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Book Corner: Ruth’s Journey

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Book Corner: Ruth’s Journey

Ruth’s Journey

The Authorized Novel of Mammy from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind
by Donald McCaig

WARNING: This post contains spoilers

In November of last year, the British Film Institute released Gone With the Wind in cinemas across the United Kingdom. The event was the end cap of a successful season in London commemorating the 100th birthday of the film’s star, Vivien Leigh. It also coincided with the theatrical release of Steve McQueen’s critically acclaimed film 12 Years a Slave. Finally, many said, the film business was ready to tell a story that showed one of America’s most shameful institutions in harsh and uncomfortable detail. Why then, would the BFI re-release a film that whitewashed the treatment of slaves during the antebellum era? Guardian contributor John Patterson, who completely missed the point, asked, “Are they looking to generate coattail ticket receipts from the controversy attending Steve McQueen’s harrowing and violent epic? Do they think some retirement-home demographic of faded southern belles and elderly white racists will emerge, stooped and wrinkled, to reclaim it one last time?”

The comparisons to McQueen’s film reared their heads again during the 2014 Oscars when the Academy awkwardly decided to celebrate the glory days of 1939 by ignoring the film that swept the awards that year – and continues to be the highest grossing film of all time – and instead paying homage to the more family-friendly and non-controversial classic The Wizard of Oz. But here’s the thing: Gone With the Wind won’t go away anytime soon. This doesn’t mean that the book and film (both produced upward of 100 years ago) shouldn’t be open to controversy and discussion, or even outrage and disgust. But none of that will stop people from seeking it out and probably even enjoying it. It’s too entrenched in popular culture.

Gone With the Wind is more than a single novel or a single film – it’s an ongoing industry. The Mitchell estate understands that more than anyone, which is why, just a month after 12 Years A Save picked up the Academy Award for Best Picture, Simon & Schuster announced that they would be publishing a new, authorized prequel to Margaret Mitchell’s novel. Ruth’s Journey, authored by Donald McCaig (Rhett Butler’s People, also authorized), would tell the story of Scarlett O’Hara’s faithful Mammy (played by Hattie McDaniel in the film – a performance that made her the first African American Oscar winner). It was strategic timing. The Mitchell estate seemed to be capitalizing on the continued popularity of Gone With the Wind, as well as the controversy surrounding it. In theory, anyway…

On the island of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) at the turn of the 19th century, a slave rebellion threatens French occupation. Solange Escarlette Fornier has left the mother country with her new husband, Augustin, to claim a once-prosperous sugar plantation. “Though Solange was young, she wasn’t beautiful.” (If you haven’t guessed already, Solange is Scarlett O’Hara’s grandmother) She wears the pants in the family and doesn’t care for her husband’s weak countenance (Charles Hamilton, anyone?). While on a scouting mission to capture the runaway, rumored lover of General Rochambeau’s nephew, Captain Augustin’s troop comes across a small shack where they find a slaughtered African family and one lone survivor. The little girl is taken home and presented to Solange who proclaims her beautiful and gives her a name.

Thus begins Ruth’s journey. She follows her new master and mistress to Savannah, stays with Solange through the death of her first husband and marriage to her second, and falls in love with free coloured stair builder Jehu Glen. With Solange’s permission she moves to Charleston, marries and has a daughter, Martine. She finds work as a housemaid at the Ravenel plantation where she is treated kindly. There’s just one problem: Jehu neglects to emancipate Ruth and Martine (because he bought Ruth from Solange, she’s is technically his property and seems strangely okay with that). Unfortunately Jehu dies just before South Carolina makes emancipation a legislative decision, so Ruth and Martine are sent to the auction block. This is not the end of Ruth’s story, of course. She is saved by Master Ravenel and continues to serve as Mammy of the household – until Jack Ravenel becomes a widower and tries to drunkenly take advantage of his indentured servant, at which point Ruth gathers her gumption and tells her Master she’s leaving (he seems strangely okay with that). She returns to Savannah just in time for Solange’s wedding to Pierre Robillard, rejoins the family, and from there goes on to Tara where she serves as Mammy to the three O’Hara girls.

The real challenge any author faces in writing a derivative work of Gone With the Wind is trying to be original within the parameters set down by Margaret Mitchell so that fans recognise it as part of the same canon. Prior to the release of his previous book Rhett Butler’s People, McCaig admitted to not having read Gone With the Wind. It’s clear that he has by now, and he creates backstories of some of the characters mentioned in Mitchell’s novel. For example, we learn that Pierre Robillard is Solange’s third husband and that their daughter Ellen is only the half-sister of Solange’s other children, Pauline and Eulalie. We meet Philippe Robillard, the half-Indian rogue who sweeps his cousin Ellen off her feet, and whose death in a bar fight in New Orleans prompts Ellen to marry Irishman Gerald O’Hara. Real historical characters make appearances (Rochambeau and Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson), as do beloved fictional ones (Rhett Butler, Beatrice Tarleton, Ashley Wilkes, Frank Kennedy).

