Richard J. Leskosky | 'Gone with the Wind' presents challenges for today's viewers

Richard J. Leskosky | 'Gone with the Wind' presents challenges for today's viewers

It's Women's History Month, and St. Patrick's Day is approaching. And, coincidentally, this month's offering in The News-Gazette Film Series is a classic Hollywood adaptation of a bestselling novel by a female author about a strong woman from an Irish immigrant family who runs a couple of businesses in a war-torn region trying to preserve her family. Yes, it's "Gone with the Wind," which screens at 1 and 7 p.m. Saturday at the Virginia Theatre in downtown Champaign.

The coincidences don't stop there. "The Shape of Water" topped the list of nominees in last week's Academy Awards ceremony, with 13 nominations, and "Gone with the Wind" set a record in its time with 13 nominations. Of course, the 1939 classic won nine Oscars (as well as a Special Award for production designer William Cameron Menzies and a Technical Citation for equipment coordination), whereas Guillermo del Toro's film copped only four.

A more significant coincidence, though, consists of a couple of racial firsts. Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy in "Gone with the Wind," was the first African American to be nominated for any Oscar and the first to win one (Best Supporting Actress). Last week, Jordan Peele became the first African American both to be nominated for and to win an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

Mammy is the one character in "Gone with the Wind" who has both a clear moral sense and a realistic view of the world, but even though she has raised Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh, who won the Best Actress Oscar) from infancy, her attempts at acting as a conscience for Scarlett meet with only limited success. Melanie Wilkes (Olivia de Havilland, who was also nominated in the Supporting Actress category) is a good person who refuses to believe ill of anyone, even when an unscrupulous Scarlett keeps flouting all accepted mores and obviously longing for Melanie's husband Ashley (Leslie Howard). The ruthlessly manipulative Scarlett marries three times, in each case primarily to make Ashley jealous (spoiler: it never works) or to acquire money to save her plantation, Tara.

Even her marriage to the wealthy, roguish Rhett Butler (Clark Gable in probably his most iconic role) — the romance that helped turn the film into an international sensation — was motivated in large part by her vow never to be poor again. Scarlett gains your sympathy mainly because of the hardships she has to face during the Civil War and the Reconstruction Era, but every time you might think she has matured and learned to care about others, she does something to demonstrate her enduring egoism.

Producer David O. Selznick spent many months searching for an actress who could carry off the task of combining charm and ruthlessness and finally found her in young British actress Vivien Leigh (who had told friends months before she ever read for the role that she would play Scarlett, displaying a very Scarlett-like resolve). Leigh was also a tireless worker on the set, putting in longer hours than most, in an effort to see the production finish as soon as possible so that she could get back to New York where her lover Laurence Olivier was starring in the successful Broadway comedy "No Time for Comedy."

Their relationship probably helped boost the romantic interest in "Gone with the Wind," because that same year, Olivier starred as Heathcliff in the Goldwyn adaptation of "Wuthering Heights" — two performers playing iconic romantic figures on screen having their own romance in real life.

Despite its place in Hollywood history and its continued ranking as an all-time box-office top-grossing film (adjusted for inflation), "Gone with the Wind" can present some challenges for modern viewers.

It is unabashedly nostalgic over the antebellum South with its chivalric codes of honor and its ladies and gentlemen enjoying balls and barbecues on the old plantations.

All the slaves here seem happy with their lot, and even after Emancipation, the house servants like Mammy remain with the O'Hara family and the plantation.

None of the white characters say anything against the black characters. The only derogatory names or comments are reserved for low-class "white trash" and, of course, Yankees. Even the Ku Klux Klan (not specifically identified as such and not wearing sheets, but what else would you call a band of Reconstruction Era vigilantes?) does not attack blacks here, just white thugs in a shantytown who had earlier attacked Scarlett in her carriage.

Margaret Mitchell wrote "Gone with the Wind" in the decade after a flurry of Confederate monuments had been erected as emblems of white supremacy (many of which are being taken down now as city officials realize their underlying purpose), but her intent seems mainly nostalgic. Her idealized view of the knightly pretensions of the pre-Civil War South had, however, already been decried by Mark Twain in his 1882 "Life on the Mississippi." There Twain claimed that Sir Walter Scott's popular romantic novels about medieval times, especially "Ivanhoe," had had an undue influence on the South, leaving it enamored "with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham guads, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society" long past the North leaving that sort of illusion behind. Ashley Wilkes is a prime exemplar of that sort of superannuated chivalry.

"Gone with the Wind" falls into two sections separated by an Interval and an Entr'acte — almost the equivalent of a double feature.

The first section includes the run-up to the war in the days immediately after secession and the war itself, including the burning of Atlanta.

The second section deals with the end of the war and Reconstruction, complete with carpetbaggers (Northern politicians swarming into the South to capitalize on the new political system) and scalawags (Southerners cooperating with Reconstruction governments for their own profit).

Rhett Butler is a scalawag but is charming and shrewd enough to get away with it. Scarlett similarly is charming and shrewd enough to get away with conducting business with Northerners and insisting that the Southerners who had been trading with her (second) husband on credit pay their bills. They were clearly made for each other, but Scarlett does not realize that until too late. But tomorrow is another day.

