Frankly, My Dear

Gone With the Wind Revisited

by Molly Haskell

Hardcover, 244 pages, Yale Univ Pr, List Price: $24 | purchase

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Frankly, My Dear
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Gone With the Wind Revisited
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Molly Haskell

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Excerpt: Frankly, My Dear

Frankly, My Dear

Gone with the Wind Revisited


YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS

Copyright © 2009 Molly Haskell
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-11752-3

Contents

Introduction.................................................ixONE  The American Bible......................................1TWO  Boldness and Desperation................................39THREE  Finding the Road to Ladyhood Hard.....................86FOUR  E Pluribus Unum........................................152FIVE  Beautiful Dreamers.....................................188Bibliography.................................................229Acknowledgments..............................................233Index........................................................235Illustrations follow page....................................142

Chapter One

The American Bible

David O. Selznick, Hollywood's self-appointed reader-in-residence, was convinced audiences would sit still for adaptations of famous books, preferably from the nineteenth century and preferably British. The producer had proved it with Little Women, David Copperfield, and A Tale of Two Cities, three certifiable winners, and what was Gone with the Wind but a nineteenth-century novel in twentieth-century covers ... or a twentieth-century novel in nineteenth-century clothing? His other article of faith was fidelity to the source, especially when the work was as widely read and fresh in people's minds as Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind. To Sidney Howard, the screenwriter, he recommended making large rather than small cuts, in that "minor changes may give us slight improvements, but there will be five or ten million readers on our heads for them, where, for the most part, they will recognize the obvious necessity of our making drastic cuts." He even urged against changes in construction, because "I have learned to avoid trying to improve on success. One never knows what chemicals have gone to make up something that has appealed to millions of people."

In another memo, Selznick referred to the novel as the American Bible, though with an ulterior motive: he was writing to the censor Will Hays, trying to get "damn" into the punch line at the end of the movie. There's violence and rape, there are curses and improprieties in the Bible, was the implication, so why not in Gone with the Wind? And besides, Selznick lectured, "damn" was not a curse but a "vulgarism," so described in The Oxford English Dictionary.

It was therefore a fairly big deal when, in a rare deviation from the sacred text, David Selznick decided that Gone with the Wind's ending had to be changed for the movie version. The book's ending was too downbeat, too anticlimactic. After Rhett's departure with the immortal and now officially authorized valedictory, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," a devastated Scarlett would still decide to return to Tara, to Mammy, to regroup for the possible recapture of Rhett. But Selznick needed to bring Scarlett out of the fog of fear and defeat and give an uplift to the famous concluding line from the book, "Tomorrow is another day." To this end the ghostly voices of her father, Rhett, Ashley would recall to her the magic of Tara, the importance of the land, her one true love. Whereas in the book, Scarlett's thoughts of winning Rhett back are uppermost ("There had never been a man she couldn't get, once she set her mind upon him"), the movie wafts to its end with the softer and more ennobling image of her attachment to Tara.

It's anybody's guess whether the devious charmer we've come to know as Atlanta's most fun-loving shopaholic and shrewd entrepreneur would be content to remain down on the farm, but it's a testimonial to the conviction of this strangely enduring American epic and Vivien Leigh's uncanny performance that we willingly suspend skepticism and accept Scarlett's bond with the land as something fundamental and spiritual, almost redemptive.

Much of the credit for the effectiveness of the denouement goes to the art direction of William Cameron Menzies and the movie's bold, even gothic, use of Technicolor. The spell has been cast by the early scene in which Gerald O'Hara and Scarlett stand under the gnarled bough of a tree, overlooking Tara. The plantation is aglow in a fiery sunset, and the two figures in burnt silhouette suggest both the end and the beginning of the world. The return of that image in the final moments, the visual sweep echoed in Max Steiner's swelling score, completes the emotional sanctification of the land as transcendent value, cemented by the alliance of the daughter with the father, whose Irish blood has by this time marked her character so much more forcefully and balefully than the bluer blood of her Charleston mother.

In a curious way, yet consistent with their different sensibilities, Selznick's ending is more romantic than Margaret Mitchell's, its sense of hope and optimism grounded, literally and figuratively, in something more substantial than Scarlett's wish-fulfillment fantasies. (The inveterate hopefuls among Mitchell fans and the best-selling sequel to the contrary, can anyone over the mental age of fifteen believe that the star-crossed lovers will "get together" one day? Or that they should? Even preview audiences, not the most sophisticated crowd and notoriously disposed to feel-good resolutions, but with divine authority where Selznick was concerned, had no objections to the "unhappy" ending.)

