The release of the film adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel Gone with the Wind falls almost exactly at the midpoint of a timeline from the beginning of the Civil War to today. The movie version won the Oscar for best picture of 1939 and became the highest grossing film in history, when receipts are adjusted for inflation. GWTW sits at number six on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 best American movies.
There have been at least 10 major re-releases of GWTW over the years. NBC paid $5,000,000 for a one-time showing in 1976, which would become the most watched television broadcast by a single network at that time. Only the moon landing and Nixon’s resignation speech had more viewers, but then they had multiple networks airing them. Watched by 65,000,000 viewers, it is still the highest rated movie event ever seen on television.
Adding videocassette, Blu-ray and DVD sales, GWTW is arguably the most widely-viewed film ever made. But the money made and the awards received are only a part of the story behind GWTW.
When David O. Selznick bought the rights to make the movie, there was a backlash, particularly from the African American press. Hoping for support, there began a back-and-forth between Selznick and Walter White, head of the NAACP. White, who had protested D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation and its racist basis, tried to get Selznick to hire black consultants for his movie. According to Molly Haskell in Frankly, My Dear, he resisting the suggestion in order to save the stereotypical humor, provided in part by Prissy of “Ah doan know nuthin’ bout birthin’ babies” fame.
The legend about the battle around the line, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” is legendary. But the word “damn” wasn’t the only word giving Selznick a hell of a bad time. That other word—you know the one—is liberally sprinkled around in the book, and he just didn’t seem to understand why its use would be offensive to so many black people. But pressure from black newspapers, particularly the Pittsburgh Courier, convinced Selznick to drop the word from the script.
Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation was based on the novel The Clansman by Thomas Dixon, Jr. The book and movie glorified the KKK, specifically the first Klan (1865-1871). In addition, the book introduced and the movie presented the distinct hooded costumes and burning crosses associated to this day with the KKK. A screening in the East Room was the first movie shown inside the White House. Just months after its release, William Joseph Simmons founded the second KKK at Stone Mountain, near Atlanta, and not far from where Tara would have been. It is clear what influenced that rebirth.
Box office wise, The Birth of a Nation was a huge commercial success. Released in 1915, it would hold the title of highest grossing film ever made for the next 25 years—when GWTW came along.
Selznick, seeking the artistic and commercial success that Griffith had achieved while avoiding the controversy that surrounded The Birth of a Nation, choose to avoid any mention of the KKK in his movie. That makes for a sticky wicket in the plot after Scarlett is attacked and her husband, Frank Kennedy, goes off to a “political meeting.” She gets into a quarrel with India Wilkes, but the movie stops short of saying exactly what happened.
Margaret Mitchell was not as reticent. Only in the book does India go on to say, “Of course, Mr. Kennedy is in the Klan and Ashley, too, and all the men we know…They are men, aren’t they? And white men and Southerners.” Archie, a character in the book but not in the movie, clarifies it further, saying, “Mr. Wilkes and Mr. Kennedy and the other men are out tonight to kill that thar n***** and that thar white man, if they catch them, and wipe out that whole Shantytown settlement.”
In their very different ways, both movies whitewashed the story of the Civil War and its aftermath. One directly made heroes of the KKK, leading to its glory days in the 1920’s when the second Klan claimed membership of somewhere around 4,000,000—about 15% of the eligible adult male population at that time.
The other solidified a mythology, promoted in part by that rebirth and depending on racist stereotyping to essentially nullify the actual lives of black people in that space and time. The beauty of Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable, dressed to the nines, wrapped in Technicolor splendor, involved in romance—the seductive powers of GWTW are almost irresistible.
But what if the dialogue had included that other word, falling from lips like melted butter? And what if it was clear that Ashley Wilkes, the Southern gentleman par excellence, was part of the KKK and participated in a lynching that was known about and covered up by Melanie, in whose mouth butter wouldn’t melt? Even with the moonlight and magnolias, how pretty would it have been then?
When HBO Max removed GWTW from its streaming service this week, the announcement stated that it would return at an unspecified date “with a discussion of its historical context and a denouncement of those [racist] depictions.” Commendable, I would say, and not surprising considering what’s going on in the world today.
Historical context is not the only thing to clarify when presenting GWTW. We need to understand that the movie itself has become part of an even larger milieu and has influenced thinking about race (or not thinking about it) for the last 80 years.
So good luck with that, HBO Max. I’m at almost a thousand words now and haven’t even mentioned Mammy, Pork and just barely touched on Prissy.
Spelling it all out would require a presentation perhaps as long as GWTW itself.