My father said he’d seen Gone With the Wind in every decade of his life, and it had struck him differently every time. I have too, and I agree with him (he was seldom wrong, in any event). It’s not just the relationships between the characters that strikes me differently the older I get. The social attitudes in the movie become more problematic as well. And in the wake of recent events, the racial stereotypes and attitudes that unquestionably permeate the movie have become even more troubling.
He introduced me to Gone With the Wind when I was about eleven years old. He took me to a theatrical re-release, so my first experience of it was on a big screen. I was awed, and a little confused. What I knew about the Civil War was that the southerners were the bad guys who lost, and that they owned slaves. I knew that was bad. Watching the story through the eyes of the bad guys was initially disorienting. The movie worked its magic though, and I was soon lost in its sprawling spectacle of romance, war, violence—people caught up in huge events.
The Censors Worried About Language, Not Stereotypes
Even people who haven’t seen it have probably know the line “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” That line, one of the most famous in Hollywood movies, almost didn’t make it into Gone With the Wind. The Hays Office, created to ensure wholesomeness in motion pictures, had a thing about profanity, and back then, “damn” was a word you didn’t hear in movies. In fact, to cover their bets, they shot an alternate version, in which Clark Gable said “Frankly, my dear, I just don’t care.”
What they worried about far less was presenting a set of racial stereotypes which were in fact always somewhat controversial, and have become downright incendiary in light of recent events. Ironically, Gone With the Wind is not the worst offender in this regard, but it is certainly the best-known, and the situation is compounded by the fact that the movie does, unquestionably, glamorize the old South and its Confederate heritage.
GWTW Pulled From the Lineup
HBO Max has temporarily pulled Gone With the Wind from its lineup, apparently to restore it at a later date with contextual material added. That’s probably not a bad thing, when you think about it—Turner Classic Movies usually has its on-air hosts do pretty much the same thing when it airs classic movies containing racial stereotypes offensive to modern audiences.
And the thing is, those stereotypes were probably offensive to African American audiences when those movies came out. Holiday Inn, which is famous for Bing Crosby’s rendition of “White Christmas,” also has a blackface number that’s pretty outrageous to modern audiences. I strongly suspect that African Americans never liked that scene, and although cutting the scene would be complete anathema to TCM’s mission to show classic movies uncut and commercial-free, people should know stuff like this is coming.
A move like this with Gone With the Wind is a big deal, though, and it bears noting. I have encountered many modern, and yes, that means younger, movie fans who have never seen Gone With the Wind, some who haven’t even heard of it. To those of us who have been around longer, Gone With the Wind is one of the biggest movies of all time, and in fact, it was the highest-grossing movie of all time until The Sound of Music. I suspect that due to its many theatrical rereleases over the decades, it’s probably sold more tickets than any other movie. It won eight Academy Awards®, including the first ever awarded to an African American. But those numbers do not tell the whole story.
A 1,300 Page Pulitzer Prize-Winning Bestseller
Gone With the Wind was based on a 1936 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that was not only a bestseller, it was a publishing phenomenon. Written by Atlanta writer Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind is a sprawling, historical romance, following the life, loves and travails of antebellum southern belle Scarlett O’Hara from the days leading up to the Civil War, through the war itself and the eventual Reconstruction. Scarlett is a spoiled, willful child when the reader first meets her—unrealistic, spiteful and temperamental, but also tough, resilient, even ruthless when it comes to survival and hanging onto her family’s plantation. For 1,300 pages, Scarlett is convinced she’s in love with Ashley Wilkes, the aristocratic, intellectual and somewhat ineffectual son of a neighboring plantation-owner, while she’s pursued by the dashing and roguish Rhett Butler, who has more in common with her than she wants to admit.
America wanted a movie based on Gone With the Wind. Independent producer David O. Selznick, the son-in-law of M-G-M president Louis B. Mayer, acquired the rights with reservations. The movie wasn’t going to be cheap, casting presented issues, and the book was 1,300 pages long. There was no such thing as the TV miniseries at the time.
Searching for Scarlett and Burning Atlanta (By Way of Skull Island)
Casting was difficult. The movie-going public was invested in this property to an unprecedented degree, and really cared about who played the characters. It’s important to remember that movie stars actually existed in those days, and could sell a movie with their name alone. Every actress of even remotely appropriate age was considered for Scarlett, many of them screen tested. After screen testing everyone from the Susan Hayward to Joan Bennett to Lucille Ball (yes, seriously) and Paulette Goddard (who nearly got the part), and a nationwide talent search, the actress who got the part wasn’t even American. Laurence Olivier introduced David O. Selznick to British actress Vivien Leigh the night they shot much of the Burning of Atlanta scene on the Selznick lot. Old sets—including from King Kong (which Selznick had produced) and D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (which, ironically, Griffith had made as a rebuttal to his own Birth of a Nation, criticized even then for negative racial stereotypes and a glamorization of the Ku Klux Klan) were doused in gasoline and burned on the Selznick lot with stunt doubles for Rhett and the still uncast Scarlett standing in, shot with every Technicolor camera they could get their hands on. Leigh made a big impression, and soon after, was cast to huge fanfare.
Clark Gable HAD to be Rhett Butler
But for the role of Rhett Butler, and this was attested to by magazine opinion polls, America wanted one star and one star only: Clark Gable. Younger audiences don’t always know the name. At the time, he was the biggest star in the world. And Gable was under contract to M-G-M, run by Selznick’s rival and father-in-law Mayer, who was the highest-paid executive in the United States. And M-G-M wasn’t going to loan Gable to another studio out of the goodness of its corporate heart. Mayer had recently loaned Gable to low-rent studio Columbia as punishment when the star was perceived as getting too big for his britches, and it had blown up in his face. Gable had starred in Columbia’s low-budget comedy It Happened One Night and won an Oscar for it. For Gone With the Wind, Selznick eventually had to surrender distribution of the movie to M-G-M, but he had to have Gable.
