Thursday, November 24, 2005

Tear Down the Draperies: Gone with the Wind

Over at The News Blog there was a thread recently on a circulating meme of "10 Movies I Hate." Steve Gilliard's number one was Gone with the Wind. Here's his pungent take:
1) Gone with the Wind
Everything to hate in one movie. Best scene...Atlanta burning to the fucking ground. Getting upset about that would be like getting upset about the destruction of Berlin in 1945. Even Birth of a Nation is less offensive because it's up front in its racism.
The Siren has a movie-trivia quibble here, described in a sidebar below. But Mr. Gilliard's post prompts her to write up some deeper, long-simmering thoughts about this movie. She doesn't share his hatred for the movie. That doesn't mean she dismisses his point.

Gone with the Wind's virtues include an indelible love story, two leads at the absolute peak of their good looks and acting ability, a fabulous supporting cast and, perhaps above all, matchless beauty. (The names of production designer William Cameron Menzies and cinematographer Ernest Haller should be as familiar to GWTW lovers as that of David O. Selznick.) The sweep of the movie is so epic that the Siren has talked to several perfectly alert people who swore there were battle scenes in it (there aren't).

But...the politics. The view of history.

Oy, as we used to say back home in Birmingham.

The Siren is from Alabama. She hasn't lived there for many years, but her roots in the South go back about 200 years on either side of her family tree, and that's serious Southern. It stays with you, which is why Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams could leave to live here, there, everywhere and anywhere but the South and still be identifiably Southern to anyone with two eyes and a pulse. Gone with the Wind embodies the mythology of my native region like no other book or movie. Love it or hate it, the one thing you ain't gonna do is ignore it.

The Siren read the book at about age 11 and saw the movie that same year. For years, I loved book and movie without reservation. My Christmas present one year was a copy of Scarlett Fever by William Pratt and Herb Bridges, a big compendium of all things GWTW. Rhett was my romantic ideal, Melanie my pattern of ladyhood, but Scarlett was my heroine. Ashley did lead her on terribly, I was convinced of that. (Still am.) And look at how she got men to do things for her. Look at how hard she worked, how brave she was. Look at all her gorgeous dresses.

And look at how she suffered! Look at how the South suffered! That rat Sherman. Those carpetbaggers. Everybody insisting on making the war all about slavery, when we knew it was about states' rights. Slavery was terrible, but slaves were an investment, and they were treated a lot better than Northern factory workers.

Incredible, isn't it? The Siren was raised in a dedicated pro-civil-rights household, daughter of two of the proudest liberal Democrats you ever saw. They loved Kennedy and loathed Wallace. They sneered at the Southern strategy. My mother still likes to boast that she hated Nixon before Nixon-hating was cool: "Watergate. Ha! I hated the man while he was vice president." They voted for McGovern. (One old friend, told this piece of information, responded, "Well, I guess those two votes in Alabama had to come from somewhere.")

All that good solid upbringing, and I still believed all the myths. And the depressing thing about GWTW, and what makes it--I choose the adjective carefully--pernicious to this day, is that there are an astonishing number of people out there who still believe its dishonest view of history. Check out the IMDB boards. Start a conversation at your local bar. You'll still find someone, and possibly a lot of someones, bringing up the hoary lies.

The Siren says enough with the apologetics. The movie is racist. Not misguided, not dated, RACIST.

It is racist in big ways, as it shows the "good Negros" sticking around to serve their former owners. The bad ones run off. They ride around Atlanta in fancy clothes or congregate in Shantytown until Ashley and Rhett ride in with the (delicately unnamed) Klan and clear it out. Yes, the great stuntman Yakima Canutt played the white man who attacks Scarlett. His accomplice, played by Blue Washington, is black, and the raid is a lynching party. Defend that if you like.

It is racist in small ways, as the late Butterfly McQueen could have told you. Check out the scene where Melanie is feeding the returning Confederate soldiers. McQueen was talked into cutting a watermelon in the background. She stayed pissed off about it to her dying day.

Even people too sophisticated to take much stock in GWTW's mythology will defend certain of the assumptions behind it, such as the idea that most or even many slaves were well-treated, or better off in any sense than Northern workers. They weren't. Life expectancy for a black slave in the antebellum South was about 21, almost exactly half that of a white person. Life expectancy for a Northern white was higher than for a Southern one.

Sure, the war was about state's rights. And economic factors. And which state's right was uppermost in the minds of those who ran the South? And, whether those who fought owned a slave or not, what was the economy of the South based upon?

