Sometimes a movie stays with you. Pretty much the entire thing takes residence in your brain, your heart…on occasion it weaves itself into the very fabric of your being.

Gone with the Wind did it to me. Partly, I’m sure, because I first read it as a teen harboring an addiction to tragic romance in literature.  The Brontes, Dickens, the master himself, Shakespeare…Margaret Mitchell’s drama fest found a well- primed audience in me.

I remember crying so much at the end that years later all I had to do was think about it to start the tears flowing again. Small wonder that a big screen revival of the movie would soon find its mark and leave a lasting impression.

As a young girl drenched in the fading from grace splendour of Hollywood’s Golden Age thanks to a TV channel that ran the gems late at night, I was already developing an appreciation of fine acting. I thought Vivien Leigh was a magical creature. This British beauty transformed herself into spoiled southern belle Scarlet O’Hara so completely that I learned for the first time that some talent treads unfathomable depths. To this day I think she was cut from a different and special cloth, and so wish she had lived and continued to weave her spells on-screen.

Still, Scarlet never provided me the singular movie moment that another Leigh character did–Mary in Ship of Fools. A jaded, sad, lonely aging beauty who could have been Scarlet all grown up, Mary travels by ship and sparkles in a brittle shell that only hints at her glorious youth. She breaks your heart throughout the long and somewhat chaotic course of the trip and movie alike. And then…and then there’s a moment I will never forget….

Drunk, alone, yearning for love and perhaps even more for her lost youth, she stumbles toward her solitary cabin. She pauses at the bottom of the stairs. Delicate background music suddenly blares into Roaring 20s life. As if a switch is flipped, she tosses her clutch to the floor and breaks into a perfectly executed Charleston.

Along with her purse she tosses off decades of hard living and heartbreak. A vibrant, joyous flapper replaces the Mary we’ve come to know. Then, the music ceases its blare, and the happy flapper resumes her drunken, matronly facade to stagger down the empty hallway and disappear with a lunge through her cabin door.

That single brief scene without one word of dialogue is perfection. It tells Mary’s story, her life, and her heart in exquisite detail, yet for all the loud music and frenetic movement the impact is subtle and moving.

As someone who puts words on paper, always searching for the right way to convey emotion and subtext with a few lines of action description, I treasure that brief scene as a lesson that transcends time.

Vivien Leigh’s brief Charleston moment in Ship of Fools

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