Melanie Wilkes, Feminist

Recently, Richard Brookhiser (an essential follow for history buffs) tweeted:

I had a number of picks, none of which was Gone with the Wind, which I consider excellent moviemaking, but risible history. But naturally, someone mentioned it and Brookhiser opened it to the crowd, appropriately mentioning its “lost cause” ideology, while praising it as moviemaking.

I mentioned that Mellie was one of the greatest feminist characters of all time, and someone caviled. Mellie? Scarlett is the one feminists love.

True, Scarlett is the character more typically celebrated by feminists, at least before GWTW became off limits to praise. But when I first read Gone With the Wind in my teens, I was appalled. Scarlett is a loathsome, selfish, vain, cowardly little monster, a characterization the movie does little to soften.

So for a good decade or more, I shrugged off Gone with the Wind.  Eventually I saw it on the big screen and tempered my dislike; the story is beautifully told, the acting from top to bottom is tremendous, and as spectacle it’s impressive.

I’m not sure when I first realized that Melanie Wilkes, played by the great Olivia De Havilland, was the tremendous feminist model that others saw in Scarlett. I do know that from the first time I watched it to now, I preferred Melanie.  Sometime in the 90s, though, I realized that she, not the tempestuous Scarlett, is the exemplar of a powerful female character. De Havilland’s Melanie is, in my view, one of the five great feminist movie roles of all time (the others: Bette Davis in Now, Voyager, Faye Dunaway in Network, Meryl Streep in Out of Africa, and Sigourney Weaver in Aliens.)

You can easily watch GWTW and see only Melanie’s story. She is a happy woman who was given the gift of a man she adored above all others. From the movie’s first moments to the last of her life, her face lights up in his presence. She wants only to give Ashley a home and a family, and to be a mother and wife. But Ashley must  fight for The Cause, so she must  support him and the other brave men fighting for their country and the right to own slaves. She nurses and works endlessly to the extent her body will allow. She gives every bit of her strength to help in the war so that her Ashley can come home. She is warm and accepting based on others’ character and motives, unheeding of social standing.  She deliberately chooses to get pregnant in the middle of a war despite the risk to her health and financial security, because Ashley’s legacy must be carried on. (The movie is quite frank about Ashley and Melanie’s intention on Christmas Eve ; note Scarlett’s reaction as the two of them go up to bed.) She gives up her wedding ring, a cherished symbol of her marriage, to help support the Confederate Army (although Rhett Butler gets it back). And despite Ashley’s helpless infatuation with Scarlett, the Wilkes’ marriage is a strong one. Notice that Scarlett, for all her protestations of devotion, doesn’t waste a second glance on the ex-soldier she thinks is coming to beg. It’s Melanie who instantly recognizes the distant, shabby figure as her beloved husband, in a homecoming ranked second or third to  Sounder’s “running scene” and the two from Best Years of Our Lives.

She’s “just” a wife and mother. What else was possible in the 1860s south?

But Melanie’s onscreen action rarely involves cooking or childcare. She works with Rhett Butler to stage manage a show that gives the wounded Ashley an alibi, protecting him from Ward Bond’s Yankee captain. None of it is planned. She’s using pure wits while following Rhett’s cues. Watch the fine, upright, honest Mellie lie serenely to keep her husband from a Yankee prison, after Ashley, along with Scarlett’s husband Frank Kennedy, went to clear out the shanty town where Scarlett was attacked–“what a great many of our Southern gentleman have been called upon to do for our protection.”

And when those Southern gentlemen aren’t around? Well, notice that same night, when her husband isn’t home, she has a gun nearby to protect her guests. Or, most notably , she grabs her father’s sword to protect her baby from a raiding Yankee soldier who’d fought to free their slaves. Scarlett got there first, of course. But Mellie was ready to fight for her own, despite being “weak as a kitten” from blood loss during child birth.

“Scarlett, you killed him! I’m glad you killed him.”  And then Mellie, still  faint and dizzy, helps Scarlett pilfer his pockets and hid the body, being quickheaded enough to lie about the noise. (She also takes off her nightgown to absorb the soldier’s blood, giving her the movie’s only nude scene.)

After the war, Melanie more won’t hear a word bad about Scarlett,  not from  Belle Watling, who helped save her husband, not from her other sister-in-law India, not from anyone. The only cross word she ever has for her husband came when he tried to escape Scarlett’s attentions and move his family away from Atlanta. Scarlett wouldn’t hear of it and starts to cry. Melanie is outraged at her husband’s ungrateful, ungentlemanly behavior.

Melanie’s staunch, unquestioning devotion to Scarlett leads many to dismiss her as saccharine, but she is manifestly not a a goody goody. When her sister-in-law and husband are caught in a compromising position, and Rhett forces his wife to go to Ashley’s birthday party, Melanie shoves all that social disapproval right back in the town’s face, insisting they recognize Scarlett’s existence.

