GONE WITH THE WIND – The Case Against

The following is my contribution to The Leap Year Blogathon, hosted by Rebecca at the blog Taking Up Room on Feb. 29, 2020. Click on the above banner to read bloggers’ entries that discuss movies or TV shows which meet the following criteria (as per Rebecca’s blogathon rules):

  • Starring celebrities born on February 29. Bio-type posts work, too.
  • Connecting to Leap Day in some way.
  • Playing with time, e.g., Interstellar, Outer Limits, Back To the Future, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkabanetc.
  • Any movie or TV show you’ve always wanted to review but never had the chance to. It’s your February 29th, after all. 🙂

(Naturally, I took the easy way out and took advantage of the fourth criterion!)

I’ve been a film buff all my life, but I put off watching Gone with the Wind for several years because it seemed too much like homework to me. I finally saw it one night with a blind date, when I was 24 years old. Since then, I’ve watched it only one other time (last night, when it was broadcast on Turner Classic Movies).

Usually, I don’t bother listing my personal “history” with a movie, as I did above. But I GWTW seems to invite that kind of history, seeing as it’s a sprawling piece of (fictional) Civil War history itself.

Another reason I put off seeing this movie for so long was that, even before viewing it, I knew that certain elements of it were going to bother me. Let me address those elements first.

1) I didn’t come from the South; I live there now, but I did not move to Florida until I was 17. Therefore, I do not have instilled within me the romantic notion of the Old South (any more than I have any romantic notion of any region where I’ve lived). To this day, I don’t understand that viewpoint.

2) Critics and moviegoers have been raving about the inarguable perfection and quality of this movie for eight decades. I often wonder just what percentage of GWTW fandom is occupied by African-Americans. In other words, if we could turn back time, would blacks be as eager to return to this (for them) subservient setting as whites are?

3) And of course, this calls to attention the elephant in the room: The movie’s political incorrectness. GWTW buffs will surely scoff at my sensitivity and tell me that we must view this movie in light of both the era it depicts and the era in which it was made. I’m afraid that GWTW has too many prickly elements for me to view it through the rose-colored glasses of 1939. If you want to look at the film that way, that’s your prerogative, but I prefer to critique it in contemporary terms. Sorry if that’s off-putting.

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The movie’s primary focus is a Southern plantation named Tara, and even more squarely on one of its snooty residents: An entitled young woman named Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh). It is established early on that Scarlett is the most popular of the three O’Hara sisters and could have any man she chooses. But, simply because a local favorite named Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard, looking too anemic for my tastes) is already spoken for, he’s the one upon whom Scarlett concentrates her laser focus.

And not only are we meant to accept this at face value, the movie presents Scarlett’s cat-and-mouse game with Ashley as the plot point that deserves the most attention. Ostensibly, this sprawling epic is about the Civil War and the dramatic ways in which it changed the South. Yet, even by the end of this four-hour epic, the movie is still smacking its lips in anticipation of Ashley and Scarlett getting together.

But about 25 minutes in, the movie introduces the major element that will keep that from happening: roguish Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), who instantly sees through Scarlett’s fiddle-dee-dee persona, makes a point of sticking pins in it every chance he gets, and yet still finds her fetching in her own way. For a long time, Scarlett poo-poos Rhett’s lack of pretentiousness, but eventually she succumbs to him.

As do most moviegoers. I don’t know if it’s true, but I read somewhere that when she was asked, Margaret Mitchell (author of the original GWTW novel) said that her favorite choice to play Rhett Butler would have been Groucho Marx. That’s not as outrageous as it first sounds; imagine Scarlett O’Hara as a slimmer Margaret Dumont, and it’s easy to imagine Groucho pricking Scarlett’s false Southern front. For me, Gable is one of the few actors in the movie to hold my attention. If he hadn’t popped in every so often to burst Scarlett’s bubble, I don’t know if I could have made it through the movie’s four hours.

The only other actor about whom I can say that is Olivia De Havilland as Melanie Hamilton, Scarlett’s cousin and Ashley Wilkes’ inevitable bride. At first glance, Melanie seems one of those insufferably cheery people who could find optimism even in a plague. But somehow, De Havilland plays her so sincerely that you end being charmed by her. You could say that Melanie and Scarlett are two sides of the same coin — both of them being well-liked, except that Melanie is appreciated for her positive view of life, whereas Scarlett is appreciated by the men who “enjoy the chase” and talked about behind her back by most of the womenfolk. (Check out Suellen [Evelyn Keyes], one of Scarlett’s sisters; to hear her tell it, most of her life’s miseries have been brought about by Scarlett.)

