Mr. wOw Reconsiders ‘Gone With the Wind’

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On the heels of Gov. Bob McDonnell’s gaffe, Mr. wOw takes a closer look at an American classic

Virginia’s Governor, Bob McDonnell, declared April to be Confederate History Month. You know, celebrating the southern states — which did not wish to abolish slavery and declared war on the northern states that objected to slavery. (Not that the Northern states were wildly progressive on the matter of African Americans. They opposed slavery, but they didn’t necessarily want black neighbors.) The North won. Kind of.

Mr. McDonnell had nothing to say about slavery in his initial press release about the glorious South and its brave fighting men. Then he amended it. Then he amended it again. Still, the whole pesky slavery thing in regard to the Civil War seemed just that – a pesky thing. Hardly worth mentioning. There were big issues other than the enslavement of human beings. So let’s just celebrate those Confederates and what they stood for – White Supremacy.

This all brought me back to “Gone With the Wind” – one of Mr. wOw’s great movie-going experiences as a young person. I was in junior high, and “GWTW” was in one of its periodic revivals. Our teacher decided it would be a wonderful history lesson. So we went; the whole class. Mr. wOw just loved it. Well, to be precise, he loved Vivien Leigh. She was so gorgeous and glorious in the wonderful old Technicolor. She was spoiled and petulant, flared her nostrils, heaved her (modest but well-cantilevered) bosom and did as she pleased.

Mr. wOw admits: Even as a callow adolescent, feeling slightly icky about the servile portrayals of Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) and Prissy (Butterfly McQueen), Mr. W. even felt a bit of a chill when Leslie Howard, as the idiotic Ashley Wilkes, reminisces about the good old days, “The darkies singing.” Later, Ashley strenuously asserts to Scarlett that he and his family never abused the slaves. No political firebrand, Mr. W. had some sense, and “GWTW” seemed to be missing a few screws.

Still, any reality was swept away by Miss Leigh. Everybody else in my class thought she was a raging bitch. I thought she was righteously on-target. She had suffered unexpected poverty and a brutal war, she’d been brought low and would do anything to re-establish herself — to “never be hungry again.” Also, and most importantly to Mr. wOw, Miss Leigh/Scarlett was very, very beautiful. So beautiful as to be forgiven anything, up to and including murder. Mr. wOw could never understand why beautiful women had to suffer. When Lana Turner was sent off to her death in “The Three Musketeers,” Mr. wOw was upset! How could they kill Lana?! My mother explained, “But she murdered June Allyson, she had to be punished.” Mr. W. didn’t see it that way. Maybe if she’d killed Hedy Lamarr …

Anyway, Mr. wOw was so impressed by “GWTW” he went out and read the book. Big surprise! There was so much more to … everybody. Why, entire husbands and children had been eliminated from Scarlett’s onscreen incarnation, along with deeper explanations of why she did what she did. The movie version of “GWTW” was pretty much a sketch of Margaret Mitchell’s compelling novel. But along with a better understanding of Scarlett, Rhett Butler, Ashley and Melanie Wilkes came a crystal-clear view of Ms. Mitchell’s romantic take on the South and her benign rendition of slavery. It was, in fact, a racist piece of fiction.

Mr. wOw was not yet 15, so even though he recognized racism when he saw or read it, he was not going to get all het-up about it. Things were getting better, right? Except when people were assassinated.

He continued to adore Miss Leigh as the spunky Scarlett. Over the decades he’d catch “GWTW” here and there on TV, never watching it from beginning to end, just tuning in on his favorite parts — Scarlett: “Take your hands off me, you drunken fool.” Rhett: “I’ve always admired your spirit my dear, especially when you’re cornered.” Scarlett: “You’ll never corner me, Rhett Butler!” (Then he carried her upstairs and ravished her, because all she really needed was a good pop.)

And then, about two years ago, Mr. wOw hunkered down over a Turner Classic Movies special showing of “GWTW.” To his utter shock, it had aged like Bette Davis’s Baby Jane Hudson. It was grisly in its partisanship, factually incorrect, absurd in its simple platitudes. Sure, it was the southern perspective, but I couldn’t muster up much empathy, no matter how they suffered. The movie still looked great, and had its powerful scenes, but there was something hollow even in the grandeur. Maybe Mr. wOw had read too much about the real Civil War to find this concoction palatable. Not to mention the horrors of Reconstruction, the rise of the Klan and a Civil Rights Bill that had to wait a hundred years.

Miss Leigh? Well, she was as ravishing as ever. But … Scarlett, this abbreviated screen version of Scarlett, was, frankly, an idiot. Physically courageous, but in all other ways totally dense. And Leigh’s performance was not what I had remembered. Her flouncing and mock tears were annoying, her accent was off — she had a problem with her Ws and attempting a southern dialect only seemed to emphasize that impediment. Scarlett’s fabled independence seemed nothing more than childish tantrums. There was nothing in this portrayal that could convince Mr. wOw that Clark Gable would spend ten years pursuing her. The opulent Belle Watling was a much better catch. Mr. Gable, indeed, holds the film together. He is dynamite. At the apogee of his testosterone. Sex in a striped vest. The very idea that Scarlett would have mooned over Ashley (the pallid Leslie Howard) for more than a second renders the viewer speechless.

And despite the cringe-inducing semi-illiterate dialogue she is forced to speak, Hattie McDaniel is downright noble as Mammy; her scene on the stairs with Olivia de Havilland (laughably saccharine as Melanie) describing the breakdown of Rhett and Scarlett after the death of their child is chilling and heartbreaking. Hattie deserved her Oscar.

Certain films are beyond political correctness, astonishingly, this “greatest movie of all time” is not one of them. Mr. wOw is a little sad, but more than a little glad, too.

A Movie Maven’s P.S.: Miss Leigh was, famously, a last-minute choice by producer David O. Selznick. (She showed up on the set during the burning of Atlanta, the first scene shot.) Every female star in Hollywood, including Betty Boop and Minnie Mouse, was tested. The frontrunner was Bette Davis. Miss Davis wasn’t beautiful, but then, neither was Scarlett … the opening lines of Margaret Mitchell’s book went thus: “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm.” Miss Davis had plenty of charm. And she had portrayed her own beguiling-but-crazy southern diva in “Jezebel,” a far more complex performance that won her an Oscar. She could have handled Scarlett.

But had Miss Davis been chosen to play Katie Scarlett, the movie might never have been completed. I can’t see Davis agreeing to act Scarlett as Vivien Leigh did, as per the script. Also, famously Yankee, she might have bristled at the depiction of the South as the innocent victim of northern aggression.

Bette would have been too intense. There’s only so much an audience can take for three hours. At Intermission, after Scarlett famously vows never to miss another meal, audiences might have fled – watching Bette Davis devour another hour and 45 minutes would have been, as she herself would later snarl, “a bumpy night.”

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