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.

For all its gaudy big-screen splendour, GWTW is a film that works best in its intimate scenes. Here the film foregoes its flames and sunsets, and draws in on the intricacies of its central character. The other leading parts may be real in themselves, but they are there principally to cast a light on Scarlett’s nature. A thread of impulsive gestures, of pettish epigrams, she is the film’s reckless heart. Near the beginning of the movie, having playfully beckoned him into a room for a private conversation, Scarlett is rejected by Ashley, the man she loves. She plays the scene as an unripe grand passion, striving with him; it is an oddly unbalanced moment, with the woman making the running, up against the infuriating rule of Ashley’s feckless determination. He sits on the left of the screen, irresolutely regarding her but full of apparent self-confidence, facing her as she stands on the right, tentative yet absolutely decided. She persuades, she confesses, she shows her strength in her willingness to surrender, and all he can do is agree that he loves her and yet feebly evade her. Her fervour confronts his measured acceptance of his own lack of it; in rage at his baffling refusal, she slaps him. When Ashley stalks from the room at last, Scarlett hurls a vase in fury against the far wall. As it smashes, up from the sofa where he has been concealed all the while rises Rhett Butler, the man she will eventually marry. ‘Has the war started?’ he asks her. Like the audience, he’s heard the whole scene, and he offers her and us a sardonic interpretation of it. He’s comically concerned, faintly amused, flirtatious, and though she responds like any good screwball comedy heroine with fiery repartee, a signal for any 1930s audience that the two are made for each other, this time it’s Scarlett who flees the room. In one scene, the film has presented us with the path that Scarlett will follow.

Yet for all the compressed magic of this episode, the mystery is that this character and this small love-confusion should require the great background of the war, and those epic colours; that these convoluted amorous pursuits should depend on and find their place within such a magnificent tapestry. It is not so much that the film explores the relation of the self to history, but rather that history itself should undo Scarlett’s character and provide a projected glory for her losses. The film unspools the destruction of something – of Scarlett’s youth, the South’s grace – but does so in such a way that the unravelling appears a thing of beauty. Margaret Mitchell’s book was less wide-eyed, its ending provokingly bathetic and hard: Rhett Butler simply abandons Scarlett. For its own ending, the film had to go beyond that famous moment where he strides off, telling her in a masterpiece of censorship-eluding emphasis, ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,’ and instead choose an optimism as resilient, as wild as its own ardent sway. ‘Tomorrow,’ Scarlett persuades us, ‘is another day.’

This story is by now the most famous example of the South’s sustaining myth. Yet, if Scarlett is to be taken as the embodiment of that sweet untruth, then the film subtly transforms the illusion. It gives us neither triumph, nor a gracious downfall, but rather a stoic manipulator. This is a feminised South, where to be most successfully feminine is to be the best player of a confidence game. The men are compromised cavaliers, their courage curiously ineffectual: Rhett may save Melanie and Scarlett from the ruins of Atlanta, but he then promptly leaves them to their fate in the middle of hostile territory. Yet the film nonetheless adheres to a vision that its own complexities would dismantle.

GWTW, the movie, still amazes. It was a magnificent folly, a film made frenziedly, a fabrication of breakdowns and benzedrine. Much as Powell and Pressburger re-created India in Pinewood for Black Narcissus, GWTW represents the triumph of artifice, the South of the 1860s concocted on a Hollywood lot. While the book was an ante-modernist throwback, a 1930s riposte to Harriet Beecher Stowe, the film lovingly embraces the possibilities of technology. It is a fabric of process shots, images and cuts. Watching it, you’re quickly drawn into a semi-resistant, somnolent state, drugged by colours sweet as confectionery. The soft image of black children fanning drowsy Southern belles beguiles, like a Burne-Jones painting commissioned by George Lincoln Rockwell. The whole works like an opera, complete with its overture and entr’acte. At first, it is the sweep of the movie that is so alluring and so suspect; the astounding unreality of it all immerses you. If you sat through Stephen Daldry’s The Reader recently, you might have found it tough to resist the thought: ‘Those poor Nazi guards, they really suffered.’ Watching GWTW, you are similarly corralled into feeling: ‘Those poor plantation owners, they really had it hard.’ If the ultimate meaning of The Reader is the frailty of art, that reading changes nothing (all that Chekhov, all that Tolstoy, and people still remain moral idiots), the ultimate message of GWTW is art’s potency, the shiny complicity of the moving picture.

