Frankly, My Dear: Gone with the Wind Revisited, by Molly Haskell. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009. Hardcover $24.00. 272pp. ISBN: 0-30011-752-3.
In a pique of literary inspiration, Yale University Press recently began publishing an Icons of America series comprised of short books that tell “a new and innovative story about American history and culture through the lens of a single iconic individual, event, object, or cultural phenomenon.” Subjects to date have included the hamburger, Empire State Building, and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
With Frankly, My Dear: Gone with the Wind Revisited, esteemed film scholar Molly Haskell adds to the series a smart and handsome vivisection of the most popular movie of all time. Hasn’t it all been said before? You might be surprised. Haskell demonstrates that GWTW (moviedom’s most famous acronym) remains a riveting myth of the Civil War and Reconstruction refracted through the prism of 1930s moviemaking. And it has acted as cultural benchmark ever since, eliciting alternate responses as subsequent decades create their own blueprints of analysis.
Haskell posits that the three main architects of GWTW’s unprecedented success were novelist Margaret Mitchell, producer David O. Selznick, and star Vivien Leigh. She offers background sketches on each, with accompanying psychological analysis, and that’s fine enough, but the book really soars when she reminds us why we still give a damn about Scarlett, Rhett, Ashley, Melanie, Mammy, Prissy, and even that silly old standpatter Aunt Pittypat.
Haskell has a marvelous precision with words and can nail insights on gender, custom, and character in three tight sentences.
One of the exhilarating aspects of war, in Gone with the Wind, is that, in plunging the world into crisis, it releases women from the confining rules and petty obsessions of everyday life. Scarlett hasn’t got time to worry about whether we love her or not; she drops the coquette act, then trots it out occasionally, only to have Rhett or Mammy call her bluff. War justifies her masculinization; crisis allows women to shed ladylike passivity and come into their own as competent agents.
She visits the notorious scene of Rhett rejecting Scarlett’s rejection as an opportunity to break free of the ’70s view that left it hammerlocked to rape. “Our once-straightforward condemnation is complicated by the realization that women themselves possess all sorts of perverse fantasies and appetites that elude the either/or strictures of political correctness,” she writes. Mitchell herself was a victim of marital rape, yet she created a morning-after scene of Scarlett giggly with post-coital satisfaction. Haskell cuts GWTW and Mitchell some slack: “Isn’t this transformation in feeling and intent the privilege of fiction and the power of movie stars?”
Conversations about race and GWTWare inexhaustible, in part because of so much that is skirted in the movie and book. Haskell notes that Mammy doesn’t have a life outside of service to Scarlett; we know precious little of her people or her personal longings. The large-scale absence of slavery as an issue of war and the book and movie’s neglect of African Americans’ progress in education and business during Reconstruction all point to more of that “privilege of fiction.”
What does appear on the screen remains controversial as well. I’m tempted to call Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy the most well-drawn, developed, and played African American character the movies had yet seen, and would see again until the 1950s. She’s the film’s Greek chorus, and the wisest observer of human eccentricities. McDaniel’s Oscar was both a tribute to her artistry and a bittersweet moment in American cultural history, her victory tempered by exile to a small table at the back of the Coconut Grove. But the racial politics of GWTW hardly begin and end with Mammy. Butterfly McQueen’s Prissy, a screeching birdbrain discharged from the bowels of Social Darwinism, forever preserves Hollywood’s insidious and effective character shorthand. But is it my imagination, or has her malodorousness waned somewhat in recent years? Certainly she and Mammy provide a vital contrast. “Prissy as comic relief with Mammy as safe harbor,” Haskell writes by way of noting “the whole tradition of desexualizing the black female.”
Despite her avowed belief that Selznick, Leigh, and Mitchell are the key instrumentalists, Haskell’s comments on Clark Gable’s Rhett and Olivia DeHavilland’s Melanie are no less incisive. While Leigh has always seemed the perfect embodiment of Scarlett, Haskell offers a new appreciation for Gable, who seems so comfortable here that his acting doesn’t even look like acting. Had he been one ounce less masculine, had his performance veered one degree to the left or right, the movie would have been thrown off course, with ill-fitting contrasts between the limpid Ashley and the emasculating Scarlett. While the world went gaga over Scarlett and Rhett, Haskell also points to a less heralded but equally significant relationship between the two principal women. Melanie’s love of Scarlett gives us permission to love her, too, while “the progression of Scarlett’s feelings for Melanie, from jealousy and contempt to respect, appreciation, and finally love, is one of the most powerful themes of the movie.”
Only two passages ring false. An attempted parallel between Scarlett and Sarah Palin seems forced and instantly dated as it compares the ultimate Steel Magnolia with a Wonder Woman of the moment, but the moment is gone. (Whether Palin has even a fraction of Scarlett’s staying power remains to be seen.) Early on, Haskell states that “from any aesthetic criteria, [GWTW] was … not even the best film of 1939,” then promptly dismantles her statement with a persuasive affection derived in no small part from GWTW’s warts. 1939 was indeed an astonishing year for movies, but put to the desert island test, GWTW beats Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Stagecoach, or even The Wizard of Oz in a walk.
Perhaps Haskell is expressing the ambivalence that GWTW elicits in most all of us, with its story that “at one time or another has offended almost everyone.” But that ambivalence, our messy and conflicted reactions, makes GWTW all the more irresistible and irresolvable as art and commerce. It has the power to move, provoke, and entertain beyond all others, and to come due for reassessment with each new generation.