• On Sunday afternoon I went to see the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, which opens this week at Studio 54 (and which I’ll be reviewing in Friday’s Wall Street Journal).
• I’ve been watching Gone With the Wind in installments over the past few days. I’d only seen it twice before, both times in the theater (first in the Seventies, then in the Nineties), and not since I finally got around to reading the book, which impressed me rather more than I expected. As I wrote a few years ago:
“No man is a hypocrite in his pleasures,” said Dr. Johnson, right as always. As proof of his point, I offer in evidence Gone With the Wind. Never has a middlebrow bodice-ripper been more widely reviled by highbrow critics, yet ordinary folks continue to buy it, read it, and like it, no matter how often they’re told they shouldn’t do any of the above….
Gone With the Wind, on the other hand, will keep on being read and relished by the common readers with whom Dr. Johnson rejoiced to concur, for the very good reason that it’s a pretty good novel, not to mention a rather surprising one. Over and above the pure pull of plot, it has some unexpectedly shrewd things to say about the vanity of the Glorious Cause (most of which didn’t make it into the movie). Ashley Wilkes’ anguished letter to his wife Melanie is a case in point: “I see too clearly that we have been betrayed, betrayed by our arrogant Southern selves…by words and catch phrases, prejudices and hatreds coming from the mouths of those highly placed, those men whom we respected and revered–King Cotton, Slavery, States’ Rights, Damn Yankees.”
Moreover, Gone with the Wind is peopled with characters whose inconsistencies make them interesting, none more so than Scarlett O’Hara, an unattractive, inexplicably seductive anti-heroine whom Trollope himself might well have been pleased to dream up on an especially good day.
Alas, the movie doesn’t hold up nearly so well, save as a sort of apotheosis of Technicolor. The only other costume piece I can think of that uses Technicolor as vividly is John Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Clark Gable and Hattie McDaniel are excellent, Max Steiner’s score is wonderful in its old-fashioned way, and the siege and burning of Atlanta are fully as effective—and unexpectedly unsentimental—as I remember them. But Vivien Leigh’s two-keyed performance as Scarlett is wearying, while the script scissors out most of the novel’s ambiguities, such as they are.
Coming as I do from a small town in the southern half of a border state, one that saw a lynching as late as 1942 and segregated schools well into the Sixties, I’ve never had much patience with those who romanticize the antebellum South, and especially now that I’ve read Margaret Mitchell’s novel, my guess is that this is the last time I’ll ever care to see the film. Sentimental period pieces only work when they evoke periods in which one might want to have lived, however briefly. I can’t think of anything more repellent than living in a land whose gentility was bought and paid for with the flesh of men.