It is true that Hattie McDaniel's Mammy is the soul of the movie. The monologue she delivers to Melanie after the death of Rhett and Scarlett's daughter is a moment of utter heartbreak. But Mammy is defined only through her devotion to the white folks. She has personality aplenty, but no existence outside of those she serves. Some people argue that Mammy has a great deal more life and individuality than most black characters in mainstream movies up to that time. Even if you grant that point, and the Siren cites the 1934 Imitation of Life as one counterexample, Mammy was perceived by many blacks even at that time as an insult. McDaniel spent the rest of her life fending off accusations of betrayal. "I'd rather play a maid than be one," she supposedly said. McDaniel did a beautiful job with what she had, but what the GWTW script gave her was a stereotype recognizable even in 1939.

Then there's William Tecumseh Sherman. The Siren has spent many nights downing measures with friends and debating the wisdom of that long-ago march to the sea. Militarily, it worked. It also gave white Southerners a sense of victimhood that for some persists to this day. If there is an afterlife, the Siren wonders if General Sherman has found the time to reflect that maybe giving the South a grievance for the ages wasn't such a hot idea.

Remembering the movie's opening epigraph, the Siren is somewhat amazed Mr. Gilliard made it through to the siege of Atlanta:
There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South...Here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow...Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave...Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered. A Civilization gone with the wind...
It's depressing that in 2005 one must still point out to some people that all the gallantry in the world can't pretty up what the South was doing. But the Siren saw GWTW again in a movie theater about five years ago, and she will see it again. Her "dream remembered" is the grand-style moviemaking that reached its apogee in 1939. Scarlett is still a first-class scheming hussy, and the Siren still loves her for it.

If you ever came with her to Alabama, the Siren could take you to the cemetery where many of her forebears are buried. Some of them were Civil War veterans. They sure as hell weren't fighting for Lincoln. For many reasons, some sentimental, some historical, the Siren does not choose to believe that they were anything other than brave in the battles they fought. But sentiment doesn't blind her, and neither does Gone with the Wind, not anymore. As one Union veteran wrote twenty-five years after the battle of Gettysburg, "The men who won the victory there were eternally right, and the men who were defeated were eternally wrong."


Uncle Gustav said...

I grew up in an era where it was simply understood that "Gone With the Wind" was "the greatest" movie of all time.

Yes, "Battleship Potemkin" and "Birth of a Nation" topped most critics' "Best of All Time" lists. (Welles and "Citizen Kane" were still dismissed by the American mainstream as upstarts and troublemakers.) But "GWTW" reached the broadest audience, and all of that owes to Selznik's masterful promotion.

Reissued punctually every decade (with a hyped Civil War centennial rerelease in the early '60s), the public was conditioned into admiring it, warts and all. And there are plenty of warts. But as that generation passes on and its offspring grow into middle age, people in their twenties and thirties and forties must scratch their heads over the hoopla that once surrounded "GWTW" -- so much of the picture simply doesn't hold up, dramatically or cosmetically. Whereas "Potemkin" and "Kane" can still be fresh and engaging if young minds can get past the black and white and the lack of CGI and trust the deep emotional shadings which permeate those films.

Of course "GWTW" was racist. America was and is a racist country. During the '70s, I naively thought that Archie Bunker would have embarrassed such outmoded ideals into obvlivion, but that didn't happen. The inherent racism of "GWTW" and "Birth of a Nation" are valuable tools, and I hope they never fall into the hands of sensitive revisionist censors and editors. Nor do I want to sink to their level of misanthropy, at least not in public. For, as an American, the mixed messages instilled in me at an early age continue to color my perception, and any high-minded liberal ideals I may project -- things I'd swear that I fully subscribe to -- would undoubtedly crumble under heated cross-examination.

The Siren said...

Flickhead, thanks for your comment, thoughtful and keenly intelligent as I always expect from you. GWTW is an amazing piece of popular entertainment, but I would never call it great in the same artistic sense that Potemkin and Citizen Kane or many other movies merit that adjective. I only dealt with the political and social aspects, but as you point out, it has dramatic problems as well. The compression of events in the second half of the movie send it careening into all-out melodrama, and there are even some visual quibbles. (How many shots of twisted trees against the sky does a person really need?) I share your hope that I never have to see a sanitized Birth or GWTW; they need to be viewed, as you put it, warts and all. But it's still number 4 on the AFI list of 100 Greatest Movies and a simple Google search turns up an ungodly number of people who see the stereotyped black characters, but still think there's some sort of historical accuracy to the movie's take on the antebellum South, not to mention Reconstruction. That's what gets me.

surly hack said...

Bravo, siren. Though I love the genre, I'm embarrassed by almost every Western's inherent racism. American film history is inseparable from American history.

