The year my mother turned five, her grandmother told her they were going to the movies. that movie was the only one that came back every year, and as far as my great grandmother was concerned, the only movie worth seeing, Gone With the Wind.
When my mother told her Uncle Brian, Grandma Babe’s son, that she was going to see Gone With the Wind with Grandma Babe, he giggled quietly to himself. She asked what was so funny and he replied ‘Oh you’ll find out soon enough.’
Back then you could do whatever you pleased in a movie theatre. you could smoke, you could fondle, as long as you were quiet about it. The film, as my mother remembered it, was so battered though it had not been made but less than twenty years ago, that the celluloid would crackle and tear apart. The audience would moan, but patiently wait for the projectionist to continue whatever was salvageable, almost every member of the audience remembering each frame by heart. However, my mother soon found out what Uncle Brian was laughing about. As the film drew on, A lecherous Yankee soldier comes sneaking around the ruins of Tara, Scarlett’s Beloved Plantation, determined to take her dead mother’s emerald ear bobs and Scarlett’s debatable feminine virtue. Scarlett takes the gun Rhett Butler gave her, shooting the man in the face. Before my mother could even take in the scene itself, my Great Grandmother jumped from her seat, shaking her fist at the screen.
‘GODDAMN YANKEE!’ she screamed from the top of her lungs, whelping out a rebel yell she remembered from her own childhood, where she was surrounded by those who had survived the Civil War.
‘Grandma, get down!’ My mother pleaded, shrinking even smaller into her seat, the rest of the audience looking to my Great Grandmother, mortified. This, as my mother learned, was the tradition of the family, and Great Grandma had done the same thing since the movie premiered in 1939, where she saw it at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia.
I saw the film when I was five, like my mother, but on television. It was the only time I was allowed to stay up late on a school night, and remembered it as the only night I settled for a dinner of cold cereal, my mother so engrossed in the film after so many years.
Considering I was five, it is hard to believe even to me, that I sat through the entire film unperturbed and not bored through all of its three and a half hours. Though I understood, even as a child, that there was only so much I could gather, sitting there and watching adults converse and make decisions. I forced myself awake each time, convincing myself that this was my first, and only chance to prove I could watch a grown up movie. Nervously, I sat through tale of the south rambled on like a technicolor river on our television screen, and before I knew it, it was twelve o clock in the morning.
Only two scenes stood out through my mind when I had seen it at age five. It seemed to me, to be a film centered around death. something familiar in my own life, the way my mother talked about her side of the family. Each photograph that was sprinkled throughout my Grandmother’s house or my mothers rotting family albums always came with the same answers to each inquisitive question about the beautiful men and women trapped beneath their celluloid pages, aging in those permanent backgrounds.
‘They died young, before you were born.’
Scarlett riding her wrecked carriage with her dying horse, her unrequited love’s wife and baby sweltering in the back. all around them are the wreckage of war and death, bodies and dead trees strewn throughout. Another, the death of Scarlett’s little daughter, obviously a black haired clone of Uncle Tom’s Little Eva crossbred with Shirley Temple. The images of virginal little curly haired children burn deeply in the south, a place once so obsessed with the purity of ladies and young girls. As Rhett Butler took the child, her spine broken by a wayward pony up the steps, she looked like the pale nymph creatures i’d spied in the cemetery my mother would walk me through some days, with their wings, their infant headstone dates beneath them, lambs with fleece of aging moss.
I came from a family raised on the dreams of Hollywood films. Paris, Rome, The Civil War, they were all conducted on those same vast movie sets, made of matte paintings, singed with light, intoxicating in its scope that manages to stop at a concrete wall into infinity. Even as a child, the south of Scarlett’s Plantation Tara, was as vivid, fantastical and unreal as the Land of Oz. Scarlett’s world made of plastic flowers, dripping willow trees and busy servants was a dream created on a backlot in Hollywood, Tara made from nothing but a front of Paper Mache. As I watched Gone With the Wind as an adult, I wondered how my Grandmother, even my own mother, could be bought by the Techincolor world that they called their past. But there was little to go on in the first place. The Civil War was only recalled vaguely from my Grandmother, but even then it was distant, a joke about Sherman and his Vengeful March To the Sea here or there. Our relations to any civil war also remained ambiguous. My Great Grandmother claimed she was a close relation to Robert E. Lee, but everyone in the family knew she made the wager so she could join The United Daughters of the Confederacy.
Gone With the Wind was the film about the south, a secret south that I had seen only in pieces and fragments. To this day you can pass through Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, passing establishments named ‘Plantation Pancake House’ or ‘Old Dixie Restaurant’, their fronts filled with white pillars and Georgian fronts. Confederate Flags appeared wavering in and out as a advertising ploy, billboards advertising fireworks and ‘Real Southern BBQ’, an Old Glory slapped on at the last minute. The South, or ‘The Old South’ was, and is far and away, a world paved by parking lots and Highway signs. It was not until I became an adult that I knew the old south was a fantasy like so many, a powerful but ignorant memory that everyone, and no one truly told.
I went to Atlanta with my mother once on some family errand I can’t quite remember. We visited the Gone With The Wind Museum, one of the Cities biggest draws on the tourist circuit. The fascistic detail was startling, as we roamed from room to room of the grungy apartment Margaret Mitchell shared with her husband after a bout of illness, hard at work on her novel with a heroine originally named ‘Pansy O’Hara.’ The drab, brick stone building had been prone to arson twice since it was build in 1899. There, in dreary, loving detail, were the small rooms she supposedly filed papers upon papers with its contents, busy at work on her book. A grave black man shared with us, each cumbersome detail and anecdote on the woman and her quixotic career. We were told encouragingly throughout the tour, that Mrs. Mitchell was responsible for a handful of full-paid scholarships for African American students to to go to a prestigious Black University. She chose to remain anonymous.
Later we moved to the museum dedicated to the film, where we toured the aisles with gaggles of Japanese and Korean tourists, scouring each object shrouded in glass. On the wall hung Scarlett O’Hara’s portrait for the film. The camera is a deceptive liar, for I remembered it on screen as a wildly barque tribute to a massive ego. What appeared was a painting that had hung in a School Principals Office in an Atlanta Public School for over 40 years. The woman looked withered and gray; the oils and acrylics slapped on for the most basic effect, turned into a hallucination one day of shooting over 70 years ago.
In one glass case were the broken fragments of a porcelain statue, the one Scarlett threw in rage when she first professes her love to Ashely Wilkes and encounters Rhett Butler. On a small monitor they play the same scene again and again. I wondered to myself who had bothered to pick up the fragments, what person felt they would have some stake in history to be preserved forever under glass, by merely picking up the fragments of something Vivien Leigh once held? Five tourists took pictures of the case behind me.