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Building my Movie Poster Puzzle: Gone With the Wind

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In late June I took advantage of some free days to visit my Mother in Virginia for her birthday. It was a fun long weekend that included meals out, a screening of Finding Dory, and an unexpected shared activity when I ran across a puzzle in the book store that was just too good to pass up. It consists of thirty-nine posters from a wide variety of classic films stretching from the silent era of the 1920s into the 1970s. It was an engrossing project to undertake alongside my Mother and we naturally discussed several of the featured movies as we built it. What stunned me a little was that I had actually only seen twenty-six of the thirty-nine films honored. I have vowed to fill these gaps in my knowledge of film and take you along for the ride as I reconstruct the puzzle in question. I’ll re-watch the movies I’ve already seen along with experiencing the ones that are new to me and share my thoughts on each one.

Obviously, this is one of the most famous and iconic American films ever made. Even if you’ve never sat down and watched Gone With the Wind from start to finish, you are probably familiar with it and know a little about the story, cast, imagery, or lines. Margaret Mitchell’s novel of the same name was an enormous success when it was released in 1936, becoming a million-seller rather quickly despite being  highly priced for the time at three dollars. There was so much anticipation for the film version, in fact, that when work on the script dragged out the film’s producer David O Selznick was able to milk the delay for additional publicity by announcing a nationwide casting call for the central role of Scarlett O’Hara. Big stars such as Katherine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, and Lana Turner were considered for the part, but eventually it went to the relative unknown British actress Vivien Leigh after she made a trip along with Lawrence Olivier to America and arranged a chance meeting with Selznick. Clark Gable was always the number one choice to play Rhett Butler, but a good deal of bargaining with MGM had to be done to secure his services. Gone with the Wind would go on to break box office records and win eight competitive Academy Awards. That’s all been well-detailed elsewhere, but I want to take a different angle if you’ll follow me past the break.

It came to my attention recently that especially early in the history of American cinema, filmmakers tended to cover the American Civil War from the point of view of the Confederacy. A long list of silent films and early talkies featured central characters whose sympathies lay with the Southern states in this historically defining conflict. Movies such as For Her Sake (1911), The Coward (1915), The General (1927), and So Red the Rose (1935), along with repeated entries by the brilliant, but quite racist D.W. Griffith repeatedly romanticized the boys in Grey. Gone with the Wind was just the latest in this trend to come along, and many films after it would position its hero as a survivor from the Confederate army.

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Comedy legend Buster Keaton waves the rebel battle flag in 1926’s The General.

Only in more recent decades have the numbers begun to even out for the Union as far as representation in film goes. Now even as a Southern born man myself, I don’t think many Americans are sorry that the Civil War ended as it did. As painful as it was, the issue of slavery which had been kicked down the road like a battered old can for most of the country’s first century was finally addressed as fully as it could be. I don’t know anyone who thinks it should have persisted. So why the warm regard for the Confederacy from filmmakers (other than Griffith) even long after the last citizens who could remember the war have passed away?

I’d say that the answer lies both in traditional storytelling and in the unique positioning of the American Civil War historically. First of all, Hollywood will typically favor an underdog story, and the rebels were surely that. As Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler points out early on in Gone with the Wind, the Union was simply much better positioned to succeed than the Confederacy was.

A good old-fashioned uphill battle is always much more easily dramatic than the slow inevitable push to victory of those who are supposed to win to begin with. It’s why sports fans thrill to a big upset as long as the overturned powerhouse isn’t their own. Rocky and Daniel-San are much more sympathetic to most audiences than their counterparts.

But in his very explanation of the factors which favor the North, Butler also points out another reason why we romanticize the pre-war American South. The Industrial Revolution had already taken hold in the highly populated areas of the North and Midwest, but plenty of people were slow to recognize that this was a long-term change in the economics and culture of the nation. Coming out of the other side of a war between the highly mechanized Union and the solidly agrarian Confederacy with the plantation owners coming out on the losing end was just a little too on the nose, wasn’t it? Thomas Jefferson’s dream of a large farming economy was now a thing of the past and no longer a reasonable expectation. Well, the aesthetics aren’t hard to figure out, are they? A beautifully vegetated landscape made to feed through hard, noble, physical labor in the beaming sun has an appeal that large dirty clanking machines run by children in rags can’t match.

