One of the greatest films of the greatest year of cinematic history premièred near the very end, 15 December 1939, at Loew’s Grand Theatre in Atlanta. This epic screen adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s classic sweeping saga of the Old South is one of those films like The Wizard of Oz, so well-known it feels almost pointless to bother giving a recap. Has anyone not seen GWTW at least once?!
On the eve of the Civil War, pretty, popular Southern belle Katie Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) lives the life of Riley on her family’s plantation Tara in Clayton County, Georgia. The talk of impending war bores Scarlett terribly, and she abandons her suitors to talk with her father in the fields.
Mr. O’Hara delivers a devastating piece of news—there’s a barbecue coming up at nearby Twelve Oaks to celebrate the engagement of cousins Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) and Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland). Though many men are competing for her hand, Scarlett only has eyes for the milquetoast Ashley, and is determined to stop this marriage from happening.
On the day of the barbecue, Scarlett insists on wearing a dress with a plunging neckline and refuses to eat the tray of food her Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) gives her. “Respectable” women weren’t allowed to demonstrate real appetites, esp. not in front of men. Thus, Scarlett isn’t supposed to eat anything at the barbecue and “ruin” her figure. (Little wonder so many girls and women have eating disorders!)
Scarlett wins the fight about the dress, but Mammy still makes her eat the food to ruin her appetite and remain unnaturally thin.
At the barbecue, Scarlett flirts with all the single gentlemen, hoping to make Ashley jealous. Then, during the ladies’ nap, Scarlett sneaks away to meet Ashley in the parlour. Her attempts to turn Ashley’s head and get him to jilt Melanie are all in vain.
There’s a long tradition of marriages between Ashley and Melanie’s families, since they’re so well-educated, intellectual, and serious-minded. While Scarlett lives for social life and superficial things, Ashley and Melanie both enjoy discussing ideas, debating politics, and reading great literature.
Though Ashley rebuffs Scarlett’s advances, this doesn’t deter her at all; on the contrary, it makes her even more determined to win his love. Ashley’s wishy-washiness doesn’t help matters, since he admits he’s attracted to Scarlett and kind of leaves the door open for future stolen moments. Scarlett declares she’ll hate him forever, but actions speak louder than words.
Also attending the barbecue is black sheep Charlestonian Captain Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), who’s immediately drawn to Scarlett. He witnessed the row between her and Ashley, and doesn’t understand what such a sassy, feisty woman sees in a guy like that.
The barbecue goes haywire when news of the declaration of war breaks, and all the young men rush off to enlist. Hoping to make Ashley jealous, Scarlett impulsively decides to marry Melanie’s brother Charles. Shortly before this, Charles and Rhett got into a heated argument when Rhett defied popular opinion to declare the North is better-equipped for victory.
Charles was gunning for a duel, but Rhett left the room to diffuse the situation. Though Charles thought Rhett a coward, Ashley told him Rhett is a much better shot and would’ve killed him.
Several months later, Scarlett becomes a widow when Charles dies of the measles (one of those lovely diseases anti-vaxxers giggle off as no big deal). Her mother suggests she move to Atlanta to break her melancholy (which of course isn’t caused by Charles’s death). Scarlett will live with Melanie and Melanie’s spinster aunt Pittypat.
Scarlett eagerly accepts this offer, hoping it’ll provide a chance to see Ashley again.
Scarlett attracts scandal when she attends a fundraiser in 1862 and dares to dance instead of demurely standing off to the side in her widow’s weeds. One of the few people at the charity event who doesn’t disapprove of her behaviour is Rhett, now making a fortune as an arms smuggler.
When Melanie donates her wedding ring to the war effort, Scarlett follows suit. Melanie, always seeing the best in people and unaware of untoward motivations, applauds this noble sacrifice. A dance auction is then held, and Rhett chooses Scarlett as his partner when he wins.
As they dance, Rhett tells Scarlett he wants her to someday say she loves him, and she says that’ll never happen.
By 1863, things aren’t going so well on the Atlanta homefront, and Scarlett and Melanie are forced into nursing work. Scarlett has to shoulder the burden of most of it, since Melanie, now pregnant after a furlough visit from Ashley, isn’t in the best of health.
Aunt Pittypat soon leaves to avoid the constant sound of artillery, compelling Scarlett into the role of mistress of the house. Her only help, slave Prissy (Butterfly McQueen), isn’t much help at all, esp. when Melanie goes into labour.
As Atlanta burns, the ladies escape back to Tara, with help from Rhett, the only person Scarlett knows who can get them to safety. Once they’re outside city limits, Rhett announces his plans to enlist and leaves them to journey the rest of the way alone.
Rhett professes his love before he leaves, which greatly angers Scarlett.
Their harrowing journey ends at a plundered, devastated Tara and a burnt Twelve Oaks. Even worse, Scarlett’s dad has gone half-mad since the recent death of his wife, and only two slaves are left, Mammy and Pork. All the other servants and slaves ran away or joined the Union Army.
Part I ends as Scarlett stands in the desolated fields, famously swearing, “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!”
To be continued.