An exploration of the book, the movie, and the author of one of the most captivating stories ever told How and why has the saga of Scarlett O’Hara kept such a tenacious hold on our national imagination for almost three-quarters of a century? In the first book ever to deal simultaneously with Margaret Mitchell’s beloved novel and David Selznick’s spectacular film version of Gone with the Wind, film critic Molly Haskell seeks the answers. By all industry predictions, the film should never have worked. What makes it work so amazingly well are the fascinating and uncompromising personalities that Haskell dissects here: Margaret Mitchell, David Selznick, and Vivien Leigh. As a feminist and onetime Southern adolescent, Haskell understands how the story takes on different shades of meaning according to the age and eye of the beholder. She explores how it has kept its edge because of Margaret Mitchell’s (and our) ambivalence about Scarlett and because of the complex racial and sexual attitudes embedded in a story that at one time or another has offended almost everyone.
Haskell imaginatively weaves together disparate strands, conducting her story as her own inner debate between enchantment and disenchantment. Sensitive to the ways in which history and cinema intersect, she reminds us why these characters, so riveting to Depression audiences, continue to fascinate 70 years later.
About the Author
Molly Haskell is a writer and film critic. She has lectured widely on the role of women in film and is the author of From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. She lives in New York City.
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Frankly, My DearGone with the Wind Revisited
By Molly Haskell
YALE UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2009 Molly Haskell
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe American Bible
David O. Selznick, Hollywood's self-appointed reader-in-residence, was convinced audiences would sit still for adaptations of famous books, preferably from the nineteenth century and preferably British. The producer had proved it with Little Women, David Copperfield, and A Tale of Two Cities, three certifiable winners, and what was Gone with the Wind but a nineteenth-century novel in twentieth-century covers ... or a twentieth-century novel in nineteenth-century clothing? His other article of faith was fidelity to the source, especially when the work was as widely read and fresh in people's minds as Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind. To Sidney Howard, the screenwriter, he recommended making large rather than small cuts, in that "minor changes may give us slight improvements, but there will be five or ten million readers on our heads for them, where, for the most part, they will recognize the obvious necessity of our making drastic cuts." He even urged against changes in construction, because "I have learned to avoid trying to improve on success. One never knows what chemicals have gone to make up something that has appealed to millions ofpeople."
In another memo, Selznick referred to the novel as the American Bible, though with an ulterior motive: he was writing to the censor Will Hays, trying to get "damn" into the punch line at the end of the movie. There's violence and rape, there are curses and improprieties in the Bible, was the implication, so why not in Gone with the Wind? And besides, Selznick lectured, "damn" was not a curse but a "vulgarism," so described in The Oxford English Dictionary.
It was therefore a fairly big deal when, in a rare deviation from the sacred text, David Selznick decided that Gone with the Wind's ending had to be changed for the movie version. The book's ending was too downbeat, too anticlimactic. After Rhett's departure with the immortal and now officially authorized valedictory, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," a devastated Scarlett would still decide to return to Tara, to Mammy, to regroup for the possible recapture of Rhett. But Selznick needed to bring Scarlett out of the fog of fear and defeat and give an uplift to the famous concluding line from the book, "Tomorrow is another day." To this end the ghostly voices of her father, Rhett, Ashley would recall to her the magic of Tara, the importance of the land, her one true love. Whereas in the book, Scarlett's thoughts of winning Rhett back are uppermost ("There had never been a man she couldn't get, once she set her mind upon him"), the movie wafts to its end with the softer and more ennobling image of her attachment to Tara.
It's anybody's guess whether the devious charmer we've come to know as Atlanta's most fun-loving shopaholic and shrewd entrepreneur would be content to remain down on the farm, but it's a testimonial to the conviction of this strangely enduring American epic and Vivien Leigh's uncanny performance that we willingly suspend skepticism and accept Scarlett's bond with the land as something fundamental and spiritual, almost redemptive.
Much of the credit for the effectiveness of the denouement goes to the art direction of William Cameron Menzies and the movie's bold, even gothic, use of Technicolor. The spell has been cast by the early scene in which Gerald O'Hara and Scarlett stand under the gnarled bough of a tree, overlooking Tara. The plantation is aglow in a fiery sunset, and the two figures in burnt silhouette suggest both the end and the beginning of the world. The return of that image in the final moments, the visual sweep echoed in Max Steiner's swelling score, completes the emotional sanctification of the land as transcendent value, cemented by the alliance of the daughter with the father, whose Irish blood has by this time marked her character so much more forcefully and balefully than the bluer blood of her Charleston mother.
