Monday, December 15, 2014

Dec. 15, 1939: "Gone With The Wind" premieres

And we explore the connection between Margaret Mitchell and James Joyce

It may not be the greatest motion picture ever made, as critic Leonard Maltin said, but it may be the greatest example of the kind of movies Hollywood used to create. Like many pictures featuring black actors in the 1930s and 40s, some of this is difficult to watch — excepting a stunning moment with Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) and Scarlett (Vivien Leigh) as they walk up the stairs to try to get a grieving Rhett Butler out of his room. This scene undoubtedly won McDaniel the Oscar.

Be that as it may, it's hard to understand there was a time when a movie, no matter how large and opulent, could capture the attention of an entire nation. (The first half of "The Hunger Games" final installment may have been the most popular movie this weekend, but I don't know a single person who's seen it.) But that was the case of GWTW. The search for the actress to play Scarlett made national headlines and for many years this was the highest grossing movie of all time. It was also the only movie for decades that was known for its acronym. Everyone knew what GWTW meant.

It is no wonder that producer David O. Selznick chose to film in color. The opening paragraphs of the novel are a splash of color:

"Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. Her eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel, starred with bristly black lashes and slightly tilted at the ends. Above them, thick black brows slanted upward, cutting a startling oblique line in her magnolia-white skin—that skin so prized by Southern women and so carefully guarded with bonnets, veils and mittens against hot Georgia suns."

What follows are a "green flowered-muslim dress," "flat-heeled green morocco slippers," "small white hands," "green eyes," "mint-garnished glasses," "deep auburn hair," "identical blue coats," and "mustard-colored breeches." And we aren't even off the first page.

All of these details are seen in the opening moments of the film. The details remain intact, except of course the flagrant disregard by the producers of the idea that "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful..." Vivien Leigh could not have been more beautiful, or more British, but she was clearly right for the part.

There was even special dispensation given to the script, another episode that was enormously famous at the time. Curse words were not allowed in Hollywood movies in 1939, but readers knew that Rhett (Clark Gable) famously said to Scarlett, at the end of the novel, that he didn't care whether she loved him or not. Scarlett says: "Oh, my darling, if you go, what shall I do?" After a short speech, Capt. Butler says to Scarlett's question: "My dear, I don't give a damn."

In the movie, a word is added: "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." The mild epithet was allowed, and one of the most famous lines in movie history entered the language.

I happen to be reading the novel now, and what has struck me is not how southern the book is, but how Irish it is. I have seen this story only through the prism of Georgia plantations and talk of the Civil War and hoop skirts, but it is also a very Irish book.

Imagine my surprise, then, when during a recent and casual reading of James Joyce's "Ulysses," I happened to come across this passage: "Gone with the wind. Hosts at Mullaghmast and Tara of the kings."

Here we have two things integral to Mitchell's book, its title and the name she gave to the O'Hara's plantation, Tara. Tara is the ancient, ancestral home of Irish kings. (Mitchell's Tara is certainly the home of Mitchell's Irish-American kings and queens.) I have not found an instance where Mitchell directly connected her book with this passage, but the odds that she wasn't aware of this seems remote. If it is a coincidence, it's one hell of a coincidence.

It is, of course, possible and even probable that she was aware of the origin of the phrase, "gone with the wind," which was written by the ill-fated English poet Ernest Dowson, who also penned the phrase: "Days of wine and roses." Not a bad legacy, but the poor man died at 32.

Margaret Mitchell never wrote another book. Fame consumed her, but apparently did not overwhelm her. She said that being the author of "Gone With The Wind" was a fulltime job.

Mitchell died, on Aug. 16, 1949, from the effects of being struck by a drunk driver on Peachtree Street in Atlanta, Georgia. The last line of her obituary in The New York Times said, "The criticism which greeted her book was not all in praise, although much of it was lavish. Whatever posterity may decide as to its merits, Miss Mitchell wrote a book which was the most phenomenal best seller ever written by an unknown author of a first novel." — Lars Trodson