Movie goers in 1939 were horrified to find that they had to pay 75 cents (pretty steep after ten years of economic depression) to see the latest blockbuster, based on a best selling novel which had been published three years before. The movie in question was almost four hours long, filmed in the new technicolor, and starred some of the biggest names of the age such as Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland, and Leslie Howard.
This movie was of course Gone with the Wind, one of the most famous and successful movies to ever come out of golden age Hollywood.
The golden age of Hollywood occurred from roughly 1927 to 1963, from the invention of “talkies” to the rise of television. Despite the stock market crash of 1929, the movie industry hardly suffered during the Depression due to people wishing to immerse themselves in the glamorous world of Hollywood to forget the hardship and dreariness of everyday life. A woman could admire Greta Garbo’s thin and severely arched eyebrows and Jean Harlow’s slinky, bias-cut evening dresses though she probably could not copy them. A lack of money and a need to support one’s self and your family meant that most people had to make their fashion choices based on practicality and functionality rather than Hollywood glamour. A new dress might have some pretty humble origins. Material from feed and flour sacks was often used to make new clothes, prompting feed and four sellers to make their sacks using material with attractive patterns in order to get people to buy from them.
Scarlet O’Hara, the anti-heroine of Gone with the Wind, finds herself in a similar situation and fashions a new gown from old curtains.
The O’Hara family finds themselves financially ruined after the Civil War and in danger of losing their plantation Tara. Such circumstances would have been all too familiar to the Depression era readers of Gone with the Wind. Scarlet, their feisty eldest daughter, is hell bent on fighting off poverty, crying “I’ll never go hungry again,” and makes some morally questionable choices in order to save herself and her family from ruin.
With many people unable to keep or find jobs, the public had a soft spot for those who were willing to buck the system to get ahead. Which is why some of the most famous people from the period are criminals such as Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker and John Dillinger.
In the 2013 television movie Bonnie & Clyde, Clyde, played by Emile Hirsch, explains in his posthumous narration “maybe if someone left open a door they should of, maybe if we were living in times of milk and honey stead of grit and piss, Bonnie would have just faded off into obscurity. Maybe if everywhere you looked they weren’t celebrating anyone who dared rise up. Hell, maybe if I hadn’t promised to make all her dreams come true, Bonnie would of forgotten all about me. Lord knows she should of. ”
Hard times bring out the best and worst in people and they can be periods of moral ambiguity. What might be one person’s determination might be another person’s amorality. We all hope that we would rise to the occasion in a time of trouble and we admire people who seem to survive and thrive against the odds, despite the mercenary things they might do get by whether it be making a self serving marriage or robbing a bank. Characters like Scarlet O’Hara do what the reader wishes he or she could do if they were not held back by morality and consequences. But amoral anti heroes often cannot escape the wages of sin. A person in the 1930s may have thought it might be fun to be an outlaw like John Dillinger but they sure would not have wanted to meet the same fate as him. Readers of Gone with the Wind might admire Scarlet O’Hara’s drive and determination but even they have to admit that she gets what she deserves in the end.