Friday, December 5, 2014

Scarlett in Austin

Well no, not Scarlett O'Hara herself, who is, after all, a fictional character in that saga of the Old South, Gone With the Wind.  But her moss green dress made from Miss Ellen's velvet curtains is there, as well as some other choice attire. Along with reams of documentation on the sweeping, unforgettable 1939 movie, they're on view at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin.  As Texas has no connection to either the setting of the story or the making of the movie, it might seem like an odd place for a 75th anniversary exhibition on the movie, but surprisingly the Ransom Center has many important cultural and literary archives unrelated whatsoever to Texas, including that of David O. Selznick, the producer of GWTW.  And since Mr C and I had never been there, it seemed like a good reason to take a little trip to Austin.

I first saw Gone With the Wind when it was re-released in the 1950s; I remember my parents debating whether I should be allowed to see it, as it contained that "damn" uttered by Rhett at the end.  It was also among the first adult novels that I read; I bought my copy, which I still have, at a little bookstore where the proprietor also gave knitting lessons that I took.  Oh, how I admired Scarlett and her indomitable spirit. Or as Ashley puts it in the novel: "your courage and your stubbornness and your fire and your utter ruthlessness."  Perhaps ruthlessness isn't a very complimentary characteristic, nor is Scarlett's self-absorption and lack of empathy, but somehow those failings never cancel out her appeal and attraction. Right now I'm taking an online course in which several people have named Scarlett as a character who has achieved "person-ness," someone who transcends their fictional world, becoming as believable and real as a person we know.  In short, she is fascinating. 

Also fascinating is the exhibition at the Ransom Center which begins with the purchase of the movie rights for David O Selznick's studio by his agent, Kay Brown, who had brought Margaret Mitchell's thousand-page novel to his attention.  Much of the film's story is told in lively teletypes which capture candid "conversations" that would have been lost had they been over the telephone.  After much to-ing and fro-ing about the feasibility of GWTW as a movie, concerns about casting and more, David Selznick is finally persuaded and Kay Brown begins: "HOLD YOUR SEAT   IVE CLOSED FOR FIFTY THOUSAND   MARVELOUS   THRILLED TO DEATH   WAIT TIL DOS HEARS IT" and later in the same messages adds "FLAGG AND I OUT TO GET DRUNK".  You could easily spend several hours reading all the communications, mostly telegrams and letters, to and from Selznick and the many individuals involved in the film, that line the walls of the exhibit.

 One part of the exhibit deals with the search for an actress to play Scarlett which involved a "Southern Talent Search" through college drama departments and Junior Leagues, with Kay Brown writing her usual witty observations: "We saw every "Miss Atlanta" from twenty years back.  We had people come dressed in in the period and you can imagine what they were like."  Or recounting another scouting trip: "It was all very social and very General Lee."  While most of this search was fruitless, photos of several "discoveries" show young women in the prime of their beauty, most of whom went on to only star in their own private lives.  A lot of well-known actresses were also tested for the role, but who can imagine anyone other than the inimitable Vivien Leigh as Scarlett?

There are sections on all aspects of the film: the casting, the sets, the costumes, the actual filming, and finally the premiere in Atlanta itself. It took three long years at a time when movies generally were made in six months.  And throughout it all, the public was engaged, expressing opinions and giving advice on everything from the proper Southern accent to who should be cast in the various roles.  Especially poignant are the numerous letters written, usually by hand,  mostly by ordinary people, asking for a chance to play Scarlett, proclaiming they "are" Scarlett and explaining their connection to the character.  Despite differing levels of sophistication, what struck me was the obvious sincerity with which they were written, and the optimstic belief that these letters would be read and taken into account, certainly a reflection of the times in which they were written.  I doubt that anyone would expect the same today.

This is a must-see exhibition for GWTW fans, of course, but anyone with an interest in the era in which the film was made will also find it worthwhile. So if you're anywhere near Austin, Texas, be sure to go, but hurry, it ends January 4th. You can make an online visit to the exhibition here.