In a curious way, yet consistent with their different sensibilities, Selznick's ending is more romantic than Margaret Mitchell's, its sense of hope and optimism grounded, literally and figuratively, in something more substantial than Scarlett's wish-fulfillment fantasies. (The inveterate hopefuls among Mitchell fans and the best-selling sequel to the contrary, can anyone over the mental age of fifteen believe that the star-crossed lovers will "get together" one day? Or that they should? Even preview audiences, not the most sophisticated crowd and notoriously disposed to feel-good resolutions, but with divine authority where Selznick was concerned, had no objections to the "unhappy" ending.)
The idea of the moral superiority of the land over other forms of acquisition, the legacy of Thomas Jefferson, is one of our most stubbornly enduring myths, persisting despite the continuous and increasing migration to the cities and cherished even among those whose closest acquaintance with a working farm is the occasional drive-by purchase of strawberries or corn at a roadside stand. Or, in the case of Selznick, who made his first trip south for the premiere of the film, viewing gorgeously evocative sketches on a Hollywood storyboard. Land as a lost paradise is but one of the mythic strands whereby the tale of a recalcitrant corner of the country-or, rather, a tiny segment of that corner!-the antebellum, slave-owning renegade South, is alchemized into a national epic of struggle and triumph.
If not exactly the "story that belongs to all of us," as the producer boasted of the 1936 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel he was bringing to the screen, Gone with the Wind, in both novel and movie form, can claim to have appealed to the fantasies of a remarkably large number of people. And to have gone on doing so long after its sell-by date. In box office terms, with a domestic gross of $1,329,453,600 adjusted for inflation, it remains the biggest blockbuster of all time, surpassing (after having paved the way for) such runaway hits as Star Wars, The Sound of Music, E.T., and Titanic. The only "phenom" to have come close in recent years is not a movie at all but the sleekly murderous and misogynous video game Grand Theft Auto, a kind of white man's revenge on Scarlett and all the brainy babes who have threatened to make them obsolescent.
Costing an unprecedented $4,250,000 to produce, Gone with the Wind was the first "event" film, and for better and mostly worse, its surprising success changed the way Hollywood thought about movies, whetting its appetite for winner-take-all box-office bonanzas. It was the longest and most expensive film ever made; it went on to earn the highest receipts and win the most Academy Awards. By 1987, in 1987 dollars, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer theatrical rentals ran to over eight hundred million dollars. In its first run, the movie sold 202 million tickets, a stunning figure considering that the U.S. population was only a little over 130 million at the time. No less dazzling and enduring has been the popularity of the book. If Macmillan editor and scout Harold Latham had "sniffed" a best seller when he read the manuscript, no one at the publishing company was prepared for the extent of its popularity, especially at an astronomical three dollars a copy. It went through multiple printings and continued to sell robustly, thanks no doubt partly to the movie, and to date has sold more than twenty-eight million copies worldwide.
It has inspired sequels and prequels, satires and send-ups. Alexandra Ripley's nearly unreadable Scarlett, with the heroine returning to her Irish "roots" and getting rescued from political rioters by an opportunely arriving Rhett, was nevertheless a best seller. Carol Burnett got one of her best skits swathed in the green velvet curtains of Tara's mistress on her way to con money out of Rhett. One look at the curtain rods jutting out like extreme shoulder pads and the audience didn't even need to be told who she was. It has provoked fictional anti-Gone with the Wind responses from African Americans, most famously and litigiously The Wind Done Gone, by Alice Randall, which as "parody" escaped attempts by the Mitchell estate to block publication. In 1966, an African American writer named Margaret Walker published Jubilee, in which a strong mulatto slave named Vyry, a more youthfully attractive, take-charge version of Mammy, tends a depressed and addled mistress. More oblique resistances to the book's generic portrait of passive and contented slaves have come from Alice Walker, Mary Condé, Toni Morrison, and Gloria Naylor.
