That Scarlett Woman, 1939
That Scarlett Woman
Leslie Howard discusses the famous heroine of Gone With the Wind and decides that she is very much like many of the girls of today!
by Jessie Henderson
“But what people seem to overlook is that Scarlett was so modern!” said Leslie Howard, rigged out nattily (according to the year 1861) in the habiliments of Ashley Wilkes for the opening sequences of that Gone With the Wind picture; ” Scarlett O’Hara was a new-fashioned girl in an old-fashioned setting. She was a 1939 sub-deb… in hoopskirts.”
As he spoke, Scarlett herself tripped daintily across the lawn in hoopskirts of pale green silk, her dark little head tilted at a proud slant. The lawn was in Busch Gardens, Pasadena, where the Selznick company was on location for this picnic-barbecue scene at Twelve Oaks, the Wilkes estate. And Scarlett, of course, was Vivien Leigh, the bright-eyed English actress who so nimbly exchanged her London accent for the soft dialect of Georgia.
In his character of Ashley, Leslie Howard had just declined as courteously as possible Scarlett’s offer of marriage; explained that he loved Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland) whom he was soon to marry. The tempestuous tete-a-tete had taken place in the library of the Wilkes mansion, a portico of which could be glimpsed among the tall trees. Howard, collapsing in a chair outside his portable trailer dressing room, loosened his high collar and stock. Refusing Scarlett anything involved quite a strain!
“Possibly my idea of Scarlett differs from that of some people,” Howard conceded. His cultivated voice formed a musical undercurrent to the yells of prop boys and the harsh directions that boomed from time to time through the loud-speaker system. “But I’ve studied her carefully.
I think I’m right. She was fascinating, even more for some vital quality in her character than for her beauty. She would do what she set out to do, no matter if in doing it she went to her own destruction. You admire her determination, and her courage. When things went wrong, she didn’t submit. She smashed and hammered till she rearranged them or found a way out.
“But no man could endure Scarlett for a lifetime. She would drive him mad. She was ruthless, dazzling, and hard. Even Rhett Butler leaves her, you know. There is some indication in the book that he may come back–but I don’t think he did.”
The blue Howard eyes strayed to the gay barbecue now in full swing. It’s nice that the picture is in Tecnhicolor.
Ladies in wide, long gowns of rose and carmine, saffron and violet and peacock, sat at the picnic tables with men in dusky browns and reds and heliotropes. Negro servants ran about with great silver trays on which mounds of food were balanced. Children in quaint miniatures of the grown-up costumes rolled hoops in and out among the tables, and among the flowering shrubs that formed the graceful background.
“Of course, I don’t mean that modern women are necessarily ruthless and hard,” Leslie Howard explained. “When I say that Scarlett was modern, I mean that she didn’t bow to fate or remain quietly at home weeping for what she wanted. She went right out and tried to get it. She had a fine confidence in her own ability, a thoroughly up-to-date self-reliance.
“In her day, it wasn’t the thing for a woman to be aggressive, you know. A woman didn’t go out into the world and fight for what she wanted, whether it was a livelihood or anything else. The nice girl stayed at home, very ladylike, and married well.”
The thought impinged that Scarlett certainly tried persistently enough to make what she considered an advantageous marriage. She was sixteen, wasn’t she, when Ashley Wilkes declined her proposal, and, in a fit of pique, she married apple-cheeked Charles Hamilton, Melanie’s brother. Later she married Frank Kennedy, because she needed a few hundred dollars. And after his death, she married Rhett Butler who, despite her consuming love, walked out.
“Naturally, if the Civil War hadn’t come along,” Howard was saying, “Scarlett might not have developed into quite the clever business woman and the shrewd opportunist which she became. But, mind you, those characteristics were there all the time; ready to unfold under the right conditions. I’ve said Scarlett was ruthless. I’m wondering if all really great women–and she had elements of greatness–weren’t ruthless, too. Perhaps they have to be. Queen Elizabeth, Catherine of Russia…
“Nevertheless, Scarlett is a character whom women admire more than men do. Oh, yes, I believe that. Women like her because she does what she pleases, and often gets the better of men in a battle of wits.” He gave his sudden smile. “This doesn’t please men so much.”
