Thursday, March 8, 2012
#6 GONE WITH THE WIND (1939)
Plot summary (with spoilers): We are in Tara, Georgia, in 1861, on a cotton plantation just before the beginning of the Civil War. I would literally feel more at home on Mars.
On the O'Hara farm, Miss Scarlett sips her mint julep and wards off the advances of indistinguishable gentlemen callers while hoping to catch the eye of the dashing Mr. Ashley Wilkes. One of the gentleman callers informs Scarlett that Ashley Wilkes is to be married to his cousin (natch), a Miss Melanie Hamilton.
(This was my grandmother's Very Favorite Movie, so much so that she named my mother after Melanie Hamilton. As luck would have it, they have nearly the exact same personalities, and even kind of look alike).
"Fiddle dee dee!" cries Scarlett, despite the fact that she presumably wants to be taken seriously as a human being.
She informs her gentlemen callers that the O'Haras are going to have a Big Cotillion Party Whatever Thing that very night, and she pretends Ashley's engagement doesn't bother her. Her loyal slave, Mammy, calls her bluff. She knows Miss Scarlett is'a gonna be trying to steal ol' Mister Ashley away, and Mammy don't approve! (You'll be shocked to learn that Mammy is both sassy and overweight).
"Yabba Dabba Do!" says Scarlett. "I shall make Ashley mine!"
At the Big Cotillion Party Whatever Thing, the men all dote on Scarlett and feed her grapes and dance for her amusement and sword fight and mud wrestle and leap into volcanoes and such, as men do. But Scarlett just ignores them and stares jealously at Ashley and Melanie as they accept congratulations from the assembled coterie.
"Bibbity Bobbity Boo!" says Scarlett. "My plan isn't working!"
But then she sees a new arrival: handsome, porn 'stached Rhett Butler. She learns from a gentleman caller that Rhett Butler was kicked out of West Point and disowned by his family.
Later, Scarlett steals away a moment in private with Ashley and confesses her love for him. He admits he loves her too, but says he must marry Melanie, because something something Family Duty something.
Scarlett screams and hauls off and slaps him and he leaves the room.
It's then that Rhett pops up in view from behind the couch. He starts laughing as Scarlett rages at him and storms out. Ah, so it's a Moonlighing/Cheers scenario, huh? And we're going to take four hours until these crazy kids get together? Wake me when it's over.
Suddenly, word breaks out that the war has begun. The men all start leaving the Big Cotillion Party Whatever Thing to go off and enlist. Melanie's brother Charles, one of Scarlett's gentlemen callers from earlier, tells her he loves her and wants to marry her. Scarlett full on doesn't even look at him, she just stares at Ashley and Melanie kissing each other goodbye. Then she accepts Charles' proposal, and they marry before he goes off to war.
Cut to--Scarlett receiving a letter from the Confederate Army saying that Charles has died of pneumonia.
She goes into mourning, meaning she literally has to wear all black and a veil for an unspecified amount of time, and then she goes to Atlanta with Mammy and Melanie to cheer up. Mammy tells it like it is and calls her on her falsities, and Mammy noes dat Miss Scarlett ain't upset about Mister Charles, and she's still in love with Mister Ashley!
At a Charity Auction Dance for the war, Mr. Rhett Butler appears and "purchases" Miss Scarlett for the evening. Some weirdo Aunt O'Hara with little girl curls and ribbons in her hair even though she's like, sixty, thinks the idea of "buying" women for the evening is unseemly and she gets the vapors. Mammy is unavailable for comment.
Rhett Butler tells Scarlett he'll one day make her his, and she scoffs at this and tra-la-las and reminds him that she is still very much in love with Ashley. She asks him why he hasn't joined the Confederate Army, and he responds quite matter-of-factly that he's a scoundrel and will only fight in wars if he's getting paid a lot of money.
Then we jump forward in time a bit. The war is getting worse. Some general guy named Sherman is cutting a huge swath down through the South and our noble boys in gray don't seem to be able to stop him. Melanie and Scarlett anxiously wait in town with the rest of the womenfolk and old men and boys, and then messengers show up with copies of the names of the soldiers who've died. They're both really tense and for once Scarlett drops the Southern Belle shit and looks really scared. But Ashley's name is nowhere to be found. Scarlett has the decency to pretend she's relieved for Melanie's sake, rather than her own.
That Christmas, Ashley's granted a three day leave. He has Christmas dinner with Melanie and the O'Hara's in Georgia. Again, Scarlett makes a pathetic play for him. He kisses her, then tells her he can't be with her and then makes her promise she'll watch over Melanie. Fiddle dee fucking dee.
