Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Giving a Damn

Feminist critic Molly Haskell takes another look at Gone with the Wind

The following review was recently published on the History News Network website.

For many years now, a Civil War course has been a staple of my pedagogic repertoire, and every time I teach it I struggle to figure out what to do about Gone with the Wind. Margaret Mitchell’s novel is much too long to be assigned reading (though I have taught a summer course devoted exclusively to it). Even the 1939 movie presents serious scheduling/logistical challenges; it takes about a week’s worth of classes to get through it, and I’ve never had much luck assigning any movie as homework – too hard for everyone to get, watch, discuss, etc. So I’ve typically made a reluctant decision to consign GWTW (as it is affectionately known) to the margins as a possible essay topic. I always get a few takers.

I somehow couldn’t bear to do that again this year. So I cleared the deck and showed the movie in its entirety over a stretch of classes, much in the way I do a major chunk of the 11-hour Ken Burns Civil War documentary (and running the risk of inducing serious video fatigue). But the GWTW screening was a great success. I was struck by the enthusiasm of some of the males who saw it, including a pair of African American boys. The kind of racism in the film seemed sufficiently far from their lives to permit them to appreciate other dimensions of the story, though I had a third African American boy who wrote a very good essay on how the film was more dangerous than the obviously racist Birth of a Nation (I showed excerpts) precisely because its bigotry was thus even more insidious.

But perhaps the most striking thing about my experience in showing and discussing the film was what I perceived as its receding status in American life. A 1976 poll showed that 90% of the American public had seen the movie at least once; anecdotally speaking, I’d say 90% of the students I teach have not seen it prior to taking my class. GWTW, movie or film, isn’t going anywhere. But it clearly has receded from its central place in American life, much in the way of Catcher in the Rye, another once-pivotal generational tale whose appeal, the New York Times recently reported, is also waning, even as its status as a classic becomes more secure.

It is in this context that I read Molly Haskell’s Frankly My Dear, a reappraisal of both book and film
and their relationship to each other as we approach the three-quarter century mark. It is one of those books you can say its author was born to write. Haskell, who is the same age as the movie, is a child of the South (she grew up in Virginia) and became a notable film scholar. Her 1973 book From Reverence to Rape: the Treatment of Women in the Movies has become a minor classic through two editions. (GWTW is treated in passing in that book, in a relatively detached, neutral way.) The convergence of regionalism, gender, and media studies in her new book has felicitous results in a compact, evocative piece of old-fashioned cultural criticism, part of the “Icons of America” series published by Yale University Press.

Frankly My Dear is organized as a suite of five essays. The first discusses GWTW, book and film, as “the American Bible,” asserting its ongoing centrality in U.S. life, a claim that’s plausible, particularly given recent sequels and parodies, but one, as I’m indicating, that also appears to have generational boundaries. The second focuses on the role of producer David Selznick, and actor Vivian Leigh, who played Scarlett O’Hara; the third is on Mitchell’s role. These two chapters – in effect a trilogy honoring the three people as the pivotal players in what Haskell also affirms as very much a group enterprise – represent her key analytic contribution to the discourse surrounding GWTW. A fourth chapter surveys some of the other pla
yers, among them the underappreciated production designer William Cameron Menzies, who brought the story to life. The final chapter situates the GWTW saga in the broader context of American history, from its version of antebellum politics to the films of Judd Apatow.

Haskell wears her learning lightly – maybe a little too lightly; it would have been nice to have footnotes in what is, after all, a university press book – and this gives the volume a pleasingly fluid, yet resonant quality. She’s as deft in discussing other Civil War novels and movies of the interwar years as she is Mitchell’s work, and writes about Southern life with a sense of earned authority (which sometimes takes the form of wry asides, like an off-hand reference to an old Southern joke that Southern girls don’t go to orgies because it will mean too many thank-you notes to write). Having wrestled with her own ambivalence about GWTW for generations, she seems to have finally come out on the side of appreciation, candid about its racial shortcomings but insistent that the story can’t finally be reduced to them. So it is, for example, that she spends a fair amount of time analyzing the suprisingly nuanced interracial Mammy-Rhett Butler relationship, as well as insi
sting on a specifically Southern amity in race relations that Northern whites have never really understood (I heard a black scholar make a similar argument at a panel on right-wing politics at this year’s Organization of American Historians conference in Seattle earlier this year).

Perhaps not surprisingly, she’s most deft in writing about gender issues, as in this comparison of the stubborn Scarlett, the saintly Melanie, and their respective, albeit very different, relationships with the dashing Rhett: “The male ego needs a certain amount of flattery, and we need the male ego. If all Southern women had been ego-quashers like Scarlett instead of ego-strokers like Melanie, Southern manhood might have been knocked back on its heels, never to rise again.” Nevertheless, for all Scarlett’s obvious personal shortcomings Haskell does see her as a proto-feminist character whose challenge to traditional male authority remains thrilling and relevant in the 21st century.

Gender issues were also on my mind when I watched GWTW again this spring. The scene that really le
aped out at me this time came early in the movie, when Scarlett rushes to meet her father, who is returning to Tara, his plantation, so that she can clarify the upsetting report that her beloved Ashley is about to marry Melanie. Gerald O’Hara does confirm the bad news, and goes on to scold Scarlett for her inappropriate interest in Ashley. What she really should love, he tells her, is the land itself, and to the swelling of Max Steiner’s marvelous score, the camera pulls back to show a loving and durably bonded father and daughter surveying Tara in the shadows of a magnificent Georgia sunset. As the father of a daughter myself, I could not help but be moved, even as I knew that bond was forged from real estate speculation, slave labor, and other interlocking evils. In that regard, GWTW remains uncomfortably relevant; as much as we might like to think we have overcome the injustices that marked American life before 1860 (and, for that matter, 1960), we are kidding ourselves if we doubt that love and sin remain inseperably twined. This, if nothing else, is a good reason to keep showing GWTW, and reading books like this one.