Ah, Gone With The Wind. Now, I consider myself a lover and connoisseur of old movies…much to the Greek’s chagrin, most recently when he was repelled from the living room and the house last weekend by my watching of Guys and Dolls and Cabaret (Bob Fosse, you were a god among men!), respectively. I can literally not watch An Affair to Remember, Casablanca in which Ingrid Bergman played a leaky faucet for the entire 102-minute running time, or Breakfast at Tiffany’s without crying…no matter how many times I see them. But the times they are always a-changin’, and even some of my most cherished favorites have to be viewed with the critical understanding of the world as it was then. I have a rather vivid memory of the Greek’s awed horror upon seeing Fred Astaire, timeless icon and household name, don blackface for his “Bojangles”” number in Swing Time. And the unbridled hilariousness of a movie called Cat People about a woman who is descended from a race of people that turn into panthers and proceeds to try to turn her romantic rival into kitten chow. I tell you, it takes a sharp mental acuity to grasp the subtext of that! Meanwhile, when she repeatedly tells her husband of her tendency to get catty and kill people, he soothes her and tells her that’s lady-nonsense in just about the most placating, condescending, and insulting way I’ve ever seen, complete with Sssh-ing and head-stroking. Good times. Anyways, despite my self-professed prowess, I had still not seen what some regard as the greatest movie of all time. “What?!?!” they’d exclaim, “How can you never have seen GWTW?!”. (They sounded out the words by the way. I would never talk to someone who was so familiar with something so specific yet obscure that they would assign it an acronym and expect everyone else to know what they were talking about. Because the people I know are cool.) So, finally, a time when I had five hours of uninterrupted free time coincided with a time when AMC happened to be airing the behemoth movie, and I got to see what all the hullabaloo was about…It’s five hours of my life I will never, ever get back. Much like dental surgery, only without the feeling of accomplishment afterward.
Now, a little background first so you can understand how freakin’ epic this film supposedly is. It was released in 1939, which is generally regarded as the greatest year for American cinema, EVER. And, it would take home the Oscar for Best Picture that year (among many others), beating out films like Stagecoach, Ninotchka, Wurthering Heights, Of Mice and Men, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and a little film called The Wizard of (freaking) Oz! And, it has been on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Films since the list’s inception in 1998. And, it is the film most likely to be declared her favorite movie by that friend of yours who wants to sound romantic and wistful and charmingly old-fashioned. So, let’s get on with it, shall we?
The film opens on a cotton plantation, naturally. Scarlett O’Hara is being dressed by her family’s slave, Mammy. She is prattling on like a hollow idiot in a manner that would put a Kardashian to shame. Wait, this is our heroine? Complaining to an enslaved black woman about her problems?! She receives a letter that she’s been invited to the engagement announcement party (ha, they draw out their wedding celebration hoopla interminably, just like us!) of Ashley Wilkes. This is a problem because Scarlett loves Ashley.
At the party, everyone’s laying the Suthun accents on pretty heavy. This would be nothing short of camp nowadays. Scarlett is the object of affection of every man there, but none of that matters because she loves a boy named Ashley. Descending the stairs, Scarlett gets her first look at comely Clark Gable with his slicked back hair and the perviest of perv-staches. You know it just drove those Civil War-era women wild with desire and was, historically, totally NOT the style in the 1930’s instead. I can’t help but feel that the modern day equivalent of this is a guy in Ed Hardy jeans and gelled hair spiked into the shape of some kind of modern sculpture.
A guy playing the impudent, ill-tempered asshole no one would ever invite to their BBQ…ever, says the South is going to kick some Northern ass and he wants in on it. Rhett Butler says there’s no way the South can win with their smaller numbers and lack of military technology. What a keen observation! Clearly, Rhett and I watched the same Ken Burns’ documentary because he is just spot-on with his insight. Foreshadowing!
Scarlett corners Ashley and professes her love. He’s not interested and leaves. He says that he is engaged to his cousin. Ew. She goes nuts (just like a woman!) and throws a vase. Rhett had a case of the meats and was napping on a sofa in the room and heard everything. He reveals his presence to her and is being rather slimy and mocking, but he promises to keep her secret safe. Just then, the party-goers receive news that the South has declared war, and the young men rush off to enlist. Scarlett catches her first sight of Melanie (Mellie) Hamilton as she kisses her future fiancé, Ashley, goodbye. At that moment she is approached by Mellie’s brother Charles who is enamored with her and proposes. Scarlett marries Charles for some reason, laying the groundwork for every romantic comedy to follow in which women do absurdly desperate, foolish, and self-destructive things that somehow the men (read: bland, dashing cyborgs) cannot resist. Fortunately for her, Charlie dies basically immediately afterward.