Time passes. The war gets worse, and Atlanta is being evacuated. Scarlett's been drafted as a nurse, trying to care for wounded. Oh, and Melanie's back at the house, nine months preggers. A doctor asks Scarlett to help hold a man down as they cut off his gangrenous leg without anesthesia, and she freaks and bolts. Outside, the townsfolk are in pure panic mode, screaming and running around aimlessly, while the occasional canon goes off and blows something up. Yikes.
Rhett comes riding up on a worse and buggy, and swoops Scarlett into his arms. He drives her back to the house in Atlanta, where the O'Haras are packing up their shit, ready to head back to the farm in Tara. Scarlett's dad tells Scarlett that Melanie is too pregnant to make the trip and begs Scarlett to stay with her. Scarlett does not pout and stomp around and act like her bitchy self for once, and instead remembers her promise and agrees to stay. Another slave, Prissy, stays as well. Prissy has the most squeaky and annoying voice in all of cinema.
So while Sherman's Army advances, Scarlett helps Melanie give birth, then she and Prissy beg Rhett to provide them safe passage out of Atlanta. Rhett, Scarlett, Prissy, Melanie, and the baby boy race out of town as it burns down around them. It's fucking gorgeous, all of it.
Then Rhett says he must go. He tells Scarlett he's going to join the army, after all. He's ashamed of his cowardice and will fight to the death if he must. He tells Scarlett they're both equally selfish, but he's going to do something about it, dammit. Scarlett begs him not to go, to stay and help them reach Tara. He kisses her goodbye and then just up and leaves them. Scarlett drives the buggy the rest of the way home, until the horse literally drops dead from hunger and then they walk the rest of the way to the O'Hara estate. When they reach it, Mammy tells Scarlett that her mother died of scurvy or maybe the consumption or something, and that Daddy has gone crazy, and her sisters are distraught and all the slaves ran away except for her and Polk, and that the crops are gone and the house is in shambles and there's no food and life sucks and Scarlett goes outside and against the violent striking blood-red sky vows to never be hungry again!
(Even though she is currently hungry and will likely be quite hungry for the foreseeable future. But after that! No more hunger!).
Intermission. Time for coffee and a long walk. Go ahead, I'll wait.
We come back to find Mammy, Scarlett, and Scarlett's sister Suellen plowing the fields and picking crops and such. Suellen bitches about how her hands are calloused and ruined but gets no sympathy from the others. Melanie's still sick from the birth and their harrowing journey from Atlanta, and she tries to get up and contribute but Scarlett angrily tells her to just lie down. a lone Union solider happens upon the plantation and confronts Scarlett on the stairway. He gets a rapey glint in his eye and advances on her and she blammo shoots him dead. She and Melanie hide the body and steal his gold, about 150 dollars worth. They're able to feed themselves for the time being. Eventually the war ends and Ashley Wilkes returns. Scarlett immediately throws herself at him again and they kiss again and he says he can't leave her for Melanie again.
"Nanu, nanu!" cries Scarlett! "It's so unfair!"
Then the Reconstructionists come and demand heavy taxes from the poor beleaguered Southerners and Scarlett can't pay it. She learns Rhett is in jail for some reason I missed, and she fashions a dress made from the curtains just like Carol Burnett did, and visits him to try to squeeze some money out of him. He sees that her hands are all calloused which means that she's been working like some common woman. He laughs in her face and says he has no money to give her anyway, all his foreign assets have been frozen. She leaves in a huff.
On their way back from town, they walk past Union businessmen telling former slaves they'll soon be getting 40 acres and a mule (40 acres?! Lawdy, lawdy!) and they hope this act of kindness will be remembered in the voting booth, and then they walk past two rich Northerners in a buggy, one white and one black, who haughtily yell at the poor, dirty Confederate soldiers in their way. I don't really know how to unpack those scenes.
Then Scarlett learns of a white Southern business man in town named Frank who runs a lumber mill and is trying to woo her sister Suellen. Scarlett intercepts him and tells him that Suellen's already married and basically strongarms him into marrying her. She helps him run the mill and enlists Ashley's help as well and they use former white convicts as their low-paid work force. Ashley openly frets about exploiting other people unfairly and Scarlett gives the only line in the whole movie that's vaguely critical of slavery when she points out the South had been exploiting people for quite some time now. Ashley responds that that's different because he treated his slaves nicely and was going to let them free eventually, anyway. Scarlett has no response because he obviously made an excellent point with no conceivable counter-argument.
Then one day Scarlett's riding through the woods after going home from the lumber mill and some Union jerks attack her and try to eat her or turn her into a pumpkin or something and she rides away screaming. Ashley, Frank, and some others from a posse to get revenge and Frank ends up getting killed.
By this time, Rhett's out of jail and rich again, and when the cops come to arrest Ashley, Rhett covers for them by saying they were all visiting a prostitute.
