Been wracking my brain for the past few days for a way to tell folks how to watch one of my favorite movies of all time. Everything would be much simpler if everyone would read the book. It is long, but extremely readable and will pull you along as it sweeps through one of the most turbulent times in our history. Reading Mitchell’s work did more to encourage my study of the American Civil War than any other work I’ve read.
Reading just the first two lines of the book will alert you to the fact that the movie is strictly a production based upon the book. Much of Scarlett’s life is not depicted in the movie. The war provides a backdrop to the foregrounded “romance” but GWTW is not a romance, but an historical novel that records many of the significant battles that took place from 1862 forward. People tearing down the statue of US Grant don’t know their history. Hell, his affiliation is in his initials. It is true that he owned one slave, but he came through when it really counted.
Line one: “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.” Vivien Leigh was pixie cute, white folks think of her as beautiful. She definitely did not look like Scarlett as she is described in line one. Hence, the movie is a production designed to bring folks to the theaters. Remember, too, this movie was released in 1939; America was in the grip of Jim Crow segregation and the Great Depression, in need of diversion. The film is beautiful, the costumes are beautiful, the players are beautiful. The film was supposed to divert and make everyone feel better as they struggled to live.
Line two: “In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father.” For me, this line tells me that Scarlett’s parents are not white because whites of the time were Anglo-Saxon Protestants. French descent and florid Irish say immigrant past to me, and if one was an immigrant or emanated from immigrant stock, one was not white. Gerald O’Hara married up when he wed Ellen of the aristocracy. His ownership and management of a successful plantation was his entreé to acceptance as a white man. People were suspicious of the O’Hara’s because they did not brutalize their slaves. They were Catholics, Papists. You can’t come to this interpretation unless you read the book and know some history.
Some folks are dredging up the old nonsense about the portrayal of stereotypes when it comes to the Black characters, particulary Hattie McDaniel’s portrayal of Mammy. I still quote her and I first saw this movie when I was ten. “It just ain’t fittin’.” Mammy spoke her mind, she called white trash white trash and wasn’t reprimanded for it. In fact, Mammy was the disciplinarian in the house, firmer than Scarlett’s mother or father. All deferred to Mammy. I don’t believe this was the stereotyped behavior of house slaves, particularly in the houses of true whites. Butterfly McQueen’s portrayal of Prissy paid her royalties until her death in 1995. She said she took the role so she could pay for her furniture. Two hundred dollars a week in 1939 was a queenly sum. She thought no one would come to see a movie “about slavery.” McDaniel said she’d rather play a maid or slave than actually be one when subjected to criticism by the Black critics of then and now.
If you won’t read the book, which is great, second in popularity to the Bible, and I don’t believe that many people have actually read the Bible, at least read something that gives some context about the war. I’d recommend My Vicksburg by Ann Rinaldi. It is a young adult novel and won’t take a lot of your time to read. You’ll learn about the conflicts within white families when one brother fights for the Union and the other brother fights for the Confederacy. The Civil War was all about white boys killing the hell out of other white boys over the institution of slavery.
Watch GWTW with the understanding that it is portrayed as a romance, but the book is a Bildungsroman and a story about survival once all you’ve known of stable society is destroyed. GWTW is more rightly classified as an historical novel. The film is a romance with Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh. That’s how they got the box office. Remember it is a production meant to distract people from their economic despair. In 1957, Gable would portray a slaver in love with one of his purchases. Sidney Poitier was a major player in this film with Yvonne DeCarlo and Gable. I have never heard Poitier mention his role as Rau Ru in this movie based on a book, A Band of Angels, by Robert Penn Warren, who was a civil rights activist, journalist, and novelist. If you can find it, read the book, then see the movie. All about miscegenation, slavery, passing. Just think, in 1957 movies were still being made about slavery and related topics.
All this pandering by corporations to remove Uncle Ben (never liked that plastic rice), Aunt Jemima (I can make my own damn pancakes), and the gentleman on the Cream of Wheat box (he always reminded me of a Pullman Porter and I like remembering those working men of the past). Why are white people trying to erase history now? They just discovered racist iconography? Sumbitch.
Get with me after you read the book, see the movie, read Rinaldi, or you just want to talk history, slavery, and the living history we’re making and living through right now.