Frankly, My Dear: Gone with the Wind Revisited
(Yale University Press)
US: Feb 2009
It is possible that no American movie, with the exception of Birth of a Nation, is harder to see than Gone With the Wind. This is not a judgment on the film’s watchability, which, given the film is a nearly four-hour melodrama, is another matter entirely. It’s that the film is so mired in its own racial and sexual politics that it becomes nearly impossible for a modern viewer to see the film without refracting it through any number of critical lenses. DW Griffith’s film is rarely spoken of except to reference its horrific (and often skull-clutchingly contradictory) portrayal of race, but Gone With the Wind, despite its grinning house slaves and arguable endorsement of rape within the bonds of marriage, continues to be viciously derided (or dismissed) by academics and blithely enjoyed by audiences.
In her recent book, Frankly My Dear: Gone With the Wind Revisited, film critic Molly Haskell attempts to make an argument in defense of, all at once, the film, the book and their proponents. What emerges instead is a thorough, if at times muddled, account of the forces behind the making of Gone With the Wind as a cultural artifact, blending biographies of producer David O. Selznick, lead actress Vivien Leigh and author Margaret Mitchell, and a defense not so much of the work itself, but of its fans and their devotion to the Civil War epic.
Haskell begins her book by chronicling the reactions to the film, positive, negative and personal. Situating herself both as a Southerner and an academic, she describes her complicated relationship with Scarlett O’Hara, a heroine who embodies many of the strengths that could be attributed to a feminist heroine without the self-reflection necessary to make positive use of those strengths. Stuck not so much in a constantly repeating cycle as a never-ending present which even the fall of the South cannot wrest her from, O’Hara’s refusal to obey the restrictive rules of Southern society and dismissal of the scoffing and scorning that results is constantly marred by what can only be described as a vicious streak, motivated in the film’s first half by spite and in the second by the particular type of avarice possessed by those who have fallen from riches to poverty.
While she makes a strong case for the compelling nature of the narrative and particular its heroine, Haskell is relatively dismissive of criticisms of the film on the basis of race and gender. The racial politics of the film are not addressed again until the last chapter, where she points out that by excising some of Mitchell’s longer diatribes against the horrors of Reconstruction and the irrationality of enfranchising blacks, the film softens some of the racial problems in the original text. Wisely choosing to focus more on the strong characterization of Mammy, whom Haskell places at the narrative’s center, rather than the supposedly comic portrayal of Prissy’s mental deficiency or the cringe-worthy moment when a collection of slaves head past Scarlett on their way to dig ditches to aid the Confederate effort, allowed neither the dignity of fighting alongside their masters nor the agency to side against them, Haskell points out that in an era of Stepin Fetchitt and Uncle Remus, Gone With the Wind presents a comparatively nuanced depiction of Southern blacks.
Much of the book is taken up by biographies of Selznick, Leigh and Mitchell, with Haskell arguing that without the chance interaction of these three personalities, the film could never have succeeded. Devoting a significant page count to possible alternative casting choices, she offers the already converted a number of paths down which the film could have stumbled towards obscurity rather than striding into history. But while her book may expand on a fan’s understanding of the film, it does little to ease a skeptic’s misgivings about a film whose scope and beauty at times feel like a Technicolor gloss on one of the darkest periods in American history.