Friday, December 29, 2006

Gone with the Wind

On Christmas Day, while spending time with my parents in Central Florida, severe weather swept across the state. Shortly after lunch, a tornado had reportedly touched down nearby, and we actually spent an hour huddling together in the master bath.

We played poker. I brought in all the desserts. (I refused to die before eating Dad’s notorious rum cake.) Mom kicked our asses in poker, but the rum cake made it feel okay.

We emerged from our little porcelain room unscathed with only a few downed trees in the neighborhood. Plans that day were ruined. We decided to watch some movies. I can’t believe I’m blogging about this but I actually agreed to sit though from beginning to end (for the first time in my life) Gone with the Wind.

And ya know, I really loved it.

MaryAn Batchellor coincidentally posted an article about Premiere's list of over-rated films, and at the top of that list was Gone with the Wind. After having just watched the film, I can say with absolute conviction - that’s bullshit. Gone with the Wind is big, long, full of excess and melodrama, but it’s also a great movie. It’s not high art, but it sure as hell knows how to entertain. Even by today’s standard, this movie is a visual feast. You can still be left breathless by some of its sequences, particularly the “street of dying men” shot and the burning down of Atlanta. (That wasn’t special effects, by the way, or models of buildings going down in flames. Those were real buildings on fire, as they were in reality burning down old movie sets like King Kong).

The characters were so vivid and full of depth that it’s impossible not to love them. And if you want to talk about a protagonist that is neither empathetic nor sympathetic and does not have a true character arc, let’s talk about Scarlett O’Hara. That crazy girl has not one empathetic bone in her body. She will compliment fellow southern belles at a ball while also stealing their men right in front of them, men she would never care about because she only loved Ashley Wilkes. You cannot deny that Scarlett is one of cinema’s most sensational characters, bigger than life, full of contradictions, and just plain fun to watch because there is nothing she isn’t capable of doing.

Of course, after she returned to Tara and found it in ruins and her mother dead, she went out to the fields and cried out to the heavens, “As God is my witness, as God is my witness, they're not going to lick me. I'm going to live through this and when it's all over, I'll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat, or kill, as God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again.”

That is certainly a defining moment for Scarlett only in the sense that she found the zeal to overcome her devastation, but let it be said that her speech is more a declaration of true character than anything else. She will overcome this tragedy but she will not change who she is. Ever. She will continue to be the bad girl she always has been. She will stoop to any low to rise again, and that’s exactly what she did in the second half of that movie. She lied. She stole. She cheated, and she killed. She did change in the sense that she saw Ashley for what he really was (a spineless wimp). She adapted to her new circumstances going from a spoiled society girl to a devastated southerner and then back again as a self-made business woman, but she never once changed who she was at her core.

As Rhett told her, “you're selfish to the very end.”

There’s something exciting about a bigger-than-life character like Scarlett O’Hara meeting her match. “With enough courage, you can do without a reputation,” Rhett says. He was a charming bastard, never afraid to confront Scarlett or to match her wit-for-wit in terms of audacity, selfishness, lust, and vanity. He tells her, “No, 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.” Of this line, Ebert wrote, “Dialogue like that reaches something deep and fundamental in most people; it stirs their fantasies about being brought to sexual pleasure despite themselves… Scarlett's confusion is between her sentimental fixation on a tepid ‘Southern gentleman’ (Ashley Wilkes) and her unladylike lust for a bold man (Rhett Butler). The most thrilling struggle in GWTW is not between North and South, but between Scarlett's lust and her vanity.”

Where Ashley was Scarlett’s idea of the perfect mate in a civilized southern society, Rhett was a mirrored reflection of her true character. I don’t know if they ever had true love as much as they were absolutely perfect for each other. He was everything she deserved in life. “Sir, you are no gentleman,” she tells him. “And you, miss, are no lady. But don’t think I’ll hold it against you.” He was doomed to love and never really have Scarlett as much as Scarlett would love and never really have Ashley Wilkes. And when Rhett and Scarlett finally get married, you knew you were about to see one of the most explosive wars in the south, almost as big as the Civil War itself.

Melanie, as a character, might’ve been modeled after Pride & Prejudice’s Jane Bennet, but I think Melanie has more depth. She was the antithesis of Scarlett with her endless goodness, sweetness, and compassion, but she also had depth through contradictions because she was so sweet she was at times naïve about the world. The way she projected her own goodness onto other characters, especially Scarlett, was at times almost vomit-inducing. “Oh, Scarlett, you have so much love. I’ve always admired you so. I wish I could be more like you.” Scarlett replies, “You mustn’t flatter me, Melanie, and say things you don’t mean,” to which Ashley says, “Nobody could accuse Melanie of being... insincere.”

