Why can’t she just do as she ought?

Michael Newton

  • Frankly, My Dear: ‘Gone with the Wind’ Revisited by Molly Haskell
    Yale, 244 pp, £16.99, March 2009, ISBN 978 0 300 11752 3

Before it was a classic film, Gone with the Wind was a classic PR stunt. The film’s producer, David O. Selznick, announced that he would launch a nationwide search for the young woman who would play Scarlett O’Hara. The move provoked a furore; Margaret Mitchell’s novel, published in 1936, was already a national bestseller – it seemed that everyone was reading it – and the desire to star in the movie version proved irresistible. As in a proto-Pop Idol, lines of would-be Scarletts queued up for desultory screen-tests, each dreaming of Tara and stardom. Letters poured into the Selznick studio recommending starlets for the role; one of them suggested someone almost unknown in America, the British actress Vivien Leigh. The fact that nearly every player in Hollywood, as well as a substantial proportion of the book’s readers, imagined themselves as Scarlett O’Hara meant the choice was never going to be easy. Scarlett was both an everywoman, and a frustratingly elusive character to cast. Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Lana Turner, Paulette Goddard: all of them were nearly right, yet none quite captured the required quality. Through a mixture of cunning, determination and strategic good luck, Vivien Leigh nabbed the role in a way that might have appealed to Scarlett herself. The search for the film’s star ended in fairytale fashion. Paulette Godard was provisionally cast as Scarlett, until Leigh was ‘spotted’ in the watching crowd on the night that filming began, with discarded Hollywood stage-sets blazing around her in simulation of the burning of Atlanta. Her being there was hardly fortuitous, but owed rather to a mixture of her own wiles and the sense of theatre of the producer’s brother, Myron Selznick, an agent. The moment sums up something about the film: from the tattered legend of the event something fabulously disreputable shines through.

Molly Haskell’s new book reflects on that pair of American marvels, Mitchell’s novel and Selznick’s film. Frankly, My Dear forms the latest instalment of Yale’s ‘Icons of America’ series, GWTW as a subject of study joining the little red schoolhouse, Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, Wall Street, Andy Warhol, the hamburger and Gypsy Rose Lee. In this mixed company, GWTW teeters erratically between Yankee high finance and a chaste, if manipulative stripper. Noticeably the only film on the list, GWTW is a national memorial to American forgetting, a movie that resurrects two legendary pasts, the lost American South and the classic Hollywood film. Both are institutions that have kept going while clinging to the idea that their glories have already gone. Like Serbia, the South has founded its identity on a noble defeat; although American film may always be banking on the next blockbuster, the medium itself increasingly looks like a mausoleum of past marvels. In Haskell’s reading of things, at the heart of both the South and Hollywood lies the vanishing vision of a certain kind of femininity: wily, quick-witted, resilient, conniving and wonderful.

In making its allegory of the old South, the film entangles a long-standing misapprehension in a Technicolor pageant. It presents the fortunes of one of three daughters of an Irish-American (and Catholic) slave-owning plantation family in Georgia. Fervent, flirtatious Scarlett loves the wan Ashley Wilkes (played by Leslie Howard), but Ashley, it quickly turns out, is betrothed to another, the Quakerish, quivering and ever sincere Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland). For the rest of the film, although she marries three other men (the first out of pique, the second out of necessity), Scarlett nurses her ardour for Ashley, convinced that he feels the same way about her, and is restrained only by his sense of honour. Her third husband is a more serious contender for her love: Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) is Scarlett’s male counterpart, just as devious, just as heated. He’s no gentleman, but then she’s no lady. Beguiled by Ashley, dismissive of sexual desire and apparently hostile to the idea of motherhood, Scarlett resists him. These passions play out through the apocalypse of the American Civil War, a conflict that calls on all Scarlett’s resources as she fights for her own – and her house’s – survival.

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