Tag Archives: Civil War

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.)

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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.