Category Archives: income inequality and karma

“Gone with the Wind”: big epic films used to provide family experiences; and this one has never lost its moral edge

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At a grocery store recently, I saw and picked up a TV Guide “American Icons Special Edition” for “Gone with the Wind: 75 Years of the Greatest Movie Ever Made”.

I first saw DWTW with my mother and male cousin (one year older) late on a Sunday afternoon in the spring of 1954, when I was 11.  I think we saw it at the Arlington Theater on Columbia Pike in the southern part of Arlington.  We got there about a half hour early and saw the end, about where Melanie dies, and I was even struck then about the loyalty of the former slaves, like Mammy.

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My parents had always said that this was the “best” movie ever made.

The family also had a motion picture edition of Margaret Mitchell’s novel, published in 1940 by Macmillan. The book has many color plates from the film, and the Technicolor look is quite garish and fascinating to the eye, especially with the indoor scenes with costumes, dresses and furniture.

As kids, a few scenes fascinated us.  For example, the tragic scene where Bonnie dies when the horse misses a jump (anticipating what could happen to Christopher Reeve), and that famous line by Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) right before the end, where he says a word unmentionable at the time. In the book, Rhett lectures her that making apologies aren’t always enough in real life.

The book and film are still notable for their moral outlook.  Scarlet seems spoiled and sheltered, and unaware that her privilege comes at the expense of others (slaves).  She is in Atlanta when Sherman comes, and the burning of Atlanta and later Tara provide a big climax for the film before the intermission.  Scarlet is mortified by the wounds to the men, and learns something about privation and hardship.  The first half ends with the line, “I will never be hungry again”.

Indeed, Scarlet becomes a schemer, rather like Sami in the soap “Days of our Lives”.  She may have lost it, but she gets it back, and she can get her hands dirty.  (That theme comes up again in the novel and film “Cold Mountain”, maybe the last movie my late mother ever saw, where there is a line, “I can embroider but I can’t darn.”)

It’s easy to imagine what can be done with the plot skeleton of a novel like this. Imagine an EMP blackout of much of the country, and a “revolution”.  But suppose, instead of the permanent change to the world as in the NBC series “Revolution” (to be taken up later here), power and even Internet gradually comes back over many months.  Could people rebuild?  Would wealth change hands?  Would a Maoist kind of personal justice take place for many people?

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I saw the GWTW complete film again in 1998 at the Mall of America in Minnesota, after New Line re-released it.  I think I saw it on July 4.  A graduating college student friend from the Libertarian Party almost joined me.  On repeated viewings, the film, despite its 220-minute length, seems to become episodic in the second half and some of the scenes seem rushed and superficial, such as when Rhett takes Bonnie to London.  (It would not have been possible to make a quick trip overseas in the 1800’s.)  Another good example of this occurs when Rhett and Scarlet go to New Orleans.

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The music score, by Max Steiner, is sweeping and monumental.

I used to like the epic historical movie (and still do, when one gets made, which isn’t that often).  There have been a few others, like “The Robe” (1953, the first in Cinemascope, and I remember crying at the end when the hero is put to death), “The Ten Commandments”, “War and Peace”, and “Dr. Zhivago” (which I saw on a bitterly cold night in Kansas City when I was a grad student, at the Capri Theater).  Don’t forget “Giant”, which I saw in the 1980s at the Inwood Theater in Dallas.  A few of the big musicals were also quite long, like “The Sound of Music” (and the earlier “Carousel”, “Oklahoma!: and “South Pacific”).  In 1968 we had “2001: A Space Odyssey”, and after then, it became rather rare for movies to have intermissions (although “Hamlet”, from Columbia, in 1996, does, and runs almost 4 hours).  The first two or three Cinerama movies had intermissions.    It used to be that going to a big historical epic at a big theater downtown (when Washington had theaters like the Capitol, Palace, Columbia, Warner, RKO Keith’s) was a big deal, and usually an outing for the whole family (sometimes, as in our case, extended family). In those days, films showed downtown, and then circulated in the “neighborhoods” for 2-4 day runs.  The neighborhood theaters quickly got caught up in being able to show Cinemascope and even stereo by the mid 1950s.

There is a lot written about the casting of GWTW. Even in the 1930s, producers paid a lot of attention to the “adequacy” of the women chosen to be cast, such as Vivien Leigh, and then even specified exercises to maintain their “appearances”.  The heterosexual eye was capable of a lot of fantasy.