Thursday, November 24, 2011
Preconceptions Gone with the Wind
I have never appreciated the attraction of Gone with the Wind, believing the film to be a cliche of star crossed lovers, garish sunsets, Magnolia trees and the old south. I had seen parts of the movie and knew a couple of the most famous lines "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." and "Tomorrow is another day."
What more did I need to know? What was the point of giving up four hours of my life - more like six when you build in commercial breaks - to watch this predictable mush in overwrought costumes?
But while I was aimlessly channel hopping last night I chanced on Gone with the Wind and decided to stick with it because there was nothing else worth watching. And then a funny thing happened. I got hooked and my old preconceptions were gone with the wind.
Most of all I got drawn into the character of Scarlett O'Hara. It stuck me it's been a long since since I saw such a fascinating character on the silver screen; manipulative, impulsive, scheming, yet charming and despite all her flaws she draws you in, even after all the decades that have passed. There are people we encounter occasionally who burn so brightly that we can't help walking into the flames, even though we know we will come out singed. And Scarlett is one of those people.
Gone with the Wind has been described as one of the greatest love stories ever told. If this is so then love is clearly destined to be one step removed from torture. The relationship between O'Hara and Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) is at best dysfunctional and at worst abusive. And yet these two manipulative people are fixated with each other. The only people who don't realize it is themselves, although perhaps they get an inkling at the end when it's too late.
Watching Gone with the Wind made me realize that we have lost at the same time as we have gained at the movies. The backdrops may look crude at times and the sets appear clumsy by today's standards. But while we can create special effects with stunning accuracy somewhere along the line we've lost the raw passion and the emotion.
Back in 1939 there were fewer distractions to shrink the big screen. David Selznick, the producer kept many details of Gone With the Wind secret. Numerous big name actresses were auditioned to play the role of Scarlett O'Hara. The successful candidate Vivien Leigh was an outsider from England who was little known in the USA.
The film was first shown to an audience that did not know what they were about to see. People were permitted to leave, but the Fox Theater in Riverside, California was sealed with no re-admissions and no phone calls out.
The audience only realized they were part of a grand design when the name of Margaret Mitchell, the author of Gone with the Wind came on the screen. The reception was apparently thunderous and the film ended with standing ovations. This is the classic stuff of a golden age of film that may never be repeated.
Yet while Gone with the Wind can look antique its themes of a nation divided and a conflict that rages between the sexes, are as relevant now as 75 years ago. Gone with the Wind has the flawed motif of ideal love - that felt by Scarlett for her cousin's husband Ashley Wilkes that fades and falters like his character and notions of the old Antebellum South. The roguish Butler copes better with the cut throat world of Atlanta after the Civil War while O'Hara thrives in chaos.
And then there's the strife and the pride and the battles for turf that may not be on the terrifying scale of Gettysburg but can be just as destructive. But more than anything else Gone with the Wind is about the contradictions of the human spirit all bound up in Scarlett who is despicable but admirable, and at turns childlike and scheming. We don't need a Scarlett. Mitchell herself when asked what may have happened to the lovers after the novel ended suggested Rhett Butler may have found someone who was less difficult.
But while he may not have needed a Scarlett life must surely have been a lot less colorful without her.