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Clark Gable as Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind'
Rhett Butler is a fictional character and one of the main protagonists of Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.
In the beginning of the novel, we first meet Rhett at the Twelve Oaks Plantation barbecue, the home of John Wilkes and his son Ashley and daughters Honey and India Wilkes. The novel describes Rhett as "a visitor from Charleston;" a black sheep, who was expelled from West Point and is not received by any family with reputation in the whole of Charleston, and perhaps all of South Carolina. Rhett's enthrallment with Scarlett O'Hara begins when he overhears her declaration of love for Ashley in the library while the rest of the "proper" girls take a nap. He recognizes that she is willful and spirited and that they are alike in many ways, including their disgust for the impending, and later ongoing, war with the Yankees.
They meet again when Scarlett has already lost her first husband, Charles Hamilton, while she is staying with Charles' sister Melanie and their Aunt Pittypat in Atlanta during the war. Rhett, the dashing blockade runner, shocks the entire charity ball that was thrown to raise money for the Confederate troops, by giving one hundred dollars in gold to the cause to dance with Scarlett, a widow in mourning.
Rhett seemingly ruins Scarlett's reputation after this very public display of frivolity and Scarlett's father, Gerald O'Hara, comes to speak to Rhett and to take Scarlett back to Tara. However, Rhett, blackguard that he is, gets Gerald intoxicated and he and Rhett come to terms, so to speak. Gerald returns to Tara and Scarlett remains in Atlanta.
As the Yankees advance towards Atlanta, Scarlett stays behind to help deliver Melanie's baby and then must depend on Rhett to get them out of the city. Once they have fled Atlanta, Rhett - in a single moment of perverse idealism - joins the withdrawing Confederate soldiers for their one last stand against General Sherman.
After a great many months, Scarlett returns to Atlanta, this time to solicit money from Rhett to save Tara from foreclosure, only to learn from Aunt Pitty that he is in military jail, imprisoned by the Yankees for stealing the Confederate gold. Scarlett waltzes in, supposedly horrified that Rhett's life was in danger, all the while maneuvering him to give her money for the plantation. When Rhett sees through her ploy, he laughs in her face and Scarlett attacks him, causing her to faint. After regaining consciousness, she storms out.
On her way back to Aunt Pittypat's she meets Frank Kennedy, her sister Suellen's beau. Learning that Frank has done very well for himself, she plies him with affection and finally secures a marriage proposal, to which she accepts, thereby securing Tara's future indefinitely.
Two weeks later, Scarlett is shocked when she sees Rhett Butler while she is running Frank's store, free from the Yankees and amused that she has rushed into yet another marriage with a man she does not love, much less the fact that she stole him right out from under her sister's nose.
After Frank Kennedy is killed during a Ku Klux Klan raid on the shanty town after Scarlett is attacked, Rhett saves the lives of Ashley Wilkes and several others by alibiing them to the Yankee captain, a man with whom Rhett has played cards on several occasions.
While Scarlett is mourning right after Frank's death, Rhett appears and offers a marriage proposal promising to give her everything. Scarlett accepts only for Rhett's money. Rhett secretly hopes that Scarlett will eventually return the love he's had since the day he saw her at Twelve Oaks. Her continuing affection for Ashley Wilkes becomes a problem for the couple, however.
When their daughter, Bonnie, falls off a pony and dies, the tragedy causes a rift between the two which is impossible to bridge. Rhett eventually leaves because he knows he has to get away from Scarlett. Her confession of love is something that Rhett seems to have expected from the moment he first saw her breathless face when she rushes to him. He knows that Scarlett could never be happy with Ashley and when she discovers that, he does not want to be around when she throws her obsession onto him.
When he finally receives Scarlett's love, it is too late to salvage the love he once had for her, so he leaves her with his famous parting shot: "My dear, I don't give a damn." It has since been immortalized in film in an altered version: "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn."
In the course of the novel, Rhett becomes increasingly enamored with Scarlett's sheer will to survive in the chaos surrounding the war. The novel contains several pieces of information about him that do not appear in the film. After being disowned by his family (mainly by his father), he became a professional gambler, and at one point was involved in the California Gold Rush, where he ended up getting a scar on his stomach in a knife fight. He seems to love his mother and his sister Rosemary, but has an adversarial relationship with his father which is never resolved. He also has a younger brother who is never named, and a sister-in-law (both of whom he has little respect or regard for), who own a rice plantation. Rhett is the guardian of a little boy who attends boarding school in New Orleans; it is speculated among readers that this boy is Belle Watling's son (whom Belle mentions briefly to Melanie), and perhaps Rhett's illegitimate son as well.
