Building my Movie Poster Puzzle: Gone With the Wind
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.
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.
“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.
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.