Scarlett Fever

Gone With the Wind
area theaters, starts Friday

It's a cinch to show a huge financial loss, and should be conclusive evidence that it's folly to gamble $2 and $3 million on a single picture.

--NBC radio announcer, 1939

I was the only Negro in the theatre, and when Butterfly McQueen went into her act, I felt like crawling under the rug.

--Malcolm X

To whom do we owe the guilty pleasure of Gone With the Wind's umpteenth rerelease? Should we thank the old Atlantan Ted Turner, whose Turner Entertainment Co. (itself owned by Time Warner) has been the master of this plantation epic since the '80s? Or self-proclaimed "king of the world" James Cameron, whose Titanic reminded fans of historical soap opera that bombast--er, make that size--does matter?

Either way, producer David O. Selznick's mammoth endeavor of 1939 continues to mean business. Strategically timed to exploit Wind's fourth-place showing last week in the American Film Institute's top-100 poll, this latest reissue urges the value of old property in more ways than one. Small wonder that Turner regaled his AFI interviewers by citing the entrepreneurial wisdom of Scarlett O'Hara's grizzled Pa: "Land is the only thing that matters; it's the only thing that lasts."

Perhaps so. But will this well-trod Old South still sell in 1998--what with its Technicolor images of happily enslaved "darkies," its wistful longing for those last days of macho "gallantry," its suggestion of drunken rape as one way to rekindle a marriage? Given this Civil War behemoth's conspicuous lack of combat, most male moviegoers these days would rather witness Armageddon than four long hours of "a Civilization gone with the wind." And it's doubtful that Titanic's core audience of teenage Leo lovers will approve of Scarlett's climactic realization that effete Ashley Wilkes withers beside the rough Rhett Butler. On the other hand, Wind's heroine is nothing if not titanic: Her heart will go on. Through war, poverty, pregnancy, miscarriage, Reconstruction, and Rhett Butler, Scarlett lives to proclaim that "tomorrow is another day."

Speaking of forecasting, media pundits predicted disaster in 1939, but Wind's heavy gust of nostalgia, anxiety, regional pride, and determined optimism was bound to resonate. With the war gathering steam in Europe and the Depression still fresh in people's minds, an 1860s setting hardly abstracted the tale of a woman who'd "lie, cheat, steal, or kill" to keep food on the table and her man close by. So too, Scarlett's desperate escapism would have made immediate sense to prewar moviegoers: The film's first scene establishes Scarlett (Vivien Leigh) as queen bee with her pick of the drones, lamenting all their talk of "war, war, war... it's spoiling all the fun." After petulantly throwing a wine glass out of frustration that her beloved Ashley (Leslie Howard) is planning to wed a "mealymouthed ninny" (Olivia DeHavilland), she meets her match in Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), who hears the breaking glass and exclaims, "Has the war started?" Clearly, this film's main battle will be between the sexes.

If Scarlett is a one-woman army as well as the personification of Hollywood's bid to seduce the spectator, she's also an emblem of Wind's creator. Stubborn, bitchy, inexhaustible, and fiercely protective of the backlot "Tara," David Selznick remains film history's consummate example of the producer as star. Building his epic from the ground up, the man literally dismantled all others, torching old sets from King Kong to re-enact the burning of Atlanta and marshalling all seven Technicolor cameras in existence to capture the blaze from every angle (no matter that his heroine hadn't yet been cast). Over the course of the shoot, Selznick gave orders to four different directors and 11 writers (including an uncredited F. Scott Fitzgerald); he charmed the NAACP, MGM (he'd married Louis B. Mayer's daughter), and the Hays Office (which objected to the use of the word "damn"). Coordinating six filming units at once and presiding over 50-hour editing sessions, he subsisted on a regular diet of thyroid extract, Benzedrine, and B-12 shots.

Thus, Selznick's strenuously overdetermined movie, like Titanic, is too enormous to be anything but a metaphor for itself: Scarlett is Selznick is Hollywood is America; Tara is the studio plantation, and its product is fluffy as cotton; war is shooting half a million feet of film in five months. As for the other characters, the loyal Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) and Prissy (Butterfly McQueen) are granted entry into the master's house but serve mainly to signify the captive audience. (McDaniel won an Oscar, but segregation laws kept her from the Atlanta premiere.) And if sensitive Ashley seems to recall women's picture director George Cukor, who was given his walking papers early in the shoot (reportedly for paying too much attention to the actresses), then who's that mysterious "visitor from Charleston" played by Clark Gable? Well, just as hubby-for-hire Rhett leaves Scarlett pondering all tomorrow's sequels, the nominally credited director Victor Fleming opted to skip Selznick's gala premiere--because by that point, frankly, he didn't give a damn.

 
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