“Gone With the Wind” presents a sentimental view of the Civil War, in which the “Old South” takes the place of Camelot and the war was fought not so much to defeat the Confederacy and free the slaves as to give Miss Scarlett O’Hara her comeuppance. But we’ve known that for years; the tainted nostalgia comes with the territory. Yet as “GWTW” approaches its 60th anniversary, it is still a towering landmark of film, quite simply because it tells a good story, and tells it wonderfully well.
For the story it wanted to tell, it was the right film at the right time. Scarlett O’Hara is not a creature of the 1860s but of the 1930s: a free-spirited, willful modern woman. The way was prepared for her by the flappers of Fitzgerald’s jazz age, by the bold movie actresses of the period, and by the economic reality of the Depression, which for the first time put lots of women to work outside their homes.
Scarlett’s lusts and headstrong passions have little to do with myths of delicate Southern flowers, and everything to do with the sex symbols of the movies that shaped her creator, Margaret Mitchell: actresses such as Clara Bow, Jean Harlow, Louise Brooks and Mae West. She was a woman who wanted to control her own sexual adventures, and that is the key element in her appeal. She also sought to control her economic destiny in the years after the South collapsed, first by planting cotton and later by running a successful lumber business. She was the symbol the nation needed as it headed into World War II; the spiritual sister of Rosie the Riveter.
Of course, she could not quite be allowed to get away with marrying three times, coveting sweet Melanie’s husband Ashley, shooting a plundering Yankee, and banning her third husband from the marital bed in order to protect her petite waistline from the toll of childbearing. It fascinated audiences (it fascinates us still) to see her high-wire defiance in a male chauvinist world, but eventually such behavior had to be punished, and that is what “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” is all about. If “GWTW” had ended with Scarlett’s unquestioned triumph, it might not have been nearly as successful. Its original audiences (women, I suspect, even more than men) wanted to see her swatted down–even though, of course, tomorrow would be another day.
Rhett Butler was just the man to do it. As he tells Scarlett in a key early scene, “You need kissing badly. That’s what’s wrong with you. You should be kissed, and often, and by someone who knows how.” For “kissed,” substitute the word you’re thinking of. Dialogue like that reaches something deep and fundamental in most people; it stirs their fantasies about being brought to sexual pleasure despite themselves. (“Know why women love the horse whisperer?” I was asked by a woman friend not long ago. “They figure, if that’s what he can do with a horse, think what he could do with me.”) Scarlett’s confusion is between her sentimental fixation on a tepid “Southern gentleman” (Ashley Wilkes) and her unladylike lust for a bold man (Rhett Butler). The most thrilling struggle in “GWTW” is not between North and South, but between Scarlett’s lust and her vanity.