Despite being thrown out of West Point, the Rhett of the novel is obviously very well-educated, referencing everything from Shakespeare to classical history to German philosophy. He has an understanding of human nature that the obtuse Scarlett never does, and at several points provides insightful perspectives on other characters. He also has an extensive knowledge of women, both physically and psychologically, which Scarlett does not consider to be "decent". Rhett has tremendous respect and (gradually) affection for Melanie as a friend, but very little for Ashley. Rhett's understanding of human nature extends to children as well, and he is a much better parent to Scarlett's children from her previous marriages than she is herself; he has a particular affinity with her son Wade, even before Wade is his stepson. When Bonnie is born Rhett showers her with the attention that Scarlett will no longer allow him to give to her and is a devoted father.
Like Thomas Sutpen from Absalom, Absalom!, Rhett decides to join in the Southern cause, but unlike his fellow Confederate, Ashley Wilkes, Rhett is not spiritually paralyzed by the South's loss.
In the sequels − both in official sequels (Scarlett, written by Alexandra Ripley, and Rhett Butler's People, written by Donald McCaig) and in the unofficial Winds of Tara by Kate Pinotti − Scarlett finally succeeds in getting Rhett back.
Searching for Rhett
In the 1939 film version of Gone with the Wind, for the role of Rhett Butler, Clark Gable was an almost immediate favorite for both the public and producer David O. Selznick (except for Gable himself). But as Selznick had no male stars under long-term contract, he needed to go through the process of negotiating to borrow an actor from another studio. Gary Cooper was thus Selznick's first choice, because Cooper's contract with Samuel Goldwyn involved a common distribution company, United Artists, with which Selznick had an eight-picture deal. However, Goldwyn remained noncommittal in negotiations. Warner Bros. offered a package of Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, and Olivia de Havilland for the lead roles in return for the distribution rights. When Gary Cooper turned down the role for Rhett Butler, he was passionately against it. He is quoted saying, "Gone With The Wind is going to be the biggest flop in Hollywood history. I’m glad it’ll be Clark Gable who’s falling flat on his nose, not Gary Cooper". But by then Selznick was determined to get Clark Gable, and eventually found a way to borrow him from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Selznick's father-in-law, MGM chief Louis B. Mayer, offered in May 1938 to fund half of the movie's budget in return for a powerful package: 50% of the profits would go to MGM, the movie's distribution would be credited to MGM's parent company, Loew's, Inc., and Loew's would receive 15 percent of the movie's gross income. Selznick accepted this offer in August, and Gable was cast. But the arrangement to release through MGM meant delaying the start of production until Selznick International completed its eight-picture contract with United Artists. Gable was reluctant to play the role. At the time, he was wary of potentially disappointing a public who had formed a clear impression of the character that he might not necessarily convey in his performance.
Adaptations and sequels
In the 1939 film adaptation, Rhett was played by Clark Gable.
In the Scarlett TV mini-series produced in 1994 (based on the above sequel novel), Rhett was played by Timothy Dalton.
In the musical production by Takarazuka Revue, Rhett had been played by several top stars of the group, including Yuki Amami (currently a film/TV actress), Yu Todoroki (currently one of the directors of the group) and Youka Wao (former leading male role of the Cosmo Troup that retired from the group in July 2006).
In the Margaret Martin musical Gone With The Wind, the role of Rhett Butler was originated by Darius Danesh.
Alice Randall's The Wind Done Gone is either a parallel historical novel, or (after litigation) a parody. It is told from the slave point of view.
Donald McCaig's novel Rhett Butler's People is told from Rhett Butler's perspective.
Butler & Rhett families
Both the Butler and Rhett families were, in fact, among the great aristocratic families of Charleston. The Rhetts specifically played part in the very founding of the city (whereas a number of other such families, e.g. the Ansons, the Parkers, the Bennetts, the Maybanks and the Lucases, arrived slightly later in the colony's history). The Rhetts and Butlers are still prominent today.
In the fictional Butler family Rhett is the eldest child. In Gone with the Wind only his younger sister Rosemary is named; his brother and sister-in-law are mentioned very briefly, but not by name. In the sequel Scarlett the Butler parents are called Steven and Eleanor, the younger brother is Ross. In this sequel Rhett marries Anne Hampton after divorcing Scarlett and he reunites with Scarlett only after Anne dies. He and Scarlett have a second daughter called Katie "Cat".
In the prequel and sequel Rhett Butler's People his parents are called Langston and Elizabeth, his brother is Julian. In this novel Belle Watling's son plays an important role; in the end he is revealed to be another man's son even though he believed Rhett was his father.
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