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Romantic Rebel

Seventy years ago today since his silver screen debut, Rhett Butler remains a charming scoundrel.

By 12.15.09

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Conceited and coolly cynical, he has "the most terrible reputation," so breathtakingly scandalous that he isn't received by "any decent family in Charleston." Yet 70 years since his silver screen debut, Rhett Butler's roguish charms are still irresistible.

Rhett will once again swagger into ladies' hearts tonight as the Turner Classic Movies cable channel broadcasts the Civil War epic Gone With the Wind on the anniversary of its 1939 Atlanta premiere at Loew's Grand Theater.

Margaret Mitchell's Pulitzer-winning 1936 novel tells the tale of Scarlett O'Hara, but it is Clark Gable as Rhett who gallantly carries the three-hour movie on his broad shoulders. Never have an actor and a role fit together so well, and while Mitchell had her criticisms of producer David Selznick's film adaptation -- she especially felt Leslie Howard was wrong for the role of Ashley Wilkes -- she considered Gable perfect for his part.

Gable brought to his greatest role both the comic flair he had shown in It Happened One Night (1934) and the dramatic heroism he displayed as Fletcher Christian in 1935's Mutiny on the Bounty. From the moment Gable appears as Rhett, leering at Scarlett as she ascends the stairway at the Twelve Oaks barbecue -- "as if he knows what I look like without my shimmy," Scarlett remarks -- his character dominates the story.

Beyond Gable's Oscar-winning ability as an actor, what is the secret of Rhett's enduring appeal? Above all, it is his utter independence and supreme self-confidence.

While those around him scrupulously obey the superficial social conventions of the age, Rhett scoffs at his own disrepute and brashly invites scandal, as when he shocks Atlanta society by bidding $150 for the honor of dancing with the recently widowed Scarlett. And while Ashley is torn by doubt, Rhett is the embodiment of decisive certainty.

He has a way with the ladies, but Rhett is indisputably a man's man. When his blunt skepticism toward the South's prospects in the impending war enrages the touchy pride of his hosts in the drawing room at Twelve Oaks, Rhett is insulted by young Charles Hamilton, but declines the challenge. "I apologize again for all my shortcomings," Rhett says as he excuses himself. The hot-tempered Hamilton imputes this to cowardice -- "He refused to fight!" -- only to be informed by Ashley that Butler is a notoriously deadly duelist, "one of the best shots in the country."

In an agrarian antebellum society obsessed with the noble ideals of ancient chivalry, Rhett's attitudes are shockingly modern. He is a calculating capitalist, shamelessly professing his pursuit of self-interest. When Scarlett reproaches him for doubting the Confederate cause, Butler memorably retorts, "I believe in Rhett Butler. He's the only cause I know."

Yet Rhett ultimately proves not quite so shameless and selfish as he proudly claims to be. Not only does he allow himself to fall desperately in love with Scarlett, but after he rescues her from the Yankee army surrounding Atlanta, Butler decides to join the retreating Confederates, telling Scarlett, "I've always had a weakness for lost causes, once they're really lost."

Rhett's weakness is a vulnerability that haunts Gone With the Wind in the 21st century. The accusation of a sentimental attachment to the Lost Cause is an affront to politically correct sensibilities, as scandalous today as the antebellum gossip about Butler's unchaperoned buggy-ride with a belle he refused to marry.

Whereas in 1939, the film's most shocking element was Rhett's famous exit line -- "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" -- today it is denounced for its portrayal of servile black characters and its depiction of slavery as essentially benign. However, anyone who thinks the movie version of Gone With the Wind is reprehensively racist would be well advised to avoid Mitchell's novel, whose frank representation of Old South racial attitudes was softened substantially in Selznick's screen adaptation. To condemn Gone With the Wind as an apologia for slavery, secession or white supremacy, however, is to miss the metaphoric purpose of Mitchell's tale.

Written during the grimmest years of the Great Depression, the novel offered a historical message of hope during an economic cataclysm nearly as crushing to the larger nation as Sherman's march through Georgia had been to the Confederacy. In Scarlett's fierce determination to overcome hardship -- "As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again!" -- and Rhett's sarcastic laughter even amid the most disastrous war in American history, Gone With the Wind gave hope to an America badly in need of hope.

Though set in the Old South, Mitchell's story really represents the spirit of the New South, the can-do attitude espoused by Atlanta newspaper editor Henry Grady who, in the postbellum era, urged Southerners to reject nostalgic helplessness and embrace the challenges of industrial capitalism. The New South mentality and its consequences have their critics. The rush-hour traffic jams of my native Atlanta are a scourge that Georgians now curse as thoroughly as their ancestors cursed Sherman's Yankee invaders. Yet forward-looking confidence continues to triumph over the alternative as surely as Rhett's boldness trumped the honor-obsessed doubts of the rival he called "the wooden-headed Mr. Wilkes."

Seventy years after his first appearance onscreen, Rhett still charms millions, despite the damage done to his reputation by decades of political correctness. And as he tells Scarlett during their scandalous first dance, "With enough courage, you can do without a reputation."

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.