Last Sunday, December 15, marked the 80th anniversary of the Atlanta premiere of Gone with the Wind. So, it should come as no surprise that I spent the afternoon curled up on the sofa in a fluffy robe and a cup of coffee for my pretty much annual visit with Scarlett, Rhett, and the rest of the clan. (Pardon the pun.)
The first time I saw GWTW was at the Arcadia theater in Tyler when it was re-released for its 30th anniversary. There was a souvenir program, which I still have somewhere, and I remember the theater was so packed that my friend Keith and I got to sit in the balcony, which was usually closed. It was the beginning of a complicated relationship.
At this first viewing, I was years away from deconstructing the movie or looking closely at its important part in perpetuating the mythology of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. Rather, I was swept way with its epic story and the beauty of Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable involved in an ill-fated romance with a capital “R.”
It couldn’t have been more than a couple of weeks later that I bought a copy of GWTW at Mayer & Schmidt, in the little book store nook on the first floor. Of course I still have that, too. The dust jacket is long gone, and the binding is barely holding together. The maroon cloth cover is water stained, and the dye from that has bled onto the first 50 or so pages of the book.
The book also has a long black ink stain across the top from having been in my satchel when one of those Sheaffer cartridge pens, which were popular at the time, leaked. Suffice it to say, my GWTW is like all a lot of things that have been on the planet for 50 years or more—a little banged up, but still here.
Melanie and Mammy, both of whom (like my husband) deserve the word “long-suffering” somewhere on their tombstones, are clearly the moral centers of GWTW, and they are the ones who repeatedly refer to things as not being “fitting” as befits their role. But GWTW is Scarlett’s story from beginning to end, and how I have viewed her over the years has ranged from admiration for her gumption, as Margaret Mitchell called it, to finding her behavior deplorable, as Hillary Clinton might have said.
On repeated viewings of my celluloid favorites, I often choose a particular aspect of the movie upon which to focus. For many years now, I’ve watched GWTW as a somewhat guilty pleasure, liking it more than it deserves based on its actual context and false narrative.
But on this anniversary, I decided to forget about the misrepresentation of slavery and the rural life of the Old South, which was anything but bucolic, and try to reconnect with Scarlett. Sure, she threatens to sell Prissy south and slaps her, but then Scarlett slapped Ashley, Rhett, and even her sister Suellen.
On what basis, if any, can Scarlett be reconstructed? It is almost half way through the movie that she arrives back at Tara following the siege of Atlanta and finds herself the only capable person to take care of Melanie and her baby, her father, and three remaining slaves. (Of course, she kills a Yankee to do it, but I’m not going to question her device, as Melanie would say.)
Ashley gets home from the war, and he’s virtually of no use. So she marries Suellen’s fiancé to pay the taxes on Tara, opens a lumber business, gives Ashley a job, and basically takes care of the whole lot of them. Rhett Butler is the only one she’s not taking care of, but then he’s the guy who left her on the road to Tara to begin with.
Scarlett’s selfishness may be the source of her gumption and strength, but clearly everyone around her benefited from it. And while many may think of her as the Southern Belle par excellence, she only gains that title if an asterisk is added to indicate that she wasn’t a quintessential belle at all until Margaret Mitchell and Vivien Leigh redefined the term. Perhaps even Scarlett herself would be proud to carry that asterisk.
On the other hand, someone else got an asterisk beside his name this week. One that, I suspect, won’t be and shouldn’t be carried with pride.