For some number of years, I considered Melanie’s only weakness to be her bizarre refusal to see Scarlett as evil, conniving, and weak.  Then one day I suddenly noticed that Melanie never once called Scarlett nice, or warm, or loyal, or any of the qualities that she herself had. Instead, she talks about Scarlett’s bravery. Scarlett saved them in Atlanta. Scarlett protected Melanie and her son. Scarlett found a way to help the families survive. Scarlett rebuilt their family’s fortune by marrying her sister’s fiancee.

I realized that all of these things were, well, true. Scarlett could have left Melanie in Atlanta.  She could have been the model of helpless futility through Mellie’s childbirth, running screaming from the house at the sight of bodily fluids just as she did from the hospital during a soldier’s amputation. But she boils water and hangs tough, encouraging the nobler Mellie to scream as loud as she wanted. She could have ignored Mellie’s desire to preserve her father’s sword but wraps it up to give her some peace of mind.  She saved Melanie and Beau, and got them all out of Atlanta, including the annoying Prissie. She could have run away from her family, leaving them all there to starve.  Instead she rebuilt her family’s fortune, which her sister never could have done with Frank Kennedy. She went to Ashley’s birthday party, even expecting Mellie and the town’s society to wither her with rejection. She did almost nothing without a hefty dose of whining. She did many loathsome things, hiring prisoners and hitting slaves. But everyone who hated her benefited from her courage and furious willfulness, and only Melanie understood that.

Through Melanie’s admiration, I’ve come to a reluctant and qualified admiration of Scarlett herself. Scarlett was awful, yes, but her actions do show her to be worthy of Melanie’s trust and support. And yes, precisely because she continually does the right thing even when she longs not to, Scarlett is a great feminist character, for good and bad. (She’s still not in my top five, though.)

****************************************************************************

Gone with the Wind is going through hard times right now.  If in a year or three it’s banished from TCM and movie revival houses and the AFI top 100 (much less the top 10 position it now holds), I won’t be surprised. It’s not a perfect film. But Ingrid Bergman has very little to do in Casablanca, and Diane Keaton even less in The Godfather , both perfect films about men.  It’s another dozen movies down the AFI list until we find All About Eve and Double Indemnity, movies where women as heroes and villains drive the plot.

If I were going to show GWTW in a history class, I would use it as a means of exploring early movie attitudes on race. When I teach US history I focus more attention on the early 1900s than 1965 and beyond. The debate between Booker T. Washington and WEB Dubois is still compelling and relevant to our lives today. Booker and W.E.B. and black society had to build political power during the Jim Crow era, without TV, before the Great Migration had transformed cities and created voting blocs.  We explore the degree to which blacks could simultaneously use their political clout yet be virtually banned from voting in many states.

My students were surprised to learn that in the Jim Crow era, African Americans were able to protest Birth of a Nation in Boston and other cities, leading several states to ban the movie. The NAACP grew its membership considerably during this era, and while the racist Woodrow Wilson may or may not have called the movie “history written in lightning”, the resulting tensions led him to retract his endorsement.  Warren G. Harding was in many ways a terrible president, but his Birmingham civil rights speech, followed by Calvin Coolidge’s open and engaged support also enabled further extension of civil rights, although the Depression and Herbert Hoover led blacks to switch to the Democrats. But by 1938, blacks had sufficient political and ecnomic clout that David O. Selznick sought script approval from the NAACP, and (reluctantly) dropped the use of the n-word. (Selznick thought that it would be okay if blacks used the word.)

I’d be much more tempted to show GWTW in an English class, though. I want my students to feel the kind of passion that leads people to debate and care and argue about fictional characters, and I think this film inspires that kind of passion.

Yes, GWTW promotes the  false “lost cause” view of the Civil War. Yes, the characters hate the Yankees who  died to free the slaves. Yes, Prissie is a terrible caricature. But Hattie McDaniel, who beat out De Havilland for Best Supporting Actress, creates a spectacular character in Mammy, a performance that black actors weren’t really allowed to match until Sidney Poitier’s work in the 50s and 60s. Watch this amazing, single shot up the stairs by Mammy and Mellie. We never see the rage between Rhett and Scarlett as they mourn their daughter’s death. We don’t have to. It’s all in McDaniel’s voice and de Havilland’s muted reactions. How can we show our students the amazing talent of African Americans shining through despite their restricted opportunities if we demand all the movies meet our current norms?

And now, some words about De Havilland who, unlike every other white starlet in Hollywood, wanted to play Melanie, not Scarlett. A much bigger star than Vivian Leigh ever was, de Havilland uses her charisma and presence in service of Melanie’s character, which she  well understood, to create a warm and compelling character out of a role that many other actresses made vapid and sickly sweet.

At 101, she’s still with us. She’s suing the producers and director of  Feud;  her case has survived an attempt to dismiss and begins in November. She changed the history of Hollywood  by suing, so who knows how this will turn out?

