Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Gone With the Wind

The Blind Spot is an ongoing series hosted by The Matinee in which bloggers watch and write about movies they've never seen before. For a list of past entries, visit the home site.

Gone With the Wind
seen on TV @ TCM
8.20.13

I've loved classic movies ever since the first time I saw Sunset Boulevard in college and became fully aware of what movies can do. In the three years I've worked on this blog, I've made some good friends who share this love. Thing is, though, loving classic movies means accepting the fact that they were made in a less enlightened era, to say the very least. Most of the time, I can deal with this. Sometimes, though... sometimes it's a little bit harder.

With rare exceptions, black actors from the Golden Age of Hollywood tended to fill one of two roles: either they sung and danced and made music, or they were servants, and if they were servants, often times they were little more than one-dimensional caricatures. I'll look at them every once in awhile and wonder whether it would've been better to not have them in these movies at all, than to have to see such skewed and distorted images?

Most of the time I think the answer, looking through the lens of hindsight as I am, is yes, although I'm sure the justification would've been that any work is better than no work. I try not to judge those actors; I don't know all the things they went through, all the sacrifices made, all the pride they had to swallow, just to make it in Hollywood. Hell, to share a soundstage with the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Bette Davis, even if only for a few scenes? I'll bet they thought it was worth it.



I used to write a comics blog, and whenever the subject of minority representation in the corporate-owned and -published comics (Marvel and DC) came up, I would advocate that artists and writers of color make their own comics, where they control the content and can have whatever they want in their work, however they want it. Could black filmmakers and actors have done the same back then? History shows that a few, like Oscar Micheaux, did, but I suspect that this may not have been a viable option for many at the time.

So we can't rewrite the past and we can't ignore it (try as we might), so we have to find a way to make peace with it, and in my case, that meant considering a movie I had deliberately ignored for as long as I've been a film fan: Gone With the Wind. This is a movie whose grandeur, spectacle and glamor have become the stuff of legend. Few movies come close to matching it, and its place, not only in film history but in American history, is carved in concrete. 

That said, however, I was immune to its appeal for a long time. At first it was because I saw it as just some corny old movie that only old people like - the attitude of callow youth. Later in life, when I learned more about old movies in general and Wind in particular, I decided I didn't want to watch a movie with such blatant black stereotypes, especially in a film set during the Civil War. As a result, I never felt like I was missing out on anything... until circumstances compelled me to give it a chance.



Earlier this summer, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) announced their lineup for the annual "Summer Under the Stars" (SUTS) event - 31 days devoted to 31 movie stars - which was followed shortly afterwards by the announcement of the annual SUTS Blogathon. I participated last year, and I knew I wanted to join in again this year. As you know by now, one of the featured stars I've chosen to write about was Wind actress Hattie McDaniel

I originally wanted to write about her career in general, with some kind of funny angle to take on my post - something other than song parodies or comic strips. I struggled with an angle, until I thought about Wind and her Oscar-winning role in that film. I decided to speculate on how she may have won that Oscar, so I wrote my post as if it were February 1940 and I was analyzing the Oscar race. Still, I needed more information on Wind than I had.

Enter Brandie, the biggest Wind fan I know of. She pointed out certain scenes in the movie with McDaniel and put them in perspective for me. More than that, though, she made it clear that she adores Wind despite its outdated racial attitude and strongly suggested that I see it for myself. Brandie is one of the most erudite film bloggers I know. If she feels this way about a movie which, I admit, I had pre-judged for a long time without seeing it, then maybe, just maybe, it was time to throw away my preconceptions and give it a look.



I made the last-minute decision to watch Wind while tweeting at the Twitter hashtag "TCMparty." It's quite popular, if you've never seen it. All it is is a bunch of TCM fans commenting on a film airing on TCM in real-time, MST3K-style. It's captured the attention of the TCM staff as well as host Robert Osborne on occasion, and they all seem to appreciate that it exists. I had been tempted to take part before; I see other bloggers like Aurora and Will join in it all the time and I guess this seemed like the perfect opportunity to try it myself.

It made quite a difference. It was obvious that all the participants were huge fans who had seen Wind many times, and as a result, reading their responses as the movie played was similar to watching Rocky Horror or The Room with a live audience. It was tricky, however, to split my time between the movie and my cellphone. It's not something I would recommend doing often. 

