In her monograph on the film for the BFI Film Classics series, Helen Taylor writes of Gone with the Wind‘s director, Victor Fleming, that “he returns repeatedly to that familiar trope of southern film — the staircase — as site of significant action, as well as a suggestive thematic link between the everyday and the nocturnal, linking social relationships and sexual desire, reason and passion.” For what they signify, the four primary sets of stairs in the film serve as the perfect stage for Scarlett O’Hara’s story, her rises and falls. Not only are they a fine visual aid for the narrative engine, but in their various designs (by art director Lyle Wheeler) they make statements about the characters most closely associated with them.
The first, most ornate staircase is found at the Twelve Oaks plantation, home of Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard). A wide, curving stair that splits in two opposite directions halfway up, it’s a luxurious structure, beautiful for its own sake. More so than Tara, the O’Haras’ plantation, Twelve Oaks is the symbol of antebellum splendor, and the staircase is its centerpiece. This is the world that is about to be lost when war, emancipation, and General William Tecumseh Sherman come around, a kind of opulence that will be swapped for more functional, hard-nosed designs. Here is the site of one of the great character entrances in film history, when Scarlett (Vivien Leigh) looks down at a man staring up at her. He’s the notorious Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), leaning on the handrail at the landing, a worldly smile on his face. Immediately, the stairs add visual interest to some necessary expository dialogue.
A little later, having been rebuffed in her declaration of love to Ashley, Scarlett will collect herself and climb the stairs again at a crucial moment. In a sweeping shot from the central landing, taking in the mansion’s foyer, we see Scarlett, untouched by history as it flares up from all directions, too absorbed in her private quandary to so much as look around. Then the callow Charles Hamilton (Rand Brooks) fills her in on the state of the union, and she impulsively enters her first marriage. The film having just crossed the first half-hour mark, this is the last we’ll see of Twelve Oaks until about an hour later, when the home has become a blasted-out husk. The staircase is still mostly intact, but it now leads nowhere. The world has clearly changed, but we must look to other staircases to observe how Scarlett has changed with it.
In her hopeless pursuit of Ashley, Scarlett spends some time in Atlanta with his wife Melanie (Olivia de Havilland). The more modest (though not without its own ornamentation) home of Aunt Pittypat (Laura Hope Crews) is where the next staircase is located. It’s a simple, straight and narrow rise directly away from the front door, coming to a landing and then continuing in the opposite direction. There simply isn’t room to get lost in one’s thoughts on these stairs — not without bumping into someone else, that is. And so this staircase becomes the arena where Scarlett and Prissy (Butterfly McQueen) butt heads while Melanie goes into labor. Having tried and failed to get a real doctor to come help (since the casualties of war have become overwhelming), the already exhausted Scarlett steels herself to take charge. Her right hand clutching the railing, she takes slow, methodical steps in answer to Melanie’s cries. Her motivations haven’t really changed, but now she bears the full weight of the situation by herself and doesn’t bend. After the birth, she leads the flight from the house, descending the stairs with a lantern, Rhett having arrived to carry the debilitated Melanie in his arms, just before Atlanta begins to burn.
The staircase at Tara is about as simple as Aunt Pittypat’s, almost a mirror image. It’s important that we don’t get a really good look at it until after the intermission. With her mother dead and her father no longer of sound mind, Scarlett becomes head of the household. The space belongs to and is a reflection of her. Only one significant event occurs here. A Union deserter (Paul Hurst) arrives to swipe some of the family’s belongings, and he meets Scarlett standing just below the central landing of the stairs. He starts walking up to her in a menacing fashion but fatally underestimates her preparedness. The quick series of cuts — the soldier’s eyes widening, the gun pointing directly at the camera, the soldier looking directly at the camera as the gun goes off, Scarlett’s squinting reaction, the bloody face, the body falling — make for the most visceral moment of violence in a war movie that doesn’t show any battles. Melanie, still recovering from childbirth, arrives a moment later, sword in tow. In this scene, about halfway through the movie, Scarlett finally gains respect for this woman who married her beloved Ashley.
Gone with the Wind is the capstone of 1930s Hollywood cinema in that it depicts the rise from destitution and despair to abundant wealth in sumptuous detail. Scarlett’s maneuverings, including a second loveless marriage enacted as a business venture, culminate in the crowd-pleasing marriage with Rhett, who already had “millions.” The Butler-O’Hara residence in postwar Atlanta is stunning and elaborate, nearly rivaling Twelve Oaks, though, of course, without the history. The red staircase, in particular, is an entirely different kind of embellishment, very wide but climbing straight ahead and with no intermediary landings. All the familiar emotional resonances of the color red come into play here. Rhett and Scarlett have it out over her continued pining for Ashley. In the middle of the night, he forcefully carries her up the stairs into the darkness, one of the most fraught “fade to black” moments of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Then, beginning the string of crises of the film’s final half-hour, Scarlett accidentally falls down those stairs and miscarries. The melodrama starts to hit a fever pitch, but the emotional peak doesn’t come with any one event, but with the tearful report of Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) to Melanie as they go up the stairs, filling her in on the final, devastating blow to the Butler-O’Hara marriage. Last of all, when Rhett leaves the house for good, Scarlett returns to the staircase, stretching herself out on the first steps. Only recently have I found the ending of the film especially satisfying, but it really is a stirring emotional beat. Scarlett’s rebirth will come when she returns home and starts over, once again.
There are many symmetries and recapitulations over the nearly four hours of Gone with the Wind. Producer David O. Selznick and production designer (a title that didn’t exist before this film) William Cameron Menzies deserve a lot of credit for wrangling a coherent visual style from such a complicated and troubled production. Lyle Wheeler’s stairs aren’t going to be the first thing anyone remembers from this film, but it’s impossible to forget the events that happen on them. As elaborate constructions, they serve as adequate symbols for the film itself, the great epic of the American South that was shot entirely in California, with matte paintings and facades but also with a full-scale conflagration. If the stairs could talk, they’d tell you something about birth and death, lust, rage, terror, regret, and resolve. They do talk, in a way. Gone with the Wind wouldn’t be the phenomenon it is otherwise.