She is amazing as Melanie and charming as Maid Marian, but her finest performance is as Catherine Sloper in The Heiress, for which she received her second Oscar. Both movies originate from American fiction to which both stayed amazingly faithful, but while GWTW never aspired to be literature, Washington Square by Henry James is an American classic. The movie is quotable, beautiful, and one of the most psychologically painful movies you will ever run into.  Don’t take my word for it. Ask Martin Scorcese.

 

 

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About educationrealist


37 responses to “Melanie Wilkes, Feminist

  • anon

    Meh. Your discussion reminds me of a review of Ti-Neisi Coates (by John Derbyshire, I think). ‘Black black blackety-black.’ Should I watch GWTW in history, or English? Risible history because its Lost Cause? Should the NAACP have veto power over dialogue in movies? Throw in mentions of slavery at inconvenient times (“Yes, the characters hate the Yankees who  died to free the slaves.”)-just to remind everyone that AMERICA HAD SLAVERY, again and again and again.

    “If I were going to show GWTW in a history class, I would use it as a means of exploring early movie attitudes on race.” Really? Its not enough to remind students that AMERICA HAD SLAVERY in the 1800’s, its not enough to remind them that the Civil War was because AMERICA HAD SLAVERY; you’ve got to spend some of your teaching time, in high school history, to discuss movie attitudes on race in 1930’s America? Is that really the most important thing happening in America in the 1930’s (as opposed to, say the Depression, lead up to World War 2, great migration due to the dustbowl, few other things).

    If you are conscious of this, you are like the sociology graduate students that dominate colleges today: constantly microagressed at the choice of pronouns and language, and using your soapbox to incessantly harangue your students on the proper way to subconsciously interpret the world (‘black black blackety black’).

    If you are unconscious of this, you are not alone: this is why I don’t participate in our popular culture, why I send my kids to private schools, why I don’t take much of contemporary writing/critique seriously-I’m tired of being hectored about the same narrow nonsense.

    If I watched a good movie about the Ancient Romans, I would appreciate the story, or the filmmaking, or the characterizations, and be aware of all of the things that make up a good movie. I may be aware of the existence of slavery in that society, but only insofar as its part of that movie-not as a central pillar of my interpretation (‘German German Germany-German’). Same with Victorian Era movies ‘(serf serf serfity-serf’). If I’m going to watch GWTW, I’ll do the same thing-there’s a lot going on in the movie. Slavery was part of the story, but insignificant. Class was part of the story, too. My whole interpretation of the movie, and the world, isn’t black black blackety-black. I hope I can insulate my kids from that internalized white guilt long enough that they don’t spend their lives instantly interpreting everything through the lens of ‘what have I, or other white people, done wrong here?’

    anon

  • anon

    Gone with the Wind, which I consider excellent moviemaking, but risible history.

    appropriately mentioning its “lost cause” ideology

    so she must  support him and the other brave men fighting for their country and the right to own slaves

    If I were going to show GWTW in a history class, I would use it as a means of exploring early movie attitudes on race.

    When I teach US history I focus more attention on the early 1900s than 1965 and beyond. The debate between Booker T. Washington and WEB Dubois is still compelling and relevant to our lives today. Booker and W.E.B. and black society had to build political power during the Jim Crow era, without TV, before the Great Migration had transformed cities and created voting blocs.  We explore the degree to which blacks could simultaneously use their political clout yet be virtually banned from voting in many states.

    My students were surprised to learn that in the Jim Crow era, African Americans were able to protest Birth of a Nation in Boston and other cities,

    But by 1938, blacks had sufficient political and ecnomic clout that David O. Selznick sought script approval from the NAACP

    Yes, the characters hate the Yankees who  died to free the slaves.

    How can we show our students the amazing talent of African Americans shining through despite their restricted opportunities if we demand all the movies meet our current norms?

    I did read it. Black black blackety black.

    anon

    • Roger Sweeny

      I didn’t see internalized white guilt here at all. Bleep, man, he’s saying good things about characters who are white racists and own black slaves, recognizing that–surprise!–not living up to today’s standards does not make you a totally depraved person.

      Sure, he mentions slavery but that’s hard not to do when talking abut a Civil War movie.

      I personally found the two paragraphs beginning, “If I were going to show GWTW in a history class” very interesting. I think it would be a very good thing if people knew that the history of black people in America is not “everything was uniformly bad until Brown and the Civil Rights Movement.”

      • educationrealist

        Thanks, Roger. I was trying to put together a way of saying good things about Melanie while still recognizing the problem with liking GWTW. And the history of the early 20th century is indeed interesting, what with the political power of black voters as tie-breakers–while still disenfranchised in the south.

      • anon

        “Thanks, Roger. I was trying to put together a way of saying good things about Melanie while still recognizing the problem with liking GWTW.”

