Sunday, August 31, 2014

Frankly, My Dear: Gone with the Wind Revisited

ISBN 978-0-300-16437-4
The day Molly Haskell's Frankly, My Dear arrived, I was bursting with excitement. For one thing, it is written by Molly Haskell whom I admire for her candid analysis of movies while never losing sight of her love of films. Secondly, I have a very personal connection to Gone with the Wind (1939). My mom loved the movie--so much so that I am named after one of the characters. Watching Gone with the Wind was a momentous event in our household. To this day, I get shivers whenever I hear "Tara's Theme." In many ways, this emotional response is what Haskell's book is about: why the movie and corresponding novel have been embraced by the American public year after year and how the two have influenced society. 

Before purchasing the book, I researched the reviews. There were some complaints that this wasn't a book about the making of the film; however, knowing the author, I didn't expect it to be. That being said, Haskell does include interesting tidbits and anecdotes about the making of Gone with the Wind (hereafter referred to as GWTW) including the exhaustive search for the perfect Scarlett, Clark Gable and Leslie Howards's aversion to making the film (and what enticed them to do so), the amount of writers and directors the overzealous Selznick went through, and the final cost to produce the film ($4,250,000). I already knew most of these facts and suspect GWTW enthusiasts will as well. Point being that Frankly, My Dear is for someone who is looking for something beyond basic trivia.

After establishing the historical importance of GWTW--the first chapter is called "The American Bible"--Haskell discusses the similarity of the three principles: David Selznick (the producer), Vivien Leigh (the star), and Margaret Mitchell (the author of the novel). She describes their backgrounds, arguing that their ambition, internal conflicts, and intensity contribute to the success of the film.  Each had something to prove, to stoke the fire: Selznick to avenge a wrong against his father; Leigh to personify Scarlett in order to win the coveted role, then to complete the film and return to her beloved Olivier; and Mitchell to expose the hypocrisies of upper-crust Southern society

'20s flapper, '30s matron

Although Mitchell did not like the insincerity of high society, she was not willing to abandon her South for Hollywood. In the chapter, "Finding the Road to Ladyhood Hard," Haskell explores the conflicts which plagued the author and thereby shaped the novel and movie. Haskell describes Mitchell as an "outsider/insider" (123). She was both tomboy and Southern lady, a free-spirited flapper and settled society matron, a social butterfly and recluse. Mitchell resisted and then surrendered to the Southern ideal of womanhood. This tug-of-war on her identity is present in GWTW through the virtuous Melanie, who was Mitchell's intended herione, and the scandalous Scarlett, who is the embodiment of Mitchell's rebellious side, too strong to keep subdued on the sidelines. 

Under the guise of  demure Southern lady, Scarlett "gets away with [nonconformity] in a way that is rare, not to say unprecedented in movies, given a double standard that generally grants such immunity only to the male of the species" (98). New concepts of womanhood are allowed to emerge. Haskell points out that Scarlett lacks a maternal instinct (shown more completely in the book than on screen) and rebuffs the idealization of marriage: "'Marriage fun?' replies a disbelieving Scarlett. She's not buying" (102). Additionally, the backdrop of war and Reconstruction makes it possible for the genteel Southern woman to show strength and take on the 'masculine' qualities of leadership and self-preservation:
The woman who wanted nothing more than a shoulder to lean on has become, by default, the mainstay, the authority figure upon whom others must lean. (94)
Men's roles are also transformed in GWTW. Typically reserved for women, the categorization of virgin and whore can be applied to the leading men of GWTW. Female viewers are given the choice between Ashley, "the wan and perfect blonde" and Rhett, "the lustrous and passionate brunette" (185). Additionally, the idea of the handsome hero going off to war is called into question. Haskell argues that the manly heroes of D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation (1915) become weaklings in GWTW. They go off to play a game of war while women face the true hardships of home. From the mouth of Scarlett:
"Fighting is like champagne. It goes to the heads of cowards as quickly as of heroes. Any fool can be brave on the battle field when it's be brave or else be killed." (194)
Haskell contends GWTW "is genuinely antiwar"--once the battle field's "adrenaline rush of violence" is removed, the reality of war sets in (201).

An analysis of GWTW would be incomplete without considering the portrayal of the African American experience. Haskell acknowledges Mitchell's guilt of painting "slavery with a happy face" (209). At the same time, though, the film challenged the prevailing thought that African Americans were aggressive and dangerous as was portrayed in Griffith's Birth of a Nation. Haskell explains that,
With Mitchell, the taint of slavery was transmogrified into harmonious cohabitation, a hierarchy [...] in which the white trash Slatterys were far more lazy, noxious, and parasitic than Negroes, especially the house 'darkies,' who look down on the field hands [...] (209) 
Haskell brings her own experience of being both Southern (born and raised) and Northerner (her current home) to explain the inability for people outside of the South to understand the interdependent relationship between blacks and whites, which is shown in the book and film, where they "complement and complete each other in important ways, their intimacy a fact of life" (210). The thought reminds me of the recent novel The Help (2009) in which the young white children, particularly the main character, have a special relationship with the black women who care for them. The author of The Help, also a Southerner, and Haskell seem to share a special understanding elusive to those not from the South.

Hattie McDaniel
Haskell points out that current film scholars agree that despite the obvious racism, there is much to applaud in "the strength of the black presence at a time when there were few roles of color at all" (211). Unfortunately for Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy, the NAACP did not see the film in this light. Although she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress--the first awarded to an African American, the head of the NAACP attacked McDaniel for betraying her race. She also faced racial discrimination when her invitation to the premiere in Atlanta was rescinded, and when she was not allowed to sit at the white cast members' table at the Oscars. Nonetheless, McDaniel's role was one of vital significance, and Haskell purports that GWTW "contains unusually finely drawn portraits of blacks who are given voices, humor, and importance" (209).

Frankly, My Dear was a light, quick read. Enjoyable. Definitely for those who love the film and/or the novel. Haskell explores the many messages put forth by the movie, but also provides insight into the effects of the various directors, writers, set designers, cinematographers, and actors.  She looks at why the American public is so enamored with the movie, and how the movie became the institution it currently is. I can't wait to read this book again.
 This is my final submission to the:

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Just for fun, here is a video of screen tests:


1 comment:

  1. Great review! This sounds really interesting. I think GWTW fans who really want to learn more about the historical and cultural significance of the film/book would like this.


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