The idea of the moral superiority of the land over other forms of acquisition, the legacy of Thomas Jefferson, is one of our most stubbornly enduring myths, persisting despite the continuous and increasing migration to the cities and cherished even among those whose closest acquaintance with a working farm is the occasional drive-by purchase of strawberries or corn at a roadside stand. Or, in the case of Selznick, who made his first trip south for the premiere of the film, viewing gorgeously evocative sketches on a Hollywood storyboard. Land as a lost paradise is but one of the mythic strands whereby the tale of a recalcitrant corner of the country-or, rather, a tiny segment of that corner!-the antebellum, slave-owning renegade South, is alchemized into a national epic of struggle and triumph.

If not exactly the "story that belongs to all of us," as the producer boasted of the 1936 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel he was bringing to the screen, Gone with the Wind, in both novel and movie form, can claim to have appealed to the fantasies of a remarkably large number of people. And to have gone on doing so long after its sell-by date. In box office terms, with a domestic gross of $1,329,453,600 adjusted for inflation, it remains the biggest blockbuster of all time, surpassing (after having paved the way for) such runaway hits as Star Wars, The Sound of Music, E.T., and Titanic. The only "phenom" to have come close in recent years is not a movie at all but the sleekly murderous and misogynous video game Grand Theft Auto, a kind of white man's revenge on Scarlett and all the brainy babes who have threatened to make them obsolescent.

Costing an unprecedented $4,250,000 to produce, Gone with the Wind was the first "event" film, and for better and mostly worse, its surprising success changed the way Hollywood thought about movies, whetting its appetite for winner-take-all box-office bonanzas. It was the longest and most expensive film ever made; it went on to earn the highest receipts and win the most Academy Awards. By 1987, in 1987 dollars, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer theatrical rentals ran to over eight hundred million dollars. In its first run, the movie sold 202 million tickets, a stunning figure considering that the U.S. population was only a little over 130 million at the time. No less dazzling and enduring has been the popularity of the book. If Macmillan editor and scout Harold Latham had "sniffed" a best seller when he read the manuscript, no one at the publishing company was prepared for the extent of its popularity, especially at an astronomical three dollars a copy. It went through multiple printings and continued to sell robustly, thanks no doubt partly to the movie, and to date has sold more than twenty-eight million copies worldwide.

It has inspired sequels and prequels, satires and send-ups. Alexandra Ripley's nearly unreadable Scarlett, with the heroine returning to her Irish "roots" and getting rescued from political rioters by an opportunely arriving Rhett, was nevertheless a best seller. Carol Burnett got one of her best skits swathed in the green velvet curtains of Tara's mistress on her way to con money out of Rhett. One look at the curtain rods jutting out like extreme shoulder pads and the audience didn't even need to be told who she was. It has provoked fictional anti-Gone with the Wind responses from African Americans, most famously and litigiously The Wind Done Gone, by Alice Randall, which as "parody" escaped attempts by the Mitchell estate to block publication. In 1966, an African American writer named Margaret Walker published Jubilee, in which a strong mulatto slave named Vyry, a more youthfully attractive, take-charge version of Mammy, tends a depressed and addled mistress. More oblique resistances to the book's generic portrait of passive and contented slaves have come from Alice Walker, Mary Condé, Toni Morrison, and Gloria Naylor.

Gone with the Wind has proved endlessly pliable to reinterpretations, a story to remake or modify according to competing personal mythologies, disturbing-even terrifying-in its power to override reality, ideology, and common sense. The spin-offs and sequels continue to multiply, thanks to the presumed wishes of hordes of people who, like Kathy Bates's murderous fan in Misery, will not let Rhett and Scarlett die or go their own ways. And the dollar-minded Mitchell estate is apparently happy to comply with projects as long as they don't sully or snicker at Saint Margaret's version or turn the characters gay.

Rhett Butler's People, Donald McCaig's best-selling prequel of 2007, gives us the "backstory" of Rhett, a revisionist reading of Rhett's plantation childhood as a young master averse to taking up the seigneurial reigns. In this more politically acceptable rendition of Low Country life, the little turncoat-in-the-making prefers to hunt, fish, and pick cotton with the black boys. (Be advised: plot giveaway ahead.) The novel opens with a duel, in which the adult Rhett defends Belle Watling's honor against her white-trash brother's crude aspersions, and ends ... yes, happily. Amid an extended family and staff that include all extant blacks and whites, Scarlett and Rhett look back with fond humor on all their foolishness, Scarlett appreciates Rhett's enabling hand in her own transformation ("I was a child, Rhett helped me become who I am"), and Scarlett and Belle even become gal pals.

Undeterred by the fate of a musical some years ago that began in Tokyo, stopped off in London, and flamed out in Atlanta, and as a testament to the philosophy that tomorrow is another day, a three-and-a-half-hour musical recently staggered into London's West End and soon met a predictable demise. Rather impressively, the author of the new show's book was a fifty-three-year-old American named Margaret Martin. Once a battered teenage mother who slept on an office floor with her two children, Martin understood Scarlett's struggle with poverty but made rather better use of it, achieving a doctorate in public health and founding a nonprofit agency. Her determination proved equal to writing the book, winning over the Mitchell estate, and securing Trevor Nunn as director but faltered in the face of an artistic impossibility.

