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When It Comes To 'Gone With The Wind,' Do Kids Today Give A Damn?

A crowd gathers outside the Astor Theater on Broadway during New York City's Gone with the Wind premiere in December 1939. (AP)

When the staff at All Things Considered started talking about the upcoming 75th anniversary of Gone with the Wind, it turned out that many younger staff members hadn't seen it. The film, which premiered in December 1939, is returning to theaters nationwide this weekend. But three-quarters of a century after its debut, is Gone with the Wind aging gracefully?

Grantland film critic Wesley Morris isn't worried. He believes Gone with the Wind is a timeless classic — with breathtaking technical achievements. "There's a shot of Scarlett walking across the street, and she's encountering all the bodies, and she's seeing the horror of the war for the first time, and it's just brilliant," he says. "It's just a brilliant shot, and the movie is full of those — low angles, high angles, medium shots, long shots — the close-ups are astounding."

But when I asked 13 students in a Georgetown University film class if they'd seen it, most either hadn't seen the film or had seen only parts of it. These students are serious about movies. But a lot of them sided with Mike Minahan, 20, who said when it comes to Gone with the Wind — frankly, he doesn't give a damn.

"Everything I've seen about it says it, like, glorifies the slave era ... and I dunno, what's the point of that? I don't see that as a good time in history ... like, oh, sweet, a love story of people who own slaves."

The students had two issues with Gone with the Wind: race and rape.

Everything I've seen about it says it, like, glorifies the slave era ... and I dunno, what's the point of that? I don't see that as a good time in history. ... like, oh, sweet, a love story of people who own slaves.
Mike Minahan, Georgetown University student

In one scene, Scarlett is raped by her husband and wakes up the following morning in an absolutely wonderful mood. Today we watch that scene — or those with happy slaves — differently than we would have even a generation ago. But that doesn't mean Gone with the Wind isn't timeless, says Morris. It's just that, to many viewers now, it's unfashionable.

Morris says these vexing ideas about rape and race in Gone with the Wind are still huge underlying problems in society. "You can't pretend that those things aren't there anymore just because it's 2014 and not 1939," he says.

In 1939, when the movie came out, its themes of deprivation, food, security and war made sense to Depression-era audiences.

"These issues that are so important to Scarlett were also important to people at the time," says Steve Wilson, who curated an exhibition about Gone with the Wind now up at the University of Texas, Austin. "I think it resonated so much that it became an integral part of our culture that is still with us today."

Hunger, homelessness, dealing with trauma after war — they're all still contemporary issues, Wilson says. And even though it's told from the perspective of a white, slave-owning woman, Wilson believes Gone with the Wind's large-canvas love story is timeless, too.

"I've had the experience of falling in love with someone who didn't fall in love with me ... that is something that I think anyone can relate to," he says.

That relatability is partly what separates a Gone with the Wind from a troublesome classic like The Birth of a Nation. And traditionally, Gone with the Wind has been a family movie. That's what it was for Georgetown student Becky Neff.

"I saw it because I have aunts and uncles ... who were very affected by it when they were growing up," Neff explains. "It's a way [for] us to share something together in common and they like to pass down things that were interesting for them."

And how interesting to families today, to acknowledge and talk about the problems with the film; to understand America's evolving sense of what's acceptable, and better appreciate a sweeping — and timeless — American epic.


The Georgetown University students you heard in this piece are John Buckley, Juliana De Souza, Greg Keiser, Walter Kelley, Julia Kieserman, Taylor Lambert, Bryan McDonnell, Mike Minahan, Becky Neff, Lauren Saar, Teddy Schaffer, Joseph Servidio, Benito Skinner, Alana Snyder, Sean Stempler and Maxwell Wheeler.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The 75th anniversary of the movie "Gone With The Wind" is coming up. And when our staff on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED started talking about it, we found out that many of the younger folks who work around here haven't seen this classic film. NPR's Neda Ulaby wondered why.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Could it be that "Gone With The Wind" is not aging particularly gracefully?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GONE WITH THE WIND")

BUTTERFLY MCQUEEN: (As Prissy) We've got to have a doctor. I don't know nothing 'bout birthin' babies.

ULABY: Film critic Wesley Morris, who works for the online magazine Grantland, says no. "Gone With The Wind" is a timeless classic, he explains, starting with its breathtaking technical achievements.

WESLEY MORRIS: There's a shot of Scarlett walking across the street. And she's encountering all the bodies. And she's seeing the horror of the war for the first time. And it's just brilliant. It's just a brilliant shot. And the movie is full of those - low angles, high angles, medium shots, long shots. The close-ups are astounding.

ULABY: But here is what 13 students in a film class at Georgetown University said when asked if they'd seen it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I've seen half of it - parts.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: No.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: No.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: No.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yes. I've seen half of it, too.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: No.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: No.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: No.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: Unfortunately, no.

(LAUGHTER)

ULABY: These students are serious about movies. But a lot of them sided with 20-year-old Mike Minahan, who said when it comes to "Gone With The Wind," frankly, he doesn't give a damn.

MIKE MINAHAN: Like everything I've seen about it says it, like, glorifies like the slave era and stuff. And I don't know, what's the point of that? Like I don't really see that as a good time in history to be like, oh, sweet, a love story of like people who owned slaves - like good for you.

ULABY: These students had two issues with "Gone With The Wind" - race and rape.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GONE WITH THE WIND")

VIVIEN LEIGH: (As Scarlett O'Hara) Take your hands off me you drunken fool.

ULABY: Scarlett is raped by her husband and wakes up the next morning in an absolutely wonderful mood. Today we watch that scene - or those with happy slaves - differently than we would have even a generation ago. But that doesn't mean "Gone With The Wind" isn't timeless, says critic Wesley Morris. It's just that, to many viewers now, it's unfashionable.

MORRIS: The reason the movie isn't fashionable is that people think the ideas in it don't matter anymore.

ULABY: But Morris says these vexing ideas about rape and race in "Gone With The Wind" are still huge underlying problems in society.

MORRIS: And in popular culture - and you can't pretend that those things aren't there anymore just because it's 2014 and not 1939.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GONE WITH THE WIND")

LEIGH: (As Scarlett O'Hara, crying).

ULABY: In 1939, when the movie came out, it's themes of deprivation made sense to Depression-era audiences.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GONE WITH THE WIND")

LEIGH: (As Scarlett O'Hara) As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again.

STEVE WILSON: Food and security, war...

ULABY: Steve Wilson curated an exhibition about "Gone With The Wind" up now at the University of Texas at Austin. He discussed it on NPR a few weeks ago.

WILSON: These issues that are so important to Scarlett were also important to the people at the time. And I think that it resonated so much that it became an integral part of our culture that is still with us today.

ULABY: Hunger, Wilson says, homelessness, dealing with trauma after war - they're all still contemporary issues. And even though it's told from the perspective of a white slave-owning woman, Wilson says "Gone With The Wind's" large canvas love story is timeless, too.

WILSON: I've had the experience of falling in love with someone who didn't fall in love with me, you know. So that is something that I think everybody can relate to.

ULABY: That relatability is partly what separates a "Gone With The Wind" from a troublesome classic like "The Birth Of A Nation." And traditionally, "Gone With The Wind" has been a family movie. That's what it was for 27-year-old Georgetown student Becky Neff.

BECKY NEFF: I saw it because I have aunts and uncles who were very affected by it. And when they were growing up and they just - it's a way for us to share something together in common. And they like to pass down things that were interesting for them.

ULABY: And how interesting to families today, to acknowledge and talk about problems with the film, to understand America's evolving sense of what's acceptable and better appreciate a sweeping and timeless American epic. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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