At that instant from one of the trailer dressing room stepped a figure in black and brown, with sideburns and an 1863 hair-do. He turned out to be the Rhett Butler of the piece–Clark Gable. “Hi-yo, Silver!” Gable cried with an ebullience rather refreshing amid the surrounding ante bellum formality.
“Be right with you!” Howard answered, and with his knuckles he began to evoke the sound of galloping hoofs from the seat of a chair.
But before Gable spoke further, Vivien Leigh came tripping back across the greensward with Olivia de Havilland. Director Victor Fleming shouted an order. And, presto! Before you could say, “Atlanta, Jawgyuh,” the action moved to the interior of Twelve Oaks.
This house was a little more elaborate than Tara, the home of Scarlett; though Tara was, you may be sure, no shack. Fore one thing, Twelve Oaks had a huge dining room, of the proportions demanded by Southern hospitality, and on its carved serving tables there stood–flashing in the sun from the long windows–quantities of antique silver plate, every item a collector’s piece.
Twelve Oaks, moreover, had a lightly curving and wholly magnificent double stairway; a marvel of architecture, springing from the hall in a stately flight of steps, to divide at the landing as it soared to the upper floors. Along the stair wall hung $6,000 worth of paintings, which, with the silver, were closely guarded while the film was in production. Mounting the stair, you found, off the upper corridor, a bedroom with a lofty ceiling and an enormous four-poster bed. On the bed and on sofas, twenty-four girls (shedding their five-foot hoop skirts) took an afternoon nap following the barbecue, while the gentlemen smoked, wined, and talked downstairs.
It was from this bedroom, and down this stairway, that Scarlett had stolen while the other girls slept, to propose marriage to Ashley. With the strange, higgledy-piggledy movie methods which come out all right in the end, the proposal scene had already been shot before the start of the barbecue which, in the plot, precedes it. But before they could shoot another scene in the library, they had to clean up the fireplace. It was full of broken china.
At the conclusion of the touching and tense love sequence–the love, alas, being all on Scarlett’s side–Ashley had in embarrassment and pity left Scarlett in the library. When the door closed, she snatched a costly Limoges vase, and with all her strength dashed it on the hearth. To her consternation, at the sound of the crash a man rose from the big chair in which he’d been an unintentional eaves-dropper. Rhett Butler! He’d heard everything! Scarlett glared as if she could have murdered him. It’s a wonder, come right down to it, that she didn’t.
With the china swept up, however, and another library interior taken–this time with ladies and gentlemen saying goodbye and what a nice time and do drop over to see us soon–the entire company scampered to another spot where stood the “bazaar” set. Yes, the Atlanta ladies were holding a bazaar to raise money for the wounded Confederate soldiers.
The scene was a perfect glory of color. It contained bright flags (Confederate, of co’se); the yellow, blue, red and green uniforms of Confederate officers who belonged to various outfits such as the Louisiana Zouaves and the (Confederate) President’s Guards; the red shirts of the Atlanta Fire Department, a swanky volunteer organization of socialites; and the ladies’s silk and velvet gowns. The fashionable feminine colors that year were emerald, magenta, puce, turquoise, gamboge and aquamarine. To decorate the walls and booths, the studio cornered the Hollywood supply of smilax.
In dramatic contrast with the brilliant dresses about her, Scarlett appeared in the black, enveloping widow’s veil which she wore for Charles Hamilton, though she detested it. Scarlett O’Hara, according to Margaret Mitchell’s book, had both French and Irish blood. Her jaw was square but her chin pointed; her eyes were green as jade, her thick, black lashes curled upward and her thick, black brows slanted up at the outer ends. Her skin was the flawless magnolia white so prized by Southern women, her hair was dark, and her waist (thanks partly to tight lacing) measured seventeen inches.