War happens. We don’t see terribly much of it because, well, when you like a boy, everything else is pretty inconsequential, amirite ladies? Scarlett is in Atlanta with her now sister-in-law Mellie in the Hamilton family home. She is totally just doing it so she can wait for Ashley to return home and steal him out from under poor, angelic Mellie. She attends a charity function with Mellie, which gets all the sniping, gossipy society hens all aflutter because Scarlett is a widow and should shut herself up in her room, wear black, wait for death, and never hope for happiness again. Further feather-ruffling follows as Rhett wins her at auction and asks her to dance during which time he informs her he will win her hand. Oh, did I mention the charity event involved auctioning off eligible young ladies to, um, philanthropic suitors to raise money for the war effort? My feminist self might have had a small stroke there, but I can’t be sure. Additionally, selling people to pay for your right to slavery seems in kind of bad taste but whatever. Ashley returns home for a short respite, and, as Scarlett is seeing him to the door and bidding him farewell, they share a kiss. What the hell, dude? You’re the reason this agony won’t end. Just cut the cord already. You might be worse than the psychological train wreck that is Miss O’Hara.
More young men die. Enter Mellie (making Mother Teresa look like a lazy, selfish schlub) nursing the injured troops. Sherman is about to raze Atlanta to the ground. Mellie goes into early labor, and Scarlett must deliver the baby and get them all out of the city. She totally doesn’t want to; she wants to ditch everyone and save herself. Now normally I wouldn’t be so judgmental about such cowardice, but in combination with all her other abhorrent qualities, she just, I just, well, she makes me want to blech.
Ok, ok, so I know there’s been a lot of talk about Mammy and the portrayal of African Americans. But nothing could have prepared me for Prissy. Oh god, the most high-pitched massa massa talk imaginable! If I’d have been holding a sharpened pencil at the time, I would have jammed it into my ear canal [shudders]. So anyway, Scarlett has Prissy help her deliver the baby and sends her to recruit Rhett to help them get out of Atlanta. He gets them out of the city but, in a decidedly inconvenient fit of nobility, decides he must return to fight, and Scarlett must make it the rest of the way on her own. Prissy is shrill and Melanie is weak. At this point, I’m attributing Melanie’s frail state to generations of incestuousness and not her womanly tenderness. When Scarlett reaches Tara, her family’s plantation, she finds it in a poor state and discovers that her mother has died. That’s when she vows to never go hungry again. Blah, blah, blah. We all know that part.
At Tara, they are trying to rebuild. The Reconstructionists are making life in the South hard. The skirts are still poofy though. The war is over, and Ashley is at Tara feeling worthless and unhelpful and generally sorry for himself. He and Scarlett share more kisses and secret professions of love and desire…because that’s what’s going to make you feel like less of a bastard. Meanwhile, Scarlett’s father has not handled the death of his wife well, and in a fit of craziness (demonstrating the profound lack of understanding of mental illness at the time), he is flung from his horse chasing a carpetbagger and dies. When the taxes get too high, Scarlett turns to Rhett. Unfortunately, Rhett is in jail and can’t access his money. So, in an act both resourceful and despicable, Scarlett encounters her sister’s fiancé, Frank Kennedy, convinces him her sister is no longer interested and has married someone else, and they marry. You’d think this revelation and violent shift in affection might have caused good ol’ Frank to head a couple miles down the road and fact-check this with the sister, but evidently, that doesn’t happen. Fortune smiles on Scarlett again, and another husband dies immediately after. And this one leaves her a lumber mill and a great big pile of money. Jesus, this woman is the Angel of Death.
Rhett proposes to Scarlett and she accepts. If that seems like an abrupt transition for you, understand that they very nearly made this agreement at poor Frank’s wake. C’est très romantique! Brace yourselves because, no lie, for realsies, everything is about to get really messed up! As in, more so than what just happened: the Civil War was the opening act for the sweet fuck all that follows!!! They have a daughter that they name Bonnie Blue (cough, white trash name, cough). Scarlett laments the loss of her figure and refuses to have more children because, at husband # 3, she’s still saving herself for mother eff-ing Ashley. They start sleeping in separate beds. How quaint! Then, I guess because she felt she hadn’t been repugnant in a while, Scarlett and Ashley start being inappropriate again and are caught in an embrace by the neighborhood busybodies. Rumors start swirling. Rhett forces her to face the music and attend Ashley’s birthday party later that evening and without him as an escort. Yeah buddy, feel sorry for yourself. After your long history together in which she made no secret of her a.) repulsion towards you and b.) unreasonable obsession with Ashley, who could have predicted that this would happen to you? You are utterly blameless, good sir! At the party, Mellie stands by her sister-in-law and declares the rumors to be false. This is a triumphant moment for Mellie and I like her more for it, but at the same time I can’t help but think there is a fine line between goodness and just plain stupidity. Aren’t you even a tad suspicious of the soul-sucking remora whose permanently attached herself to your husband? And really, how hard can it be to be everyone’s favorite character in this movie? Just don’t be a vile jackass and you’re there!
