Scarlett: Oh Ashleh, Ashleh, ah lerve you, truly ah do.

Ashley: It's no use, Scarlett. You're strong and mighty and modern, while I, I am nothing but a droopy feeb, fit only for Saint Melanie. Run along now with Rhett and make a fortune in the lumber trade while the rest of us sink into Southern decline.

Or words to that effect. In the unlikely event that the new and improved, yet again, Gone With the Wind cleans up at the box office the way it did in 1939, it will not be because of the movie's swank Technicolor facelift and fancy digital dub, or its berth in the Top 5 of the American Film Institute's smugly tame 100 best American movies. No, Gone With the Wind retains its clutch on the public imagination (especially the female imagination – see the countless GWTW home pages currently festooning the Web) because it's the greatest fashion show on Earth, as well as one of the most fascinatingly peculiar non-love stories ever to leap from page to screen. An irresistible piece of gothic pulp, Margaret Mitchell's chart-topping potboiler is also a model of Social Darwinism that celebrates, in its ambivalent way, a woman who prospers not through virtue or because she gets the guy, but through brute strength, hypocrisy, merciless survival instinct and a blithe disregard for ordinary decency, while around her the good and the gullible drop like flies. In more ways than one, Katie Scarlett O'Hara, played to simpering perfection by the exquisite Vivien Leigh, is the female id scampering out to play, which is why we love and hate her with equal passion. As the coquette who can fell a man with a flounce of her crinoline, she may compel our reluctant envy. As a captain of industry, she's a holy terror.

Were she alive today, Scarlett O'Hara would either be running Vogue or out-bitching the competition from the likes of Joan Collins. Like all good capitalists, Scarlett is an accumulator, collecting land and lumber, hearts and husbands so as never to be hungry again. She's a terrible wife several times over, an indifferent mother who fears pregnancy for the damage it will do to her waistline, a treacherous sister and, in the most encompassing sense of the word, a truer whore than the scorned Belle Whatling, Rhett Butler's backup squeeze. As a businesswoman, though, Scarlett is without parallel. What matters to her is ownership, and her love for Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard, who was 45 when, with some misgivings, he took the role of Ashley, turns in a suitably elderly performance) is no more than a desire to impound the property of Ashley's cousin and fiancee, Melanie. Rhett Butler belongs only to himself and therefore holds no erotic surplus value for Scarlett.

She must be out of her skull. The rest of us, despite our conditioning by a thousand self-help books that would write off Rhett as bad news and implore Scarlett to hang out her shingle for a sensitive male like Ashley, sit there and pant. Rhett Butler is no lech, and it's not only his animal magnetism that makes us swoon. From the moment when, having eavesdropped on Scarlett baring her soul and her cleavage to Ashley, he rises grinning from behind the library sofa, Rhett reveals himself as a man who not only loves women but likes them – from generous, sexy Belle to high-minded Melanie to Mammy (whose respect he wins with a stiff drink and a red petticoat) to the rich plantation biddies who earlier spurned him.

Producer Darryl F. Zanuck, who completely misread Clark Gable when he rejected the actor for an earlier role at Warner Bros. on the grounds that “His ears are too big. He looks like an ape,” must have turned green when he saw Gable's polished, urbane performance in Gone With the Wind. Would that Gable had sustained his gallantry off-camera. For all his hypermasculinity onscreen, he was insecurity itself in life. Never discreet about his disdain for “fairies” (or Jews), Gable got director George Cukor fired from the movie and hustled for the more macho Victor Fleming.

Who knows what kind of Gone With the Wind Cukor, in his own way a man who loved women, would have made without producer David O. Selznick's incessant micro-managing, his chopping and changing of the crew? Certainly a less purple one, with more elegance and less blood and guts. Not that Gone With the Wind registers as a war film. It's tempting to think that Selznick made his Civil War soap as a displaced message about the conflict that had already begun in Europe when the movie collected its eight Oscars, a war that Selznick and most of his anxiously assimilationist Jewish buddies in Hollywood studiously avoided as material for their films. In fact, he made the movie because Mitchell's novel was selling off the charts and because he could smell a blockbuster a mile off. The battle scenes and the sacking of Atlanta play more like a disaster movie than a war movie, and the pro forma platitudes that drip from the lips of Captains Butler and Wilkes have nothing of consequence to say about warfare in general, still less about the tangled particularities of the Civil War.

Margaret Mitchell was skittish both about the decline of the South and about the end of slavery: Ashley's perfunctory speech about emancipating “the darkies” is post hoc lip service, while Scarlett would consider freeing Mammy only if she saw it as downsizing. The movie certainly didn't improve on Mitchell's slapdash polemic. These days its racial politics look so absurd that it's all one can do not to heckle or hoot at (credited) screenwriter Sidney Howard's daffy idea of slave-speak, of which Butterfly McQueen clearly bore the brunt as Prissy, the hand-flapping, clueless maid who don't know nothin' about birthin' babies.

For all the grandeur of its scale, no one of sound mind will remember Gone With the Wind for its incisive social commentary. The movie's infinite life will forever be driven by a love story that never happens, a tragedy that afflicts Rhett more than it does Scarlett. Of the two women he loves most – Scarlett and his daughter, Bonnie Blue – only one loves him back, and then not for long. Like many compulsive flirts, Miz Scarlett, who has the soul if not the luggage of a carpetbagger, is interested in sex only insofar as it's good for business. When Scarlett finally gets with the program, yawning and stretching in post-nookie bliss the morning after Rhett sweeps her upstairs for a good ravishing, it's too late. By then, he famously doesn't give a damn, and in the end, as that dreadful TV sequel to Gone With the Wind indicated, neither does Scarlett. Her heart belongs to Tara.

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