Entertainment

The First Time I Saw 'Gone With the Wind'

The movie had promised love and romance, but what it delivered was a huge dose of life—adult life, in all its messy reality

Photograph by Bettmann Archive
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"Gone With the Wind," the 1939 blockbuster starring Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh was re-released Christmas 1967 at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood. I was a hormonal 15-year-old girl that year and had never wanted to see a movie as much as I wanted to see that one. On the poster, a real bodice ripper, Clark Gable holds Vivian Leigh in his arms, his lips a millimeter from hers, just seconds away from the best kiss ever in the whole world. It promised passion, romance and steamy sex, and my friends and I knew we would just die if we didn't see it. We begged our moms to take us.

The experience was epic—an emotional four-hour roller-coaster ride. We laughed, cried, cheered and swooned, a row of sheltered adolescent girls from North Hollywood whose worst life experience was not being invited to someone's birthday party. We left the theater emotionally exhausted. It was everything the poster promised and more. It was an experience of a lifetime.

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During the next week, I could not stop thinking about the film. I'd burst into tears during math class, in gym and on the bus ride home from school. Melanie's death haunted me. She was so good. She was so kind. How could she die? It was like losing my best friend. The movie had promised love and romance but what it delivered was a huge dose of life—adult life, in all its messy reality. My 15-year-old heart was broken.

While I did the dishes with my mom a week later, I said, "Wasn't that the saddest movie you've ever seen?" She didn't hesitate a second before she replied, "My life has been sadder."

What? How could anything be sadder than "Gone With the Wind"? I thought about what I knew of my mom's life—growing up in the depression after her father and mother, Ukrainian immigrants, lost their grocery store; losing six siblings to measles and the flu; having to wear those sad brown shoes the Red Cross issued to the poor; picking corn and beans on farms as migrant workers with her parents and five sisters every summer to bring in some extra cash; her father, forced to take a job in a steel mill, turning into an abusive alcoholic; the loss from cancer of the older sister she adored; the car accident, just months later, leaving her unable to care for me and my little sister; trying to feed four kids when my dad was out of work for a year. I'm sure there was more she wouldn't or couldn't tell me.

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Her life would have made a great movie.

But was it as sad as Scarlet O'Hara's? Scarlett loses her station in life, both her parents, her child, her best friend, two husbands that she didn't love, as well as one that she discovers she loves too late. Sadness is personal and impossible to measure. And, although the love story enthralled me, I came away from that film with a glimpse of what being an adult meant and I hoped life would be kinder to me.

It wasn't until the 1980s I saw "Gone With the Wind" again this time on a VHS in my own living room. I still watch it occasionally but as an adult with tough life experiences of her own. "My life has been sadder." I can still hear my mom saying this as she scrubbed a roasting pan. Only now I understand what she meant.

But there's also a line in the film I've never forgotten—the one Rhett Butler says as he stares into Scarlet O'Hara's eyes, "You should be kissed, and often. And by someone who knows how."

I have experienced this in my life. I have known the love my teenage self so desperately wanted. And when I think of it those same lovely adolescent hormones flood my body and for a moment I am that love-struck 15-year-old girl, sitting in the Cinerama Dome, waiting for life to sweep her away in 70mm Technicolor.

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