Review: Frankly, My Dear: Gone With the Wind Revisited by Molly Haskell Print E-mail

mhaskell-390-jacket_jpg_3(Contrary Magazine Autumn 2009)

America's Great Feminist Icon

Every culture has its enduring art—Rome The Aeneid, Italy The Last Supper, Russia the Pathetique Symphony. In those pre-modern societies, the value of art was based on its creator’s mastery and its national or religious cast. Art had not yet been tainted by its earning power. Not until the mid-twentieth century, when mass production of art and mass audiences for its consumption arose, was art’s intrinsic value exchanged for commodity value. Shares in its intrinsic value continue to fall. The art work’s preeminent worth today lies in that cuddly American euphemism, its commercial appeal.

To be viable in the commercial era, art works need social and technological currency: they must court controversy to fuel their sales; they must seek publicity to supplant their merit; and they must be reborn, where apt, in another medium. The prevailing works of the past century are those bent most by commodification. The most bent, in turn, become cultural icons.

Reigning American icons do a number of things well. They stay famous. They spawn cottage industries. They make barrels of money. They continue to create historical or cultural upheaval. They upset the canon usually by joining it. They imply, no, secrete something sordid. And it never hurts to have career-peaking movie stars involved, the more real-life-scandal-plagued they are, the better. What could be more iconic in our culture than our "American Bible," the book-and-film of the South’s shame and revenge, Gone with the Wind.

Molly Haskell, film and feminist critic, now icon enabler, begins with big numbers. The Depression-era, Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel by Margaret Mitchell has sold 28 million copies since 1936 as a book and grossed an inflation-adjusted $1,329,453,600 since 1939 as a movie. (Movie investment = $4.25 million; M-G-M profit = 31,281 percent.) Such figures prove the commodity point: We nurture the artistic value of such pop beacons insofar as we help steer their success (for a contemporary example, think American Idol). Plopping down $5 to $25 for book-and-film in the past seventy years makes us Gone with the Wind stakeholders. As Graham Greene pearled the idea: The film "has been made by its spectators and not merely shown to them."

But, despite its earning power, commodity value goes only so far with a good critic. The anachronistic Haskell finds her main throb in the grand object’s message, beyond the Hollywood and publishing enterprise. First is the book-and-film’s critique of the Civil War and Reconstruction on the South’s psyche. Second is the portrait of feminist women, adolescent and mature, who on screen and off, in the book and in Mitchell’s family, constitute the icon’s most far-reaching identity.

Haskell sees GWTW as restaging the South’s failure to survive the war and the loss of slavery. So shaken, the South needed help in preserving the nobility of the lost cause and the virtue of female co-dependency. Both things book-and-film mythologize. On this point, Haskell quotes Arthur Schlesinger: "The North gave to the South in fantasy the victory it had lost in fact." What rouges the face of that fantasy for Haskell is the story of Scarlett O’Hara. Her independent, conniving, covetous self is hardly a Georgia peach. Scarlett is rather more Northern, saucy and ill-tempered. The dreamy Mitchell adores her, doesn’t judge her, and secretly thought herself her.

On the work’s unheralded feminism Haskell shines. Book-and-film work because Mitchell and Hollywood got the gender message in despite the mythology and the movie stars. "In seeing the war through the eyes of the women," Haskell writes, "the movie, like the book, is genuinely antiwar, showing the conflict between patriotism, with its obligation to support the warrior cause, and the dread of losing beloved husbands and sons." After the war, because so many men were emasculated or dead, women limped the limp—in Reconstruction, in the South of Mitchell’s era, and now, which includes Haskell, whose Southern upbringing still informs her passion. One ongoing value of GWTW is that its supporters (mostly women and a few courageous men) keep digging the grave of male war glory, despite those hapless Civil War reenactors. How long the death of the South. How curious that its dying takes place both in and because of literature.

Haskell’s style takes some getting used to. She’s really an essayist who expects readers to know her subject about as well as she does, a high board from which she dives deep into her treatise. As she goes, she unearths lots of treasures: the South’s virulent segregation, the West-Coast trio of Clark Gable-Vivian Leigh-David O. Selznick, and Mitchell’s weird life and weirder death. By 1949, she’d grown morbidly obese. One night without looking she stepped into the street and the path of a speeding taxi. She died five days later.

What’s on passionate display here is Haskell’s fervid thinking about the icon. It’s as though we’re reading a transcript from an inspired lecture. I seldom looked at my watch to see when the top of the hour was due. She’s that good. Oh, and don’t miss Haskell’s final jab at the shape-shifting Sarah Palin: "A Scarlett . . . posing as a Melanie!"