Plot: Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) is the beautiful and headstrong daughter of of the owner of a Southern plantation called Tara. She has “the smallest waist in three counties” and dozens of beaux clamoring for her attention. But the one she believes she loves is gentle Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard). At a party, just as the Civil War is beginning, she finds out that he is going to marry his cousin Melanie (Olivia DeHavilland). Her fury at this news is witnessed by Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), a dashing, but cynical man who refuses to participate in hypocricy and speaks very directly, telling Scarlett that she is “no lady” and telling the men at the party that the South cannot win a war.
In a pique, Scarlett impulsively agrees to marry Melanie’s brother Charles (her sister’s beau), who dies just after he enlists. This leaves Scarlett as a widow, encumbered to the point of suffocation by the mourning rituals of the era, which restrict her to elaborate black clothes and very limited social activities. She goes to visit Melanie, now married to Ashley, in Atlanta, and meets Rhett again, now a war profiteer, who shocks the community by pledging money for the war effort if she will dance with him. She is delighted to have an excuse to dance. His directness makes her uncomfortable, but also intrigues her, because she has been used to men who are both predictable and easy to control. Melanie has a baby just as Sherman comes through with his soldiers. Scarlett stays with her, then gets Rhett (staying at a bordello) to take them all back to Tara. She tells Rhett he was right not to join the Confederate army, but he has decided that now is the time to join, and leaves her at Tara.
Her mother is dead, her father has had a breakdown, and her sisters are ill. They have no food, and all but two of the slaves have left. Scarlett takes charge, swearing she will never be hungry again. When a Union deserter tries to steal her mother’s jewelry, she shoots him, and Melanie helps her bury the body.
The war ends. About to lose Tara, she tries to get the money from Rhett, and when he refuses, she marries Frank Kennedy (her other sister’s fiancé), a merchant, to get the money. Frank is killed in a KKK- style raid, and she marries Rhett. But she thinks that she still wants Ashley, and by the time she realizes that it is Rhett she loves, he leaves her, with the most famous exit line in the history of the movies. After he is gone, she reminds herself that she will go on and work for what she wants, that “Tomorrow is another day.”
Discussion: Considered by many the definitive example of the Hollywood movie, this is by any standard one of the greatest films of all time. It could be — and should be — viewed from a dozen different perspectives, but it is, above all, a story about adapting to the most challenging circumstances possible. Interestingly, our heroine is not especially brave or smart or considerate. On the contrary, she is completely selfish. And she has very little interest or understanding of the world around her or of her own feelings. Yet the movie shows us that she has qualities like stubbornness and focus that enable her to survive, while those like Melanie and Ashley (who are thoughtful and honorable) do not. In the first scene, her father tells her that what matters most is Tara, and that becomes her symbol of survival. At the end of the movie, with her emotional life devastated, her first thought is to return there to start over again.
In the first scenes of the movie, we get a glimpse of the South before the Civil War. The lives of the landowners are similar to those of British landed gentry, with even more elaborate standards of gentility, chivalry, elegance, and refinement. Listen to Mammy (Hattie MacDaniel) before the barbecue party, reminding Scarlett of the conventions of the era, from how much it is appropriate for ladies to eat in front of gentlemen to how much skin it is appropriate to expose in the afternoon. All that is shattered when the war begins, and shattered again when the illusions about the war as an exercise in chivalry and sportsmanship are relentlessly swept away by the realities of combat with a vastly more powerful adversary. Every belief and assumption the Southerners had about themselves and their future is challenged.
Notice how much of what goes on between Scarlett and others is about power. She and Ashley have little in common; indeed, the qualities she thinks she admires in him are the ones that make her feel contempt for Melanie. Scarlett’s primary interest in Ashley seems to be in making sure she can enslave him as she has the Tarleton twins and every other man she knows. In a scene that is even more controversial today than it was when it was filmed, Rhett’s willingness to overpower her sexually increases her respect for and interest in him.
Scarlett and Rhett are both free from considerations of honor and duty and therefore able to think in strictly pragmatic terms about survival. The difference is that Rhett is always honest with himself and others about what is going on, while Scarlett insists on keeping her illusions about Ashley, until it is too late.
Questions for Kids:
· Why were the Southerners so wrong about their ability to win a war with the North?
· Why does Scarlett marry Charles? Why does she marry Frank? Why does she marry Rhett?
· Why is Tara so important to her?
· Why does Rhett like Scarlett? Why do his feelings about her change?
· What do you think will happen after she goes back to Tara?
Connections: This film, the long-time box office champion, won eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress (Hattie McDaniel, who beat Olivia DeHavilland to become the first black performer to win an Oscar ). Amazingly, director Victor Fleming, the fifth director assigned to the movie, directed “The Wizard of Oz” the same year. With five directors and at least 12 screenwriters, the credit for “authorship” of the movie must go to producer David O. Selznick, whose vision for the film was spelled out meticulously in long memoranda, published in Memo from David O. Selznick. A made-for-television movie, “The Scarlett O’Hara War” is based on the furious efforts in Hollywood by all of the actresses (including Bette Davis, Paulette Goddard, Joan Crawford, and Tallulah Bankhead) who wanted this juiciest of parts. “Scarlett,” a television miniseries, continues the story, but with not even a fraction of the quality of the original. Read the original book by Margaret Mitchell instead.