        This is exactly the point. I like Ben Hur. Ben Hur has mentions of slavery (Ben Hur is a galley slave in a famous, pivotal scene, after all). Is there a problem with liking Ben Hur?

        I like GWTW. What ‘problem’ with that statement is there, that requires preemptive apology? Of course: black black blackety-black.

        anon

      • educationrealist

        There would be a problem today with liking Ben Hur if he *had* slaves.

        But in any event, I’m personally not terribly troubled by anything except Prissie, who is a revolting character. I am trying to write an article that openly acknowledges what others will say about Melanie, which pre-empts their fussing.

        The “problem” with liking GWTW is that you are saying you admire people who kept slaves in a period AFTER the Declaration of Independence said all men are created equal.

        I didn’t apologize once. The things you say are apologies are your idiotic misreadings. What I’m doing is writing a piece that argues Melanie is an amazing character while removing anyone’s ability to complain that she’s a slaveholder.

        It’s a strategy that you appear incapable of grasping.

      • Ian

        There would be a problem today with liking Ben Hur if he *had* slaves.

        Ben Hur did have slaves: Esther (his love interest) and her father.

  • anon

    “The “problem” with liking GWTW is that you are saying you admire people who kept slaves in a period AFTER the Declaration of Independence said all men are created equal.”

    Why, by saying I like GWTW, amd I saying I admire slave holders? I said I liked Ben Hur. I didn’t say I admired the slave holders in it, and I never said I liked Ben Hur because I liked Ben and disliked the slaveholding Romans. There is no obligation to do so.

    I might like American Psycho (I haven’t seen it). Is the problem with liking American Psycho that I am saying I admire mass murderers?

    I might like Waterloo. Is the problem with liking Waterloo that I am saying I admire military, aggressive quasi-dictatorships?

    I might like Beckett, or The Lion in Winter. Is the problem with liking them that I am saying I admire monarchical government?

    I might like Das Boot. Is the problem with liking Das Boot that I am saying I admire Nazi Germany?

    I might like..I could do this all day.

    You’re still stuck with your exceptional (unusual) requirement: like GWTW, but apologize for it. Or don’t admit to liking GWTW. black black blackety black. Black interests trump everything-even movie choices.

    anon

    • educationrealist

      You keep on missing the point. I understand you don’t want to do that. Fine. Don’t. I’m not making you.

    • Roger Sweeny

      The problem is that the movie seems to like slaveholders. And there are many noisy and/or important people who think that if you like the movie, you are going too easy on slaveholders. So, yeah, you have to make it clear that you don’t admire slaveholding. At least you have to if you don’t want to expose yourself to unjustified abuse. And if you want to be taken seriously.

      In a better world, you wouldn’t have to be so careful–but that’s not the world we live in.

      • anon

        Yes, Roger, you get it. It is ‘unjustified abuse.’ Simply saying you like a movie without proactively apologizing for it would be a ‘better world.’ You can’t be ‘taken seriously’ if you simply like a movie about the distant past without reminding everyone that you agree with the conventional wisdom regarding the evils of slavery (which ended over 150 years ago).

        And isn’t it really fundamentally absurd? Are there any people, anywhere in the country (even on most of the planet) that really ‘admire slaveholding?’ Yet, to enjoy GWTW, you have to remind your fellow moviegoers that you don’t admire slaveholding. I’m quite confident that less than 100 people out of the 300 million in America genuinely ‘admire slaveholding’, but if I want to enjoy one of the classic movies ever made, I have to publically declare that I’m not one of those 300.

        Further, note that this public requirement didn’t exist probably 10 years ago. GWTW has enjoyed a reissue about every 10-20 years since it was released (I saw it in a theatre probably 30 years ago-it was just a rerelease of a classic movie). There is a retro movie theatre down south (I don’t remember where-Memphis or something-it happened within the last few months, you can google it) that has shown GWTW once every year, just because it is a classic. They cancelled the showing this year due to the current political climate.

        I guess to be a sensitive American, I have to tell everybody that HEY! I DON’T ADMIRE SLAVEHOLDERS! I JUST LIKE CLASSICAL, WELL MADE MOVIES! I DON’T DESERVE A REEDUCATION CAMP, OR TO BE FIRED FROM MY JOB!

        I don’t know. Maybe we’re both missing the point.

        anon

  • Jokah Macpherson

    I’ve only seen GWTW once and the thing that confused me was all the female characters thinking Ashley was so dreamy. He seemed kind of boring and indecisive to me. To risk using the d-word, I felt like Melanie deserved better, although she seemed to have the sort of personality where she would make the best of whatever dude she wound up with.

    • Mark Roulo

      “I’ve only seen GWTW once and the thing that confused me was all the female characters thinking Ashley was so dreamy. He seemed kind of boring and indecisive to me.”

      In spite of Ashley’s faults, he had a functioning brain. This was something that Melanie liked and was a rare thing to find amongst the southern men presented in the movie.