What I remember fondly about GWTW IS all those "twisted trees against the sky", a gorgeously saturated technicolor sky. I think Francis Ford-Coppolla also remembers them.

The Siren said...

Aieee, the Western. For that one, the Siren needs a full-length book contract and not a blog. I love the genre too, though.

I liked the first couple of twisted tree shots, but after a while they palled. As a girl I think Walter Plunkett's costumes were my favorite.

boisdejasmin said...

Superb article!

Incidentally, the last paragraph made me think of Benjamin's Theses on the Philosophy of History.

"The nature of this sadness stands out more clearly if one asks with whom the adherents of historicism actually empathize. The answer is inevitable: with the victor. And all rulers are the heirs of those who conquered before them. Hence, empathy with the victor invariably benefits the rulers. Historical materialists know what that means. Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. They are called cultural treasures, and a historical materialist views them with cautious detachment. For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another."

Apologies for this long quote, but I think that it points out the inevitable biasing of the events that is inherent in any reflection on the past. It is important to recognize it, yet I suppose that it is the most difficult thing.

Brian Darr said...

For me, the difference between pretty much every Western I've seen and Gone With the Wind is that the Westerns, no matter how implicitly or explicitly racist in outlook, somehow manage to contain an opposing critique of that outlook too, while last I checked Gone With the Wind did not. I should check again one of these days, but I don't have a lot of enthusiasm for the task.

The Siren said...

Brian - excellent point. At least, if we are talking about good Westerns. B Westerns I confess I'm not that familiar with.

V. dear - I *love* the quote. It's a bit ironic, though, that the South lost, but its view of what happened still manages to prevail in the movie.

boisdejasmin said...

Yes, indeed! The irony! I should have brought up Gone with the Wind when we were discussing the view of history and Benjamin in my political theory class.

Tania said...

Did the South lose? At the end of it, they kept sharecroppers, Jim Crow, poll taxes, and more until the second half of the 20th Century. Losing the war seems to have given birth to an entire intellectual industry built around burnishing myths of an idyllic prewar South, as lost and perfect as Atlantis. For example, in literary criticism, the group known as the Southern Agrarians put forth the ideal of antebellum south as an agrarian paradise in connection with nature and in opposition to the world of Northern urban industrialism and modernism. They conjured fantasies of long afternoons having tea on the porch, smelling the magnolias, working the earth, living with the seasons, not according to the whims of some smoke-belching, inhuman industrial machine. And I suppose all that did sound perfectly wonderful, so long as in that fantasy one wasn't black.

I had no idea Imitation of Life was made so long before GWTW. When you put it that way, it sure makes GWTW look even more backward.

The sick, vicious love between Scarlett and Rhett is the only thing in the film that ever rang true to me. In fact, I confess, out of this whole expensive epic, the only image that ever stuck in my mind is Rhett dragging Scarlett up the stairs. But as for Scarlett being anybody's kind of womanly ideal — I always wanted to punch her lights out, myself.

Peter Nellhaus said...

This reminded me of my first year at NYU. A Bronx native (and good friend) asked me why so many Hollywood films seemed biased towards the Civil War rebels. I explained that probably it was because some of the top directors, like Griffith and King Vidor, were of Southern heritage.

Exiled in NJ said...

Good point about Southern directors. Others had their own mindsets. Capra with his idyllic small towns, all in films made at a time when the American story was migration to the cities. Fritz Lang, from Germany, was one of the few comfortable depicting city life in anything other than a Warner Brothers gangster picture.

As for GWTW, Prissy is one of the sorriest characters ever put on screen. She never has a chance with the viewers. The storytellers seemed to want the public to dislike her; there is none of the sympathy we have for Lenny, another person of very limited intelligence, in Of Mice and Men. Some of this comes from the novel, but some is an inherent inability of the filmmakers to step into the shoes of a slave.

In films made from 1935-50 so often the view of immigrants is almost manipulated by studios and directors. John Qualen played many a brave, noble Swede, even when trapped in a desk. Southern Europeans were band leaders or Latin lovers when they weren't held up to ridicule by Chico Marx doing a pushcart vendor riff.

Before we pat ourselves on the back, I can think only of 'Three Kings' showing Muslims to be more than terrorists, and I am sure others have similar thoughts.

surly hack said...

I agree about the "opposing critique" contained in many Westerns, but there are reels and reels of them without it. The genre has tried to atone for it's sins, with Ford and others in their later work questioning earlier perspectives. I've seen silent films which dealt with the native American tragedy. And there are the revisionst Westerns starting as early as the late 40s(eg. The Devil's Doorway). Let's just say that there is enough bad history to go around.

