Why Rhett Butler is my biggest book crush
Long before Mr. Darcy, Heathcliff or Mr. Rochester. . .long, loooong before Edward Cullen or Christian Grey, there was Captain Rhett Butler in all his roguish, devil-may-care glory.
To be completely honest, my love affair began with the film, not the book. I was in sixth grade when, with much fanfare, Gone With the Wind aired on network television as a two-part miniseries. These were the pre-Netflix days. DVRs were a thing of the future, and only the lucky ones had cable television (I know. We’re talking ancient, dark days here). Suffice it to say, in this technologically primitive era, the airing of Gone With the Wind was an event. A lavish spectacle not to be missed.
Like every other schoolgirl with a romantic heart, I was rapt. I swooned over Scarlett O’Hara’s clothes—hoop skirts, wide-brimmed hats, parasols, bustles, bonnets and of course, the infamous emerald-green dress she made from curtains. I watched, slack-jawed as Atlanta burned. I cried when Scarlett vowed never to go hungry again. But I fell the hardest of all for Rhett Butler.
It was in that very moment that Rhett Butler became my first book boyfriend. He was everything the middle school boys weren’t. He was charming, sophisticated and tantalizingly confident. He cared more about embracing life than his reputation. He saw right through Scarlett’s saccharine, flirtatious exterior. And HE LOVED HER ANYWAY. Better yet, he thought her flaws made her far more interesting and desirable than all the cookie-cutter Southern belles who roamed Georgia’s red earth.
He also delivered what remains one of my favorite passages in all of romantic literature:
Tell me that doesn’t make you weak in the knees. I dare you. Back in sixth grade, these were the most scandalous words I’d ever heard.
I promptly began reading the book, joining the ranks of all the other book-loving middle school girls carrying around Margaret Mitchell’s classic, tucked between algebra and science textbooks. I so vividly remember that book—the way it smelled, its soft, dog-eared pages and the way the spine cracked at all my favorite places. It had a bright yellow cover, and was as heavy as a brick. I toted it everywhere I went for the better part of a semester. My teachers noticed, and to their credit, used it as a tool to start classroom discussions on the heartbreaking reality of slavery and the Civil War.
So last month, when an exhibit called The Making of Gone With the Wind opened at the Harry Ransom Center, a literary and film museum on the University of Texas campus in nearby Austin, I had to go. I gathered my fellow Scarletts. We fueled up on gas and lattes and road-tripped to Austin for the day, ready to be swept away.
The exhibit didn’t disappoint. The first thing I spotted was Scarlett’s gold-trimmed, green velvet dressing gown. Many of her beautiful gowns were there, including—yes!—the curtain dress and my personal favorite—the red velvet “harlot” dress. This was the actual costume worn by Vivien Leigh, the one Clark Gable, as Rhett Butler, hurled at her and told her to wear to Ashley’s birthday party, with “plenty of rouge” so she could “look the part.”
The treasures were endless. Especially moving was the transcription of Hattie McDaniel’s acceptance speech for her groundbreaking Academy Award. But my favorite thing of all was a single sheet of paper in a glass display case at the very end of the exhibit—a list of possible last lines for Rhett Butler to deliver to Scarlett O’Hara.
We all know how the film ends. It closes as the book does, with Rhett leaving Scarlett and uttering those memorable, iconic words, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” before disappearing in a swirl of fog. Actually, Margaret Mitchell penned the line as “My dear, I don’t give a damn,” but the two are nearly identical. Any further disparity between the book and the movie would have caused outrage.
But this was the 1930s. Damn was a shocking turn of phrase back then. Movie studio censors wanted to ban it and change the last line altogether. Telephone calls were made, memos exchanged. A list of alternatives was created. Fifty years later, this list sits in a glass display case at the University of Texas.
I read it once, twice, three times. I was alternately horrified and amused. I could hardly keep this prize to myself. So I narrowed down the list, and now I give you. . .
The Top Five Alternate Parting Words of Rhett Butler to Scarlett O’Hara:
1. “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a straw.”
Please tell me this was never a real possibility. Honestly, it sounds more like something the mild-mannered Ashley Wilkes would say.
2. “Frankly my dear, the whole thing is a stench in my nostrils.”
Um, no. Nostrils are neither sexy, nor romantic. Not even Rhett Butler’s.
3. “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a hoot.”
(See my comments on #1.)
4. “Frankly my dear, I’ve withdrawn from the battle.”
Haven’t there been enough battles throughout the course of this 900-page tome? Enough already.
5. Brace yourself. “Frankly my dear, it makes my gorge rise.”
Oh Rhett Butler, the things you say. No matter, I love you anyway.