So Scarlett's in mourning a second time and Rhett proposes. Scarlett protests, and Rhett says he can't sit around waiting for the next time she'll be between husbands. Heh. Good one, Rhett!
He says he has a ton of money, which she loves, and she warns him upfront that she still loves Ashley and will never love him. He says he knows he can change her mind and they kiss and get married.
Life goes on. There's some cute scenes where Mammy don't approve of Mr. Butler and then eventually he wins her over. Scarlett buys a huge mansion, the lumber mill is thriving, etc. Finally, Scarlett gets pregnant and gives birth to a baby girl they name Bonnie Blue Butler. It seems even back then the rich celebrities were giving their children ridiculous names. When Scarlett discovers she's permanently gained weight due to childbirth she tells Rhett she doesn't want to have any more children. And to that end...they'll be sleeping in different rooms from now on. Rhett's furious and drinks and throws things.
Late at night at the lumber mill, Scarlett and Ashley wax nostalgic about the good ol' days in Dixie, and then they briefly embrace. This is witnessed by Scarlett's sister, who gleefully tells everyone in town.
Rhett learns of this and drunkenly insists Scarlett go to the Big Party Cotillion Whatever Thing that Melanie is having that very night. Scarlett says she won't go, she'll be ruined if she does!
Rhett grabs her and rips her out of bed and screams at her that she'll definitely be going.
"Schemeel, schmazel, hafenseffer incorporated!" cries Scarlett. "I shan't be humiliated!"
But she goes anyway, and because Melanie is a saint, she greets Scarlett warmly and says she doesn't believe the rumors.
That night Rhett's furious to learn Scarlett wasn't humiliated, and he drunkenly threatens to kill her and even puts his hands on her head and threatens to squeeze until her skull breaks and then drags her upstairs and presumably rapes her. The next morning she's all lovey dovey, because she was treated how women secretly want to be treated of course, but Rhett says he's leaving her and taking Bonnie Blue to London to live. After a brief stint in London, he comes back because Bonnie Blue missed her Mommy. They sit outside on the porch and discuss whether or not to reconcile and then Bonnie Blue comes riding up on her little pony and says "look Mommy, look Daddy! I can jump!" and rides off and they tell her to be careful.
Aw shit, this movie's gonna kill the kid, isn't it? Goddamit so much.
Sure enough, Bonnie Blue is thrown from her horse and breaks her neck.
And then after the funeral, Melanie falls ill from scabies or yellow fever or something, and on her deathbed, she wants to see Scarlett. Scarlett's terrified that Melanie will call her out for wanting her husband all these years, but Melanie just thanks her for saving her life all those years ago, and then she dies.
Scarlett goes back home to find Rhett packing his shit, saying he's gone for good. Inexplicably, Scarlett begs him to stay, to start over, but he won't. She doesn't know what she'll do or how she'll survive without him. But does he give a damn? Frankly, no. He does not.
And all these years I thought that's how the movie ended, with Rhett walking off into the fog.
But no, there's another minute or so of Scarlett weeping on the stairs and then creepily sitting up and swearing that she'll win Rhett back, somehow, some way. After all, tomorrow is another day.
Review: Way, way better than I thought it was gonna be. In fact, I'm completely stunned by how much the writing was and how epic in scope and story it was. It was basically and extremely well-crafted four hour soap opera, and granted, YMMV on whether or not that's an appealing description, but it worked for me. I particularly liked how nuanced and complicated both Scarlett and Rhett were. They both did evil and good, were both caring and selfish, and both likable and admirable and then at times quite hate-able. You know, they were...what's the word? Oh yeah, recognizable human beings, something the movies aren't always concerned with creating.
The views on race relations were probably quite progressive in 1939. Granted the movie was only lightly anti-slavery, and of course we consider it odd that Mammy stayed with Scarlett of her own free will, but there's no way you can watch this movie and say her character was disrespected or looked down upon by the others. It's as good as you can expect, from 1939, to be sure. Especially compared to many of the other Olden Times movies I've seen this year.
Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable were great, too. Lots of chemistry and nuance to their performances, and I liked the way both characters were deceptively shallow and one-note in the first act, and then slowly we got to know them and their motivations better. I was completley wrong when I early on pegged their relationship to be an endless will they/won't they true love scenario. Instead, they were never really in love and a train wreck whenever they were around each other. So unexpected, but awesome.
Complaints, I have a few. But only a few. Still a bit too long, especially in the last act, there was the weird and totally unnecessary detour to London, and maybe a bit too much melodrama overall. Did Melanie have to die, especially within five minutes of Bonnie Blue?
But I mostly loved it. I would go so far as to say that this is by far and away the most sophisticated Olden Times movie I've ever seen, both in story and character development. I hadn't thought that movies were capable of this level of sophistication until at least the 60's.
Stars: Four out of five.
Next, "Singin' in the Rain".