      It probably doesn’t help that Leslie Howard was cast as Ashley. I’ve seen him only in GWTW and Romeo and Juliet and was unimpressed with his acting.

      And also, at the *start* of the movie Ashley was wealthy. Quite attractive in itself.

  • Mark Roulo

    “black black blackety black…”

    For those of us that frequent alt-right web sites, but still don’t know who this is directed at, could you please tell the bystanders here what they are supposed to conclude except that you are an idiot? I’m assuming that there is a message here to someone, but I can’t for the life of me figure out what it is.

  • anon

    ‘black black blackety black’

    Sure: Ta Nehisi Coates is a black political and social commenter who recently got a MacArthur Grant, and is considered by goodthinkers to be the latest genius thinker. John Derbyshire isn’t impressed with him, and has described his writing as not very good, and furthermore, one dimensional-just complaining about black experience, black issues, black identity, etc. He has mocked it as just ‘black black blackety black’- in other words, not MacArthur Genius-level thinking.

    I’m using it to suggest its the same with teaching GWTW: replace all thought, all considerations of the movie, with black concerns, black issues, black experiences: black black blackety black. Was it a good story? First confirm that you don’t support slavery (?). Was it well acted? First, confirm that you don’t support slavery. Was it an extravagent and overwhelming epic film? Who cares: do you support slavery?

    Furthermore, when ER suggests he teaches GWTW to illustrate black good acting, or discuss early movie attitudes towards race; when he discusses the early 20th century specifically to discuss how blacks were able to mobilize in spite of not being able to vote: to teach the 1930’s in terms of how blacks were able to get script approval from David O Selznick; how the early 20th century can be discussed in terms of the conflict between WEB Dubois and Booker T Washington; that he discusses black American’s ability to protest ‘Birth of A Nation’ (a movie that most people haven’t heard of and don’t care about), he is guilty of more ‘black black blackety black’ – or, in other words, replacing thought and study of anything else with thought and study about black attitudes towards everything.

    Could you imagine discussing, or writing about, GWTW WITHOUT addressing the slavery question? I would think so. I would guess 90% of the writing about the movie, before about 2010, did so: the epic movie, the grandeur, the conflict between Rhett and Scarlett, or whatever. Before 2010 people were able to consider the movie AS A MOVIE-just as we do Ben Hur, or Das Boot. Today we can’t, and, as ER says, we aren’t allowed to: “The “problem” with liking GWTW is that you are saying you admire people who kept slaves”. This statement, as I have said earlier, is absurd: I, for instance, like GWTW, but don’t admire people who kept slaves. I’m guessing I’m not the only one.

    So why did he write it? Why do he (and others) believe it? Because it is presumed that black concerns trump all others-that one can’t unselfconsciously enjoy a movie without preemptively apologizing for doing so-that one thing and one thing only matters: the movie’s attitude towards race. Or, in other words,

    black black blackety black.

    anon

    • Roger Sweeny

      There’s a difference between “replace all thought, all considerations of the movie, with black concerns, black issues, black experiences: black black blackety black” and “proactively” “reminding everyone that you agree with the conventional wisdom regarding the evils of slavery.” A very big difference. And, of course, that’s what ER was doing here: most of the essay is talking about the characters and in particular, who could be considered “feminist.”

      Is it “fundamentally absurd” that you have to do that to be taken seriously today? I don’t think so. All societies at all times have things that can’t be talked about in respectable circles and ways that certain things have to be talked about. Some times this is called manners. Given America’s history, I’m not sure this present version of “good manners” is a bad thing. Especially since, as you say, very very few people actually think slavery is a good thing. It’s not as if you have to lie when you talk about GWTW.

      Now, when good manners requires you to lie, I think it’s a very different thing. But ER did not lie here.

      I also don’t think it’s a bad thing to talk about the historical background of a movie or to push back against its moral messages. For example, if I were talking about Warren Beatty’s Reds, I would be sure that my listeners knew that the heroes of the movie fought for a cause that wound up killing more people than Hitler.

      • anon

        Roger-
        I enjoy discussing it with you.

        “There’s a difference between “replace all thought, all considerations of the movie, with black concerns, black issues, black experiences: black black blackety black” and “proactively” “reminding everyone that you agree with the conventional wisdom regarding the evils of slavery.” ”

        But that’s not all he’s doing, is it? Here’s from his original post (I quoted it earlier, but I’ll repeat it here).

        “But Ashley must  fight for The Cause, so she must  support him and the other brave men fighting for their country AND THE RIGHT TO OWN SLAVES. (emphasis added).’

        “Or, most notably , she grabs her father’s sword to protect her baby from a raiding Yankee soldier WHO’D FOUGHT TO FREE THEIR SLAVES. (emphasis added).”

