And now to discuss one of the great ladies of the screen…
Gone With the Wind is a notorious tale. Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the Civil War South was a massive success, and the 1939 movie is still the top box office earner of all time. Even those who haven’t seen it at least know something about it from hearing it quoted, or parodied, or seeing the vast array of merchandise it still generates almost ninety years after it premiered. It is, of course, centered around peppery, driven Scarlett O’Hara, but my favorite character is Melanie Hamilton Wilkes. Brought to life beautifully by Olivia de Havilland, Melanie is a quiet influence on those around her, reminding them what they can be if they only let themselves.
John Huston once said, “I relieve myself from the rigors of directing by casting the movie correctly.” That certainly happened in the case of Gone With the Wind. I honestly can’t imagine anyone but Olivia de Havilland playing Melanie, and that’s not just because I’m biased towards the film. The other actresses who tried out for the part seemed to play Melanie too whiny, or boring, or something just wasn’t right. Olivia de Havilland’s Melanie almost purrs her lines, but not in a seductive way. She and Leslie Howard as Ashley have an easy, loving chemistry onscreen. Amazingly enough, Olivia almost didn’t get the part, as Jack L. Warner had no interest in loaning her out. However, Olivia went to Anne, Jack’s wife, and they double-teamed Jack into reconsidering. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.
Melanie’s (mostly spoiler-free) plot arc is straightforward. She marries Ashley Wilkes, works tirelessly in the military hospital and for “The Cause” when the Civil War breaks out, and has a baby. Once Ashley comes back from the war, she settles into home life in Atlanta.
Melanie has a very sheltered background. We don’t hear much about it in the film, but in the book it mentions that Melanie’s world is gentle and nurturing, with no harsh words spoken. She’s the polar opposite of Scarlett, who is just scornful of her at first, calling her “mealy-mouthed.” Once she finds out Melanie is going to marry Ashley, though, Scarlett moves up to full-on detesting her, though she doesn’t tell her to her face. Melanie seems to be unconscious of Scarlett’s derision, and at the Wilkes barbecue tells Scarlett she has so much love. She even defends Scarlett when the other ladies at the party criticize Scarlett for flirting with all the eligible men.
During the Civil War, Melanie is unselfish to a fault. Everything she does for the soldiers she’s really doing for Ashley, because she believes someone else may be helping Ashley as he’s out fighting the war. That’s her focus, and one of the reasons Melanie’s so patient in her war work. She doesn’t care where help for the war effort comes from, either–Melanie approves of the soldiers bidding on the ladies they want to dance with at a bazaar, and she accepts gold from the town madame, Belle Watling, which would have shocked and horrified the other matrons if Melanie hadn’t been the one to okay it. Melanie even goes so far as to give up her wedding ring to the Cause because it might help Ashley.
Melanie is also braver than she appears, and shows quiet leadership. She gives birth to her baby with only Scarlett and Prissy attending, while Atlanta is being evacuated. Sure, she didn’t have any choice in the matter, but it takes a tough person to bear up under such circumstances. When the men go to their “political meeting” after Scarlett is attacked in the shantytown, Melanie is the one who keeps the women from blowing their cover by reading out of David Copperfield while everyone sews. Seriously–even when Rhett and Dr. Mead bring home a seemingly drunk (read: wounded) Ashley, Melanie doesn’t give a thing away, but acts as if her husband being carried home like that is a common occurrence. Everyone else is stressed, but Melanie’s as cool as a cucumber.
In return, people show Melanie loyalty, especially those from society’s fringes. Rhett and Belle, for instance, who have less-than-savory reputations, stick up for her and help her whenever they can. Rhett gets Melanie’s ring back for her. Belle provides Ashley with an alibi on the night of the shantytown raid. Mammy tells Melanie during a crisis later on, “If you can’t help us, who can?”
Scarlett may despise Melanie, but the root problem is that she’s jealous. Everything seems to fall in Melanie’s lap–Ashley loves her and comes home to her, she has his baby, people do nice things for her, and she handles situations of all kinds with grace and strength. This is what Scarlett wants to be, only she’s too blinded by her mindset and selfishness to acknowledge that she might be going about things all wrong. She’s only friendly to Melanie because it keeps her close to Ashley.
On the surface, it might seem like Melanie acts the way she does because she’s a milquetoast. However, this is not the case–she believes in people’s better natures so strongly that she never stops encouraging that side of them to come out. What’s more, she treats them as if their better natures are already there. Melanie raises the bar for all the characters without their knowing it. She’s a mentor and mother figure for them, so much so that when circumstances change, those around her suddenly realize what a void Melanie will leave if she’s gone.
Gone With the Wind is a film that gets mixed treatment from some today, and one guess as to why. It’s rather unfair, because for its time, the film handled uncomfortable topics such as slavery and the Ku Klux Klan very discreetly and matter-of-factly. Producer David O. Selznik bent over backwards to make sure African Americans were portrayed in a respectful way, and they mostly were. Sure, slavery was and is a terrible thing, and no one likes to be reminded that the United States has an imperfect history, but history, like Melanie Wilkes, leaves an awful hole if it’s eradicated or changed from what it really is. This is why a film such as Gone With the Wind is still valuable and has plenty to teach us, and performances like Olivia de Havilland’s make it a pleasure to watch.
All right, thanks for reading, and please check out In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Phyllis Loves Classic Movies for more Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn. Thanks for hosting, Crystal and Laura!
One more thing: The first installment of that new series I mentioned last month is going to drop on July fifth, and part of the name rhymes with “page.” Hope to see you then! 🙂