Thursday, May 22, 2014

Frankly My Dear: Gone with the Wind Revisited, by Molly Haskell

Molly Haskell in Frankly My Dear: Gone with the Wind Revisited (Yale University Press, 2009) writes a personal and informal appreciation of the famous novel and film.  She recounts many of the well-known stories surrounding how the novel was written and the film made.  These stories are available elsewhere, in biographies and film histories, but Haskell’s fluid, relaxed, intelligent style of writing compresses them into accessible form.  She’s interested in the various people in Margaret Mitchell’s ancestry and life—her grandmothers, her cold and distant father, her stern and formidable intellectual and ambitious mother, her hotheaded scoundrel of a first husband, Red Upshaw, and her apparently dull and passive second husband John Marsh.  She argues both directly and inferentially about how these different people found their way into her novel either as fictionalized characters or as influences.  Haskell suggests that Mitchell after her twenties became a psychologically and physically fragile person who suffered from multiple auto accidents, breakdowns, depression, anxiety, fear of crowds, hypochrondria, and aversion to sex.  She portrays Mitchell as both a young rebel and, later, as someone who struggled mightily to comply with the social expectations of her day, especially after the novel and film made her famous, when honoring these imperatives became a way of avoiding fans, critics, and even, perhaps, the expectations of a second novel.  In effect, Haskell’s version of Margaret Mitchell is a basket case of a writer.

Although Haskell’s discussions are grounded in research and in her years as a film and literary critic, she indulges in what seems to me a good bit of inferential reasoning and speculation.  How DO we know that Scarlett hates sex, for instance?  How do we know that Mitchell felt the same way?  We can speculate based on the circumstances of her life (as Haskell does), by the fact that she and her second husband Marsh were so busy taking care of each other’s illnesses and crises that there was no time for sex, but in the absence of outright declarations by Mitchell, and because we were not there in the bedroom to see for ourselves, how can we know anything with certainty?  Leaps of faith, leaps of logic, can be exciting, but they don’t always provide convincing history.  In her reading of the novel and film, however, such leaps lead to interesting insights.

For Haskell, Scarlett O’Hara is a figure in which Mitchell works out, intentionally and otherwise, the contending elements of her own life.  Scarlett never compromises, but instead strategizes.  She is a cold rationalist who does what she must in order to survive and flourish.  She marries, three times, but she doesn’t like marriage—it’s always an end to a means.  She despises romantic entanglements, except for the one she cannot have with Ashley Wilkes.  In this sense she is a figure through whom Mitchell vicariously eludes the expectations of her class and times, as well as the formulaic characters and plots of popular romances and films.  Haskell claims that Mitchell never intended for there to be a happy reunion between Scarlett and Rhett Butler, either at the end of the novel or afterwards.  She argues that the traits that separate them, that will keep them separated, are evident in the scene when, having led Scarlett and Melanie and her infant out of a burning Atlanta, abandons them on the road to Tara and heads off to join the Southern army.

Only in the last few pages of this book does Haskell address the African American characters in the film, and the actors who portrayed them.  I was not entirely persuaded.  Haskell says that although Mammy and Prissy are stereotypes of one sort or another, they are also finely drawn characters, round and developed, rather than flat caricatures.  She sees evidence in Scarlett’s relationship with the family slaves of a subversiveness, an attitude that conflicts with the prevailing odes of racial hierarchy.  She finds the white characters of the film and novel, and the white inhabitants of the American South in general, more like the African American population than many would have wanted to admit.


Fully developed characters, an excellent cast (especially De Havilland, Gable, and Leigh), a slew of screenwriters (notably Sidney Howard and Ben Hecht and a list of both credited and uncredited writers, including F. Scott Fitzgerald), two very different directors (George Cukor and Victor Fleming, plus a number of uncredited names) artful scenic design, attention to detail, epic sweep, nuance in character and scene and script, plus a seemingly impossible series of accidents, cast and staff changes, biographical details, and coincidences, combined to make this novel the monument that it is.  Haskell doesn’t think it is great literature (she thinks it’s “good”), and she never says outright that the film is a great one (though in the end she must think so).  She does find the film in general an improvement on the novel.  There are longer and more detailed books than this one on Mitchell and her novel and the production of the film, but none is as readable and personally centered as Haskell’s.  She places the novel in the American and British literary traditions, and the film in the context of American film history. Her comparisons of Gone with the Wind and Jezebel are particularly apt, as are her comparisons of Vivien Leigh and Bette Davis, who wanted the part of Scarlett.  Haskell’s critical insights as a film and literary critic make this an interesting and stimulating book.  

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