Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936) has always been and probably will always be an unavoidable accident for most teenage girls. Immediate reactions are giddiness, a brief cardiac arrest or a shock to the entire nervous system. Permanent after effects lasting well into adulthood include delusion and denial accompanied by waves of nostalgia and sentimentality. Sometimes, there is debilitating blindness.
A Pulitzer Prize winner, Gone with the Wind remains the defiant and politically incorrect “it” hit that never gets called literature even if it occasionally snags the title of “American Classic.” For critics, its message of land being “the only thing worth working for, worth fighting for – worth dying for” doesn’t hold a candle to the message of let’s all-learn-to-grow-up-and-be-fair in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. Neither does Mitchell’s book have what it takes for Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (published in the same year) to make it to University reading lists.
Like her lead characters, the shrewd Rhett Butler and the willful Scarlett O’Hara, it would appear that Mitchell frankly didn’t give a damn for her audience as she wrote her magnum opus pasted on the backdrop of the American Civil War. Mitchell maintains a perverse kind of honesty that indirectly roots for apartheid and exploitation (what else is the bid for saving a plantation and “a way of life” all about except eternal slave labour and white supremacy?) insisting on an alternate universe to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
A suspension of disbelief and acceptance of Gone With the Wind both for what it is (romantic fiction) and what it isn’t (a textbook) makes this bestseller an unforgettable, even if a one-time thorough read. Later, specific episodes and exchanges make for revisits. After all, there aren’t too many teenage girls who can shoot a marauder in the face, are there?
It is impossible to resist the green-eyed Scarlett O’ Hara who lunges out and yanks the reader through her ten-year journey from a simpering teenager to a scheming and manipulative survivor –a woman thrice married, twice widowed and saddled with a family of tag-alongs whom she never deserts. Fighting through all that is unfair in love and war does not need intellect or sensitivity, but gumption, and Mitchell’s enfant terrible has such gumption in spades. There are no apologies for all the other one-dimensional or stereotypical characters. Even though we know whose side Mitchell is on, there is as much comment on the foolishness of the cause as loyalty to it.
Mitchell’s language is vivid and visceral without being simplistic and there is enough detail – right down to taffeta petticoats and lace pantalets – for faithful depiction on screen. There are enough ideas for a soundtrack too – Dixie, Bonnie Blue Flag and popular reels of the South all make it into the text before they flow into Max Steiner’s soundtrack for the screen.
Along with a perfect cast, it is sheer spectacle that works in Victor Fleming’s film adaptation. Jack Cosgrove’s magnificent technique of paint on glass gives us the resplendence of Twelve Oaks and the matte shot of the burning of Atlanta. Other rivetting moments include the sequence of Scarlett searching for Dr Meade in a depot full of injured soldiers, the shadowy silhouettes at the time of Melanie’s childbirth and the chaos of Atlanta under siege. Whether in grandeur or ruin, Walter Plunkett’s costume designs and William Cameron Menzie’s artwork and choice of colour (Menzie was one of the pioneers of storyboards) make for a film of sweep even if not nuance. Sidney Howard’s screenplay, which survived producr David O’Selznick’s interference, cuts out the tedious parts of Mitchell’s text.
Frankly, My Dear (Yale University Press, 2009) by Molly Haskell is an immensely readable book that offers new insight to the verisimilitude of Gone with the Wind. A Southerner herself, Haskell comments dispassionately on Mitchell’s romanticism. Praising Victor Fleming’s film more than Mitchell’s book, Haskell “disentangles the film’s qualities from the confounding issues of misogyny, racism and intellectual snobbery”, Armond White writes in New York Times Book Review. Haskell recounts the hype around the film: David O’Selznick’s struggles with the original director, George Cukor, the hiring, walk-out, breakdown and reinstating of Victor Fleming, Clark Gable’s reluctance to play the sexy and quick-witted Rhett Butler, the manic force of Vivien Leigh who emerged the winner of the long search for the perfect Scarlett O’Hara.
We also learn of the premiere in Atlanta to which “everyone flew down – except Hattie McDaniel and the other blacks in the cast, whose presence in segregated Atlanta was not wanted… Later, a further humiliation: Hattie McDaniel was the first African American to win an Oscar, yet at the Academy Award banquet at Coconut Grove, the white cast members of Gone with the Wind sat together and at a separate table in the rear sat McDaniel, alone with a companion”.
Even a die-hard “Windie” would flinch.
The impetuous, volatile Scarlett O’Hara has survived over 80 years as both a demon queen and a role model. Spoilt, superficial, greedy and coarse, using wile and guile, hating her burdens but never shrugging them off, she is the strong dose of gumption one needs to square ones shoulders and “tote the weary load”. And yes, Vivien Leigh makes a bewitching Scarlett O’Hara.