For the most part, Gone with the Wind‘s legend as a sprawling story is justified. The set pieces that everyone has always talked about — the big dance where Rhett and Scarlett first get together, the burning of Atlanta — are as rousing as they ever were. But then the movie has to keep coming back to its ostensible main plotline with Rhett and Scarlett. In fact, one wonders why, as with Scarlett’s advances to Ashley to no avail, Rhett keeps coming back to this woman who views the Civil War — shown to great effect in a sprawling shot that keeps amassing dead soldiers as it moves along — in terms of how it affects her. For all of the movie’s interest in Southern chivalry, Rhett and Scarlett’s back-and-forth reminds me of a film noir of some years later, Gilda (1946), in which Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth masochistically keep each other at arm’s length so that they can enjoy the torture it provides.

By the time the movie descends into all-out melodrama in its final hour, one wonders how many moviegoers (to quote you-know-who) will give a damn. I realize that I am in cinematic Siberia as one of the few people who did not get swept away by Gone with the Wind. Nevertheless, for people like me, the movie could easily have been cut into two halves: The first half consisting of the movie’s genuinely moving moments of storytelling, its second half being home movies of Rhett and Scarlett going at it like a couple of birds in a cockfight.

Happy Curmudgeonly Valentine’s Day!

This blog entry isn’t intended to put down the holiday in general. But it did make me think about taking a different angle on Valentine-themed movies.

Every year at this time, bloggers and critics alike feel compelled to share their choices for favorite romantic movies. And most of the same titles show up over and over. Don’t get me wrong — movies such as It Happened One Night and their ilk remain deserving of praise. (Last week, Turner Classic Movies re-broadcast Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, which I’ve seen several times. Despite all of the nastiness that has clouded above Allen’s career, I still find it a lovely movie on all counts.)

But what about the movies that don’t make the grade, at least in your own eyes? How many romantic movies have you gone to see because people were raving about them, only to leave the theater shaking your head as to the mystery of their appeal?

I’ve decided to list a few of my own movie-romances-gone-wrong. Feel free to hurl your invective at me in the “Comments” section below, but where the following movies are concerned, I just didn’t “get it.” (WARNING: Major spoilers follow!)

City Lights (1931) – I’m as big of a Charlie Chaplin fan as you could ask for, and I really like this movie, but I don’t revere it like most Chaplin fans do. And the main reason why is one of its key plot twists. (And I find it amazing that Chaplin, who thought out his plot points as meticulously as his gags, let this one slide by.) Chaplin’s Tramp has gotten a crush on a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) and wants to get the money she needs for an operation that will restore her sight. At first, he thinks he has hit the mother lode when he makes friends with a convivial and rich old drunk (Harry Myers). The trouble is that invariably, as long as the drunk is soused, he treats the Tramp like a dear old friend, but as soon as the drunk is sober, he has no recollection of him. (The drunk’s butler has seen his boss’ drunk/sober transformation, but since the butler snottily looks down on the Tramp, he has no interest in intervening on behalf of the Tramp.)

I’ve had my share of benders, heaven knows. But to embrace the same person over and over as soon as you get smashed, only to have no memory whatsoever of that person once you’ve sobered up? That strikes me as more of a very convenient plot point than a character observation.

Bringing Up Baby (1938) – If you’re on Katharine Hepburn’s side for the duration of this movie, you probably regard her as a free spirit who breathes life into the dull routine of a buttoned-down paleontologist (Cary Grant, who lets his eyeglasses do the work for his characterization). For me, she was a pest who kept ingratiating herself into his life long after he should have ditched her. (She even admits nearly as much at one point.) This is not a match made in heaven.