        “If I were going to show GWTW in a history class, I would use it as a means of exploring early movie attitudes on race.” (Think about this: what did you learn about 1930’s America in high school history class? The Depression, the Dustbowl, and the leadup to WWII, probably. Is early movie attitudes on race really one of the 3 most important things to learn about the 1930’s?)

        “My students were surprised to learn that in the Jim Crow era, African Americans were able to protest Birth of a Nation in Boston and other cities” (Think about this. Is one of the three most important things to learn about 1930’s America, in high school history, the fact that black protested against Birth of a Nation in Boston? A movie that virtually no one has seen, and isn’t even shown any more?)

        “Yes, GWTW promotes the  false “lost cause” view of the Civil War. Yes, the characters hate the Yankees who  DIED TO FREE THE SLAVES.” (emphasis added. That’s the third time he’s mentioned it in a blog post of, say 600 words. Did you get the hint yet?)

        “How can we show our students the amazing talent of African Americans shining through despite their restricted opportunities if we demand all the movies meet our current norms?” (uhm, why is that even important? One black actress did a good job in 1939-so our students HAVE to know about it? How is this not ‘black black blackety black’ by definition? It reminds me of George Washington Carver-the inventor of peanut butter. He’s black, so its IMPORTANT. I don’t know who invented jelly, or mustard, or picante sauce. But, but, its peanut butter, by God!!).

        So its more than just announcing to the world that I don’t like slavery, every time I talk about GWTW. That’s the point.

        2) “All societies at all times have things that can’t be talked about in respectable circles and ways that certain things have to be talked about.” This isn’t an argument. Simply stating that X exists (X being the requirement to apologize for liking GWTW) doesn’t defend X. WHY is it good to require one to apologize for liking GWTW? And what is wrong with questioning societies mores? Isn’t that how mores change? Isn’t that how the requirement to apologize for liking GWTW came about in the first place (before the social requirement existed)-so its reasonable to question its value once it is here?

        3) “Especially since, as you say, very very few people actually think slavery is a good thing. It’s not as if you have to lie when you talk about GWTW.” We’re getting to the real issue. It isn’t that you have to reassure others that you don’t really like slavery (virtually nobody actually ‘likes’ slavery-its not even a credible concern, as we both agree). It is that someone else can REQUIRE you to proclaim that you don’t like slavery. The whole issue is power and control. Its not even a reasonable suspicion that I, by liking GWTW, secretly ‘like’ slavery. But if I can be obligated to state that I don’t like slavery before I talk about it, my thoughts and behavior are controlled.

        4) “For example, if I were talking about Warren Beatty’s Reds, I would be sure that my listeners knew that the heroes of the movie fought for a cause that wound up killing more people than Hitler.”

        There is an absolutely vital difference. When you talk about Reds, you would CHOOSE to remind the listeners about the evils of communism (note: even though I agree with you, I would be put off by these comments-more political hectoring, blah blah blah). But when I talk about GWTW, ER would REQUIRE me to remind the listeners about the evils of slavery (and by ‘require’, of course, I mean ‘impose the social obligation to’-the same social obligation you defend as manners, in your post).

        Hypothetically: do you think manners in our society should evolve so that, any time anyone talks about the movie REDS, they should be socially obligated to mention the evils of communism in the way you describe? Would that qualify as good manners, in the same way the obligation to refute slavery exists for discussions about the movie GWTW?

        Are there other movies for which this social obligation should exist? Which ones?

        anon

      • Roger Sweeny

        ER does NOT say that in high school history, “the fact that black protested against Birth of a Nation in Boston” “Is one of the three most important things to learn about 1930’s America.” He’s saying that if he showed GWTW in an American history class, this is one of the things he would mention. And I think it’s important to mention. There is a fairly widespread, and very dangerous, perception that until about the time of Brown, most American blacks lived in a state of semi-slavery under the evil white man. I think it’s especially important for non-white kids to know.

        To talk about achievements by black people is not “‘black black blackety black’ by definition.” It would be if you were talking about great physicists and pulled in some second-rank black just to get “diversity” but that’s not what was happening here. ER was talking about the performances here and mentioned that the performance by one of the actresses deserved a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. She was black. Saying that Hattie McDaniel did a very good job is no more “black black blackety black” than saying Isaac Newton is a great physicist is “white white whitey white.”

        It is dishonest and morally wrong to diminish the real achievements of some people because they are “dead white males.” It is just as wrong to diminish the real achievements of people because they are black.

        Yes, social mores control your behavior to some extent. It makes things more complicated to have to say, “Of course, slavery is wrong but GWTW is an amazing achievement”–but it’s not a biggie to me. And, yes, I think if you are making a classroom presentation or writing a long essay on Reds, you should get across the idea that the heroes of the movie fought for an idea that led to more deaths than Hitler. I also think that good manners require you not to wear a tee shirt with positive images of Hitler or Che or Lenin or Mao.

  • educationrealist

    Anon, you didn’t understand a single thing about the piece and every single thing you say I said is wrong. It’s revolting. And your long screeds are boring. Go start your own blog.