It’s a complicity that would, if it could, float free of direct involvement with the South’s self-image or politics. Signalling aristocratic grace, three of the film’s four stars were in one way or another British, and both Hattie McDaniel and Clark Gable were born outside the South. (Gable pluckily refused to attempt a Southern accent for the role.) Selznick, the Pittsburgh-born producer of the film, constructed an outsider’s rendition of the South’s defiant requiem. The footage of the film’s Atlanta premiere reveals just how out of place and ill-at-ease Selznick looks there, a Jew in Georgia; it was the first time he had ever set foot in the South. This was an American epic made by someone ostensibly outside its world. Selznick was uneasy about the story’s aptness to be read as a white parable of the essential goodness of the slave-owning South. The film tries its best to alleviate the tacit racism, banning the word ‘nigger’ and repressing direct mention of the Ku Klux Klan. Yet the real world would draw out the story’s latent meanings, irreducibly embroiled as they were in Mitchell’s novel, that American Bible. The black stars of the film were not invited to the Atlanta premiere; Hattie McDaniel’s image was quietly excised from the Southern version of the film’s printed programme. Most painfully of all, at the dinner where she was awarded the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, McDaniel sat at a table apart from the film’s white stars.

Though Haskell is alive to how the story engages with race, for her the core of the fable lies in Scarlett’s ambiguous collusion with the desires of men. It is a tribute to the power of Mitchell’s conception and of Vivien Leigh’s playing that Scarlett should remain such a multifaceted character. Haskell sees her as a classic American schemer, the epitome of national contradictions. A heroine for the Depression years, she is American not least in being, in the end, a free marketeer, a worshipper of Mammon. (Ever since the novel’s publication critics have noted how vigorous Scarlett O’Hara and noble Melanie Hamilton echo Thackeray’s Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley.) GWTW sells us an old understanding of the South. In the film’s terms, slavery is not a degraded element in a noble system: rather, its existence promotes and protects that nobility. Southern grace requires the subjection of the blacks. Without it, the South becomes the image of its own Northern antithesis, as a feudal system gives way to the free labour of the Yankee world. Scarlett enthusiastically embraces this and, as soon as is possible, she becomes a happily exploitative entrepreneur. Yet though she lives an economic life, her identity chiefly revolves not around cash but around men – though in the circumstances the two are easily confused. It is undoubtedly an ‘iconic’ romance, though to see it only as an icon is to flatten out the weird turns of the love-plot. Most of the time, Scarlett refuses her connection to Rhett, choosing instead the comforts of unrequited desire elsewhere. The talismanic images of the picture, its bodice-ripping poster of Clark Gable taking Vivien Leigh in his powerful arms (replayed in the 1980s poster in which Reagan embraced a swooning Maggie Thatcher), all suggest that this is where the overriding passion burns. However, for most of the movie, Scarlett appears to think otherwise, obsessed as she is with pithless Ashley Wilkes; she’s a Cathy who prefers Linton to Heathcliff. Likewise, it isn’t clear how great Rhett’s passion is for her. At the end of both halves of the film, he forsakes Scarlett; the first time, she misjudges his high-minded motives; the second time, he misinterprets her. Both times, abandoned Scarlett struggles on, making good, or looking set fair to do so.

