Recession tonic: Scarlett O’Hara

With her steely optimism, the ‘Gone with the Wind’ heroine is a perfect tough-times model

Recession tonic: Scarlett O’Hara

Scarlett O’Hara had more than her share of trouble back in the day. There was the Civil War, fire, poverty, hunger, thieving Yankee deserters, rapists, carpetbaggers, weak-willed husbands and lovers, a feeble-minded father, disapproving neighbours, spiteful relatives and the maddeningly elusive Rhett Butler. She survived them all, of course. But can she survive the subprime mortgage meltdown, an auto sector collapse and Bernie Madoff? She’d better. America is counting on it.

For generations, Gone with the Wind’s controversial heroine has inspired and shocked us with her gumption and steely optimism. The iconic popularity of the book and movie—Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel came out in 1936 and has since sold over 30 million copies; the 1939 movie with Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh remains the all-time Hollywood box office champ with US$1.3 billion (inflation adjusted) in tickets sold—means her story is never far from the public consciousness. But now, with America in the depths of despair, Scarlett may be more necessary than ever.

“Scarlett is the perfect character for the times,” says Molly Haskell, film critic, TV show host and writer. “She has that combination of suffering, glamour and hope that people are looking for.” In her new book Frankly, My Dear: Gone With the Wind Revisited, to be released this month, Haskell explains how real-world events conspired to make the book and movie such a massive success in the 1930s. “Even though the story was set in the Civil War, audiences saw it as a Depression-era fable,” she says. “This was a story speaking about their situation and their problems.”

While many romance novels promise readers the sweep of history, Gone with the Wind actually delivers. Its 1,000 pages follow Scarlett through the glory of the antebellum Old South, the Civil War crisis and the poverty and dislocation of Reconstruction. It proved a familiar pattern for anyone who had lived through the euphoric Jazz Age of the 1920s, the stock market crash of 1929 and was then mired in the Great Depression. “To find yourself in bare-bones poverty after such a long period of indulgence was a shock for everyone,” Haskell observes. “And then here was Scarlett O’Hara, carrying this powerful message of perseverance and hope.”

Those parallels between the Civil War and the Great Depression sound rather familiar to Haskell today. “We were also living on this cloud of unrealistic expectations and consumerism,” she says in an interview from her New York City home. “Now our myth of superiority has taken a crushing blow and we’re about to find out what we’ve got to do to survive.” She figures a Scarlett revival is just the tonic that victims of the Great Recession will be searching for.

It doesn’t seem a particularly big stretch, given how popular the book and movie have always been. Even U.S. President Barack Obama’s inauguration speech reads like a plot synopsis of Gone with the Wind. “We must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America,” he declared. And no one does that better than Scarlett “tomorrow is another day” O’Hara.

It wouldn’t even be the second time Scarlett has come to the aid of a depressed public. When the movie finally had its premiere in Europe in 1945, viewers in Paris, Amsterdam and Vienna wept openly at what they saw to be a retelling of their own postwar plight. “Public response was almost delirious,” explained one film historian. A smuggled copy of the book gave political prisoners in Ethiopia the same frisson of hope in 1978.

Scarlett’s certainly a survivor, yet much of that surviving comes at the expense of others. She marries her sister’s fiancé to pay the taxes on Tara, the family estate she vows to protect. To the same end she kills and robs a Union deserter. She’s a former slave owner who scandalizes Reconstruction Atlanta by building a successful lumber business using white convict labour. “She can be horrid,” Haskell admits of Scarlett. “But it’s her ugly characteristics that keep our interest up. She’s a practical, self-reliant woman who never capitulates.”

Of course it doesn’t hurt that Leigh looks gorgeous in her Technicolor gowns. Depression-era viewers were looking for stern realism and escapist glamour in equal doses, Haskell notes. “I think now people will want to root for someone who has endured hardships and knows real suffering, but who’s also glamorous,” says Haskell. “And Scarlett just keeps looking better and better.”

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