Scarlett and Melanie: Film’s First Frenemies

In 1935, young producer David O. Selznick left MGM to start his own production company.  Despite his successes at MGM, Paramount, and RKO, Selznick longed for creative freedom.  In those days the studios were movie factories–producing one after another, with a bigger eye on the budget than the quality.

Selznick didn’t want to crank out films.  He wanted to make one-of-a-kind original works of art that would stand the test of time.

And he believed Margaret Mitchell’s romanticized novel of the fall of the south could be his crown jewel.

He spent two years casting his masterpiece, interviewing 1,400 women before deciding on a leading lady.  He second guessed every move by his scriptwriters.  He was a complete control freak–burning through three directors who couldn’t take his constant meddling and his blistering memos that went on for many single-spaced typed pages.

He nearly worked himself to death and bankrupted his new company, but in the end he accomplished his impossible goal.

Gone With the Wind is the greatest movie that ever was and ever will be.

No movie will ever again capture a nation’s attention again like Gone With the Wind because movies no longer hold an outsized place in our culture.

In 1939, you watched sports by going to the games.  You read the news in the morning paper.  You read stories in novels or listened to them on the serialized radio shows.

The only screen you ever saw was the giant silver one at the movie theater.

And there was Gone With the Wind, an epic tale that blew away anything anyone had ever seen before.  It was the first movie many people saw in color, over twice as long as the average film of the day.

It was promoted as an event–unlike other movies of the time, it had reserved seating, premium priced tickets, and an intermission.  It was initially booked only in huge theaters with at least 850 seats.

People knew they were seeing something special.

More people saw Gone With the Wind in the movie theater than any other movie that has ever existed, and it is inconceivable that another movie will ever surpass it.  It sold more than two times as many tickets as Avengers:  Endgame, the top film of last year.

It holds a place of cultural relevance nearly as high as The Wizard of Oz, without the benefit of thirty years of annual event showings on television.  (While The Wizard of Oz made its television debut in 1956, viewers could not watch Scarlett and Rhett on the small screen until 1976.)

It’s been the subject of recent controversy over its romanticized depiction of slavery, but the fact that people want it banned in 2020 only further illustrates its hold on the American public.

Even if you haven’t seen it, you likely know the plot.  Vain, selfish southern belle Scarlett O’Hara convinces herself she loves Ashley Wilkes, the one man she cannot have, and one who is temperamentally unsuited to make her happy.  While pinning for happily married Ashley, Scarlett misses out on happiness with Rhett Butler, a man who does love her and would make her happy.

All this plays out during the Civil War and its aftermath, a war that devastates the south and decimates Scarlett’s family and beloved plantation home, Tara.

Gone With the Wind is classified as a historical epic romance, but it’s really a war movie.  

And while Scarlett and Rhett’s romance gets all the press, in many ways the central relationship of the film is that between Scarlett and Ashley’s wife, Melanie Hamilton Wilkes.

Scarlett is often written off as a vicious conniver, and Melanie the saintly doormat who’s oblivious to Scarlett’s faults.

Yet it’s not that simple.

In the film’s opening scene, Scarlett makes clear her disdain for Melanie Hamilton, as a no-fun “goody goody” whom Scarlett would dislike even if she weren’t engaged to Ashley Wilkes.

Melanie, for her part, hopes she and Scarlett will become great friends.

Scarlett spends the first half of the film as a spoiled rich girl who schemes to steal Ashley away, even after he marries Melanie.  She is shameless and plays on Ashley’s lust–if not love–for her.  Even when the war begins, she is more consumed by petty jealousy and concerns.  With Ashely off to war, Scarlett visits Melanie in Atlanta so that she will be there to see Ashley home from the war.

Scarlett despises the war and can’t stomach nursing the injured men.  She is as selfish as ever.  But everything changes when the Yankees are on the cusp of invading Atlanta and a pregnant Melanie is too weak to evacuate.  Though she wants nothing more than to return to Tara and her mother, Scarlett stays behind with Melanie.  She has the chance to leave with Rhett, and again with Melanie’s Aunt Pitty, but she stays.  

When Melanie goes into labor, Scarlett looks for help and finds none–most of the Confederate Army has pulled out of Atlanta, the doctor cannot leave the thousands of injured men, and Scarlett’s slave Prissy admits she lied about knowing how to deliver babies.

As Melanie cries out for help, Scarlett realizes she is on her own.

And for the first time in her life, she rises to the occasion.  She walks up the stairs with a look of grim determination on her face, and for the first time we see the steel-willed survivor inside her.

Scarlett delivers the baby and saves Melanie’s life.  She takes them on a harrowing journey back to Tara, where Scarlett hopes her mother will take over.

But when they reach Tara, they find the place looted and burned and without a scrap of food or money.  Scarlett’s mother is dead and her father has gone insane.  Melanie is still dangerously ill.  Scarlett’s two sisters are useless.  All but three of the slaves have run off.

There was never a more ill-prepared head of the family than Scarlett O’Hara.

Standing with a raised fist and a dirty radish pulled from the ground, she vows:

“As god as my witness, they’re not going to lick me.  I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over I’ll never be hungry again.  No, nor will any of my folk.  If I have to lie, steal, cheat, or kill.  As god as witness, I’ll never be hungry again.”

That quote sets up the second half of the film–Scarlett will lie, cheat, steal and kill to protect Tara.  And despite continuing to despise her and desire her husband, Scarlett considers Melanie and the baby part of the folk under her protection.

Scarlett gets them through the war and its brutal aftermath.  Even when Ashley returns home, he is of no help to Scarlett.  He is a southern gentleman, without the grit required to drag them back to prosperity.

Like all of us, Scarlett’s greatest strength is also her greatest weakness.

If not for Scarlett, Melanie, her baby, and Ashely would’ve starved to death in the aftermath of the war.

And yet when the war is over, Scarlett cannot shed her skin of ruthlessness.

Rhett sweeps her off her feet and marries her, wanting nothing more than to spoil and soothe her.  Though she has every outer appearance of returning to the petty rich girl she once was, her nightmares betray that the horror of war has not left her.  

She is haunted by her former hunger, driven to acquire more money via fair means or foul to keep the beast of poverty at baby.

Because of this, I’ve always had a soft spot for Scarlett O’Hara.  So does Melanie Wilkes.

Even as Scarlett continues to try to steal her husband, and her well-bred social set wants Melanie to drop Scarlett as a friend, Melanie stands by Scarlett.

Years later on her deathbed, Melanie wants to talk to Scarlett.  There are no tearful confessions on either side, but Melanie says just enough to know that she has not been oblivious to Scarlett’s machinations for her husband, and asks Scarlett to care for him.

It’s not because she’s a doormat–it’s because she knows that she and her baby wouldn’t be alive without Scarlett.  And it’s clear to Melanie, as it is to Rhett–that Scarlett has PTSD from the war, though they wouldn’t know to call it that.

In the end, Melanie knows Scarlett better than Scarlett knows herself.  

And Scarlett, despite her lifelong protests that she despises Melanie, never left the weaker woman behind.

If It Doesn’t Fit…

#10 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Norma Shearer followed up her Oscar winning performance in The Divorcée with A Free Soul, the story of Jan Ashe, a woman who is caught between three men—her straightlaced, respectable fiance (Leslie Howard), a charming and exciting gangster (Clark Gable), and the true love of her life, her father (Lionel Barrymore.)

Her father, Stephen Ashe, is a brilliant lawyer, yet his uppercrust family have shunned him due to his alcoholism and tendency toward representing criminals and lowlifes.  Loyal Jan stands with him against his family and tries to moderate his alcohol intake with little success.  Stephen loves his daughter and her doting, but because of his preoccupation with the bottle and the courtroom, he lets her run wild, the “free soul” of the title.

Early in the film, Stepen defends gangster Ace Wilfong of a murder charge.  The main piece of evidence condemning Ace is the hat found at the scene of the crime, along with witness testimony stating a hatless Ace left the scene shorty after the murder.

In a scene that made me wonder if Johnnie Cochran has seen the film, Stephen instructs Ace to stand and put on the hat, which turns out to be comically small for Ace’s head.

I could practically hear him say, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

Life imitates art, indeed.  For the benefit of our readers under thirty-five, I’m referring to the moment in the O.J. Simpson murder trial when O.J. put on the bloody gloves found at the scene, and held his hands up to show the jury that the gloves were too small.  Not as small as Ace’s hat, but both cases were won in that performative moment, regardless of the rest of the evidence.

Ace is handsome, charming, and trouble, so of course Jan immediately falls in love with him and breaks off her engagement with the loving and stable Dwight.  Jan and Ace embark on a whirlwind romance, complete with clandestine overnight visits.

Jan thinks the affair is great fun, but things turn serious when Ace tells her father he wants to marry her.  Stephen is outraged at the idea—he has no problem drinking Ace’s bootleg booze and getting him off for murder, but has no intention of letting his daughter marry a lowlife gangster.

Angry and insulted, Ace returns to his apartment to find Jan waiting for him.  When he proposes to her (without telling her of his encounter with her father), she too brushes off the idea of marriage, albeit with more tact.  Ace realizes Jan sees him as nothing more than her dirty little secret and has no intention of taking their relationship public.

He is angry, but when Jan lays back on the divan, arms outstretched and says, “C’mon.  Put ‘em around me,” he obliges.

When Stephen finds them together, he drags Jan away and she is stunned at his anger and the depths of his disappointment.  They realize they are both out of control—Stephen’s drinking has escalated, and Jan is entangled with the wrong sort of man.  They make a bargain:  Jan will never see Ace again if Stephen quits drinking.

This movie calls to mind Jeannette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle, another story of a daughter who idolizes her alcoholic father.  As with A Free Soul, the daughter runs wild and the most poignant scene involves young Jeannette asking her father to give up drinking.  In Jeannett’s case, she has asked him to stop drinking as her tenth birthday present.

In both stories, the fathers make the promise to stop drinking, knowing they cannot keep it.

In Jan’s case, she returns to Ace when her father starts drinking again.  But Ace’s wounded pride has made him both violent and possessive, and when Jan again refuses to marry him, he promises to expose to the world that they have slept together, marking her as a ruined woman no decent man would want.

Except good old Dwight still wants her.  Though meant to be heroic, Dwight comes off as a bit of a patsy when he takes it upon himself to shoot Ace dead to protect Jan’s nonexistent virtue.

This sets up a dramatic final courtroom scene, where an off-the-rails Stephen pulls himself together enough to defend Dwight.  He puts Jan on the stand and she confesses all.  She is distraught and ashamed of her behavior, and Stephen takes the blame, saying that she had no choice but to grow up wild with a drunkard who associated with criminals as a father.

It’s a rousing speech, one that won Lionel Barrymore his only Oscar.

The film also garnered Shearer’s third of an eventual five nominations for Best Actress.  

It was also one of the films that catapulted Clark Gable into leading man status.

Overall, it’s a very good film that holds up over time.  Shearer is delightfully charming, and Gable is Gable in all his glory.

It was, of course, hugely controversial at the time.  In particular, the scene where Jan holds out her arms to Ace was nearly universally cut by the regional censors.

Though the censor board was mostly ignored in the pre-code era, after the Warner Brothers films and A Free Soul, the board insisted the studios not make anymore gangster films.

It’s funny that A Free Soul is the straw that broke the camel’s back.  It’s much less violent than Little Caesar or Public Enemy, but it committed two sins that those films, for all their transgressions, did not.

First, Little Caesar and Tom Powers pay for their crimes with their lives.  And while Jan is humiliated in open court, she ultimately gets a happy ending when Dwight is acquitted and they go off to New York to start a new life together.  

Second, and most damningly, A Free Soul glorifies a woman having sex outside of marriage.  More shockingly, she refuses when Ace proposes.  

The studios, fearing government-mandated censorship, complied with the edict and put the gangster films on ice.

But as we’ll see next week, there was a way to make movies outside the studio system.  If you had enough money and enough moxie, you could make whatever picture you wanted.

Twenty-six year old business magnate Howard Hughes had plenty of both.