Siren, what classic Southern films do you recommend? I recently saw Intruder In The Dust and thought it was quite good.

The Siren said...

Exiled - you're right, just about every ethnic group has its own beef with Hollywood, and of late Arabs have had it pretty bad. But the Prissy character is in a class by herself.

Surly - Well, most Southern movies are such BS, really. Either moonlight-and-magnolias or Tobacco Road. One that I would like to see is "The Phenix City Story" because my late father used to try cases down there and would come back muttering that it was still one sorry town in his book. I do like "The Long Hot Summer" (and posted about it) but it's no one's idea of Faulkner. The sentimental favorite is "To Kill a Mockingbird" and I also have fond memories of "Sounder." I would definitely have to think more about this. I know my father also had fond memories of "So Red the Rose", a presently unobtainable Civil War movie from the early 30s that tanked so badly no one wanted to option GWTW, which was part of why the rights to that book sold so cheap. I am sure it is probably politically even less palatable than GWTW but I would be curious to take a look.

surly hack said...

I haven't seen it in many years, but as I recall, PHENIX CITY STORY is a blast.

I have not seen SO RED THE ROSE. Sounds interesting. It was directed by King Vidor and written by Maxwell Anderson. Here are the movie's schmaltzy taglines from the IMDB:

The flower of Southern chivalry dewed with the shining glory of a woman's tears!

All the epic beauty, the gallantry of the men and women who fought "The Lost Cause" in this great, glowing picture of the Old South.

chutry said...

As a semi-native Atlantan, I experienced this film as the local propaganda. Turner ran it in the CNN Center movie theater well into the 1990s, and I *may* have even seen the film at elementary school (though that could be a figment of my imagination).

It's certainly mystifying that it's regarded with the "best" films, though my sense is that its status is changing with each generation and that it will be regarded more as an hitsorical artifact along the lines of "Birth of a Nation," especially given GWTW's then-innovative use of Technicolor in producing those lush southern landscapes.

Berlinbound said...

Well written - and a terrific discussion here in the comments.

You raise the blog bar ...

The Siren said...

Chutry - thank you so much for stopping by. I agree that the film's status is slipping. Girish and I discussed "Birth of a Nation" the night we had dinner and agreed that if D.W. Griffith had ended the movie with Lincoln's assassination, it would be a lot easier to like.

surly: "So Red the Rose" also has Margaret Sullavan, and I look forward to seeing her in anything.

Berlinbound: Wonderful to see you. I have been visiting your blog and hope you are settling into the expat life.

Alex said...

"I haven't seen it in many years, but as I recall, PHENIX CITY STORY is a blast."

I can hardly describe the experience of Phenix City Story - it's almost like being beat up with a baseball bat (which, in fact, happens repeatedly to characters within the movie). The movie looks like it was made on $3.50 (the "acting" is so poor that Jonathan Rosenbaum believes it's an intentional semi-Brechtian device by the director) and Karlson turns all $3.50 into an advantage for the movie.

I suppose you could really understand The Phenix City Story as the obverse of GWTW - Phenix City is so banally evil, so mediocrely bad, so boringly seamy (Phenix City vices are seemingly infinitely predictable and cheap) that it sucks any conceivable romance out of the South.

The Siren said...

Alex - Your description cracks me up. "Infinitely predictable and cheap" vices--it's like I can hear my father talking about the place right now. Sweet lord, he really hated it. I can't help thinking if Dad were still around, he'd be only too happy to tell you how the movie was the perfect evocation of Phenix City.

Well now it seems I really do have to see the thing, but it's damned hard to find.

surly hack said...

Alex, your description of PHENIX CITY STORY sounds right. In your face expose-pulp, as I recall. Seems to me that Karlson and Fuller cover some of the same territory. I recently saw Karlson's 99 River Street for the first time and HIGHLY recommend it.

Drew_Chas said...

I finally watched the film for the first time, and, for the life of me, I cannot find a good critical defense for having the film ranked as the number six greatest American film of all time as of 2007. I understand it was a popular film and perhaps was cutting-edge for some technical reasons. But as far as the content of the film warranting sixth place? If someone could please direct me to a quality critical defense of its sixth place, I would love to read it.

The Siren said...

Hi Drew,
Always delighted when someone finds an old post of mine, and in this case, thanks also for being so polite about disliking GWTW. In my opinion, the best analysis/history/defense of GWTW, by a critic who loves it for all the right reasons, is "Frankly My Dear" by Molly Haskell. A slim volume that is most decidedly not slight in its thinking. She doesn't duck anything, not the racism, not the rape scene, but if anyone will make you understand the love for the film, it's Ms Haskell. Cheers, F.