Among the fifty-plus films on offer on the back of the seat in front of me was Gone with the Wind, its longwinded running-time offering to eat up a good half of the seven hour Atlantic crossing. I gladly accepted its splendors over the dozens of other contenders for my limited attentions. What better way to exact posthumous revenge on the big-screen megalomania of producer David O. Selznick than to confine him to a paperback-sized format framed by the blue and gray Prince William-plaid of the Continental Airline upholstery? In this 70th anniversary year of the mightiest classic of Hollywood’s Golden Age, airborne Sherman sweeps through Georgia, and the Confederate wounded are laid out in their rows in a back lot version Atlanta as the bombs burst around them and above the inflight mag and the airsick bag. There is something refreshing about reducing Hollywood’s grandest ambitions to the dimensions a mini Etch-a-Sketch.
Equally as pleasing is the way a pair of low-fidelity, super-cheap ear-buds deflates the grandeur of Max Steiner’s soundtrack. Steiner always had pretensions to be taken seriously as a composer of symphonic stature on par with his European forbears. This is the perfect music, then, to accompany a flight that follows the arc of his ambition back towards the Old Countries.
Each time the classic shot of Tara comes into view and the strings stride magisterially across their octave expanse and then exhale proudly as they relax into the home pitch, the tonic, I feel the pride swelling in my own breast. “The land is what lasts,” Mr. O’Hara tells his feisty daughter Scarlett, and she eventually becomes the most resourceful defender of the principle. Steiner’s sweeping melody, and its Romantic underpinnings, lets us know exactly what that pride feels like: how big and benign the plantation is, how it embraces all who live and work on it, even those who plow its fields.
Could it be that no one did more than Steiner to instill a renewed sense of the value of home ownership after the hard years of the Depression and on the eve of World War II than Steiner? To look at your own house, be it a double wide or neo-Burgundy McMansion even with its underwater mortgage, is to hear the grandiose strains of Steiner’s Tara theme.
Seventy years on, the score appears to me as a mighty weapon aimed at bolstering confidence in the American Dream. To hear Steiner’s most famous theme is realize that nothing could be better than to own your own piece, to invest in the only thing that lasts. Thus my plan to solve the credit crisis would be to play Steiner’s soundtrack in all banks, in the halls and meeting rooms of the Capitol, and at all meetings of the Federal Reserve.
Indeed, Steiner’s fragmentary symphonic talents do much of the work of holding the sprawling movie together, and, for that matter, of making us care to bother about its far-fetched premises. Take, for example, the on-screen text accompanied by Steiner’s swelling Overture:
There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields
called the Old South.
Here in this pretty world Gallantry took
Its last bow … Happy Negroes who plow the fields in the prologue, as the on-
There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields…
Against the glowing sunset, we hear the bell sound for quitting time. One of the field hands rejoices that he can at last stop his work. But the black field boss tells him that only he can say when the gang can stop. The boss waits a beat and then duly gives the word. Way down at the bottom of the Dixie regime, one slave exerts his power over another. But that’s about the sum total of the friction either within or between the races. Old Slaves remain true, even after the defeat of the slave owners in the Civil War. Scarlett gives the family’s black butler Mr. O‘Hara’s pocket watch after the Irishman dies falling from his horse, and we’re expected to believe that this parting gift can make up for an entire lifetime of servitude and for entire centuries of cruelty.
It’s hardly news to claim that the campy film is really a ridiculous white-washing of the brutality of slavery. Eloquent criticism of the film was voiced even in the face of the rapture which greeted the movie on its initial release, as Peter Franklin points out in a excellent essay on Gone with the Wind in a collection on film music entitled Beyond the Soundtrack and edited by Daniel Goldmark, Lawrence Kramer and Richard Leppert (University of California Press, 2007). Franklin has also written the definitive essay on Steiner’s score for King Kong. In an ”Open Letter to Mr Selznick” printed in New York Daily Worker soon after the release of the Gone with the Wind, the black writer Carlton Moss argued that: “Whereas The Birth of a Nation was a frontal attack on American history and the Negro people, Gone with the Wind, arriving twenty years later, is a rear attack on the same. Sugar-smeared and blurred by a boresome Hollywood love-story and under the guise of presenting the South as it is “in the eyes of the Southerners,” the message of Gone with the Wind emerges in its final entity as a nostalgic plea for sympathy for a still living cause of Southern reaction. The Civil War is by no means ended in the South, Mr Selznick. It lives on and will live on until the Negro people are completely free.”
But I suspect this far-fetched Gone with the Wind message is one that both Americans and Europeans still want to hear and to believe in, especially in this age of Obama. To many the future of race relations seems as rosy as Selznick’s Technicolor sunset.
In the food courts of Newark’s “Liberty” Airport all the workers behind the many counters serving up blueberry muffins and lattes and blending fruit drinks have dark skin. Some were born in the United States, but most are immigrants. Almost all of those consuming the products served by these people as they make their way to their international flights are white. The legacy of colonialism is as obvious in the concourse as the taste of a JambaJuice smoothie.
On the train from Heathrow after the long day flight was finally over the Jamaican conductor came to punch our tickets and informed us that Michael Jackson had just died. He turned to my two blonde daughters, ages eleven and nine, neither of whom had ever heard of Jacko, and said to them in comforting tones: “Don’t be sad kids. You’ll always have his music.”
As I contemplate the fate of this black man who died white, and in massive debt, I screen in my mind the familiar shots of Neverland, that source of so many of his debts, and hear again resounding gestures of Steiner’s orchestral pomp. Here’s betting that Jackson loved Gone with the Wind. If you believe in this music, you’ll believe in anything.
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org