Yesterday I watched ‘Gone With The Wind’ for the second time on the big screen, this time at the BFI Southbank in a new 4k restoration, as part of the celebration to mark 100 years since the birth of Vivien Leigh. I’m not going to use this post to review the film, or even to say how much I love it (I do), nor am I going to talk much about Vivien Leigh’s performance as Scarlett. It was by far her best role, and the one which won her the first of two Oscars during her nineteen-film, one television play, career.
In this post I want to talk in detail about Miss Leigh’s leading men in the film, notably Clark Gable (1901-1960) as Rhett Butler, and Leslie Howard (1892-1943) as Ashley Wilkes. Both were major film stars at the time of the casting of the film version of Margaret Mitchell’s popular novel. Gable had been moulded into a sexy leading man who had shared screen time with Jean Harlow, Barbara Stanwyck, Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer and, most memorable of all, Joan Crawford. He was practically the only choice for the Charleston adventurer whose only cause is himself and whose only great passion in life is Scarlett, the Southern belle who treats him with disdain. Howard had come into films via the stage, playing a mixture of artistic dreamers and sensitive souls in both Britain and America (with Mary Pickford, Norma Shearer, and Heather Angel), as well as making the occasional successful foray into comedy (‘Stand-In’, with Joan Blondell; ‘It’s Love I’m After’, with Bette Davis). His biggest successes prior to being offered the role of Major Wilkes were as Henry Higgins in ‘Pygmalion’, and as Romeo opposite a cast all scaled up in age for MGM’s adaptation of ‘Romeo and Juliet’.
If Gable was the eye candy and the stuff of women’s dreams, then Howard was the intellectual with integrity. Critics throughout the intervening years between the release of ‘Gone With The Wind’ and now have been much more complimentary about Rhett than Ashley, questioning why a free spirit like Scarlett would be drawn to such a low-key, unadventurous man as ‘the wooden headed Mr Wilkes’. However I value both men’s performances – and the characters may be polar opposites but despite Rhett’s dismissal of ‘stupid Ashley, who can’t be mentally faithful to his wife, but won’t be unfaithful to her technically’, Ashley is a true Southern gentleman, a man of honour who can see that the world he lives in is changing. He claims that he would have freed his father’s slaves at Twelve Oaks, but he also laments the loss of everything he held dear. He’s also proved himself brave in battle when the Civil War comes. Rhett, in contrast, has no honour, is sardonic and brazen (until the birth of his daughter, Bonnie Blue, softens his heart). His scenes with his ‘old friend’, the whore Belle Watling (beautifully played by Ona Munson), hint at something more akin to values you would attribute to Ashley and his Southern friends, and you sense that he has supported their son despite the impracticality of him living a respectable life in Charleston.
Howard’s range was wider than Gable’s, and in my opinion, his screen presence has improved over the years. He also discovered Humphrey Bogart and gave him his first real chance in films, in ‘The Petrified Forest’. Gable, according to David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film was ‘sexy for his time (the only time for that trick)’ and we agree with Scarlett when, at Captain Butler’s first appearance at the bottom of those stairs at Twelve Oaks, he ‘looks as if he knows what I look like without my shimmy’. He’s a predator, a chaser and discarder of women, and ‘not the marrying kind’. Of course a well-brought up Southern lady would give him short shrift while looking for someone like her (i.e. Ashley, for all his hesitations and faults). Scarlett’s only attraction to Rhett initially is as a provider of the money she needs, and only after that is she drawn to him from pure sexual frustration (no wonder, after her first two marriages, although it is interesting that the film presents these as barren when in Mitchell’s novel both Charles Hamilton and Frank Kennedy gave Scarlett children, even if she didn’t love them).
Gable as an actor (or as a star) has become the stuff of legend. The King of Hollywood. No matter than his early films are often dreadfully dated and his style of acting is only a short step away from the silent swashbucklers like Fairbanks. You may see ‘The Misfits’, his final film, bloated and overrated and only valued for the final hurrah of Monroe and Monty Clift, or ‘Mogambo’ (a colour remake of his 1932 hit ‘Red Dust’). He tried comedy in later years, with Doris Day in ‘Teacher’s Pet’, and it worked, but he was never as alluring or as romantic again as he was as Rhett Butler. Howard’s films, if revived at all, present his patriotic side in the last couple of years of his life (‘Pimpernel Smith’ a Nazi nose-tweak version of his 1935 ‘Scarlet Pimpernel’; ‘The First of the Few’ as the inventor of the Spitfire) and his early films are hardly ever seen, although they are worth seeking out. Howard was a 19th century gentleman (born Hungarian but somehow quintessentially English) and his acting style has something of that era. His Ashley is beautifully drawn, but somehow lost with all the Gable bluster and charm.
As Scarlett’s hapless first and second husbands, a couple of names forgotten in time – Rand Brooks (1918-2003, who seemed to be a fixture in Westerns from Hopalong Cassidy to the Cisco Kid through the 1950s and 1960s) is the twittering Charles Hamilton, and Carroll Nye (1901-1974, an actor the same age as Gable but playing much older, who had done next to nothing before this film, and only a handful of titles after) is the ‘old maid-in britches’ Frank Kennedy. They’re both good in cypher roles and are both mincemeat for the manipulative Scarlett!