    Jokah, Ashley Wilkes was a guy who could be played by any number of people today, but back then you couldn’t be a Leonardo di Caprio in Titanic, all wispy and adorable. Leslie Howard didn’t want the part at all. He was nearly 20 years too old. Ashley Wilkes was supposed to be in his early 20s–Rhett Butler was intended to be the older, wiser guy. But Howard was a few years older than Gable.

    But it’s pretty clear that Selznick had no intention of casting Ashley at the correct age (which would have been about the age of Scarlett’s first husband). The other major contender for the role was Melvyn Howard, who was physically all wrong for the part but read well.

    Mark, Leslie Howard was very very good in The Scarlet Pimpernel. Delightfully foppish, especially reading Sir Percy’s poem. And my favorite line: “Don’t be silly. No one really hides in a clock.”

    He’s also pretty good in Petrified Forest, but his great contribution there was insisting that Humphrey Bogart got his stage role of Duke Mantee, which is the beginning of Bogie’s career, which is why Bogie’s daughter is named Leslie.

    Leslie Howard was either a British propagandaist or a spy who died because he was shot down by the Nazis. Really remarkable guy, very good stage actor who simply made movies for money.

    • anon

      Roger-
      The devil is in the details, and you leave out, or change, important ones that undercut your argument.

      1) ER does NOT say that in high school history, “the fact that black protested against Birth of a Nation in Boston” “Is one of the three most important things to learn about 1930’s America.” He’s saying that if he showed GWTW in an American history class, this is one of the things he would mention”.

      I was making a shortcut-that being that in high school history, you really don’t have time to teach much more than 3 things. It is a very fast, shallow view of 200 years of history, with what you consider to be important emphasized. I suggest that for much of the last century, for the 1930’s meant depression, dustbowl, and pre-WWII. You disagree? Protests before a movie in Boston trump one of those? If he shows GWTW, its important for him to mention that blacks protested an altogether different movie in Boston?

      “And I think it’s important to mention.”

      Did you know about it before you read this blog? I’ll speculate that not one American in 10,000 know that blacks opposed the showing of Birth of a Nation in Boston sometime in the 1930’s. Is that a ‘bad’ that needs to be corrected?

      2) “To talk about achievements by black people is not “‘black black blackety black’ by definition.” It would be if you were talking about great physicists and pulled in some second-rank black just to get “diversity” but that’s not what was happening here.” (As an aside: isn’t that exactly what happens with George Washington Carver? Virtually everybody knows who invented peanut butter. Is that really important information?)

      “ER was talking about the performances here and mentioned that the performance by one of the actresses deserved a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. She was black.”

      On the contrary: “How can we show our students the amazing talent of African Americans shining through despite their restricted opportunities if we demand all the movies meet our current norms?”

      ER isn’t merely describing Hattie’s performance as good: he’s suggesting its important that we teach students about Hattie’s performance (do we teach them any other supporting actor/actress winner, from any movie released in the 1930’s? Any other supporting actor/actress at all?) Why is it important to teach our students specifically about one actress’s performance in one movie that is 80 years old? Are supporting actress awards something we normally teach in high school, or is it just ‘pulled in to get some diversity’? I don’t recall, in any American History class, learning about Oscar winners. There’s more important stuff out there, isn’t there?

      3) “And, yes, I think if you are making a classroom presentation or writing a long essay on Reds, you should get across the idea that the heroes of the movie fought for an idea that led to more deaths than Hitler.”

      I guess we just have to agree to disagree. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Reds, but I’d be perfectly willing to read an essay about it (say, about the writing, or characterization, or cinematography, or plot, or any of a thousand other things) without having to be told that Stalin killed more than Hitler. I’d also like the freedom to discuss Reds without reminding everyone that I’m not a secret sympathizer of Stalin, or totalitarianism.

      anon

      • Roger Sweeny

        You are absolutely right that a high school history course has to be selective, partly because there is so much history and partly because most high school students won’t remember much after the course is over. So a good teacher has themes. I think a very important theme is that it is NOT true that “until about the time of Brown, most American blacks lived in a state of semi-slavery under the evil white man.” And you can illustrate that with anecdotes that, in themselves, are not all that important.

        BTW: the very act of showing movies in history class means that you are taking away time from presenting facts. So you better present a context.

        Why is it important to teach our students specifically about one actress’s performance in one movie that is 80 years old? It isn’t. Unless you’re showing the 80-year-old movie for which she won a deserved Oscar.

        P.S. Go to the IMDB page for Reds and check out the tagline 🙂

      • educationrealist

        Anon, you really don’t understand a single thing. Every single thing you argue about what I am saying is an utter inversion of what I’m actually saying. It’s pathetic. I’m glad Roger has patience, because I certainly don’t.