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“Hey there,” says a lovely painting of a stately Southern home,”Remember when things were simpler? What happened? The modern world is so noisy and dangerous. Come luxuriate in my soft grass and listen to the gentle buzz of fireflies as the sun sets. This is the intended life of a man. Not that awful crowded place full of suspicious foreign people.”

Pastoral living had been idealized quite thoroughly for us by many of England’s greatest poets for quite some time by the end of the 19th century (think Alexander Pope and Elizabeth Barrett Browning), and who were we to argue with them? The allure of nostalgia is powerful, even for something we never actually knew ourselves, perhaps especially for things we think we missed out on. The Confederate is a warrior defending that imaginary place in the past in which we all got to bask in an ordered and civilized version of nature’s beauty. This is a strong instinct that is typically not even put into words, but simply felt. And these are the sorts of feelings that a skilled storyteller will instinctively latch onto and take advantage of. We like to be sold these sorts of fantasies.

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When Scarlett returns to the formerly grand and gorgeous Tara plantation only to find it largely gutted, we ask ourselves who did this. Well, the answer is pretty nuanced, isn’t it? Most plainly it was the Yankees who did it, but the Confederacy certainly shares blame for the circumstances, so maybe we could say that war did it. But somewhere inside we also believe that it is progress which has gutted Tara.

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Posted on September 10, 2016, in Movies and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 27 Comments.

  1. That’s a nice take.

    As a Southerner with three sisters and a mother, it is essential to watch this movie growing up. Some may dismiss it as a silly melodrama or racist trash, but I find it to be neither. It is no more racist than any other movie of the period. Take that for what you will. What it is though, is a beautifully shot, extremely well-acted, gorgeously scored movie about people in peril – people whose way of life and whose property is in peril. I think that is something to which anyone can relate. If you can set aside the length (which frankly doesn’t bother me), the supposed racism (watch more movies from the era and you won’t think anything of this movie as far as THAT goes), or the romantic triangle/melodramatic mush (again, that doesn’t bother me in this case), you may see it as a wonderfully-produced slice of American film-making. I like it so much that I got the deluxe edition Blu-ray for Christmas and watched it in a double feature with LAWRENCE OF ARABIA on New Year’s Day.

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    • For some reason some of the performances rubbed me the wrong way this time around. I’ve watched Gone With the Wind countless times. It used to show on TV every year when I was a kid. We watched it in school in the 3rd grade. I
      ‘ve seen it twice on the big screen and I own it on blu-ray. The artifice of the delivery was not to my taste on this specific viewing, but I don’t remember that bothering me before so I’m sure I’ll watch it several more times during my lifetime with no trouble.
      There are some excellently designed shots and moments that are iconic for good reason.

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  2. Another reason for the pro-Southern slant of many films about the Civil War is that it reflected a similar slant among many historians during the early 20th Century. The “Lost Cause” interpretation of the war itself received one of its clearest articulations in Douglas Southall Freeman’s biography of Robert E. Lee, published just a few years before GWTW came out. The “Dunning School” view of Reconstruction—basically the old stereotypes of fanatical Radical Republicans in the north making policy and evil Carpetbaggers in the south gaining power by manipulating the easily led free blacks—still was the predominant view at many universities.

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    • The corruption that happened during Reconstruction was a very real thing and no doubt inspired plenty of sympathy for some southerners and allowed many to continue to hold a grudge to this day. I grew up with some people telling me that “Reconstruction was worse than slavery.” It wasn’t until I became an adult that I was able to suss out the nuances of that. Yes, there were bad elements to how reconstruction was carried out, but to unfavorably compare it to human trafficking is just inaccurate in my view.

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    • That’s an excellent point. I read something earlier this year about how the modern view of the Civil War is relatively recent. And you will still find people who will insist it wasn’t actually about slavery.

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      • Despite the fact that if you read the articles of secession of each of the states you’ll find it clearly spelled out that slavery and racism were core parts of the Confederacy’s origin. The same conclusion will be inescapable if you read quotes from the designer of one of the Confederacy’s flags. The entire concept was to symbolize white supremacy. The whole “state’s rights” thing is just a dodge.

