IT’S LONG been a majestic monument to cinema’s golden age, but Gone With The Wind makes for uneasy viewing 75 years after its triumphant premiere, writes Dani Garavelli.
December 15, 1939. A bitterly cold night in Atlanta, Georgia. Across Europe, tension is mounting. The Battle of Heligoland Bight – the first named air offensive of the Second World War – is just days away. But in the Deep South all talk is of the premiere of an epic movie set against the backdrop of the American Civil War, Gone With The Wind, and of the Hollywood elite that has descended on the city.
For three days, Atlanta has been gripped by feverish excitement. Fans, many nestling in fur coats, have lined seven miles of streets as a parade of limousines has brought the stars in from the airport. There have been receptions and a costume ball and the marquee of the Loew’s Grand Theater has been rebuilt with Greek revival columns to echo those at the fictional Tara plantation where much of the film is set. There are Confederate flags and uniforms everywhere. But now, as spotlights criss-cross the night sky, the moment has come: Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh – aka Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara – arrive, with their partners, to wild applause and take their seats in front of the silver screen.
For those who witnessed it first-hand, the spectacle was unforgettable; the future president Jimmy Carter, then a teenager, shivering in the throng, later described it as the “greatest thing to have happened in the South in my lifetime”. And it wasn’t merely that in those days a film premiere outside Los Angeles or New York was unprecedented. It was also about a restoration of pride. As Molly Haskell, film critic and author of Frankly, My Dear: Gone With The Wind Revisited, has pointed out, the film and the hoopla surrounding it offered a degree of consolation for General Sherman’s torching of Atlanta and the march to the sea. Or, as historian Arthur Schlesinger put it: “The North gave the South in fantasy the victory it had lost in fact.”
For others – African Americans and those less steeped in the mythology of the South – this was, of course, its greatest flaw. Even in 1939, there were those who found the film’s glorification of slavery repellent. From the opening lines on the title card – “There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave” – Gone With The Wind is paean to a “golden” world built on exploitation and snatched away by Yankees. The film may have diluted some of the worst excesses in the original Margaret Mitchell novel – references to the Ku Klux Klan were excised, the use of the N-word changed to the scarcely more palatable “darkie” – but the principal black characters, Mammy, played by Hattie McDaniel, and Prissy, played by Butterfly McQueen, are still stereotypes, acquiescent servants happy to do their “family’s” bidding even after emancipation. Malcolm X later recalled that when McQueen uttered her famous “I don’t know nothin’ about birthing babies” line, he felt like “crawling under a rug”.
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If early audiences were oblivious to the racism (and there was little excuse for that as the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People made its views known) then the ongoing segregation in the South should have brought it home to them. McDaniel may have gone on to become the first African American to win an Oscar (for best supporting actress) but the Jim Crow laws meant she and McQueen were not allowed to attend the premiere. Attitudes amongst black people towards McDaniel – who said she’d rather earn a decent wage playing a maid than a low wage being one – were divided between those who branded her an “Uncle Tom” and those who felt she had transcended the limitations of her role and hailed this achievement as a sign of progress.
Despite its retrogressive attitude, Gone With The Wind was a major triumph. When, months earlier, cinema-goers at the Fox Theatre in Riverside, California, heard they were to see a surprise preview they gasped with excitement and gave it a standing ovation at the end. And, though some reviewers found it to be “dramatically lacking”, its stunning cinematography, sumptuous southern belle costumes and near-perfect casting won over audience after audience. Adjusted for inflation, it is still the most successful film in box-office history and it won 10 Oscars, eight competitive, two honorary, the highest number for any film at that time.
Seventy-five years on, its allure persists; though other more enlightened dramas – the TV series Roots and the film 12 Years A Slave, for example – have exposed its dangerously distorted portrayal of both slavery and the Civil War. Fify-nine per cent of Americans say they have seen it and many people, particularly women, are still unashamed to proclaim it one of their favourite movies. Amy Adams and Nicole Kidman are fans, as, bizarrely, was the late Kim Jong-Il. Joan Collins is so devoted she named her daughter Tara Cynara (Cynara is the poem from which the phrase “gone with the wind” is taken).
All of the characters are played well: Gable as Rhett, Leslie Howard as Ashley, Olivia de Havilland as Melanie. But for most of those who love the film, it is the role of Scarlett O’Hara – so fiercely rendered by Leigh – that is the key to its appeal. Although she can be capricious and selfish, Scarlett is never vapid; she has resilience and determination and her destiny doesn’t rest entirely in the hands of others.
“Mitchell takes the story of one ordinary but atypical woman – a silly girl who intends her life to be full of men and marriage and children and lots of flirtation and self-indulgence,” says Professor Helen Taylor, author of Scarlett’s Women: Gone With The Wind And Its Female Fans, which has been reissued to mark the anniversary. “She takes that girl and moves her through an amazing period of American history in which she has to turn into an experienced woman, a woman who undergoes the trauma of war, of loss of her home, her parents, husbands, friends and becomes very pragmatic.
