Frankly My Dear CoverIt’s been a solid 70 years since Scarlett O’Hara promised herself she’d think about that tomorrow.

In the interim, a lot of people have been thinking about Scarlett. There’ve  been sequels, musicals, spoofs, a protest parody,  anniversary celebrations, even a museum

And now there’s another book — likely the BEST book ever written about Scarlett, Melanie, Mammy, Rhett and the rest (aside from Margaret Mitchell’s little best-selling effort).

Celebrated critic and journalist Molly Haskell has taken a long hard look at “Gone With The Wind” and the excellent result is “Frankly My Dear: Gone With The Wind Revisited” (University Press, $24).

Though she’s lived in New York for decades with her husband, legendary film writer, Andrew Sarris, Haskell was born down South — in Richmond, Virginia. And she attended Sweet Briar College, which says volumes to certain Southerners.

True, she’s been fully Yankee-ized, but as those same Yankees like to say, she still knows from debutante balls and the Junior League. When SHE explains why a high-spirited Peggy Mitchell wasn’t invited to join Atlanta’s League, Haskell knows just what sort of pettiness and, at the same time, stinging rejection, were in play. Years later, Peggy enjoyed payback by refusing to attend the big ball given the League the night before the movie’s premier in Atlanta.

Haskell takes the book’s (and movie’s) eternal burden, its hideous racism, as a given. Though she discusses it, you feel she feels it”s been dissected quite a lot and by others who wished to make it the focus.  That’s not to say she ignores it. I especially like her writing on Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy and became the first African-American ever to win an Oscar. She played a lot of Mammy roles throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s and got a lot of flack for it. But she shut up a lot of her critics when she said, “I would rather make $700 a week playing a maid than be one.”

Still, as Haskell reminds us, none of the black cast was invited to Atlanta for the premier, and at the Oscars themselves, McDaniel was seated at the back of the room, far away from the main GWTW table.

Other things interest Haskell. For one, the way the contrariness of GWTW’s legacy (especially as a movie) sets it apart from other nostalgic classics like “Casablanca” or “The Wizard of Oz.” Haskell writes that both are iconic, but in a more manageable way. “There’s a consensus about why they’re charming … or art. A common agreement on what’s good, bad, silly, and fun. “Gone with the Wind,” on the other hand, with its much wider spectrum, is both different things to different people and different things to the same person at different times in that person’s life.

Divisions in thinking — the tension between the primitive and the sophisticated, between political advocacy and apolitical enjoyment, between literary and mass-market tastes — have always been there and even constitute part of its pull.

And then there’s Scarlett herself. Haskell made her reputation back in the ’70s with an early feminist criitique of the movies called “From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies.”
She defends Scarlett as a fully-realized character, an American original  worthy of standing along side Captain Ahab, Charles Foster Kane or Huck Finn.

Scarlett is no rough-and-tumble tomboy like Jo in “Little Women” or an unattainable blank like Daisy in “The Great Gatsby” or even a slightly tainted sprite like Holly GoLightly/Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” There’s something very real about Scarlett, something very grounded, even when she’s behaving outlandishly or selfishly. Rhett/Clark Gable can see through her simpering with both eyes closed. In a word, she’s complex, perhaps even more complex than she herself  — or her creator Peggy Mitchell — even knows.

Mitchell was a complicated woman, too.  There was the, er, misunderstanding with the  social belles of Atlanta for dancing too wildly (it’s said). She refused to set foot in Hollywood, no matter how many times David O. Selznick asked her. And while most Southerners know she was run down by a cab and killed while crossing Peachtree Street in 1949, very few know what movie she and her husband were going to see.

Haskell knows.

It was “A Canterbury Tale,” a rather sophisticated Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger picture.

About the only thing Haskell leaves out — and I’m mystified as to why — is the scholarship Mitchell set up at Morehouse, one of Atlanta’s famous African-American colleges.

In 1941, the institution’s new president, Dr. Benjamin Mays, approached Mitchell about supporting the school. She agreed to an anonymous annual donation, which continued after her death.

Dr. Mays kept her secret as she asked, and did so for many years after her death. The fund only came to light when Dr. Otis Smith, the first African-American in the state of Georgia to be certified as a pediatrician, approached Mary Rose Taylor, chairman of the Margaret Mitchell House, Inc., with the story.

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Eleanor Ringel Cater

Eleanor Ringel Cater

Eleanor Ringel Cater, long-time movie critic for The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, also has been a regular contributor to CNN, MSNBC, Entertainment Weekly, Headline News and WXIA, Atlanta's NBC affiliate, and a columnist for TV Guide.