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  3. Gone With the Wind is a tricky one. I first saw it in grade school like you. We watched it over multiple days with warnings that the subject matter was mature and it would be turned off if we didn’t behave accordingly. There was some passing mention that some folks thought the movie glorified slavery but my impression was that the teacher was paying that theory lip service more than buying into the idea. Since this was a Catholic school, she fast forwarded through any scene of a suggestive nature, so I didn’t get to see Rhett Butler rape his wife until I was older.

    My first viewing was hardly ideal, but my second experience with Gone With the Wind couldn’t have been more ideal. I have written before that I was fortunate enough to live near the Repertory Cinema on Race Street. Thanks to that establishment, I got to experience a number of classic movies on the big screen. I saw it once again on the big screen in college. For those viewings, it was easy to give in to the beauty on screen. But certain elements of the movie never sat well.

    While still in college, I saw the movie again on video. This time, the whole “Rhett raped Scarlett” thing really clicked. And I was starting to see why the portrayal of the loyal slaves was problematic. They seemed to yearn for the good ol’ days just as fervently as the white characters and there really isn’t a counterpoint presented.

    I still respect Gone With the Wind as a cinematic achievement. But I don’t actually watch it any more. I have seen it somewhere around a half dozen times or more and I feel like that’s sufficient. I would encourage my kids to watch it at some point as part of their cultural education. It’s a movie everyone should see. I just don’t plan to watch it again unless it is for the purpose of introducing my kids to it as a piece of pop culture history.

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    • Excellent points. I, too, have seen GWTW a few times through the years. I might watch it again someday, but it’s not the kind of movie that I go back to repeatedly. I do agree that everyone should see it at least once, for Vivien Leigh’s performance, as well as for the epic scope and cultural impact, and its historical stature as the leading blockbuster of all time.

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      • I am glad I was afforded the chance to view it on the big screen as it was meant to be seen. I would encourage anyone to take that opportunity should it present itself. If the chance arises when my kids are older, I will gladly take them.

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    • I certainly understand your point of view. GWTW is definitely a product of its time and has to be watched through that lens today in a way that I don’t think it did even thirty years ago.

      The wide proliferation of projects at least nominally sympathetic to the Confederacy coming from studios largely run by cosmopolitan Jewish men was an interesting topic to me and while the reasons are both very complicated and also kind of straight forward it seemed like a good way to approach writing about a movie that has been canonized since its first appearance on the big screen.

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      • It was an interesting take on a movie that has been dissected in multiple ways. I wouldn’t want to tackle an article on GWTW. I feel like everything there is to say on the movie has already been said. So, I appreciate that you took a different spin on it.

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  4. Frankly my people, I think I give a damn about this puzzle.
    Seriously though, great social content in the article, and with the somewhat recent controversy over the Confederate Flag, it could be said that the repercussions of that war can be felt. I briefly lived in Garner, N.C. in the early 2000’s, and I met a few individuals you were quite passionate about the Confederate Flag. Personally, I have no problem with the flag, and never will. I just feel that, overall, the majority of us should find ways to get along, and look for less reasons to pull apart.

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    • In Garner! I was born in Raleigh, but we lived in Garner until late ’79/early ’80. I haven’t been back there since ’82. What was the name of the street where you lived? Just curious.

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      • Aversboro Road, in a set of Townhouses, across from a retirement home. When I lived there, a Lowe’s grocery store (briefly worked there buffing the floor at night) opened in a plaza a few block down. Actually, the entire area was super convienent, as a gas station was a few properties down to the left, and a CVS was even closer than the Lowe’s plaza. Nice area!

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        • It was still a small, quiet suburb of Raleigh when I lived there. I can’t remember a whole lot (I was 5 when we moved), but I loved our house and neighborhood.

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        • It still seemed rather quaint (my father compared it to Angola, N.Y. when he was down there in terms of sleepiness, but I thought Garner had more hustle and bustle to it), but with enough commerce that it didn’t feel like anything was quite so far away. I was still able to enjoy some walks in the woods (something I used to enjoy, but have definitely lost interest in over the last 13 years).

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        • We had some nice woods backed up to our house there. I’ve always loved some good woods.