Note: "Gone with the Wind" had another Oscar first — the first Oscar awarded posthumously. Screenwriter and playwright Sidney Howard won for Best Screenplay, but he had died months earlier on his Massachusetts farm, crushed to death by a tractor — a tragic but slightly ironic fate, considering all the deaths he wrote occurring on Scarlett's plantation.

Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the UI and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at filmcritic@comcast.net.

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annabellissimo wrote on March 12, 2018 at 1:03 am

Although I admit that I love this melodramatic soap-opera of a movie, there are many aspects of it that are cringe-worthy to a contemporary viewer, some of which the reviewer mentioned. One that he didn't mention, that other writers have, is a scene that has become objectionable or controversial because it implies a sexual assault committed by character Rhett Butler against the character's unwilling wife, Scarlett O'Hara. He carries her up a very long, sweeping staircase with her kicking and screaming insisting that he will make her forget the man she believes is her true love, Ashley Wilkes. Leslie Howard, who played Ashley Wilkes the utterly nostalgic almost milquetoast character in comparison to Clark Gable's Rhett Butler, was actually a WWII British war hero who did significant propaganda work against the Nazis and was killed in a plane shot down by the German Luftwaffe. Knowing those real-life facts about "Ashley" made me like the fictional character a bit more than the GWTW story did. Ashley Wilkes was insufferable and Rhett Butler was a charismatic and charming rogue and that may have made that scene that many describe as "marital rape" (as if there are categories of rape) more easily overlooked over the years. The racism, the skewed portrayal of slavery and slaves, and that scene are serious imperfections in (we hope) more enlightened times, but the rest of the story, the cinematography, the acting, the music - pretty great piece of movie-making with some flawed elements. I hope it never gets remade, but somebody very arrogant with hubris they cannot dismiss will no doubt do so sometime. One other detail about GWTW is that after its first showing in 1939, it would be shown again every seven years in theatres. I don't know how long that repeated interval continued, but at least until the early 1960s, and afficianados of the movie would anxiously await the passage of that interval to be able to see it again - the days before TV, the VHS or DVD or streaming or any other way to see it. It really is a movie that needs a big screen and a fine theatre so its showing at the Virginia Theatre is a great setting for it. If a theatre could have green velvet drapery and give out Clark bars, that would be good.

ufacat wrote on March 12, 2018 at 10:03 pm

I think the "cringe-worthy" moments tend to make GWTW a bit more wonderful as a film. It is not a benign classic at all. It reflects a spirit of life and art at its best inasmuch as it is (albeit with today's conscience, perhaps for some, inconveniently) identifiable and enoyable, but more profound than a cursory glance would grant.

Scarlett enjoys the sexual experience she has with Rhett on the night he carries her up the stairs. It is reflective of life that the trappings of sex are complex and not about what is "right." Without conflict or complexity, what would be watching? Imperfect characters and imperfect reactions are present in life and should be in art. I do not approve of "marital rape" (or any rape,) but I know it exists and I know that the aftermath is always different. Film shouldn't protect a viewer, but elicit response and thought.

As for the depiction of slavery, I don't think people realize how subversive the black characters are. There are practically none left after the war, save those who were too old or too entrenched to go anywhere else--not a fiction for post-Civil War life. I don't think that speaks well for the idyll of Tara being home for any but the formerly-privileged family...

Best of all is Prissy. Prissy does not fear shirking duty to the white people. She is not invested in birthing a baby, although she perversely says she is an expert, initially. When Scarlett abandons the idea of a sense of urgengy from her and goes to find a doctor, Prissy leans over the railing of the landing and uses an "F...ew --more days" ("My Old Kentucky Home")" to lets us know just what she thinks of Scarlett.

We are also used to the idea of Mammy being only naturally able to respond to Scarlett in the irreverent tone we now know so well (and is perpetuated by types like "Madea"). But at the time the film came out, this was new and drew letters from white people in the South, who saw the film and objected to the idea of a slave not knowing her place.

I don't think Hollywood would touch this film with a ten-foot-pole. Not because it wouldn't love to milk a hit, but because you cannot make it and honor the viewpoints of history that are now imperative when discussing the Civil War. Mitchell wrote about the perspective of a white girl in a certain era--she would have been wrong to discuss the period totally assuming a black person's perspective. But she knew instinctively about the universality of nostalgia, as somewhat noted by Mr. Leskosky--which, along with unrequited love, is the most identifible mind-meeting for anyone who sees the film. Try to remake this film without those "cringe-worthy" moments, and you would have a lovely little film, loosely knitted, that doesn't have the continuing pull of "Gone With the Wind."

Richard Leskosky wrote on March 13, 2018 at 3:03 pm

I'm afraid I misidentified Leslie Howard, who plays Ashley Wilkes, as Ronald Howard.  Ronald was Leslie's son.  While watching the film again for this column, I kept marvelling at how much Leslie looked like Ronald and then did some follow-up research on Ronald's career, so when I wrote the column I inadvertently wrote Ronald's name instead of Leslie's.  I apologize for the error and any confusion it may have caused.