Over a dozen writers, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, took a stab at the script. Eventually screenwriter Sidney Howard turned in a screenplay that would run less than six hours, and got sole screenplay credit. The finished film runs a tidy three hours and fifty-eight minutes. The production still ran through at least three directors. Gable crony Victor Fleming shot most of it, after being pulled off M-G-M’s The Wizard of Oz to take over for George Cukor who was shooting at a pace far too slow to suit Selznick, and Gable didn’t like him. Leigh did, and didn’t particularly like Fleming, but Gable had far more clout than the unknown Brit. Fleming had a breakdown during filming, and left the production for a few weeks. Sam Wood directed some scenes while Fleming was out of action, but Fleming ended up getting sole directorial credit for both The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind in the same year, a year considered by many film historians as the best year in Hollywood history ever. (King Vidor finished shooting The Wizard of Oz while Fleming was on Gone With the Wind.)
The KKK Were Portrayed as…Good Guys…?
And even in the late thirties Selznick knew the book’s racial attitudes were going to have to be tempered. The novel is not about race relations, but the racial attitudes of the antebellum south are woven through the book from first page to last. The book is from the southern point of view, the Yankees are not the good guys (in the portions of the book dealing with the Reconstruction they’re positively repellent) and the main characters do not regard blacks as anything regarding equals. In fact, Mitchell basically defends slavery several times during the book. The black characters for the most part are depicted as servile and content, and it’s difficult to imagine most of them living independently of white supervision. And in a major scene in which Scarlett is attacked by freed blacks, her current husband (she has several) rides out to avenge her honor with the sympathetically portrayed Ku Klux Klan.
There’s no mention of the Ku Klux Klan in the movie, and the “N” word, used liberally in the book, is never heard. But the racial stereotypes are there—they’re impossible to miss—and they’ve gotten less palatable over time. The movie sidesteps the ethics of slavery, allowing the white characters to justify their ownership of other human beings by, as Ashley, played by Lesley Howard, is heard to say, “We weren’t brutal to them.” Yeah, but you did own them. No mention is made of splitting up families, of selling a mother’s children in front of her, or beating, whipping and torturing uncooperative slaves. Absolutely no mention is made of a slave owner’s unquestioned right to the sexual services of a woman the law said he owned.
1st Woman of Color to Win an Oscar Couldn’t Sit With Her Co-Stars
The character of Mammy, who serves Scarlett from the beginning of the story to the end, first as a slave, and freed after the war, actually got an upgrade when they made the movie. A male character, Will Benteen, who functioned as an external conscience for Scarlett, was written out to streamline the unwieldy cast, and Mammy got his best lines, particularly, “He’s her husband, ain’t he?” Ironically, Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy, became the first African American actor to win an Academy Award® for her role. It has to be mentioned that she was not permitted to sit with her white co-stars at the Oscar® ceremonies. That should be brought to audiences’ attention. It was fifty years before another woman of color was to win one (Whoopi Goldberg for Ghost).
That embarrassing iniquity sort of sums up the problem. You’ve got a mammothly popular book and movie adaptation that perpetuates racial stereotypes and also serves to highlight the movie industry’s own record of unfairness to black artists, and frankly, black audiences.
Fairy Tale Depiction of One of the Bloodiest Periods in American History
It isn’t that slavery is depicted that’s the problem. You can make a movie that dramatizes the institution of slavery honestly. The miniseries “Roots” did it in the seventies, and more recently, 12 Years a Slave and Harriet have done so to critical acclaim and Oscar® nominations. The novel Gone With the Wind makes a few scattered allusions to mistreatment of slaves on other people’s plantations, while waxing eloquent about how emotionally attached the slave-owners could be to the slaves. The movie never delves into the horrors of slavery, or even the ethical question of owning slaves in the first place. Selznick was determined to make the story palatable to as many people as possible, and as a result, Gone With the Wind inevitably is a sanitized, fairy tale depiction of one of the bloodiest and most painful periods of American history. It’s not a bad idea to point that out to viewers, and hopefully, HBO will do just that.
An Unfortunate Influence
As mentioned, Mitchell was a southerner and grew up on stories about the Civil War. As a girl she was an avid reader, and one unfortunate literary influence was Thomas Dixon, Jr., and his reviled 1905 novel The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. That novel was the basis of Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. Dixon, a racist to the core, honestly believed that left to their own devices black people would turn violent and rape, loot and pillage (white people), and that the KKK had saved the south from a fate worse than death. The Clansman is a literary attempt to demonstrate that thesis. Lynchings are presented sympathetically. You read that right. There are sequels.
Gone With the Wind is nowhere near as incendiary as The Clansman, but is perhaps as insidious in its own way, all the more so for being less outrageous. The story has always grabbed people. Books don’t become bestsellers, and movies don’t become hits, let alone iconic legends, if they don’t. And therein lies the legacy and the purpose Gone With the Wind still serves. Apart from being a big, shiny entertainment, it vividly documents the attitudes that shaped it. It is important to point out that the movie’s very popularity in the shadow of those attitudes says a lot about racial prejudice, inequality and injustice. I think it’s okay to get swept up in the story, which does after all at least manage to document that the South lost the Civil War, but it might help to point out that they also started it. When the movie is brought back with contextual material, it might be good to point that out.
And a detail I hope they mention is that when Hattie McDaniel won that coveted Oscar® for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role, she gave an eloquent acceptance speech, and then returned to her seat.
At a different table from her white co-stars.