I've certainly never liked doing it in the past. Several weeks ago, however, I was in a cafe with a widescreen TV that showed the old Elizabeth Taylor movie Cleopatra, and on a whim, I started live-tweeting about it for an hour or so. That was easier to do, though, because the sound was muted and I didn't have to worry about following the story. Still, no one else was watching it at the same time, so I only got a little bit of feedback.



With #TCMparty, it was different. People I didn't know were favorite-ing some of my tweets. (Yes, "favorite" is a verb now.) A few replied to me; I replied back. When a plot point late in the film was unclear to me, I asked for clarification and I got it. In a way - a SMALL one - I almost felt like one of those annoying cellphone users in a movie theater, except I was in the privacy of my own home. This is an important distinction to be made: in the absence of actual human interaction - other people sharing the same physical space as you - live-tweeting during a movie can be a fun substitute, but it is only a substitute, and should never take the place of the real thing when both options are available.

I found it easy to get into the spirit of #TCMparty fairly quickly. If I hadn't participated in it, I would've watched Wind stone-faced and serious, probably letting my preconceptions about the movie cloud my judgment. With #TCMparty, I was able to relax a little and let my hair down, so to speak. I certainly had no problem mocking the movie when it needed mocking. Like I said, I would not take part in this all the time, but I could see myself doing this once in a blue moon, with the right movie.

As for the movie itself, well, there's no denying its technical quality, from set design to costumes to cinematography to music to the lush, gorgeous use of Technicolor (which kinda makes me wish modern movies used it!). Did it need to be four hours long? Eh, I wasn't bored, but that's partly because I was live-tweeting. I doubt you could get away with such a length today, though; it would mean fewer screenings, even if you played them on every screen at your local googleplex, and that would mean less money. I'm not sure what I would cut if the option were presented to me, though.



McDaniel made the most of her limited role, no question. I was speculating when I said in my SUTS post that her character, Mammy, was showier than Olivia DeHavilland's Melanie, and it turns out I was right. That said, however, I'm convinced that Wind does Mammy and all the other black characters a disservice by not being completely honest about their position in this world. Mammy is a slave, yet the way she's presented in the film, she almost comes across like a really loyal paid servant. I can almost imagine her saying to Scarlett as a child, "You is kind, you is smart, you is important" - and Scarlett definitely would've taken that to heart! 

Mammy's loyalty to the O'Hara family seems genuine, but was it born out of a need for survival, to avoid a worse fate? Does she even have the dignity of a name other than "Mammy"? I realize she's not a central part of the story (maybe the book goes into more detail about her), but to not acknowledge the reality of her condition, in that place, at that time, is wrong. Given the fact that this takes place during a time when blacks were slaves in America, though their fate was in question, I would've liked to have known how she feels about the war, even in one scene. (And don't even get me started on Prissy.)

Indeed, Wind is fairly apolitical when it comes to the reasons for the war. There's one scene early on that goes into some of the finer points of the southern rebellion, but that's about it. I was a bit shocked when I saw one black Confederate soldier eagerly proclaim how he'll "get those Yankees." His was only a bit part, but I can't help but wonder what he was told about the war, and how much, and whether he fully believes what he's been told.



Yeah, you can say that Wind deliberately presents the Civil War from a specific point of view and that it's the right of filmmakers and novel writers to take that point of view if they can find drama within it, but with all respect, I say that's easy to do when you're writing from a position of privilege. When your culture hasn't been held down for over three centuries and been made to feel suspect, dangerous, less than human, even today, it's easy to write off a story like Wind as romanticized fiction. The fact that this story remains so revered says a great deal about America in general, I think, and its ongoing, frustrating inability to talk honestly about race.

So yes, some of my worst fears about Wind were confirmed. 

However, I also can't deny that I did get caught up in the love quadrangle of Rhett, Scarlett, Melanie and Ashley. Rhett and Scarlett have a dysfunctional relationship worthy of a good film noir. It's quite strange. Brandie wrote a piece about Scarlett that tries to justify her as a fictional character, if not a human being, and I can see where she's coming from. I totally get that Scarlett was a woman trying to make her way in a man's world the only way she knew how. I, too, like the fact that she's watchable despite being deeply flawed, in a way many female characters in film aren't. I've read that Vivien Leigh continued to seek advice from original Wind director George Cukor on how to play her.