Scarlett and Rhett may not be on the same level as such towering archetypes of American literature as Captain Ahab, Daisy Miller, Isabel Archer, Huck Finn, and Hester Prynne or even such cinematic monuments as Charles Foster Kane and John Wayne's Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, but they occupy a more personal, familial place in the fantasies of their admirers. They can't be laid to rest because, in ways both touching and frightening, they've become incorporated into the personal lives and dreams of viewers and readers, living on in images mutated by memory and intertwined with desire. A Southern friend decided to read Rhett Butler's People to his ninety-year-old bedridden mother. Her favorite book had always been Gone with the Wind, and she was ecstatic at the amplification.

"I didn't know all that about Rhett Butler's background, it's just fascinating," she commented to her Northern daughter-in-law who (spoilsport) reminded her that they were not real people but fictional ones-you know, made up. Refusing to believe it, this bright and normally quick-witted matriarch summoned her sons to uphold the biographical veracity of Gone with the Wind.

To be fair, it does get confusing. In the venerable tradition of the historical novel, Margaret Mitchell throws in a few real names among her fictional characters. Alexander Stephens, the Georgia vice president of the Confederacy, congressman, and governor who inspired a fascinating chapter in Edmund Wilson's Patriotic Gore, hovers in the wings. And Scarlett's firstborn (not in the movie) is named after my great-great-grandfather Wade Hampton, the South Carolina general (later governor) whose cavalry Charles Hamilton gallops off to join at the outbreak of war. It is in the general's service that Charles ignominiously dies of measles, leaving Scarlett pregnant with poor, puny Wade Hampton Hamilton.

There's often a curious, very personal logic in the things people remember and misremember about the film. A middle-aged woman insisted to me that Melanie's second child, the one whose miscarriage causes her death, was fathered by Rhett Butler. Beyond whatever interest this wildly eccentric fantasy might have for the woman's psychiatrist, it recognizes the special and profoundly felt mutual respect in the Rhett-Melanie relationship, the exquisite balance between her shyness and his courtliness, that becomes conspiratorially intimate in the scenes where he breaks down and confides in her. Allowing them a moment of mutual gratification, however out of character, is the sort of interactive "intervention" that the book and movie have inspired, in this case to "make amends" to Rhett for the way he has suffered.

With something so embedded, even embalmed, in the public consciousness, the idea of an authorized sequel or a preapproved spin-off is a joke. Whatever the legal statutes and limitations (and Mitchell, the daughter and sister of copyright lawyers, was a shrewd protector of her property), Gone with the Wind has long since passed into the public domain-does, indeed, belong to everyone. In 2008, a year of bitter political feuding, Scarlett was invoked by columnists as a Hillary avant la lettre, the only heroine strong, bitchy, and relentless enough to compare with the I'm-no-lady senator's aggressive take-no-prisoners campaign. In this way, Gone with the Wind's touchstones have become American folklore, part of the way we imagine our national self, not just indistinguishable from but overriding real history. Twelve Oaks and Tara are familiar tourist stops in our collective "memory" of the Old South. "I'll think about that tomorrow" and "Tomorrow is another day" have, along with "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," become catchphrases of the American vernacular. Scarlett's seventeen-inch-waist and green velvet curtain dress are the stuff of parody. EBay lists an inexhaustible supply of memorabilia.

Yet no one, not even Selznick, with his inflated claims and over-the-top enthusiasm, could have predicted Gone with the Wind's global reach and longevity, the way both movie and book caught on and grabbed audiences at so many levels and seemed at home in so many eras.

A large part of it was an accident of timing, a coinciding of war and the Depression. Though Mitchell began writing the book in 1926, out of her own generation's postwar spirit of rebellion, creating in Scarlett a Jazz Age heroine transplanted to the Civil War, when the book was finally finished and published in 1936, with the movie following in 1939, it was the Depression that weighed on everyone's minds. According to the cards of the preview audiences, almost all saw the movie as a reflection of their own experience. To these viewers Gone with the Wind was both escape and parallel: a story of struggle and survival during a national catastrophe, but at a romantic remove. Scarlett's evolution from seductress to woman of action exerted an enormous pull as a fable for working women, those women and wives who'd had to take over in the absence of men and in a society that otherwise disapproved of women, especially married women, working. It was the woman's angle that Kay Brown, Selznick's canny assistant, responded to; it was she who pushed for purchasing the movie rights and enlisted financier Jock Whitney on her side.

(Continues...)