Gone with the Wind has proved endlessly pliable to reinterpretations, a story to remake or modify according to competing personal mythologies, disturbing-even terrifying-in its power to override reality, ideology, and common sense. The spin-offs and sequels continue to multiply, thanks to the presumed wishes of hordes of people who, like Kathy Bates's murderous fan in Misery, will not let Rhett and Scarlett die or go their own ways. And the dollar-minded Mitchell estate is apparently happy to comply with projects as long as they don't sully or snicker at Saint Margaret's version or turn the characters gay.
Rhett Butler's People, Donald McCaig's best-selling prequel of 2007, gives us the "backstory" of Rhett, a revisionist reading of Rhett's plantation childhood as a young master averse to taking up the seigneurial reigns. In this more politically acceptable rendition of Low Country life, the little turncoat-in-the-making prefers to hunt, fish, and pick cotton with the black boys. (Be advised: plot giveaway ahead.) The novel opens with a duel, in which the adult Rhett defends Belle Watling's honor against her white-trash brother's crude aspersions, and ends ... yes, happily. Amid an extended family and staff that include all extant blacks and whites, Scarlett and Rhett look back with fond humor on all their foolishness, Scarlett appreciates Rhett's enabling hand in her own transformation ("I was a child, Rhett helped me become who I am"), and Scarlett and Belle even become gal pals.
Undeterred by the fate of a musical some years ago that began in Tokyo, stopped off in London, and flamed out in Atlanta, and as a testament to the philosophy that tomorrow is another day, a three-and-a-half-hour musical recently staggered into London's West End and soon met a predictable demise. Rather impressively, the author of the new show's book was a fifty-three-year-old American named Margaret Martin. Once a battered teenage mother who slept on an office floor with her two children, Martin understood Scarlett's struggle with poverty but made rather better use of it, achieving a doctorate in public health and founding a nonprofit agency. Her determination proved equal to writing the book, winning over the Mitchell estate, and securing Trevor Nunn as director but faltered in the face of an artistic impossibility.
Scarlett and Rhett may not be on the same level as such towering archetypes of American literature as Captain Ahab, Daisy Miller, Isabel Archer, Huck Finn, and Hester Prynne or even such cinematic monuments as Charles Foster Kane and John Wayne's Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, but they occupy a more personal, familial place in the fantasies of their admirers. They can't be laid to rest because, in ways both touching and frightening, they've become incorporated into the personal lives and dreams of viewers and readers, living on in images mutated by memory and intertwined with desire. A Southern friend decided to read Rhett Butler's People to his ninety-year-old bedridden mother. Her favorite book had always been Gone with the Wind, and she was ecstatic at the amplification.
"I didn't know all that about Rhett Butler's background, it's just fascinating," she commented to her Northern daughter-in-law who (spoilsport) reminded her that they were not real people but fictional ones-you know, made up. Refusing to believe it, this bright and normally quick-witted matriarch summoned her sons to uphold the biographical veracity of Gone with the Wind.
To be fair, it does get confusing. In the venerable tradition of the historical novel, Margaret Mitchell throws in a few real names among her fictional characters. Alexander Stephens, the Georgia vice president of the Confederacy, congressman, and governor who inspired a fascinating chapter in Edmund Wilson's Patriotic Gore, hovers in the wings. And Scarlett's firstborn (not in the movie) is named after my great-great-grandfather Wade Hampton, the South Carolina general (later governor) whose cavalry Charles Hamilton gallops off to join at the outbreak of war. It is in the general's service that Charles ignominiously dies of measles, leaving Scarlett pregnant with poor, puny Wade Hampton Hamilton.
There's often a curious, very personal logic in the things people remember and misremember about the film. A middle-aged woman insisted to me that Melanie's second child, the one whose miscarriage causes her death, was fathered by Rhett Butler. Beyond whatever interest this wildly eccentric fantasy might have for the woman's psychiatrist, it recognizes the special and profoundly felt mutual respect in the Rhett-Melanie relationship, the exquisite balance between her shyness and his courtliness, that becomes conspiratorially intimate in the scenes where he breaks down and confides in her. Allowing them a moment of mutual gratification, however out of character, is the sort of interactive "intervention" that the book and movie have inspired, in this case to "make amends" to Rhett for the way he has suffered.
