s head into the punch bowl because the latter needed more sugar shows how De Havilland is dismissed as s simpering goody-goody (which is precisely how Scarlett describes her; but recall that Mammy, not Scarlet, is the moral arbiter of the movie.) On this most recent viewing of the film, I realized more than ever before just how wonderful De Havilland is. True, she does lapse too often into an almost whispered, slow-paced delivery she’d better have reserved for her death scene, but hers is actually the hardest role to play. Good is much harder to act than bad, because it affords so little to sink the metaphoric teeth into, and fewer easy moments on which to hang an interpretation. (If only Melanie had an equivalent to Scarlet’s “fiddle-dee-dee.”) Melanie is the complete and nearly divine embodiment of goodness and generosity of spirit (in a way, she’s Minerva to Scarlet’s — or certainly Rhett’s — Odysseus), and De Havilland communicates that without being cloying. That’s quite a feat of good acting.
The greatest acting in Gone with the Wind comes towards the end of the movie, when Mammy calls in Melanie to intercede with the mad-from-grief Rhett, following the death of Bonnie. McDaniel describing Rhett’s near-insanity in a long take as she ascends the stairs with De Havilland probably won her the Oscar — it’s some of the finest acting ever captured on film. Although it didn’t win her an Oscar (and it doesn’t quite trump McDaniel’s ace), De Havilland’s short scene with McDaniel after she’s talked to Rhett is also a masterpiece of simplicity and sincerity, and makes Melanie’s goodness heartbreaking even before she faints.
The movie also benefits from a flawless supporting cast. Everyone will have their favorites, and mine start with Laura Hope Crews’ delicious (and scene-stealing) Aunt Pittipat. (“Yankees in Georgia? How did they ever get in?” was a line oft-quoted in my family.) The supporting performance of true greatness, though, comes from Ona Munson as madam Belle Watling. Selznick had apparently announced Mae West for the role as a publicity stunt, and it had been offered to Tallulah Bankhead, who rejected it. (This if Wikipedia is to be believed.) He lucked out with Munson, who plays the “dyed-hair woman” (as Mammy describes Belle) with a simple sincerity even more heartbreaking than Melanie’s. Although Munson’s Belle clearly doesn’t mind doing what she does, she also communicates a poignant ache to have her goodness and generosity accepted by society. Belle is every bit as good and generous as Melanie, and Melanie acknowledges it (after Mammy’s scene on the stairs, I find the scene between Munson and De Havilland in the former’s carriage to be the most moving scene in the movie), but Belle recognizes that her fate is to have her goodness marginalized along with the rest of her.
(Raving about Ona Munson requires mention of her mind-blowing performance — and coiffure — in a totally insane Josef von Sternberg movie, The Lady from Shanghai. It’s worth trying to catch on TCM.)
Gone with the Wind is perhaps an unlikely national epic, not least of all because it’s on film, but we’re a young country still sorting out its mythology, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the historicized adventures of Scarlett O’Hara will always be part of that mythology. Leigh (no matter what I think), Gable, De Havilland, McDaniel and Munson gave performances which are the stuff myth (they go beyond legend), and the movie is one of the greatest ever to have been made. (That’s movie, not Film, although Fleming does indulge in that weird burst of orange-soaked stylization in the fifteen minutes leading into the intermission.) Perhaps the best testament to Gone with the Wind‘s greatness is my experience last Saturday: I’d planned to watch just a bit of the movie, and then watch the Canucks get beaten by Winnipeg (Winnipeg? really?) on DVR.
The next thing I knew, it was four hours later.
(reprinted from mdgpundit.com, originally published February, 2013)