Of Melanie's goodness, Rhett told Scarlett, "Miss Mellie's a fool, but not the kind you think. It's just that there's too much honor in her to ever conceive of dishonoring anyone she loves. And she loves you. Well, just why she does I'm sure I don't know."

And yet, Melanie would also surprise you by how strong she could be in the face of overwhelming circumstances. Watch her scheme with Scarlett about what to do with the union soldier Scarlett had just murdered. Or how she helped pull off the deception of her husband being “drunk” in front of union solders who wanted to arrest him. “What a cool eye you are, Melanie,” Scarlett says to her. And on her death bed, Melanie may have revealed just a little that she knew more than she led on about Scarlett and Ashley. Ashley, of course, made the right choice in marrying Melanie, but Melanie had her faults, too. She wouldn’t have been a great character if she was perfect.

Even supporting characters like Prissy had depth. Prissy convinced Scarlett to keep her around to help birth Melanie’s baby because she knew “how to do everything.” You could tell that those words were not true just by the way Butterfly McQueen so brilliantly pulled off those lines. And then, of course, we learn the truth that she “don’t know nothin’ about birthin’ babies,” a line the world would embrace and repeat for decades. But that line was not written for the sake of catching on with audiences. People fell in love with it because it was so rooted in Prissy’s character. The line exposed a lie.

And, God, how I loved Mammy. She was tough as nails, and yet Hattie McDaniel brought such a humanity to all of that tough-talk that you cannot help but love her. And yet, she had other dimensions. When Scarlett gave birth to a baby girl, Mammy was THE happiest woman in Atlanta. And when the Butler marriage had reached its darkest days, Mammy’s long walk with Melanie, in which Mammy tearfully listed a litany of horrible things Scarlett and Rhett had recently done to each other, was in and of itself worthy of an Oscar. It came as no surprise that Scarlett and Rhett would almost kill each other, but you are moved to tears only because it completely broke Mammy’s heart.

The set ups and pay offs were masterfully executed, like the lines from Scarlett where she’d say “I’ll think about that tomorrow,” which was meant to set up the last line - “Tomorrow is another day.”

There was a scene early in the film in which we see the slaves in the fields and one man starts shouting, “It’s quittin’ time! It’s quittin’ time!” The Foreman walks up to him. “I’s the foreman and I says when it’s quittin’ time.” And then he starts screaming, “It’s quittin’ time! Quittin’ time!” As a kid, I remember thinking, “This is boring. Why do we have to watch scenes like this? Why can’t they just stick with the war and Scarlett and Rhett?” Of course, I can see now that it was absolutely essential to establish the Foreman early in Act One, because he would appear again and again in the story at very crucial moments in Scarlett’s life. And now I can admire a little scene like that for what it really is - quality craftsmanship.

I’ve rambled too much.

Mom always wished Ms. Mitchell lived long enough to have at least started writing the sequel, because she always wrote the ending first.

Had Margaret Mitchell lived long enough to write the sequel, would she have brought Scarlett and Rhett back together?

I can’t say what Margaret would’ve done, but there’s no damn way those two characters could stay together and live to tell about it.


Mickey Lee said...

Love GWTW! I've seen it on TV, Video and DVD more times than I can remember and I've even seen it on the big screen (with intermission, of course).

Fantastic movie. Rhett and Scarlett are two of my favorite characters of all time. So many quotable lines.

And I have to say, yet another instance where the movie outshone the book.

Glad you got to finally see it all the way through.

Mystery Man said...

I thought of you as I wrote this. I was kind of worried. I thought, "this'll probably bore the hell out of Mickey Lee."

But how stupid am I? If you love movies, then you HAVE to love GWTW.


Mim said...

I've always loved GWTW. Ever since researching the Civil War for my screenplay, I've been disappointed in all the historical inaccuracies, but it still packs a dramatic punch.

I've always felt that they lost their kid not because they were both selfish and immature, but because they broke the color scheme and didn't name her Rose or Crimson or Garnet.

I love the scene where she digs up the carrot and swears, "with God as her witness," that she'll never go hungry again, but my favorite scene is when she cuts up the drapes to make a dress.

I'm just a girl that way.

Mystery Man said...

Oh yeah! I couldn't help but think of Carol Burnett's famous skit as we watched that scene. What did she say? Something like, "Oh, just saw it in a window and couldn't help myself." Hehehe...