With something so embedded, even embalmed, in the public consciousness, the idea of an authorized sequel or a preapproved spin-off is a joke. Whatever the legal statutes and limitations (and Mitchell, the daughter and sister of copyright lawyers, was a shrewd protector of her property), Gone with the Wind has long since passed into the public domain-does, indeed, belong to everyone. In 2008, a year of bitter political feuding, Scarlett was invoked by columnists as a Hillary avant la lettre, the only heroine strong, bitchy, and relentless enough to compare with the I'm-no-lady senator's aggressive take-no-prisoners campaign. In this way, Gone with the Wind's touchstones have become American folklore, part of the way we imagine our national self, not just indistinguishable from but overriding real history. Twelve Oaks and Tara are familiar tourist stops in our collective "memory" of the Old South. "I'll think about that tomorrow" and "Tomorrow is another day" have, along with "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," become catchphrases of the American vernacular. Scarlett's seventeen-inch-waist and green velvet curtain dress are the stuff of parody. EBay lists an inexhaustible supply of memorabilia.
Yet no one, not even Selznick, with his inflated claims and over-the-top enthusiasm, could have predicted Gone with the Wind's global reach and longevity, the way both movie and book caught on and grabbed audiences at so many levels and seemed at home in so many eras.
A large part of it was an accident of timing, a coinciding of war and the Depression. Though Mitchell began writing the book in 1926, out of her own generation's postwar spirit of rebellion, creating in Scarlett a Jazz Age heroine transplanted to the Civil War, when the book was finally finished and published in 1936, with the movie following in 1939, it was the Depression that weighed on everyone's minds. According to the cards of the preview audiences, almost all saw the movie as a reflection of their own experience. To these viewers Gone with the Wind was both escape and parallel: a story of struggle and survival during a national catastrophe, but at a romantic remove. Scarlett's evolution from seductress to woman of action exerted an enormous pull as a fable for working women, those women and wives who'd had to take over in the absence of men and in a society that otherwise disapproved of women, especially married women, working. It was the woman's angle that Kay Brown, Selznick's canny assistant, responded to; it was she who pushed for purchasing the movie rights and enlisted financier Jock Whitney on her side.
Excerpted from Frankly, My Dear by Molly Haskell Copyright © 2009 by Molly Haskell. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
ONE The American Bible....................1
TWO Boldness and Desperation....................39
THREE Finding the Road to Ladyhood Hard....................86
FOUR E Pluribus Unum....................152
FIVE Beautiful Dreamers....................188
Illustrations follow page....................142
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I'm glad Molly Haskell brought her southern woman's perspective to GWTW and Margaret Mitchell. It was a page turner for me even though the facts covered were not new to me except this gem: that Olivia DeHavilland said Vivien Leigh "brought more to the film than she ever received." How true. Haskell identifies the three main forces behind the film as Mitchell, Selznick and Leigh and muses on how their convergence was a fluke that easily could have not happened .
Cool book, which made me want more. Molly Haskell, of course, wrote the seminal book on women in movies: From Reverence to Rape. (And whatever happened to her? What has she been doing since?). This book deals with the movie and the book, interpretations over time, a bit of Margaret Mitchell, a bit on the approaches of the main actors, the various directors.I'm sure many will find it unsatisfying and will wish that Haskell had developed some themes more fully. OTOH, fanatical fans may know a lot of the background on the making of the movie already.I've reread the book fairly recently (Scarlet is a more complex character than I recognized as a child.) and watched the movie a couple of times in the past 5-6 years. I've got a good memory but still, I'm probably not the ideal reader.I think what will be new to even the fanatical fans is Southern-born Haskell's insights on how Southerners (rich, poor, black, white) have regarded portrayals of the Civil War through time. But I felt she knew a lot more than she told here.
A great Southern women's perspective on the book and the film that does not shrink from examining some of the more unsavory aspects of both (the rape scene, justification of slavery etc). Imminently readable while providing lots of food for thought.