      • Roger Sweeny

        I’m an old man who used to be a somewhat disagreeable young man, always finding fault with people. I’m trying to make amends 🙂

        Ran across this this morning:
        http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2017/10/roberts_and_mca.html

  • ganderson9754

    One question I have for you Ed, is about the discussions that follow movies. I show a few films in my History class, but I am a manifest failure at drawing good discussions out of my charges- who are mostly higher level juniors and seniors. It’s my biggest weakness, and I’ve been around for awhile. Any tips you may have for leading film discussion would be most welcome.

    • educationrealist

      No, I haven’t done a good job of it either, but then I’m not teaching high level kids. One thing I do is INSIST that they watch the movie–no reading, no phones, no sleeping. I also tell them to “look for” certain things. Sometimes I”ll stop the movie at a key point and ask questions. And ideally, you don’t want your questions to be about basic plot points but little things. That’s why I actually prefer showing older movies on then contemporary life rather than movies on specific historical events.

      • ganderson9754

        Well , that wasn’t helpful! 🙂 Sounds like you have the same procedures- we call it “Gilligan’s Island” in my class- no phones, no lights, no motor cars…

        I showed “Eight Men Out” to my US History Part II classes last week. Their organizing thought was to think about who their favorite character was- discussion was better, still not great. I think part of the issue for me is that I don’t think most kids think of cinema as an art form- it’s just another thing to do. I became enamored with movies in the early ’70s- we’d go to French movies and Bergman to show the coeds how sophisticated we were, and thus get laid, That strategy didn’t usually work out so well, but I did develop an appreciation and love for good movies. I still remember how impressed I was with “The 400 Blows.”

        As for favorite historical movies- with all due respect to Mr. Brookheiser I don’t have just one. I can also make a list of historical movies to be avoided- pretty much anything by Spielberg (with possible exception of Schindler’s list). The first and last 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan are pretty goo- the rst of the movie sucks! And Amistad- yikes! See James Bowman’s review for more details. I avoided “Lincoln”- I heard too many people say “Great movie!!!! DDL was fabulous!!! A bit slow in parts, though…” Translation: It sucked, but I’m not allowed to say because it deals with a BIG INPORTANT SUBJECT! And the less said about Dances with Wolves the better. (I know it’s not Spielberg, but it IS ‘Spielbergian’)

        AS for what I like- In addition to the aforementioned “Eight Men Out” despite John Sayles’ infantile leftism, “Breaker Morant”, “Black Robe”, “Paradise Road”- pretty much anything by Bruce Beresford. “Soldier of Orange” which was an international breakout movie for both Paul Verhoeven and Rutger Hauer is fun. “The Emigrants” and the New Land are good, although perhaps someone not of Minnesota Swedish background might disagree. I have a soft spot for “A Bridge Too Far” some great lines! And an idiosyncratic fave- Danton, starring Big fat Gerard Depardieu I’m sure there are more, but alas, class stars in a couple minutes… .

      • educationrealist

        I like Eight Men Out, but it’s terrible history, and if I’m going to show inaccurate history, I’d rather do Matewan.

        My picks were based on accuracy of portraryal, not necessarily whether I liked the movie. A Bridge Too Far (frankly, it’s Redford’s best performance), Tora Tora Tora, Missiles of October, Bloody Sunday, Capote, All the Presidents Men, Zulu.

        I enjoy all of those movies, particularly the last two, but wouldn’t argue that they are awesome movies.

        I agree with you about Saving Private Ryan. Loath Amistad and couldn’t even handle Lincoln. I mentioned Black Robe, forgot Breaker Morant. Very depressing.

      • educationrealist

        If you want to have movies considered as art form, you have to go much further than just asking questions. You have to spend a lot of time showing students how and why directors are doing certain things, just like you do with literature.

      • Ian

        Someone who appears to share my movie tastes: Eight Men Out is my favorite sports movie, and I’m also pretty meh about Saving Private Ryan.

  • anon

    “Anon, you really don’t understand a single thing. Every single thing you argue about what I am saying is an utter inversion of what I’m actually saying. It’s pathetic. I’m glad Roger has patience, because I certainly don’t.”

    I can tell you are, at heart, a math guy.

    anon

  • ganderson9754

    Apologies for the misspellings! In a hurry!

  • splively

    That Hattie McDaniel clip was powerful – thanks for sharing. Been forever since I’ve seen GWTW and hard to bring myself to sit through the whole thing.

    As for other history movies I haven’t seen mentioned here yet:

    The movie isn’t great or particularly accurate from what I remember, but 55 Days at Peking is just such a fascinating historical turning point. Khartoum and El Cid as well (Scorsese a big fan of that one) – can’t go wrong with Chuck Heston in my book.

    Can’t comment on its historical veracity but Battle of the Bulge is all kinds of fun.

  • Philip Gahtan

    Where i was blind now i can see. Melanie takes charge in every scene.Thank you. I wish i had you in high school.Melanie would have been the perfect wife for michael corleone.

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