That said, she does some cruel things, some selfish things, as a result of the delusions she lives under. I'm reminded a little bit of Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond in that respect, but the difference is that Norma's life was nothing but delusions. Scarlett actually gets to experience real life up close once the war starts. I found her resolve to restore her war-ravaged mansion to its glory truly admirable, especially the way she was willing to get her own hands dirty in the process. 



In the end, though, even Rhett, the one guy who sees her for who and what she actually is and still chooses her, decides he's had his fill of her duplicity, and when he makes his oh-so-memorable exit, Scarlett remains with the delusion that she can win him back. Here I'm reminded of DeHavilland in The Heiress. Catherine reaches a point where she has to abandon the image of her relationship with Maurice and face reality, but unlike Scarlett, she's able to make peace with it and move on with her life, even to the point of rejecting temptation when Maurice tries to come back to her. Scarlett can't or won't move on, and maybe she should be pitied for that. I'm not sure I can make that leap, though.

So in the end, I guess I'd have to say that Wind, while being a product of its time, in both good ways and bad, isn't as outright terrible as I half-expected it to be. It's more complicated than it would appear to be on the surface, but it denies basic truths about its time period in favor of presenting an epic romance. It's lavish and expertly constructed, but deeply problematic and doesn't hold up nearly as well as many people think. I'm glad I saw it, but it's not a movie I would care to revisit.


8 comments:

  1. Thanks for the mention, Rich. I'm glad you finally got the chance to watch GWTW--it's always interesting to read about people's first experiences with this movie I love so dearly.

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  2. At the very least, I can see what there is about GWTW that you find so appealing, so in understanding that, I feel like I understand you a little better.

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  3. Great read Rich! This is one of the first Hollywood films I saw as a kid, even before I knew much English as my mom had to explain a lot of things that went on in the film. I grew up with a nanny (which is quite common for middle class folks where I grew up), so that's how I saw Mammy at the time, completely unaware of the racial situations of the time. It's interesting how polarizing this film seems, as I know a few people who outright hate it. I think even Clark Gable himself hated this film, saying that it's 'a woman's picture.' After seeing it again a few times, I actually appreciate it a bit more than I did initially, I like that the protagonist is antihero who's also a woman, quite rare in those days.

    Interesting comparison you made about The Heiress, which I had just seen not too long ago for the first time. That's the only other film of Olivia deHavilland I saw besides this one, both had quite a memorable ending.

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  4. I love 'The Heiress.' That one I can watch again and again. I wonder, if you switched Catherine and Scarlett around and put them in each other's films, how would they fare?

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  5. This might well be the longest entry in the series this month! Thanks for jumping on-board - any idea what else you'll watch this year?

    I'm in a weird place with Gone With the Wind. As a piece of filmmaking, I have so much respect and awe for what it was able to do. It's so damned lush and eye-catching, that I could easily watch it on mute! However, on mute is the only way I could ever watch it since its story does nothing for me. At all. It's a tough spot because I've taken people to task for disrespecting the classics before...but I can't help but feel like the narrative of this film is a relic. Unfortunately, because narrative is what I hold tightest to with the films I see, I can't hold on to GWTW all that tightly.

    Great post dude!

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  6. Thanks. It's definitely the longest post I've written!

    I'd like to do another Blind Spot entry, though I don't know when. This was simply a case of fortuitous timing. I knew I'd reach more people if I tied this to your series, so the choice was easy.

    I might've felt the same as you about the story, except TCMparty made the difference. Like I said, though, I wouldn't do that very often. I'd rather watch a movie without the constant back and forth between the screen and the cellphone.

    Thanks again.

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  7. Wonderful post, Rich! Love your commentary on GWTW and on TCMparty, though I'll say it was very brave to make your move there with a three-hour, first-time film!!

    GWTW happens to be one of my faves to tweet along to b/c I know it by heart and it always gets great reactions from people. I hope to see you around TCMparty - I get a kick out of it and do enjoy others' views on films and chiming in my own own two cents. And by the way - a secret - I usually chime in a lot more than I read others' posts while the movie is playing. Otherwise I wouldn't see anything.

    Aurora

    PS - thanks for the mention.

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  8. I'm sure I'll join in again sometime. Can't say when though. It's gotta be the right movie.

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