“In many novels and films of that period she would have been a victim, she would probably have ended up committing suicide or dying, but Scarlett remains defiant at the end. Her husband has left her, she really has nothing, but she picks herself up again and she says I’ll think about that tomorrow. I’ll find some way to win Rhett back. She is a real survivor and I think that is at the heart of the film’s success.”
Taylor, who is emeritus professor at Exeter University, says that while the film’s reactionary slant on events is offensive, it provides an insight into the prejudices of the South. “To look at the slave system as a golden age and to see the Civil War as a tragedy is a very dangerous position to take, but I think Gone With The Wind is useful in that it does kind of present you with all the arguments and all the mythology so you start to understand why there was, and still is, such bitterness in the South.”
In theory, the film should have been a huge flop; that’s certainly what Gary Cooper believed when he turned down the role of Rhett. From the moment producer David O Selznick paid a record-breaking $50,000 for the rights, the project was beset with problems. He had always had his eye on Gable as his leading man, but Gable was under contract to a rival studio. Selznick had to wait two years before the studio would release him and when he first started filming, he still hadn’t found his Scarlett.
Coming up with a usable script was challenging. Condensing Margaret Mitchell’s 400,000-plus words was no mean feat and the first draft written by Sidney Howard would have lasted eight hours (the actual film lasts almost four). Selznick had to draft in more than a dozen writers, including F Scott Fitzgerald, to make revisions. But the more serious issue involved the high turnover of directors. Having already invested many hours in preparation, George Cukor was fired just three weeks into filming to be replaced by Victor Fleming, who had just finished making The Wizard Of Oz. Rumours over the sacking abounded: some said Cukor didn’t like the script, others that Gable had an issue with his homosexuality. Either way, Fleming eventually struggled too. Exhausted by Selznick’s pace and relentless pursuit of his vision, he had to take two weeks out while Sam Wood took over his duties.
The censor was also casting a shadow as the N-word wasn’t the only one with the potential to offend. In 1939, the word “damn” was usually outlawed. A list drawn up by the crew shows how it was casting around for alternatives until it was decided “damn” could stay. Imagine if one of the most memorable lines in movie history had become: “Frankly my dear, I couldn’t be less interested.”
In the end, however, the controversial $3.85m budget was more than justified, the powerful story, hand-painted backdrops and stunning score all contributing to its popularity.
If you had to pick one element that drove the film’s success, however, it would have to be the choice of Leigh as Scarlett. To create some hype, the studio had auditioned 1,400 unknowns, but when this failed to yield new talent, Selznick narrowed the field to a handful of starlets, including Joan Crawford, Tallulah Bankhead and Katharine Hepburn. Leigh – British and primarily a stage actor – was not a strong contender, but, as wilful in her own way as Scarlett, the 25-year-old, who was already having an affair with Laurence Olivier, left England and set out to prove she was perfect for the part. Later, she claimed she had little in common with Scarlett, but she invested her with the passionate, slightly unhinged quality which has captivated audiences for generations.
As a feminist icon, Scarlett is arguably lacking; she has no sense of sisterhood and uses her sexuality to get what she wants from the men around her. But she is strong and complex and no-one could deny she has her own agency.
“You know the Bechdel test,” says Taylor, referring to the criteria devised to check a film’s treatment of gender (it asks whether two female characters have a conversation about anything other than men). “Well, if you look at Leigh as Scarlett, she is the centre of that film, she is in virtually every frame and for women audiences that was absolutely wonderful. To be able to identify with a woman living through a war, with all the deprivations that involved and all the initiatives she had to take – that’s the thing that makes women say they absolutely love it.”
As the 75th anniversary of the première approaches, it is impossible not to notice a certain ambivalence still about Gone With The Wind. The film was reissued and shown in hundreds of UK cinemas earlier this year and there have been several exhibitions, including one at the Harry Ransom Center in Texas, where the famous green curtain dress is on display, but celebrations have been slightly more muted than those for The Wizard Of Oz, and deservedly so.
When you think the film was made the same year as Billie Holiday first recorded Strange Fruit – her haunting song about lynchings – you have to challenge its unquestioning portrayal of Southern values. And no amount of admiration for McDaniel – whose monologue after the death of Scarlett and Rhett’s daughter Bonnie is one of the highlights – will stop it offending modern sensibilities.
Yet there is something about the scale and sweep of Gone With The Wind that cannot fail to impress. “It is absolutely magnificent, there’s no doubt about it,” says Taylor. “David Selznick was a consummate film-maker. He made the great movie of Hollywood’s golden era.”
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