1) Gone with the WindThe 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.
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.
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."