Saturday, June 6, 2009

Gone but not really ...

Gone with the Wind (U.S., 1939) directed by Victor Fleming, 238 min.
Frankly, My Dear by Molly Haskell (Yale University Press, 2009) 244 pages

I just finished reading the wonderful non-fiction book Frankly My Dear: Gone with the Wind Revisited by Molly Haskell which made me want to watch Gone with the Wind again. The film has always been a guilty pleasure along the lines of enjoying The Sopranos (far superior artistically but evokes similar feelings of discomfort and guilty pleasure) or the milder guilt inducing West Side Story.

The whole premise of Margaret Mitchell's book and the 1939 film violates the liberal sensibility (or anyone with a conscience): the noble and beautiful Southern way of life destroyed by an uncomprehending and heartless Northern conqueror in the American Civil War. It's a nauseating fantasy when one contemplates what it must have cost in human blood to sustain the plantation system in the South. I am sure that life was an idyllic dream for the privileged white few but at whose expense was this lifestyle sustained?

And let me say upfront (which has been said many times before rightly) that the characterization of most of the black characters is evil and reprehensible - running the spectrum from squirm inducing to horrifying. It boggles the mind. What, therefore, redeems this film?

I must say, for me as it is for some other feminists, it is the characterization of Scarlett O'Hara by Vivien Leigh. And you are thinking ... but she is vain, selfish, manipulative, careless, hypocritical, at times heartless ... she is all of these things and she survives all that is thrown at her: the Civil War, the death of her beloved mother and the consequent mental deterioration of her father; burying two husbands; losing a child; famine, carpetbaggers; marauding Union solders; poverty; social ostracization and the heavy burden of sustaining a household of family and servants, black and white, who seem utterly lost at the end of the war.

In many respects she represents a steely feminist icon which flies in the face of the stereotypical, simpering Southern belle. If, on the surface, she preens and flirts and flatters, it belies a nature truer to the ruthless Yankees that she claims to despise. In her book Haskell compares the characters of the men in the book to Scarlett's ferocity:

Baby-faced Charles Hamilton woos (or is wooed by) Scarlett, and after one night with her, goes off to war to die of measles and pneumonia. Frank Kennedy, a little old maid, can’t collect from his customers and is outwitted by his wife. Ashley Wilkes gives loserdom a high poetic sheen. Gerald O’Hara, a reckless drunk, falls apart with the death of his wife. By contrast, Scarlett is a generalissima on the battlefield of courtship and marriage. Sherman has nothing on the deadly belle-then-widow as she cuts a swathe thought the rolls of Georgia’s most eligible bachelors.

From a mid 19th c. societal point of view as a Southern lady, Scarlett's transgressions range from the offensive (marrying Charles Hamilton, a man she did not love, to make Ashley Wilkes jealous; dancing in public while in mourning for one's husband and callously giving his wedding ring away under the guise of supporting the Confederate cause; sporadically necking with her lifelong love Ashley, a married man and an in-law to boot) to the fairly disreputable (marrying
sister Suellen's beau to save the family estate; traveling alone in a disreputable part of town to do business; trying to con Rhett Butler out of $300 to pay the taxes to save Tara, the family home) to the unconscionable (doing business with the hated carpetbaggers and those whom Southerners claim have destroyed the South; shooting a Union soldier in the face as he tries to rob you; using convicts as labour in her new business).

In the end, Scarlett gets what she wants - wealth and stability - even if she has to marry the once hated Rhett Butler to get it. And she eventually succumbs to his desire that she love him, truly love him, and drives the desire for that milquetoast Ashley Wilkes out of her head forever.

But it takes extraordinary things to happen before she comes to that point. Melanie must die and then Scarlett must see how much Ashley truly loved his wife. Scarlett has to lose virtually every person that she has loved: mother Ellen, father Gerald, Bonnie her first born, her unborn child which she miscarries, her love for Ashley, Rhett.

She stands alone at the end and yet is unbroken. She will triumph. And in the end, feminist or not, you forgive her her transgressions and believe that she will carry on by any means necessary.

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