Why ‘Gone With the Wind’ still works for me

My soul sister, Scarlett O'Hara

Gable, Leigh: Where are their aging parents?
Gable, Leigh: Where are their aging parents?

I was far too young to idolize Clark Gable or Vivien Leigh in their prime, but having just spent a four hours watching Gone With the Wind on the screen at the Hiway Theater in Jenkintown, I must admit I’ve become a fervent groupie.

Watching this politically incorrect 1939 film, with its happy slaves who love their masters and serve them devotedly despite repeated abuse, I must also admit that I willfully suspended all my 21st-Century value judgments.

What I craved, and got, was escape— the sort of escape that often seems to elude me at age 58, when my critical facilities often trump my pleasure centers.

Rhett’s mustache

Everything about Gone With the Wind screams escape. Even the film’s premise— the Civil War, told through the romanticized view of the vanquished Old South, has a lacquered edge that makes such concerns as human slavery slip temporarily to one side.

From Scarlett O’Hara’s opening "fiddle-de-dee” to Rhett Butler’s dashing mustache to Mammy’s rolled eyes, I’m sent back to an earlier and more innocent time, when I was first permitted to take Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel out from the Chester Free Library under the worried eyes of the lead librarian, who insisted the text was too adult for a fourth-grade girl. My romantic mother, however, disagreed, and thanks to her, I spent rapturous hours time-traveling back and forth between the Old and New South.

I caught the movie later, when I was in sixth or seventh grade, and my cousin and I— two Jewish girls without anything to occupy us— spent Christmas Day in a Baltimore movie theater, legs up on the empty seats in an empty theater, hypnotized.

Fainting women

And I still am. Gone With the Wind is, quite simply, a spectacle, filled with silhouetted figures uttering great pronouncements (“I will never go hungry again!” “Tomorrow is another day!”) against roiling skies. While the special effects might seem clumsy today, the power of some scenes remains unabated:

—The vista of the wounded Southern soldiers that gradually opens up to include thousands of men, all grabbing for Scarlett’s skirts.

—The flight from Atlanta in a horse-drawn buggy as the last of the Southern munitions crackle and spark flames into pitch-black sky.

—The small pleasures of Aunt Pittypat, who faints at the drop of a hat, and the loyal mammy, Hattie McDaniel, and her scarlet petticoat.

—And of course, there is the on again, off again passion of Scarlett and Rhett, a tragic love story engineered for three hankies. For me, nothing quite replaces the pleasure of watching the spoiled and pampered Scarlett waking up after a tumultuous night with Rhett, both of her silk bedecked arms arching above her head like a contented cat.

Mary Poppins, heroine

As a young woman, I found it easy to lose myself in movies— to give myself over to characters and imagine myself in their roles. At various times it was easy to see myself as Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins or Barbara Streisand in Funny Girl. It was easier to lose oneself in books too, to forget oneself and enter that ineluctable dream state where you became one with the heroine, as opposed to standing outside the story, evaluating how well the story worked, what was its veracity, or how effectively it had accomplished its goals.

What a delight it was then, at the end of a long summer 2013, to leave behind worries about aging parents, independent children, and every other earthly concern and to sit in the darkened Hiway Theater, losing myself in the travails of a lost civilization.

C’est Scarlett, c’est moi.

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