Thursday, April 10, 2014

Gone With The Wind


Herbert Scrawcrunch, that no good piece of poor white trash, seems to have returned from his trip to Tijuana. At least I can hear him and Doreen going at it hammer and tongs downstairs and that disgusting piece of corrugated tin that they call a recreational vehicle is again parked in the porte-cochere. The last time they came to visit, its septic system leaked all over the south lawn and caused quite a nasty mess. There was a slight bonus, however, the roses had never been lovelier the next summer. I have taken to barricading the door to my boudoir with my Louis Quinze escritoire against Doreen's intrusions as I can no longer stand the sight of her violating my precious Vicki's Secret and GlamourPuss designs (which she seems to be helping herself to in prodigious quantities.) She's under strict instructions to leave meal trays outside the door. There hasn't been one for a day or two but I do have an emergency stash of Doritos Nacho Cheese flavor and a quantity of Dr. Pepper laid in. 

I have sent a few hasty e-mails to Madame Rose, my publicist, and Joseph, my manger, regarding the intolerable situation here at Chateau Maine. My hip cast and wheel chair prevent my defending myself and I have been having terrible trouble with the telephone system. I have requested they send out the Beverly Hills police department, especially that darling Judge Reinhold, if he's available, or at the very least the SPCA to help me with my dilemma and to help bring the execrable Scrawcrunches under control. I just heard the sound of flying crockery down there. It better not be my priceless collection of 'Precious Moments' figurines or my Lena Liu Bradford Edition heirloom plates. 

As it promised to be a long weekend, I searched the film collection for a long film to occupy some hours and came across MGM's classic epic, Gone With The Wind starring Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable. Not many people know, but when I first came to Hollywood, I was seriously considered for the part of Careen, Scarlett's younger and much prettier sister. I was to have a fabulous tap dance homage to the battle of Gettysburg but David O. Selznick thought that it took away from the main storyline so my footage was cut and I was replaced by Ann Rutherford. I did get David O. back some years later by introducing him to Jennifer Jones. 

Anyway, for the few people in the country unfamiliar with Gone With The Wind, the film is the story of Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh), who compromises everything and everyone in order to obtain financial security and the wrong man against a backdrop of Civil War Georgia. Scarlett is one of the three daughters of Gerald O'Hara (Thomas Mitchell), an immigrant Irishman who has founded a plantation called Tara in the country south of Atlanta. As the film opens, it's 1861 and Scarlett, the belle of the ball for her looks and flirtatiousness, is prepared to dominate her Southern society. At a Barbeque held at the neighboring plantation of Twelve Oaks, Scarlett declares her love for the languid southern gentleman, Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), who loves and is promised to his cousin Melanie (Olivia deHavilland). Scorned by Ashley, Scarlett gets even by marrying Melanie's brother Charles (Rand Brooks), even though she has met the perfect match for her temperament in the roguish Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). 

When Scarlett is soon widowed, she relocates to Atlanta to stay with the Wilkes relatives. Rhett courts her, but she continues to be besotted with Ashley, a man who doesn't love her, to the detriment of both. She has the strength to bring her Atlanta family through Sherman's burning of Atlanta and later, to rescue Tara from the depredations of the Carpetbaggers, even though this means marriages for money, manipulations of Ashley and Melanie, and screwing over pretty much everyone. Eventually, Rhett finally manages to marry her between husbands, but she destroys the relationship by her continued focus on Ashley. At the end, she has lost husband, child, the respect of neighbors and family, but she perseveres, after all, 'Tomorrow is another day'. 

The film is based on the bestselling novel by Margaret Mitchell, a newspaperwoman from Atlanta; Mitchell, better known to her associates by her married name of Peggy Marsh, wrote the novel as a labor of love throughout the late 20s and early 30s. It was finally published in 1936 and was an immediate sensation and has been continuously in print since. Mitchell wanted to tell the story of the Civil War from the point of view of the residents of North Georgia. At the time, Atlanta was a very new city, having only come into being as a railroad crossing some 20 years before. Mitchell's genius was encompassing the Civil War and the Reconstruction period and all of its social movements while keeping her characters within a twenty mile radius (other than a brief detour to New Orleans late in the story). Mitchell described an entrepreneurial, hardscrabble society in its infancy, not the languid plantation aristocracy of the Carolina and Georgia low lands. Hollywood changed the look of her characters and setting to a traditional 'moonlight and magnolias' feel over her objections. The characters of the film are not the characters of the novel. Mitchell also went to great pains to make Scarlett an anti-heroine. She constructed the novel by writing the last chapter first. She describes a woman who has lost everything that should make life important. She then wrote the novel in reverse, creating a back-story to explain how Scarlett ended up in such a position. Hollywood softened this a great deal and made Scarlett much more sympathetic. 

There are elements to Mitchell's novel that do not play well today. She insisted on creating a ridiculous dialect for her Black characters and her treatment of many of them is condescending, at best, and downright racist at worst. The book and film have never been great favorites in the Black Community despite Hattie McDaniel's Oscar for her portrayal of Mammy. Butterfly McQueen, as Scarlett's maid Prissy, spent the rest of her long career trying to live down some of her more embarrassing scenes. 

The film digests Mitchell's thousand plus pages down to about 3 3/4 hours. In general, the first half plays well and flows as we meet the significant characters and watch the impact the Civil War has upon their lives. The second half, which takes on the Reconstruction period, is much less successful. It feels very choppy and episodic and jumps from scene to scene in order to get in all the requisite plot and exposition. The initial cut of the film ran 4 1/2 hours and most of the trims made for release were in the second half and it shows. The script, credited to Sidney Howard, went through many drafts, revisions and other uncredited hands including John Van Druten and Jo Swerling and the resultant screenplay is, at times, uneven. 

The physical production is opulent, especially the spectacular costumes of Walter Plunkett, many of which have become cultural icons. A man in a white Panama hat will always bring to mind Rhett Butler and no one will ever forget Scarlett's green velvet dress, created from Miss Ellen's velvet portieres (especially Carol Burnett). The settings are also gorgeous, with that late-30s literary sheen. It is also one of the first films in three strip Technicolor, giving it rich hues never found in nature outside of the land of Oz. 

Vivien Leigh, a young British actress appearing in her first Hollywood film, will forever be Scarlett O'Hara. It's tough to imagine anyone else in the role (despite every actress in Hollywood clamoring for it). She had the look, the fire and it's the force of her personality that keeps the film together. Nearly matching her is Clark Gable's Rhett. Gable wasn't so much acting as playing himself but it was a perfect fit between personality type and character. Hattie McDaniel, takes her underwritten cliché of a role and makes Mammy wonderfully human. Unfortunately, she was never able to escape the typecasting. The big weakness is Leslie Howard's Ashley. One cannot even begin to imagine what Scarlett would see in such a man, he's such a dullard and Howard was at least fifteen years too old for the part. As Melanie, Olivia de Havilland is all sweet goodness; she does what she can with the role as written. Most of the supporting cast are from the Hollywood/MGM stable of the era and are nothing special. 

The film has worn well. It has its faults but it's still hugely entertaining and it's become such a part of the cultural landscape, that it needs to be seen in order to truly appreciate its influence. 

Barbecue suitors. Dancing widow. Embarrassed Butterfly McQueen. Flaming Atlanta. No flaming queens. Rooster chasing. Cotton picking. Deserter murder. Radish vomiting. Fancy staircase. Pony accident. 

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