It is, of course, hard to judge relative movie grosses over the decades. On this day in 1939, people paid ten dollars a ticket to get into the Atlanta premiere of Gone With the Wind, which is officially more than I paid back in October to go see a remastered print with a bunch of other die-hard film buffs who were the sort of person to go see Gone With the Wind on a Sunday afternoon. Those people were paying what the website I use to calculate inflation tells me was the equivalent of $165 and change to be there with Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable and so forth–not, of course, Hattie McDaniel, who wasn’t permitted in the segregated theatre–for the release of one of the biggest movies of the year. And what a year, of course. Regular tickets were priced at $1.50, because going to see it was an Event. You can’t do that now, of course; the market won’t bear it. As far as I’m concerned, the market shouldn’t bear it. At any rate, though, records weren’t kept in the same way in those days, and we don’t really know how many tickets were bought. Calculating for inflation gets difficult. And, naturally, this movie has been rereleased in theatres several times over the decades. Still, it remains one of the top-grossing films of all time and probably always will.
Katherine Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) is the oldest daughter of Irish immigrant Gerald (Thomas Mitchell) and Southern aristocrat Ellen (Barbara O’Neil). She has been raised to expect a certain standard of life. She is the prettiest, most vivacious girl in the county, and she can get any boy she wants–except neighbour Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), the one she really thinks she wants. Then, during a barbecue at the Wilkes plantation of Twelve Oaks, where Ashley is to announce his engagement to his cousin, Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland), war is declared. Scarlett, heartbroken and spiteful, agrees to marry Melanie’s brother, Charles (Rand Brooks). Charles dies of disease. Scarlett goes to Atlanta to live with his Aunt Pittypat (Laura Hope Crews), along with Melanie. The dashing Captain Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), blockade runner, pegs both Scarlett and Melanie pretty accurately and sets his sights on Scarlett. The South falls. In order to keep the family plantation of Tara, Scarlett married Frank Kennedy (Carroll Nye), long engaged to her sister Suellen (Evelyn Keyes). Frank is killed. Scarlett marries Rhett. Scarlett still pines after Ashley.
Scarlett’s problem, honestly, is that she is not raised to be all that bright. In the book, she is expressly said to have hated school, but she wasn’t being educated in the place where her intelligence clearly lies. Scarlett is an extremely shrewd businesswoman who doesn’t see any difference between convict labour and slave labour and has no more problem with the former than she was raised to have a problem with the latter. (An ethics course would not, in Scarlett’s case, have gone amiss, assuming it would have taken, which it probably wouldn’t.) During Reconstruction, Scarlett made it work, but she was raised with the expectation that her husband would do all the work. Or at least be seen to–again from the book, she was surrounded by women getting on with the job of running the family plantation, but it was seldom discussed as such. Scarlett is raised with a certain set of values and a certain set of abilities, and neither one of them are all that helpful to her in the long run.
So okay, let’s talk about racial politics. Of course, what Hattie McDaniel said when criticized for playing so many characters like Mammy is that she’d rather play a maid than be one, and Butterfly McQueen observed that she’d hit Prissy, too, if she had to put up with her. (I think the only three people who never hit her in the book are Melanie, Ellen, and Scarlett’s younger sister Careen–notably the sweetest people in the whole story.) I’d also note that, for all the talk about “happy slaves staying with their masters” you get from people, very few slaves are still at Tara when Scarlett returns home after the Burning of Atlanta. Mammy was Ellen’s mother’s personal slave first, then Ellen’s, then Scarlett’s. Pork (Oscar Polk) was Gerald’s personal valet. And Prissy . . . in the movie, I think we can see Prissy as just too dumb to survive on her own. (In the book, Gerald had just bought her mother shortly before the war began because Pork had married her, and he bought Prissy so that her mother wouldn’t be lonely.) Aunt Pitty’s slave Peter (Eddie Anderson) stays with Aunt Pitty. And that’s it. Four slaves. All house slaves, mostly with personal connections to their families. Even Big Sam (Everett Brown), who seems fond enough of Scarlett, doesn’t think to go back to Tara after the war.
I admit that I unabashedly love this movie. Oh, it’s problematic on several levels. (Normally, I’d be angry that everyone who thinks Ashley cheats on Melanie with Scarlett blames Scarlett, not Ashley, but it is Ashley and it is Scarlett. And no one even considers that Melanie might do anything untoward with Rhett, because she’s Melanie.) On the other hand, it is spectacle on a level we don’t seem to understand anymore. It isn’t just practical effects, though goodness knows there’s nothing quite like burning down old sets to stage the burning down of a city. It’s that the movie is allowed to take its time. There’s an intermission, for Gods’ sake–and, yes, we had it as an intermission when I saw it in the theatre. Which I have wanted to do pretty well my whole life. The spectacle isn’t just in the war scenes. It’s in the long, slow views of the Sun rising over Tara, of the disgusting opulence of Scarlett and Rhett’s Atlanta town house, the elaborate costuming. There were something like twenty-odd variations of Scarlett’s slowly-decaying calico dress, based on when in the movie she’s wearing the thing. That, my friends, is attention to detail.