The National Theater was located on Great Northern Blvd. in North Olmsted, Ohio, tucked away behind a Firestone service center, and nearby Fazio’s, a local grocery chain. The beige brick building could easily be mistaken for a bank, which actually took over the property in the 1990s. Before converting to a two screen, second run theater in the 80s, the National was owned by the National Theater Corporation and served up new releases, as well as the occasional rereleases of classic films, including the Academy Award winning Gone with the Wind. Sometime in the mid-70s, on a Sunday afternoon, I saw that epic film. Certain moments from Gone with the Wind have stayed with me throughout my life and represent my first movie memories. Because of that, Gone with the Wind seemed like the right choice to begin a series called the Weekend Matinee.
I don’t know what compelled us to see Gone with the Wind. Our family rarely went to movies, and my parents were outspoken about what they experienced living in Georgia during the Jim Crow era of the early 60s. Sitting through four hours of characters lamenting about the loss of the old south seemed out of character for them. I don’t recall my mother in attendance, which leads me to believe that my dad dragged us kids to this long ass movie to keep us occupied for an afternoon. Mom could have been at work, and since there were four of us, what better way to ensure that we don’t get into mischief.
We took our seats in the large theater and I marveled at the size of the screen. Until that moment, I have fleeting images of the family crammed in the car watching Disney flicks at the drive-in. When the lights dimmed in the National that afternoon, I had my first “real” movie experience of sitting in the dark in silence and being transported to a different place. In the years since then, I’ve watched movies on televisions, airplanes, university lecture halls, computers and iPads. None of them compare to being in the theater surrounding by fellow movie lovers.
Was Gone with the Wind too long? I don’t know. Did I like it? Not sure. Obviously it left some impression on me, because here I am, 40 years later, relating this story to you. Still, my memories of that day are only some particular scenes, not the whole film. For that reason I sat down last week to watch Gone with the Wind in its entirety for only the second time. I came away with the following observations.
Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), the film’s heroine, is a horrible human being. Selfish, greedy and unkind, I couldn’t find one redeemable quality about her. Scarlett uses and discards people for her own purposes. In addition, she pursues her cousin Melanie’s (Olivia de Havilland) husband, Ashley (Leslie Howard). When she finally realizes that she really loves her estranged husband, Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), I didn’t care. After 3 ½ hours of putting up with her I was done. Look, I like films with abhorrent characters in them (Wolf of Wall Street, Ace in the Hole, anything by Tarantino), but I found no joy in Scarlett.
It doesn’t help that every other principle character in the movie (except Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy) is racist. Sure, Melanie is sweet and graceful, but she’s still a southern belle who believes that blacks should be subservient to whites. That’s one aspect of Gone with the Wind that I couldn’t get over, how racist it is. That this film is so beloved by generations and was selected for the National Film Registry confuses me. Then again, Margaret Mitchell’s novel, from which the movie is based, was a number one bestseller and won the Pulitzer Prize, so I guess the public was clamoring for some romanticizing about the old south. The next time I speak to my parents, I must ask them why they ventured to see this movie. Since retiring they’ve become avid movie goers and astute critics. I wonder what they think of Gone with the Wind now?
As for Rhett Butler, I credit Clark Gable for bringing depth and complexity to the character. For all Rhett’s lust for money and affection, his one true love isn’t Scarlett, but their daughter, Bonnie. This brings me to the one moment in the film that has stayed with me since that day at the National: the death of Bonnie Blue Butler.
Late in the film, Rhett and Scarlett’s young daughter is showing off on her pony. She trots off to impress her parents by jumping a fence. Despite the calls from Rhett and Scarlett to stop, Bonnie rides on. Her pony stops short of the fence and Bonnie is thrown. She dies instantly. Rhett races to her, clutches her lifeless body and cries out in anguish. If you watch closely, as that shot of the dissolves out Gable added a second, more emotional scream that is covered up by the swelling music. The shock of that moment, and the heart wrenching sadness that accompanied it should have been too intense for me back then, but I felt sympathy for Rhett, helpless and robbed of telling his little girl he loved her one last time.
From that day forward, the fear of loss has haunted. As a child I was afflicted with anxiety that my parents might not love me, or that they might get a divorce. Was Gone with the Wind partially responsible for my childhood despair? I don’t think it stemmed from my Hardy Boys books or Sesame Street. As a parent, my own overprotective attachment to my kids comes from someplace deep inside of me, a dread of losing them and never being able to function. That flickering images in a movie theater could have such a profound effect on my mind amazes me. I don’t regret ever feeling this way; that deep down fear has forced me to be more thoughtful to the people I care about. It’s also filled me with excruciating guilt whenever I’m an asshole, but that’s a topic for a whole other discussion.
What I also discovered during this new viewing of Gone with the Wind were two other pivotal moments that jumped out at me with such clarity, I knew I’d seen them before. In the first, Scarlett is about to enter a hospital room to help a doctor cut off the leg of a wounded Confederate soldier. She pauses in the doorway and the camera holds on her face as she registers what is about to take place. A quick reverse shot reveals the doctor preparing to saw off the leg without any anesthesia, and the soldier crying out. Scarlett reacts with pity and horror just before fleeing the scene.
In the second, Scarlett reveals to Rhett that she’s pregnant, the result of him raping her (although the film barely registers that it was rape). They bicker at the top of their vast staircase. Scarlett stumbles and tumbles to the bottom of the steps. She loses the baby.
Why is it that these images of violence and loss resonated with me and not the cheery singing animals from an animated Disney film? I don’t have an answer for that, but I know that these moments informed the way I see the world to this day.
After the movie, we exited the theater and stepped out into the glare of the setting sun. I held my dad’s calloused hand, as we crossed the parking lot. We would return home, eat leftovers, and settle back into our suburban routines. That afternoon at the National introduced me to adult themes for the first time in my life, and although I don’t appreciate Gone with the Wind like the most of the world, it has had an important role in my development as a human being. I may never watch it again, but I feel like I have to hold on to my copy, like a record collector hangs on to some of their crappiest music because it connects to some part of their childhood.