When Scarlett returns home, Rhett rapes her. Wait, did I just say that? Yes, yes I did. Can a husband rape his own wife? Yes indeed! Now get back in your time machine and go back to 1939! I am, of course, referring to the epitomous stairway scene in which Rhett carries a struggling Scarlett up an immense staircase to the soaring sounds of an orchestra. But Lisa, isn’t that the paragon of cinematic romantic moments? Yes…and that is fucking sickening! Have you ever watched that scene in its entirety? She’s terrified! And the struggling is sincere, not that playful, feminine, I-don’t-really-want-it-but-I-do type of resistance (that’s not a real thing, by the way). This is totally rape. Rape with a soundtrack. Rape encased in red velvet. Rape, rape, rape.
The next morning, he feels bad, and she has a devilish smile on her face indicating she secretly enjoyed it. So, is ok. She did want it all along (like they do!), you see? Gah! He feels so bad he offers her a divorce. (Take the deal, sweetie!) But instead, he just ends up taking an extended trip out of the country with their daughter. This is actually a relief for me because the child has now reached that age where old timey movies insist she needs to start being eye-gougingly precocious and unnatural and just downright creepy. When they return, Scarlett is eager to greet her rapist and tells him that she’s carrying his demon seed. An argument ensues, and she lunges at him and falls down the stairs (or so his ass probably told the cops). Stupid movie.
She loses the baby, and while she is recovering, her daughter tries to jump a fence she was told not to on her pony and dies. At this point, horses have claimed more lives than the Union. So, Rhett shoots the pony. That’s right, this is your hero, ladies and gentlemen: a man who would kill an innocent animal when really it was just that his spawn was too spoiled and stupid to listen to him when he lazily parents whilst browbeating his shrewish wife. Inbreeding rears its ugly head again, and Mellie falls ill. She’s dying and, in her last throes, she asks Scarlett to look after Ashley (oh I’ll bet she will!) and to be kind to Rhett…because he loves her (clearly that’s what that is!). Is it weird that Melanie, in her death-knell, would have by her bedside this witchy woman and not, oh I don’t know, her husband!?!? Ok, so this actually happened: Melanie dies, and Ashley is inconsolable. He has his face in his hands, weeping. Scarlett is trying to comfort him until she realizes how profoundly Ashley loved Mellie. She backs away from him and starts monologue-ing about how Ashley only truly loved Mellie and never her. You guys, I can still see the poor man crying in the background. At least pan the camera over a bit. I can’t think of a worse time to have your own personal epiphany. Of all the many, many moments in this movie, this one is sooooooo not about you, Scarlett! Dammit, what’s WRONG with you?!?!
Then she realizes what she’s known all along: that she is in love with Threat Butler! She leaves to share this newfound love with him…in the middle of mourning! Like, I’m not even sure she closed the door behind her. Thank God this happened, darling, right? Otherwise how would you have made this all important realization about yourself?!? She arrives home, tells him it was always him and never Ashley, but he’s hearing nothing of it. He’s packed his bags, he’s headed out, he doesn’t give a damn, my dear! He leaves her weeping on the [rape, abortion, domestic abuse] staircase. She vows to return to Tara, the wellspring of all her wackadoodle, and find a way to win him back.
Ok, fine. I liked the ending. It befittingly wrapped up the whole steaming pile of crazy I’d just witnessed. If they’d have rode off into the sunset together (and not shot the horse or been killed by it), I would have probably simultaneously vomited my stomach and pooped my intestines whilst clawing my eyes out and lobotomizing myself with the nearest sharp object. And I’m not denigrating the entire movie. I know, I know, what was all that before then, Lisa? But I thought Vivien Leigh created a dense and complex character, Olivia de Havilland’s Mellie had sincere warmth, and Hattie McDaniel gave her role real strength (and won the first Oscar to be awarded to an African American for it!). I love movies about damaged people (helloooo? Cabaret!); they really are far more interesting. But egads Viv, is this what you can get away with and still everyone roots for you? I blame The Great Depression; having just emerged from such a decade, I can see where folks (of the Caucasian persuasion, of course) could find her struggles identifiable. And those blasted Southerners and their pride. I’m almost most agitated with the perception of the movie today. Why is it still regarded so reverently?
Anyways, there, I’ve saved you from having to watch the thing yourself. On the other hand, if you think I’ve spoiled it for you, worry not. Spoiling the ending (the North wins!) really takes nothing away from the movie (and, as a side note, nearly 75 years after a movie has been released, you’ve kind of forfeited your right to be pissed; the statute of limitations on water cooler chatter so expired about half a century ago). And if anything, I’ve created a new expectation for you so that if you eventually see it, you will perhaps find it a little less grating on the soul. Also, Rosebud is his childhood sled and Bruce Willis was a ghost the whole time.