Gone with the Wind (1939) – I’m bound to catch hell for this one, so I won’t even get into the movie’s take on acquiescent slaves happy to make a better life for their rich white owners. Let’s just concentrate on the romantic leads. The main appeal of Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) to those refined Southern gentlemen is what a “tease” she is. The only man who eventually gets her is Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) who, initially at least, sees right through her fiddle-dee-dee persona. (True or not, I read somewhere that author Margaret Mitchell’s first choice to play Rhett was Groucho Marx. As incongruous as that seems, listen to some of Rhett’s dialogue, which reveals that he isn’t falling for Scarlett’s act, and imagine Groucho putting her down.) Even after Rhett “conquers” her (carrying her up that stairway to heaven), he still falls prey to her pushiness far too often, even when logic dictates he shouldn’t. Small wonder that he finally “doesn’t give a damn” and leaves her at the end. For how long can an intelligent man (even a rogue) give in to a manipulative woman’s mind games?

Manhattan (1979) – If you’re interested, I already dealt with this movie in a previous blog entry (click here to read it). But I still can’t help being bothered by it, since romance is such a prominent theme of the movie. 42-year-old Isaac (Woody Allen) falls in love with a cutesy 17-year-old named Tracy (Mariel Hemingway). Isaac feels guilty about the age difference and keeps Tracy at arm’s length (although he’s quite happy to bask in her worship of him). When Isaac gets a shot at his married best friend’s paramour (Diane Keaton, who gets passed around like a rag doll here), he happily uses it as an excuse to break off with Tracy. Then when that affair goes kaplooie, he rushes across New York City to try and take back Tracy as soon as possible. Throughout the movie, Isaac makes big proclamations about the importance of maintaining one’s moral integrity, but he’ll ditch those ethics in a heartbeat in order to regain the love of his young admirer.

The term “romance” would imply that both parties are — at least, initially) on the same page, whereas all of this movie’s main characters (Isaac included) are out to protect their self-interests. Even Allen admitted that his fans latched onto this movie with a passion that he never understood.

Dirty Dancing (1988) – This movie has always driven me crazy, for a couple of reasons; I’ll list the minor reason first. (1) At the summer camp where her family is staying, Baby (Jennifer Grey) wants to ingratiate herself with the actual camp’s stage dancers. Eventually, she does so in a big way by deciding to ask her rich doctor father (Jerry Orbach) for $200 to help the girl get medical help from a botched abortion. Mind you, Baby never gives the reason for her wanting the money; and amazingly, after getting almost no info from Baby on why she wants the cash, he nonchalantly gives it to her. Really?

(2) The “dirty dancing” of the movie’s title is a metaphor for the movie having it both ways: Baby comes upon the eye-provoking gyrations that the older dancers are performing in private and learns them from her as a, shall we say, rite of passage. But by movie’s end, Baby and Johnny (Patrick Swayze) are performing said gyrations right in front of Dr. Daddy, and we’re meant to think, “Aw, they got to dirty-dance in front of the old folks and the old folks finally accepted it.” So the dancing is dirty until the plot’s denouement calls for it not to be. Really really? Somebody should put Baby in a corner already.

When Harry Met Sally… (1989) – I regard this as a “Woody Allen” movie for moviegoers who don’t otherwise like Woody Allen. To me, it’s an compendium of Allen’s “greatest hits” — the snarky one-liners, Sally’s Annie Hall-like ditziness, the ongoing commentary, and (as in Manhattan) the hero’s big chase to reach the woman he now knows he loves. (There’s even a nod to Warren Beatty’s Reds, with interspersed footage of real-live couples as a counterpoint to the movie’s protagonists.) And here’s my biggest pet peeve. The movie initially presents Sally as an unassuming milquetoast — and then, out of nowhere, she acts out a big, fake orgasm in the middle of a crowded deli. In the end, the movie tries too hard to be earnest about love.

While You Were Sleeping (1995) – Sandra Bullock gets a crush on a guy (Peter Gallagher), saves him from getting killed, and dotes over him while he’s in a coma. Through what the late critic Roger Ebert would call “The Idiot Plot,” the man’s family comes to believe that Bullock is his fiancée. Then Bullock falls in love with the comatose man’s brother (Bill Pullman), and then she has no idea what to do when the comatose guy comes to. So no matter how you slice it, Bullock has ingratiated herself into Gallagher’s family under false pretenses, and yet they never take her to task because she’s so “sincere.” How happy would you be if this happened to your family? (And I know this is just my personal hang-up, but would someone please tell Peter Gallagher to shave his unibrow already?)

Well, I guess I’ve trashed enough iconic movies for one day. If you disagree with any of my choices, feel free to post in the “Comments” section below. And Happy Valentine’s Day!