Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Gone With The Wind (1939) - Part 2

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*
"I can't think about that right now. If I do, I'll go crazy. I'll think about it tomorrow."
- Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh)

There's no avoiding the march of time. The only way to survive in life is to move forward, to take both the happiness and the pain of the past and learn from them. Progress is going to happen whether you like it or not. Those who stick stubbornly to the past are doomed to be victims of it. You can choose to live in the past, but to do so is to live in a dream, a fantasy; it no longer exists. There is no going back. That's why ideas that were once accepted as the norm now exist only in textbooks and a few individuals here and there. Clinging to these ideals - especially ones that were never more than myths to begin with - will lead you to ruin. Adapt or die.

As the second half of Gone with the Wind begins, Scarlett seems to be adapting. She and her sisters are working desperately to stay alive and make the land of Tara plentiful again, but where Suellen (Evelyn Keyes) and Carreen (Ann Rutherford) complain about having to do so much work, Scarlett holds her head up and does what she has to. Her sisters don't understand why they have to work so hard; they never have before. The war seems to have hardened Scarlett, though; having to serve as the head of household has made her forget about the past and look ahead to what comes next. She's living in the present, at long last.

At least, until Ashley (Leslie Howard) comes home.

More after the jump.

If the first half of Gone with the Wind appeared to critique the romanticism for the Old South, then the second half critiques the romanticism of Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). With the rousing orchestral score, brilliant Technicolor costumes, and melodramatic dialogue, it's easy to get swept up in the supposed whirlwind romance between Scarlett and Rhett. After losing a second husband, Scarlett and Rhett finally end up getting married. They have a daughter, Bonnie Blue Butler (Cammie King), who they raise in a life of opulence between the restored Tara and their massive Atlanta home. Rhett dreams big for young Bonnie, wanting only the finest money can offer her. But Rhett and Scarlett never cease to fight with one another, with Rhett seething with jealousy over Scarlett still pining for Ashley.

It's not often that I get to the "best shot" so early in these articles, but its kind of necessary for this one. My selection comes from the very beginning of the first half, before we ever get to Scarlett or Rhett or anyone else. We start with Major General William Tecumseh Sherman.

*Best Shot*

There's an appropriate hellish quality to this introduction. Sherman's infamous "March to the Sea" was a brutal campaign; within a month in late 1864, his troops looted, burned, and generally destroyed everything in their path between Atlanta and Savannah, Georgia, in an effort to break the Confederacy's will to continue fighting. Ultimately, it did work: General Robert E. Lee would surrender in April of the following year, signaling the end of the conflict. But the state of Georgia, like most of the former Confederacy, was left in shambles.

It's a fitting place to start, given the turmoil of the film's second half. The marriage of Scarlett and Rhett is its own version of Sherman's march, the two of them leaving behind a path of destruction in their wake. Not that that's any wonder. Whatever talk of love between the two of them - and whatever those swelling strings in the soundtrack might want to indicate - their marriage is not born of love. At least, not fully. They're each using each other to their own needs. Rhett enjoys having Scarlett around the way a cat plays a mouse before devouring it, toying with her physically and emotionally until he's had his fill of sadism. Scarlett, on the other hand, needs Rhett's money and social strata, and he makes a fine placeholder for if/when Ashley finally becomes available.

Their relationship, then, is an unstoppable force meeting an immoveable object. Rhett is always looking ahead: he thinks about how to get Bonnie into the highest reaches of Southern society, he keeps his money outside of the United States, and he's planning his next move before he finishes his current one. He's not content to sit and wait, both a strength and a weakness of his. But Scarlett is still stuck in the past. Whatever progress she seemed to have made in those opening scenes quickly evaporates the instant she's given hope of returning to her own way of life. Ashley's survival and return to Tara snaps her back into winning him away from Mellie (Olivia de Havilland). By the time she marries Rhett, she's fully regressed into the woman she was at the outset of the war: scheming, manipulative, selfish, and bratty. She's back to pining for the past in the face of an uncertain future.

It takes a remarkable amount of death to finally snap her out of it. The back-to-back losses of Bonnie and Mellie seem to make her realize that she can't continue holding out for Ashley to fall in love with her; she has Rhett, she loves Rhett, and she needs to enjoy her time with him while she has the chance. She runs from Ashley's side right back to her home with Rhett. She runs through the fog, but when she reaches the home, it looks emptier than usual. She finds Rhett and confesses her love, but he's had enough. He has to keep moving forward; he's been still for far too long. And frankly, he doesn't give a damn.

There's an interesting dissonance between the film's final scene and its final image. The image, as seen below, mirrors the earlier images that I wrote about in part one.

It's almost a combination of those two previous shots: Scarlett standing alone in silhouette before the bountiful, lush land of Tara. It's an image of hope and idealism, one that, on the surface, matches perfectly with the tone of the preceding scene. Scarlett has proclaimed that she'll return home, and from there she'll figure out a way to win Rhett's heart again. She won't give up on him, even though he's given up on her. She won't think about life without him today; she can always think about it tomorrow.

The funny thing about tomorrow is that it never comes. It's an ideal time for Scarlett because it means not having to face the future, not when the past is much rosier and knowable. That final image feels romantic and positive because it feels like Scarlett's fantasy: she's back in a world she understands, she's returned to the past, and everything is going to be just fine.

Yet just before that image, we're with her on the staircase of her Atlanta mansion. At the top of the staircase is an inky void, the unknown. Scarlett wants to believe that things will return to the way they once were. But the film - benefiting from the hindsight of the 1939 - suggests otherwise. The past is gone forever. And Scarlett, kneeling on the stairs, is doomed to fade with it.

No comments: