Scarlett and Melanie: Film’s First Frenemies

Olivia de Havilland and Vivien Leigh as Melanie and Scarlett in Gone With the Wind (1939)
Gone With the Wind (1939) opening banner

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 (1939) movie poster - Rhett holds Scarlett while Atlanta burns in the background

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.

Olivia de Havilland as Melanie in Gone With the Wind (1939)

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.

Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939)

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.

A field of dead confederate soldiers; scene from Gone With the Wind (1939)

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.

Gone With the Wind (1939) Verdict - Timeless - See It Tonight

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Olivia de Havilland and Vivien Leigh as Melanie and Scarlett in Gone With the Wind (1939)

The Wizard of Oz (1939): “No Place Like Home”

Judy Garland and Billie Burke in The Wizard of Oz (1939)
The Wizard of Oz (1939) opening banner

So far, I’ve written 33 posts and covered 44 classic films.  There’s only one I’d bet that everyone reading has seen.

It’s time for the Wizard of Oz, perhaps the world’s only universally beloved film.

Everyone knows Tarzan’s strange yodel, even if they couldn’t pick Johnny Weissmuller out of a lineup.  Gone With the Wind is the greatest cinematic achievement in the history of film.  Casablanca has half a dozen quotes you know, even if you’ve never seen the film.  I’ve read a dozen novels in my life where the main character (always a woman) loves The Philadelphia Story.  No one has ever successfully remade a Hitchcock film (and after watching the 2020 Rebecca I was so excited to see, I believe no one ever will.)

And yet, for all their lore, these films are slowly receding from the public consciousness.  Discovered less and less by younger generations, they’re increasingly relegated to a niche market.  Instead of flipping through channels and discovering Bogart and Bergman on Turner Classic Movies, we’re working our way through the Hallmark movie lineup or our Netflix queues (where the oldest non-documentary film was made in 1954.)

There is nothing wrong with this, of course.  As time marches on, these films become cemented as artifacts of a different era.

The wicked witch of the west attempts to remove Dorothy's shoes in the The Wizard of Oz (1939)

But The Wizard of Oz is different.  Eighty years later, it is still a living, breathing part of our popular culture.

How do I know?

Every Halloween, I pass out candy to half a dozen little girls dressed in blue gingham dresses and ruby red slippers.  Drew Barrymore herself dressed up as Glinda the Good Witch this year.

Just last season Saturday Night Live did a skit with Kate McKinnon as Dorothy.  

And Wicked, a retelling from the witch’s point of view, is one of the most popular contemporary musicals that brought us Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel (who played the Wicked Witch before she Let It Go.)

While writing this entry, I texted my friends with young children and asked if they had shown The Wizard of Oz to their kids.  

Mine never saw it, replied a mother of two kids in grade school.  But they said they knew the story and proceeded to tell me.

You walk into any Barnes and Noble, and even with their gutted out DVD sections, you’ll still find a copy of The Wizard of Oz for sale.

The cowardly lion, the tin man, Dorothy, and the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Why?

It wasn’t because of its unprecedented success in 1939.

MGM spent a fortune on the film and initially considered it a disappointment.  It was the fifth top-grossing film of the year, just behind Dark Victory, but because of its huge production budget it lost money during its initial run.  And though it was nominated for five Oscars including Best Picture, it won only two awards for score and song.  (Was there ever a more worthy Oscar win than Somewhere Over the Rainbow for Best Song?)

So it was just one of dozens of successful movies made in the Golden Age.  Here, then gone.  For the next seventeen years, there was nothing to suggest this particular film would become a national treasure.

Then came television.

On November 3, 1956, The Wizard of Oz was the first theatrical film shown on television.  Roughly 45 million people watched from home that night, nearly matching the total tickets sold during its entire theatrical run.  

The movie ran for the second time in 1959, and thereafter became an annual tradition.  It aired once a year on commercial network television from 1959-1991.  Even today it continues to run on cable television.

Margaret Hamilton and Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Margaret Hamilton (1902 – 1985) as the Wicked Witch and Judy Garland (1922 – 1969) as Dorothy Gale in ‘The Wizard of Oz’, 1939. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Isn’t that where you first saw it?

It was a network television event, a family tradition similar today only to It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  It’s a two hour nostalgia machine for adults with childhoods that spanned from the sixties to the nineties.

Four factors led to its long-term television dominance, and thus a cultural sprawl that reaches today’s children and could never have been achieved in the movie theater alone.

First, it was a family affair.  After the initial prime time broadcast, CBS showed subsequent versions earlier in the evening, so that children could watch.  It is the rare film that holds equal wonder for children and adults.

Second, its very success insulated it from competition.  For the initial viewing, CBS signed a deal with MGM for four viewings with an option for additional showings.  Neither CBS nor MGM anticipated much interest beyond the initial viewing.  CBS was just looking for content to fill up its new medium.

Once MGM and the other studios realized how popular their films could be on television, they were unwilling to sell them as cheaply to the networks.  It had never occurred to the studios that they could make new money—big money—off these dusty old films that were no longer showing on the big screen.

So while the studios bickered with the networks and sealed their best films in a vault, The Wizard of Oz played on and on.

Third, during the early broadcasts most Americans had black and white televisions.  When color made its way into most American homes in the sixties, families were clamoring to finally see the gold in the yellow brick road they’d watched Dortothy skip down many times.

Finally, and most important, the film delivers. 

I don’t need to review the plot, do I?

Scarecrow, tin man, Dorothy, and the Cowardly Lion walking down the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz (1939)

We all remember the clicking ruby slippers, the poppy fields (an opium reference that went over my head the first fifty times I saw it), and the Wicked Witch of the West shrieking that she would “get you my pretty, and your little dog too.”

Flying monkeys.  Lions and tigers and bears (oh my!)  Munchkins.  Yellow brick roads.  The cowardly lion, the tin man, and the scarecrow, who we all miss most of all.

Watching the Wizard of Oz is like returning to a never-changing hometown.  It doesn’t matter how many years it’s been, I know every turn in the yellow brick road like the back of my hand.

You do too.

The Wizard of Oz (1939) Verdict:  Timeless - Watch It Tonight

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

Judy Garland and Billie Burke in The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Before & After

#17 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Jean Harlow and Clark Gable in Red Dust (1932)
Red Dust (1932) and Mogambo (1953) opening banner

In 1932, Clark Gable, still in his pre-mustache days, made a great pre-code picture with Jean Harlow called Red Dust.  Gable plays Dennis, the owner of a rubber plantation in Indochina.  He lives a physically demanding life devoid of creature comforts.

His world is upended when he goes from having no female company to two very different women vying for his affection.  First, Jean Harlow’s Vantine shows up unannounced.  She’s a bawdy and fun loving prostitute running from trouble, and at first Dennis can’t take his eyes off her.

But when surveyor Gary Willis shows up, Dennis’ head is turned by Gary’s sophisticated wife, Barbara.  

It’s obvious to the audience and to everyone on the plantation except Barbara and Dennis that they are all wrong for one another.  Barbara could never survive in such rugged conditions, and Dennis is not about to shine himself up.

Vantine knows she and Dennis are made for each other, two feral animals in the middle of the jungle, but she’s content to wait for Dennis to come around.  She’s amused by his attempts to make himself suitable for Barbara, whom Vantine calls “The Duchess.”  Unlike Barbara, Vantine doesn’t take life—or herself—too seriously.  And she lives to annoy Dennis.

Harlow is known for her sex appeal, the original blond bombshell.  But what we forget is just how funny she was.  She’s a wonderful comedienne with great timing, which she puts to great use in the film.

Gable is deliciously young and handsome.  He’s always sweaty with two day’s stubble, and I don’t blame Barbara or Vantine for going after him.

Harlow and Gable spark off each other, and it makes it impossible to believe that Dennis will end up with Barbara.  Their chemistry burns up every scene.

But it is Harlow’s Vantine who gets all the best lines.

Jean Harlow in Red Dust (1932)

Twenty-one years later, well after the enforcement of the production code and Gable’s mustache years, MGM remade Red Dust.  They moved the setting to Africa and retitled it Mogambo.  Instead of a rubber plantation, the main character traps African animals to sell to zoos and circuses.  The prostitute is replaced by a showgirl.  The husband and wife that show up are there to make a gorilla documentary instead of a survey.  Otherwise, the plot is remarkably similar.

The Red Dust role played by twenty-one year old Harlow was replaced in Mogambo with thirty-one year old Ava Gardner.  The twenty-six year old Mary Astor role was played by twenty-four year old Grace Kelly.

And the role previously played by thirty-one year old Clark Gable?  

Now played by fifty-two year old Clark Gable.

Ah, Hollywood.

(In truth, Harlow was dead by 1953, but let’s not pretend her status as a corpse had any bearing on the decision to cast a younger actress in the role.  And let’s not forget that Mary Astor was certainly still acting at the time.)

For me, Mogambo was not a great film, certainly not as good as Red Dust.

Ava Gardner’s Honey Bear just doesn’t sparkle like Harlow’s Vantine.  Part of it is the rules of the production code, of course.  In a pre-code world, Vantine is allowed to swagger about as an unrepentant floozy.  The audience is allowed to sympathize with her despite her lack of concern about her checkered present.

Compare Harlow’s entrance as Vantine with Gardner as Honey Bear:

Honey Bear is not as refined as Grace Kelly’s Mrs. Nordley, but it’s not obvious that she’s so much farther down on the social circle that Vic is justified in ordering her not to speak to Mrs. Nordley.  He just comes across as a jerk.

Honey Bear’s past is also whitewashed.  She was once in love with a man who was killed in the war, you see, and so she’s taken a bit of a wrong turn because her heart was shattered.

She’s also terribly jealous and miserable over Vic’s infatuation with Mrs. Nordley.  There is none of Vantine’s amused teasing.  Honey Bear is furious at being unceremoniously thrown over for another woman.

Clark Gable with Jean Harlow (Red Dust), and then Ava Gardner (Mogambo)
Clark before the mustache and production code with Harlow…..and after with Gardner.

And I hate to say it, but Clark Gable is too old.  He’s twice as old as Grace Kelly and looks even older.  To watch the King of Hollywood lusting after Grace Kelly is just a bit pathetic, and that’s not what the film was going for. (I’ll say nothing of their real life on-set affair.)  And his chemistry with Gardner is non-existent.

Grace Kelly with Clark Gable in Mogambo (1953)
Grace Kelly, Clark Gable

Red Dust zips along, but Mogamo drags.  And thanks to the production code, though twenty-years older, Red Dust is actually a much racier and sexier film.

The critics disagree with me, as critics often do.  Gardner was nominated for an Oscar for Lead Actress, and Kelly for Supporting Actress.  Back in 1932, Harlow and Astor weren’t nominated for a thing.  Red Dust did a decent box office, but Mogambo was a smash.

Don’t listen to the critics or the audiences.  Listen to me—next time you’ve got a hankering for Clark Gable in the jungle, skip him with Gardner in the technicolor Mogambo and settle in to watch him with Harlow in black and white.

You won’t be sorry.

Final Verdicts:  Red Dust - Give It A Shot, Mogambo - Had Its Day, Its Day Is Done

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

Jean Harlow and Clark Gable in Red Dust (1932)