To a remarkable extent, Vivian Leigh’s features answer this description. As she prettily coaxed bazaar patrons to buy this and that useless gewgaws, she was Scarlett to the life. It took Margaret Mitchell seven years to write Gone With the Wind; it was after a two year search that Selznick selected this English player who appeared in Fire over England and A Yank at Oxford for the leading role.
“She’s in mourning,” the bazaar gossips murmured as Scarlett’s widow’s veil floated energetically about here and there. “She can’t dance.”
But–when Rhett paid $150 in gold for the privilege of leading the reel, and selected Scarlett as his partner, she danced airily out the floor. Atlanta shuddered in horror.
Heigh ho. Neither Scarlett nor anyone else danced in Atlanta when subsequent scenes arrived. For war came to Atlanta, to the city built on the forty acres behind the Selznick Studio. From old photographs, a dozen street of the town were reconstructed with a painstaking fidelity to detail. Even the street signs were faithfully reproduced. And with an equally painstaking fidelity to detail, the dozen street were promptly ravaged by shot and by fire. Among other items, the entire Atlanta railroad yards were copied. Copied to be burned down.
To show you the thought expended on little things: In the very midst of the burning of Atlanta, a soft, quiet voice observed amid the roar and crackle: “Not ‘My heart is sad,’ but ‘Mah haht’…”
In the corner sat Susan Myrick of Macon, Ga., the “Southern-Accent” coach. She was gazing with intensity at a pupil, a bit player, who wanted to say into the sound track something about his Mid-western hearrrrt. It appears that the English, who don’t care for the letter “r” anyway, have caught the Southern accent more quickly than some of the American players.
But, laws a-massy! What are we-all doin’ out yeare on the back lot when we don lef’ ;assa Leslie Howa’d watchin’ the “bazaah” set in which he tooken no part because the plot has him off yander somewhe’es a-fightin’ the da–that is, the Yankees. Oh, yoo hoo, Massa Leslie! Oh, there y’all y’are–we mean, is. There y’is, suh, and we was speakin’ ’bout Miss Scahlett…
“I was saying,” Howard resumed, “that women admire Scarlett more than men do. Partly because in a business contest with men she could hold her own, she could make her way independently, scattering opposition.
“Not that a man likes a woman to be a mouse,” he added hastily. “He likes her to have some spirit. Even a flare of temper now and then, within reason. This renders her more interesting. A man doesn’t know exactly what to expect, his interest is held.
“And it’s true that if other men are attracted to a woman, this both flatters a man’s judgment and keeps him a little uncertain. He thinks to himself that somebody might take her away from him, he’d better be on his guard, he’d better be attentive.
“But he doesn’t want to be completely uncertain, as a man would be of Scarlett. A man never could be sure of her. I said she’d get what she wanted, although she destroyed herself doing it. Well, she’d get it although she destroyed everybody else in the process, too, and that is an alarming prospect! She was as undisciplined as some of our modern sub-debs.””
He smiled, as if nothing could be more undisciplined than certain of those.
“I’ve known women who were like Scarlett,” he added in a serious tone, “self-centered, ambitious. Women who, like her–perhaps, in a way, she was forced to do it by circumstances–put themselves first, other people second. I know a woman who is losing her husband because of that very quality, and I don’t believe she understands what has happened.
“Naturally, Scarlett had good traits–who hasn’t? And doubtless she emphasized her aggressive traits because, as I said before, she was a modern girl in an old-fashioned setting, and whatever she did required more boldness–more real courage, too–than it would require today. But do you realize that today Scarlett wouldn’t make much of an impression? I mean, her independence, not her looks.
“Independent? Headstrong? Self-centered? Hard? Granted. But put Scarlett among some of the girls you meet nowadays in London and Paris and New York, and she’d have so much competition…!”
Why, Massa Howa’d!
“I didn’t say all of them,” he retorted, “but I did say some!”
(Hollywood, July 1939)