There are innumerable critical choices involved in the production of a great film, but one of the most apparent (and important) is determining how an important character first appears. It can happen in a flash, or slowly build to a satisfying reveal, but however achieved, much of a movie’s success can hinge on these moments. Heroes, villains, and anyone in between; the first impression is often how we remember them for the rest of our lives, so filmmakers had better make it count. How to Make an Entrance hopes to celebrate some of the greatest film character entrances of all time by attempting to examine and explore why they work so well — and along the way, perhaps reintroduce readers to some classic cinema friends.
Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939)
As God is my witness, I’ll never go hungry for great movie entrances again as long as indelible cinematic delights like Gone With the Wind still exist, with characters so larger than life that the big screen can hardly contain them. Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara is one of those towering achievements, as the plantation princess easily dominates every scene she’s in, whether fleeing from a city set ablaze during the Civil War, or sitting comfortably on the porch discussing a Sunday barbecue. Producer David O. Selznick certainly understood the importance of audiences immediately attaching themselves to this complex character; due to his dissatisfaction, Scarlett’s introduction scene was shot five times over the course of nine months, including twice by original director George Cukor, then three more times by his replacement, Victor Fleming, whose last, brilliant take was the one eventually used.
Ignoring Scarlett’s amazing first line (“Fiddle-dee-dee! War, war, war!”), what makes this little push-in so memorable is the superb craftsmanship that went into every little detail, both behind the camera and in front of it (O. Selznick reportedly was so meticulous as to reject earlier takes because the Tarleton twins’ hair came off as too orange). The key shot starts off with a little bit of a tease, however: though audiences are presumably itching to get a look at their plucky protagonist, she is masked by one of the two dull suitors fawning over her as they excitedly prattle on about an impending war between the North and the South. It’s a nice buildup so as to create a grander reveal for this debutante — the cinematic equivalent of descending down a spiral staircase.
From there, everything revolves around Scarlett, which is exactly how her character views the world. The camera closes in until that smirking visage fills the screen, immediately defining what’s important in the scene. The deliberate dolly movement isn’t enough, however — note the angle of the composition, which puts its subject at dead-center. This causes all lines formed by objects in the background, whether above or below, to point directly at Scarlett’s face, the most blatant of which can be seen along the edges of the porch bench and the house’s siding. Even the horizontal floorboards direct the eyes right to her chin. It’s a subtle effect to be sure, but gets the point across: O’Hara is the Sun, a celestial body at the center of the galaxy.
Leigh is flawless here, ready for a close up in which she reveals a master manipulator at her finest. After flashing a subtle hint of deviousness, the camera pulls back to reveal the two men, now framing her like loyal attendants as she lounges on the steps, sunk into her meringue-like prayer dress. We know who is in charge, as she now has the height advantage. This is luxury, entitlement, and attractiveness depicted in the utmost efficiency; Scarlett can afford to be as much of a tease as she wants, as she holds complete power over her two lackeys.
A bit of dialogue has Scarlett threatening to storm out, and as she shrinks in the frame there is real tension, but it’s all a ruse; she playfully relents, reverts to her charmed self, and takes the arm of each man at her side. Still, the viewer can’t help but feel (in addition to relief) that the gentlemen are actually the ones being escorted! The shot ends simply, as the camera stays back, dollying as they resume their positions on the steps. This is done for the benefit of the next shot (which wants to switch gears into plot), and by this time the character has been established. Scarlett is naive but intelligent, charming yet devious, and utterly absorbed with herself — something she expects others to be as well.
Over the course of Gone With the Wind‘s 238 minutes (that’s right, kids), this southern belle will demonstrate that these traits will be expanded and elaborated upon, but thanks to classic technical filmmaking and a performance for the ages, the essence of Scarlett O’Hara can be found in the first few glorious seconds she graces the screen.
That’s how to make an entrance.
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