Scarlett may marry three times, but in each case it’s a throwaway gesture, a means of giving nothing of herself. The first two husbands prove fortuitously expendable: the first carried off by measles, the mutton-chopped second dispatched off-screen by wicked carpetbaggers. When you watch the film now, Scarlett’s refusal of sexual pleasure is intriguing, not to say mystifying; her avoidance of intimacy looks not so much neurotic as insurrectionary. When Rhett threatens to crush her skull, the film confronts us with his abiding horror at her recalcitrant otherness. Why can’t she just do as she ought? Rhett and the audience want her to play the game of love with him, and she won’t. On several occasions, when Rhett proposes kissing her, in one move she shuts her eyes, throws her head back, puckers up and waits. These are comic presages of the marital rape scene to come, and Scarlett’s post-coital morning stretches and smiles that follow; unwilling perhaps to own up to her own desire, she seems happy to let herself be overwhelmed. While this scene has deservedly formed the test-case for critical debates about the film, equally extraordinary is the moment where Ashley finally kisses Scarlett. For a moment, she becomes strange to us, letting go of the tension of longing, laughing, weeping, collapsing, desiring. ‘You love me,’ she repeats, in manic relief, ‘you love me.’

In an earlier reading of the film, Haskell depicted Scarlett as a ‘superfemale’, like all the best Southern belles: a demonic coquette playing within society’s structures, a self-exploiting rebel. She also bears traces of the ‘tomboy’, something of a personal myth for Haskell, who has written often of just such a phase in her own life, and of the troubles of having to surrender its vantages. It cannot be said that Haskell gets to the heart of Scarlett O’Hara; no one could. But her reading of the character and of the novel and film that she dominates is as good as any I can imagine.

Though she concentrates on Scarlett, Haskell is fair to the film’s other main characters too. She does justice to the complex goodness of Olivia de Havilland’s Melanie, explaining the tranquil power of a character who offers us an alternative vision of uncomplaining fortitude. She is equally astute on the ways that the film exposes the feebleness of men. There are those non-entities of doting husbands, those perfect hunks yammering boyishly for a war that will wipe them out, those endless lines of wounded and helpless Confederate soldiers. The film would rather show us hospitals than battlefields. For many, the epicentre of male fragility is the Peter Wimseyesque Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes. Haskell has written before about the now long-faded attraction of the ‘Ashley-figure’, and she may be one of the last to feel a faint trace of desire for this heroically vague Englishman. Most now will plump for Rhett. Yet, as Haskell persuasively argues, grinning Clark Gable is in fact the most surprising addition to this spineless bunch, the movie both assuming and casting doubt on his supposedly unstoppable sex appeal. The film consistently unmans him, and over its course he becomes weepy, frustrated and insecure, a pram-pushing figure, surrendered to fate, having accepted that Scarlett is one woman he will never get to love him.

Although it begins with slave-market-and-magnolia sweetness, the film quickly launches out into a Hardyesque sequence of calamities. Miscarriages, falls, premature deaths, mistaken marriages and misunderstandings proliferate; the rich colours grow luridly Gothic. As the scene darkens, Scarlett is transformed from vain flirt into an admirable, though admittedly equivocal, heroine: she flees the hospital where the wounded soldiers suffer, but sticks by Melanie, abiding by her promises. She coolly kills a marauding Yankee, in a moment still surprising in its rapid violence; saintly Melanie participates happily in clearing up the deed. (This man – the only Northern soldier we see – is a villainous figure intent on rape and pillage; no viewer of the film ever grieved over his murder.) Meanwhile history is remade as spectacle: the wounded crowd the earth, Atlanta burns.

The film mourns the loss of a world, one manifest in the various attitudes and characters of Scarlett and Melanie, Ashley and Rhett. It presents a fabled country, a feudal order of gallantry, chivalry and slaves. But the grace shrivels. When the film opened in England in April 1940 it must have been hard not to project onto it the loss of a mythic European sweetness, just then being erased by the destruction of war. Olivia de Havilland has remarked that Leslie Howard’s palpable sadness in the film was the product of his anxieties about the coming war, in which he was to die in a military air-crash. Goebbels banned the film, suspicious of its propaganda for lost causes. After the war, when it was seen in the countries of once-occupied Europe, the movie looked there too like a masterwork of the aftermath. It stood with Germania anno zero and The Third Man as a movie that explored the end of a civilisation. Whether these prophetic forebodings were always present in the film, or are fortuitous resonances found in its spacious plot, it is part of the richness of GWTW that it could so soon be open to new interpretations.