Molly Haskell provides an enjoyable review of the GWTW franchise; this is a rather cerebral look at the picture and book. Her critical writing is valuable if only for some insight into the racist aspect of GWTW. It is recommended for a single sitting :)
For whom was this book written? Readers curious about Gone with the Wind will be puzzled by Haskell's chaotic, disorganized, and superficial presentation of her research; readers familiar with the history of Gone with the Wind will be irritated by Haskell's factual errors, uninformed opinions, and tiresome disdain for the novel's author, Margaret Mitchell, and the film's producer, David O. Selznick; and readers who enjoy good writing will quickly tire of Haskell's disorganization, her repetitiousness, her unimpressive strings of polysyllables, her run-on sentences, and her silly exclamation marks. Haskell thanks two editors for suggesting that she write this book. Unfortunately, no one seems to have considered whether Haskell had anything worth saying about the subject. Instead of wasting your time on this book, read one of the numerous worthwhile histories of Gone with the Wind and its creators.
I'm an avid GWTW fan and was very interested in reading this book after hearing a radio interview with the author, Molly Haskell. She gave a wonderful interview and I was anxious to find out more about the background happenings and events surrounding the movie and book. She gave a wonderful insight from her point of view. She truly has a love of GWTW and this book was a work of love for her. However, I was partially disappointed. I consider myself a casual reader but I don't consider myself a fluff reader. I am always in the midst of more than one book at a time and one is usually from the classic authors such as Steinbeck, Thackeray, Austen and others. I'm used to wading through language to get the story. I did find this book a bit of a challenge with her 'voice'. I didn't get the feeling that she wrote this for the masses but more as a literature thesis, using language that would appeal to the literature professors and not the casual reader. I agree with Publishers Weekly's review and wish I had caught the subtle give-away in their opening sentence, "brings a scholar's rigor" and their later statement, ".perhaps too finely focused for casual readers." Arnold White of the New York Times also stated, ".an earnest work of moviegoer remembrance that's also affectionate scholarship." She had some wonderful information but it was bogged down by scholarly language. If you're a casual reader, you'll want to have a dictionary near by while reading this book.
I can't review this book at this time, as I am giving it as a gift to a big "Gone With the Wind" fan. However, I read the review in USA Today, and this is what convinced me to buy for a friend. I hope she shares this with me when she's finished. If I could read it before giving it, I would.
This is an excellent book about Hollywood's Greatest Blockbuster film and about one of the most controversial works of American fiction to ever win the Pulitzer. This is a great read--and a GREAT GIFT--for anyone with an interest in movie history, popular 20th century Ameerican literature, or issues of race and gender. Love the book and movie, or hate them, "Gone With the Wind" (in either of its incarnations) is a successful work of art. face it: a work of fiction could not speak to so many millions of people--of all races and cultural backgrounds--for four generations if it did not have more than a little artistic integrity. The character of Scarlet O'Hara is complex: at first she seems to be nothing more than a thin stereotype, but as the plot unwinds she becomes much more. On one hand, being a spoiled child of privilege and a racist socialsystem, she sincerely wants to embrace the ideas of class, gender and race that have ben drilled into her head. (In this respect she resembles the character of Huckleberry Finn.) On the other hand, because she is spolied and self-serving, she resents--and rebells against--those same ideas.As her world of privilege is blown from beneath her, survival becomes her sole objective. In this respect she calls to mind numerous characters from the novelsof Ayn Rand; unlike those characters, Scarlet makes no claims to virtue with her actions (which, in a sense, could be considered a viture in itself.) Scarlet knows she is ebing ruthless, but she sees no alternative if she is to surivive, and though her Catholic upbringing might inspire an occassional feeling of guilt, her common sense kicks and she quickly dismisses them. Mitchell did an interetsing thing with the stereoptypes found in traditional Southern melodrama and "Lost Cause" literature. In those works, the black mustached gambler and seducer of women was a villian; in "Gone With the Wind" that character (Rhett Butler) is the hero. In those works, the selfish, spoiled vixen who sells out to the Carpet baggers and seduces the beaus of other women, is the villianess; in "Gone With the Wind" that character (Scarlet) through no effort of her own to be thought of a noble, end up being admirable (though the admiration she inspires in the audience is deeply conflicted.) In those works, the humble, virtuous Southern belle and the noble-minded Southern gentleman--who never give up on the South's "Lost Cause" and who embrace the moonlight and magnolias vision of theold South--are always the heroes--they always triumph; in "Gone With the Wind" these characters fail and fade away; BECAUSE of their Southern values their CAN NOT survive. So before you dismiss "Gone With the Wind" as campy, as racist, as sexist, as vulgar, as trash--think again. And read this execllent book. It may cause you to rethink things.