As I was typing the above potted summary, I thought “Well, that sounds pretty interesting.” Unfortunately, that’s not really what Ruth’s Journey actually conveys. Back in March, McCaig and Atria editor Peter Borland told the New York Times that they wanted to give Mammy a story and a voice. They have, but it’s largely used as a lens through which to project the saga of Scarlett O’Hara’s ancestors. This wouldn’t be cause for complaint except that these other characters emerge as more interesting than Ruth does, and that’s a shame. It’s unrealistic to expect any derivative work to match up to Gone With the Wind. And authors are entitled to their own writing styles. However, one of the things that certainly draws readers in to Gone With the Wind is Margaret Mitchell’s languid, illustrative prose. I remember first reading it as a teenager and feeling like I could step through the pages and be in the story; Rhett Butler, Scarlett O’Hara, and even Mammy seemed so lifelike. Of course, Mitchell did allot 1,000+ pages for her original tome, and Gone With the Wind only spans about 20 years, but she took the time to describe everything from the land surrounding Tara to the elaborate clothes women wore, all of which has allowed readers to fully immerse themselves in the story. In contrast, McCaig attempts to cram nearly 60 years into less than 400 pages. This, combined with his stilted prose, results in flat characters and a plot that hastily skips from one event to the next without giving much weight or depth to any particular incident (when Scarlett’s first period is more memorable than Ruth’s trip to the slaver’s auction house, there might be an issue). Therein lies the central problem of Ruth’s Journey. It doesn’t really focus on Ruth or the experiences of slaves during the antebellum era (or indeed any of the characters therein). And when it does touch on issues like discrimination and cruel treatment at the hands of white people, it’s not written with enough attention or detail to make us feel for these characters. McCaig attempts to make Ruth stand out a bit by revealing that she has second sight – she can predict the future and knows when people aren’t long for this world because she can see their auras (voodoo magic?). But because this isn’t a dynamic characteristic until the end of the book, it ends up seeming gimmicky.

Ruth’s Journey isn’t a terrible book. It’s readable, and it will likely appeal to fans who love anything and everything related to Gone With the Wind. But it doesn’t do much in the way of righting the wrongs in the original story, and sadly, although Mammy may have a voice, she remains largely in the shadows.

I think I’ll re-read Gone With the Wind.

Ruth’s Journey by Donald McCaig is available from Atria Books

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Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait

Costume designer Bob Mackie talks GWTW

gone with the wind

Costume designer Bob Mackie talks GWTW

Film lovers across the United States are gearing up to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the premiere of David O. Selznick’s technicolor epic Gone With the Wind, and celebrities are getting in on the action. In anticipation of the nationwide cinematic re-release of the film and their new special collector’s edition Blu-Ray set, Warner Bros. has conducted a series of interviews with fashion designers to find out how Gone With the Wind influenced their respective careers. My favorite of these is the interview with Bob Mackie, who – among many, many other things – designed the famous “curtain rod dress” for Carol Burnett to wear on her show. This parody costume has become almost as famous as the curtain dress worn by Vivien Leigh in the original film!

You designed the famous curtain dress for Carol Burnett Show for the infamous parody segment back in 1976. This year, Gone With The Wind celebrates its 75th year. How did the parody come to be? Where did your inspiration come from?

On the Carol Burnett Show we often did parodies of classic old movies. It was inevitable that we would eventually take on Gone with the Wind, probably the most iconic and most seen film of the time. Everyone in the TV audience knew the moment “Starlett” (Carol) took the drapes down from the window and dragged them up the stairs that she would soon reappear wearing a dress made from the drapes. For me, in the real film when Scarlett appeared in her curtain dress, it was already hilarious. So for several days I agonized over what to do with the drapes. When an audience expects one thing and you surprise them with something else, usually you get a reaction. Well, when Carol proudly came down the stairs wearing the drapes – with the curtain rod included – the audience went ballistic. They say it was the loudest and longest laugh ever recorded on television. As a costume designer I was relieved; I got my laugh.

What elements of the famous dress worn by Scarlett O’Hara did you incorporate into the parody dress worn by Carol Burnett?

In the film, Scarlett was often quite ridiculous (thank God for Vivien Leigh). For Carol to parody her was not a real stretch, and what juicy material to satirize.

What do you most love about Gone With The Wind?

Gone with the Wind is one of those films I can never turn off. If I come upon it while channel surfing, I will stay up all night ’til it finishes.

How did the movie inspire you as a Fashion Designer? Does it continue to resonate with you today?

The film’s costume designer Walter Plunkett called me after seeing our show and asked me if he could have my sketch of the television version of the curtain dress. I was honored and thrilled! Mr. Plunkett was one of the most esteemed period costume designers of the Golden Age of film. He also designed my favorite musical film Singing in the Rain.

What fashion secrets can real women borrow from Scarlett O’Hara and Gone With The Wind? Should women give a damn about what others think?