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  5. Nice explication Daffy, one of your finest. Glad I caught this posting as GWTW was one of my favorite books for decades after first reading. Everything you have said about the movie, applies to the book, which has even greater impact when you read Mitchell’s words as opposed to seeing the images on screen, which nevertheless, was a visual stunner especially for 1939. As perfect as Scarlett and Melanie were cast, I had issues with Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes. Gable was almost too obvious, but it worked.
    GWTW was making the rounds through the 7th grade girls at my school in 1973, and I remember one of my classmates weeping at her locker over the book, and while I thought her take of events was strange (she suddenly became a Confederate sympathizer, and this didn’t go along with the actual history we were learning at the time) but I was so moved by her reaction that I went to the bookstore and got my own paperback copy. I didn’t change my view of history after reading the book, however the cultural impacts described by Daffy were life changing, or at least, very affecting.
    I re-read it often for the next 10 years or so, and remember getting into impassioned arguments with my English teacher, senior year in high school, because he refused to admit that the book qualified as a classic.

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    • Always good to hear from you, RB. I hope all is well with you and your family.

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    • Thanks so much for dropping in and reading RB! I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

      When something is as monumentally popular as GWtW there will likely be many different stories about how people came to it and I really appreciate you sharing yours.

      The definition of a “classic” can be a tricky thing. When brilliance and popularity are both without question it is easy to bestow that label, but if either one is in question, even in the eyes of a single individual, it can muddy the waters for that individual. I’ve never read GWtW novel, but I do know that there are some snobs who consider it a little too pulpy and romanticized. Its massive popularity and its topic and themes push it pretty close to classic status all on their own, however.

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      • I recall my grade school English teacher was very fond of the book. But she was also very dismissive of the idea that it was a classic for precisely the reasons you gave. She said it was really good soap opera, but not great literature.

        Haven’t read the book myself so I can’t offer an opinion one way or another. The movie, despite any misgivings I might have about it as a modern viewer, is a classic.

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        • Depending on one’s general opinion of Pulitzer Prize-winning books (which Gone with the Wind was), it should probably be considered a classic.

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pulitzer_Prize_for_Fiction

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        • I’m always reluctant to establish a single-criteria system for something like bestowing classic status. For example, does winning Best Picture make a movie a classic? I would argue that several Best Pictures have not stood the test of time. So I’m not sure winning any award, not even an award as prestigious as the Pulitzer, automatically makes something a classic.

          Not saying Gone With the Wind is or isn’t. Haven’t read it. Can’t say. But while winning a Pulitzer Prize goes in the “plus” column, I think there’s more to the discussion than just naming all Pulitzer Prize winning books automatic classics.

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        • I’m with lebeau on this one. The Pulitzer is an indicator but not the last word. For one thing, the judgment of the Pulitzer committee at the time of the award may not stand up over time all that well. If you look at the 1930s, the decade of GWTW’s publication, it was a pretty good decade for American literature (although not as great as the 1920s). Faulkner wrote three of his greatest novels (As I Lay Dying, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom! Steinbeck wrote Tortilla Flat, Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. Fitzgerald wrote Tender is the Night. John Dos Passos wrote his U.S.A. trilogy. Katherine Anne Porter wrote Pale Horse, Pale Rider. That’s not even getting to writers like Hammett and Chandler whose “literary” value would be debated. Out of all of those books, how many were recognized with the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction?

          One, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.

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        • But that doesn’t mean that the books that WERE awarded were unworthy, just like the fact that HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY beat CITIZEN KANE for best picture at the Oscars doesn’t mean that one is good and one is bad, or that the Oscars were stupid to give it to HGWMV (Which is a pretty great movie all its own). Gone with the Wind was an award-winning book that is still among the best-selling American novels of all-time, and according to a 2014 Harris poll, was named America’s second favorite book, just behind the Bible. It also inspired one of the most popular films of all-time. I think its credentials as a classic are fairly bona fide.

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        • What constitutes a “classic” is a fairly subjective set of criteria. It’s going to be a personal call. You’re laying out a pretty good case for Gone With the Wind as a major novel with a lasting influence on pop culture. However if someone was of the opinion that the book is “too pulpy”, I can see why they might balk at it being considered a classic. That’s probably a pretty unpopular opinion given the book’s legions of fans and its undeniable impact, but determining what is or is not a classic is in the eye of the beholder. Just look at all the hand-wringing that surrounds Daffy’s Cheestastic Classics.

          I don’t have a dog in this fight and I certainly don’t object to someone referring to Gone With the Wind as a classic. But I don’t think that’s a given either.

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