Why do we like Scarlett O’Hara?
Perhaps some moralizing readers will interject here, “Well, I don’t.” And there might be something to their reservations. Indeed, in his treatise The Mask of Sanity, psychologist Hervey M. Cleckly used her as a fictional example of sociopathic personality traits!
But I seriously doubt that, as Scarlett raises her fist towards an amber sky and vows never to be hungry again, anyone in the world wouldn’t root for her, whether knowingly or not. The enormous popularity of Gone with the Wind—and it still holds its place as the all-time domestic box office champion—rests on her slight shoulders and her even slighter sense of decency. Audiences love Scarlett, even if we’re often at a loss to explain why.
However, as I watched the saga on a new Blu-Ray, released with the 75th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition set, Gone with the Wind began to make sense for me in a way it hadn’t before. The crystalline sharpness and vibrancy of the colors, especially those triumphant oranges and flourishing greens, reminded me of the film’s viciously determined protagonist.
The exaggerated, beautiful palette gives the cinematography a prideful flush, an odd glow of vanity, as though the movie had pinched its cheeks just for us. If Gone with the Wind had been made in black-and-white, I suspect that we wouldn’t like Scarlett, at least not nearly as much as we do.
Rhett, Ashley, and Melanie all praise Scarlett for her will to live, a will so resilient and powerful that most of the other characters survive only by gathering around her, as if to warm themselves on the fiery blaze of her character. Scarlett’s formidable life force pulses through the Technicolor visuals, sumptuous even when portraying misery, defeat, and violence. And those visuals have never looked so sumptuous on my own television screen.
I first watched Gone with the Wind at age 11, on that still-new wonder, DVD. Budding film critic that I was, I found the landmark film grand, stirring, but above all really, really long. The word “overrated” just might have passed through my mind when it was all over. I grew to enjoy the movie more over the years since, but first impressions aren’t easily overpowered.
By contrast, after I popped in the new Blu-Ray a few days ago, all 238 minutes flew right by. The burnished shine of silks, the downy radiance of individual complexions, the breathtaking range of colors drew me into the drama, heightening the impact of each scene. This time when the film ended, it was the word “revelation” that passed through my mind.
Scarlett’s amorality excluded, perhaps the most enduring criticism of Gone with the Wind focuses on the its relative lack of grittiness or realism. Orson Welles, for instance, praised one masterpiece, Keaton’s The General, by hyperbolically dissing another, saying that the earlier film is “a hundred times more stunning visually than Gone with the Wind,” because the silent film caught the true Matthew Brady-esque look and grain of the Civil War. I adore Orson (and The General, of course), but I think he missed the point.
From the first, Fleming’s and Selznick’s vision of the old South tells us exactly how to interpret it: as “a dream remembered,” in the words of the text preface. That is, as a double fiction, a nostalgic panorama largely filtered through the experience of a seductive, single-minded heroine. With its sweeping vistas and jewel box of colors, Gone with the Wind coaxes us into committing Scarlett’s grave error: falling in love with something that doesn’t exist. What might seem like mawkish imagery on a DVD becomes an intentionally unreal journey through American history when viewed on Blu-Ray. I don’t pretend to know the difference between banality and insight, but image quality and definition can surely tip the scales where movies are concerned.
For instance, at the conclusion, the somber, light-absorbing blacks and foggy grays jolt us back to reality, bracing the intoxicated spectator for the final blow to Scarlett’s bizarre combination of ruthlessness and optimism. The transition from the mournful colors of Scarlett prostrate on the burgundy staircase to that strange, congratulatory tracking shot over Tara always rang false to me. With this viewing, however, the contrast acquired a deeper meaning that never occurred to me before.
I realized why we like Scarlett: not only because she clings to dreams, but also because she can negotiate with reality while keeping it at bay. Whether it’s the Yankee she just killed or loss of the man she loves, she’ll clean up the mess now, but never really pick up the pieces (and notice that she makes similar remarks on both occasions). The coping strategy that rules her life is a paradox, but one we all depend on to survive.
In other words, as I rewatched this monument of classical American cinema on Blu-Ray, I felt that I was seeing it for the first time—that the colors could finally tell me their story. During that last shot, we bask in the golden apogee of Scarlett’s escape into herself, an escape that parallels the audience’s own craving for celluloid fantasy and a happy ending.
Yesterdays and tomorrows don’t appear to us in the hues of reality; we want to believe that they’re better than they were or will be. Gone with the Wind does cast aside the sense of photographic verisimilitude that we might expect from a Civil War movie. Instead, it exalts romanticism as cynicism, idealization as pragmatism, demonstrating how myths and dreams sustain us through ugly reality—a Hollywood speciality.
In 1939, millions of Americans could relate to Scarlett, absolving her selfishness because of the beauty of her dreams and the pain of her buried regrets. 75 years later, not much has changed—except that I can watch this film in its glory from the comfort of my living room.
I strongly recommend the new box set of Gone with the Wind, which includes oodles of special features about the production and its stars, unseen footage from the Atlanta premiere, as well as some delightful memorabilia for the film’s anniversary. If you’re interested, you can also watch my unboxing video on YouTube:
I would like to thank Warner Home Entertainment for providing me with a review copy of the 75th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition.
All images used in this post ©2014 Turner Entertainment Co. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.