The film Scarlett was ruthless in her fashion choices. She knew what she wanted and was never afraid to push the boundaries of what the proper lady of the 1860s would or should not wear. She certainly didn’t care what other people thought. Today fashion is a little too free, easy and sloppy. Oh, well. Time marches on.

  • Gone With the Wind will be released in select theaters nation-wide on September 28
  • The Gone With the Wind 75th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition Blu-Ray boxed set hits stores on September 30.

Interview text in this post is ©2014 Turner Entertainment Co. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

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Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait

Clarence Sinclair Bull: The man who shot Gable and Leigh

gone with the wind photography vivien leigh

Clarence Sinclair Bull: The man who shot Gable and Leigh

A couple of years ago, London’s National Portrait Gallery mounted a major exhibition in partnership with the John Kobal Foundation titled Glamour of the Gods, a photographic retrospective paying tribute to some of the greatest portrait photographers in Hollywood history. Among those included were Laszlo Willinger, George Hurrell, Robert Coburn, and perhaps the greatest of them all, Clarence Sinclair Bull.

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gone with the wind interviews vivien leigh

Olivia de Havilland remembers Vivien Leigh

Olivia de Havilland and Vivien Leigh

The divine Olivia de Havilland celebrates her 97th birthday today. She is one of our greatest living film legends. Her career was quite extraordinary. A two-time Academy Award winner, she starred opposite many of the most popular leading men in Hollywood history, worked with some of the most acclaimed directors, and, perhaps most impressively, served her studio, Warner Bros., with a lawsuit over contractual obligations. Passed in 1944, the de Havilland Law stipulated that studios could not add extra time onto the end of stars’ seven-year contracts.

Despite her two Oscars for The Heiress and To Each His Own, de Havilland is perhaps best-known today for playing Scarlett O’Hara’s angelic sister-in-law Melanie Wilkes in Gone With the Wind. She is the only surviving main player from the film, and as such, her memories are cherished by many fans. De Havilland has been very forthcoming over the years about her association with the film. While many, including Vivien Leigh, envisioned that the outcome of Selznick’s epic would be disastrous, de Havilland stipulates that she knew they were making something special.

I was lucky enough to interview Olivia de Havilland whilst writing Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait. She kindly answered my questions in writing from her home in Paris, revealing her sharp mind and a knack for tactfulness. Her character really shines through here. Notice how she is never condescending or malicious in her assessments. One of the things I appreciated most was her honesty about how well she knew Vivien after GWTW. It’s easy to claim we know more about certain situations than we really do, and I think her admitting she wasn’t able to answer certain questions really adds to her credibility.

Below are the signed covering letter and answers to my questions. The sections that are blacked out were chosen to appear in the text of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait.

Olivia de Havilland cover letter

Olivia de Havilland interview

Olivia de Havilland interview 2

de havilland 3

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Studies in Scarlett

Vivien Leigh Scarlett O'Hara

Studies in Scarlett

by Gavin Lambert
The Sunday Times, December 30, 1973

Early in 1936 David Selznick received from his story editor in New York a long synopsis of a long forthcoming novel. It was called Gone With the Wind and nobody had ever heard of the author. The story editor, Kay Brown, strongly urged him to buy the rights at once.

He didn’t. Although tempted by the material, he knew that movies about the Civil War were usually commercial failures. He turned it down, then had second thoughts for six weeks. Finally he made an offer which was accepted, went to Hawaii for a vacation with his wife and read the novel he’d bought. He returned to Hollywood to find it a runaway best seller and already part of the national psyche.

Having decided that George Cukor should direct the picture, Selznick’s first thoughts about casting were directed toward Rhett Butler, not Scarlett O’Hara. He wanted Clark Gable, but the star was under contract to MGM. His father-in-law, Louis B. Mayer, was still angry because Selznick had previously left the studio to form his own company and refused a sumptuous offer to go back. Reluctant to deal with this difficult potentate again, Selznick fell back on his second choice, Gary Cooper. He approached Sam Goldwyn, to whom the actor was under contract, and met an unblanketed refusal. He next thought Errol Flynn, at the time the movies’ top swashbuckler. Warner Brothers, who owned his contract, offered a package instead of a refusal. Bette Davis, also owned by the studio, had began an ardent campaign for the part of Scarlett the moment she heard Selznick was going to produce the movie. Jack Warner was prepared to make her part of the deal.

Selznick was seriously tempted, but not Davis. Desperate though she might be, she wouldn’t play Scarlett to Errol Flynn’s Rhett. Jack Warner broke off negotiations; Selznick, after considering Warner Baxter and Ronald Colman for a few minutes, reluctantly admitted to himself that gable was a necessity. He went back to MGM, faced his triumphant father-in-law, and was met by some not unexpected stiff terms. MGM would lend Gable at a figure considerably above his usual salary, and provide half the financing in return for world distribution rights and half of the total profits.

Since Selznick’s company had a contract with United Artists to distribute all his pictures until the end of 1938, Gone With the Wind could not be released by MGM until after that time. It was not October, 1936. Selznick’s next problem was how to keep public interest alive in his project for the next two years.

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