It's been windy for a while now, and Judge Gordon Sullivan is still here.
The captivating woman behind Gone with the Wind.
Margaret Mitchell is one of the strangest figures in American letters. Though she apprenticed extensively as a writer, she had only a single novel published in her lifetime, and that one almost by chance. Of course, we all know that novel: Gone with the Wind. Despite being huge (1,000 or so pages) and expensive (three whole dollars for that first edition, an amazing sum in 1936), the book was a runaway best seller. Depending on how you count and who you ask, Gone with the Wind is the bestselling novel of all time and spawned one of the most popular (and moneymaking) films of all time. Unlike other literary one-hit wonders, Mitchell did not retreat too much from public life. However, her "failure" to write another novel and her early death in a car crash created an air of mystery, and it's this air of mystery that Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel hopes to dispel.
Like many PBS biographies, American Rebel combines reenactments, interviews with scholars, and archival material to create a portrait of Margaret Mitchell. We learn about her rebellious youth, her love life, and, of course, her creation of Rhett and Scarlett over the course of an hour.
American Rebel is most effective in its first half. Mitchell was born in 1900, and her adventures are an index of the changing fate of women in America. The daughter of a wealthy suffragette, Mitchell was expected to marry young and live the life of a wealthy southern damsel. Though she started down that path—including a year at Smith—she was ultimately to become the quintessential flapper, living it up in the 1920s. Covering this material, American Rebel is clean and concise, showing the context for Mitchell's escapades with archival footage and plenty of input from scholars about her family life and aspirations at various times. We also learn that Mitchell had chronic depression, though the documentary is careful to not dwell too insensitively on it.
The problems start to appear as Gone with the Wind looms on the horizon. Though there are obvious biographic elements in the novel (like Scarlet's Atlanta upbringing and Irish roots), the show goes a bit far in finding parallels between the book and Mitchell's life. It's obvious that Gone with the Wind deserves its own documentary. Although this contains a fine overview, it's still not enough. As numerous books have been written on the novel, there's more than enough material to sustain a documentary. In fact, recent work has shown that Gone with the Wind had an interesting afterlife, especially as Mitchell and her husband tried to manage their finances in the wake of World War II. This post-GWTW material is given very short shrift.
That, ultimately, is the film's main shortcoming: despite taking an hour to run through Mitchell's life, the documentary feels both overfull and incomplete. There's too much to fit into one hour, but even with a breakneck pace the film can't capture everything. Obviously, Gone with the Wind occupies a large part of Mitchell's life, but it's given too much emphasis here. Those willing to seek out an hour-long look at Mitchell's life will already be familiar with much of the information about the book and film presented here, which means that it could have been cut and more obscure information about the author's latter days could have been substituted instead.
On DVD, American Rebel has that TV video sheen that is neither too distracting nor particular fun to look at. The contemporary interviews and reenactments look as good as you'd expect contemporary video to look, while some of the archival material shows its age. The Dolby 5.1 Surround mix does a fine job with the talking-head interviews, and the use of music and voiceover is well-balanced.
Extras start with an extended interview with author Pat Conroy. He appears in the main documentary, and for my money he's the least interesting of the commentators. He's a bit better in an extended setting, but more outtakes from the other interviewees would have been appreciated. We also get short featurettes on the premiere of Gone with the Wind and footage from the night that the book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937.
For those who know nothing about Margaret Mitchell, American Rebel is a good place to turn without having to digest a large biography; it fills in some of the biographical cracks even for those somewhat familiar with Mitchell's life. However, for diehard fans of Mitchell or her book, it tries to do too much and accomplishes too little to be of much interest.
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