My favorite line might be from Rhett, during that drinking scene, the "Taking Scarlett" scene (pictured at the top of the post) in which he says of Ashley:

"Of course, the comic figure in all of this is the long-suffering Mr. Wilkes. Mr. Wilkes, who can't be mentally faithful to his wife and won't be UNfaithful to her technically."

I laughed out loud when I heard that.


Reel Fanatic said...

I put off seeing Gone with the Wind until it was re-released in theaters in the 90s for all the reasons you mentioned up front .. it is indeed too long and melodramatic, but also surprisingly good .. did you know the great Margaret Mitchell was run over by a car and died trying to cross the street outside her house in Atlanta? Just depressing

Mystery Man said...

I did!

My parents told me about that while we watched the movie. (Usually I'm explaining movies to them, but this time around they were explaining things to me!) In any case, they said the man was sent to jail even though it was actually her fault.


Emily Blake said...

There was that sequel, Scarlett, written by Alexandra Ripley, but the critics universally panned it.

Good analysis of the film. I alwasy loved Scarlett despite her many, man shorcomings. Any movie that can make me love and respect a complete bitch who does everything for selfish reasons has to have done something right.

All Southern women are taught to be a little like Scralett. I was, anyway. Determination, a little stubbornness, don't take no crap from nobodiness. But be charming while you do it. Scarlett taught us all how to smile our way out of any dire situation.

Patricia Burroughs aka Pooks said...

I have so much to say here that I'll have to just write an entry about it in my own blog. But yes, it's an amazing movie. The characters are spectacular, and Scarlett is almost unique in the annals of fiction as a nasty piece of work we love anyway. (Aurora, Terms of Endearment, is similar, but aren't those women few and far between?)

Male characters can be despicable and we love them anyway, or else Danny de Vito and Jack Nicholson wouldn't have had careers. But women? Sigh. Very hard to forgive, it seems.

By the way, Olivia de Havilland claims that Melanie was the sexier character. Scarlett gave up sex to maintain her figure, but Mellie was willing to die for it. Think about it. (OdH is still alive in Paris and is a lector at the American Episcopal Cathedral, by the way. Drop in for services and you may find her reading the scripture.)

Mystery Man said...

Thanks, Emily. I couldn't agree more. And ya know, Scarlett possesses NONE of the qualities that all of the current "gurus" tell you should exist in your protag. "Interesting" is better than "empathy."

Pooks - Can't wait to read it!

Mim said...

Emily, I love your typo. You turned many, many shortcomings into many man shortcomings. Scarlett certainly had shortcomings when it came to men.

GimmeABreak said...

Glad you made it through the nasty storm, MM. You're one reviewer that can be relied upon to tell it straight without making it personal and I, for one (I s'pose there are a few others), would miss your pointed but usually on-the-mark comments.

Anonymous said...

Ramble on! It's good to play cards at Christmas - nothing brings a family closer, especially if the drunken inlaws show their true selves in pursuit of the smallish pot (you do play for money, not matchsticks?). But our family wouldn't be up for a communal bathe - it's too Scandinavian, and what about the pink bits?

I thought the tornado thing was going to lead to the Wizard of Oz. As for GWTW - also have never watched it through, but will give it a lash after this recommend.

Happy New Year.

Emily Blake said...

Cursed typos! You'd think I'd occasionally proofread or something. But if you gotta have typos, at least they can be Freudian. Or something.

Mystery Man said...

Pat, thanks. I'm really glad I know you.

You should, shtove! The whole thing in one viewing.

Exactly, Emily!

Carl S said...

I watched this straight through a few years ago (2003?) and my strongest opinion at the end was "they just don't make movies like this any more."

It's epic.

Mystery Man said...

I agree!

MaryAn Batchellor said...

The sequel book wasn't terrible but what it lacked most was what Margaret Mitchell wrote best -- those incredible characters.

Unknown said...

I saw MARGARET MITCHELL meet her tragic death on the sidewalk outside the Fox theater in 1949. (The theater in Atlanta where the movie GONE WITH THE WIND had premiered). A taxi hit her as she was crossing the street, looking up at the theater's marquee where her name was displayed prominently. I tried to warm her of the taxi, but she didn't seem to hear me. People have always thought I imitate her, since we're both bitches. But I'm as genuine as she was, since we were from the same neck of the Georgia woods, and we both were stars of novels.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree! I enjoyed reading your interesting blog.

GWTW Junkie :D

Mystery Man said...

You're very kind. Thanks so much.


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