Gone With the Wind
DIRECTED BY: Victor Fleming
George Cukor (uncredited)
Sam Wood (uncredited)
Produced by David O. Selznick
Oliver H.P. Garrett (uncredited)
Ben Hecht (uncredited)
Barbara Keon (uncredited)
Jo Swerling (uncredited)
Based on Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Olivia de Havilland
Music by Max Steiner
Lee Garmes (uncredited)
Hal C. Kern
James E. Newcom
Studio Selznick International Pictures Distributed by Loews Inc. Release date(s)
December 15, 1939 (1939-12-15) (Atlanta premiere)
238 minutes (with overture, entr'acte, and exit music)
Country United States
Budget $3.85 million
Box office $390 million
Gone with the Wind is a 1939 American period romance film adapted from Margaret Mitchell's Pulitzer-winning 1936 novel. The picture was produced by David O. Selznick and directed by Victor Fleming from a screenplay by Sidney Howard. Set in the 19th-century American South, the film stars Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland and Hattie McDaniel, and tells a story of the American Civil War and Reconstruction era from a white Southern point of view.
The film received ten Academy Awards (eight competitive, two honorary), a record that stood for 20 year. In the American Film Institute's inaugural Top 100 Best American Films of All Time list of 1998, it was ranked fourth, and in 1989 was selected to be preserved by the National Film Registry.
The film was the longest American sound film made up to that time –– 3 hours 44 minutes, plus a 15-minute intermission –– and was among the first of the major films shot in color (Technicolor), winning the first Academy Award for Best Cinematography in the category for color films. It became the highest-grossing film of all-time shortly after its release, holding the position until 1966. After adjusting for inflation, it has still earned more than any other film in box office history.
Opening in Atlanta on December 15, 1939, the Governor of Georgia declared a state holiday, and ticket prices were 40 times the going rate. It was the longest, most expensive film production ever attempted, and the first major color film.
Made for $3.9 million at a time when average ticket prices were a mere quarter, producer/ David O. Selznick feared he’d never see a profit. He needn’t have worried. The film grossed 25 times its cost on its initial run. And, though Gone With the Wind has long been passed as the highest-grossing film ever, it’s still probably been seen by more Americans than any other movie.
Enshrined by the American Film Institute as the fourth-best American feature ever, GWTW seems to be as popular as ever. Its popularity may have a lot to do with the way it eventually winnows its historical sweep down to the barest essentials of romance and melodrama. And one can’t help but think that its persistent, mangled nostalgia for that thing called the “Old South” may be part of the equation.
It is indeed a classic spectacle of a movie, and always enjoyable, but GWTW is hard for anyone to view today without being embarrassed. The problem with it is not merely its “racism.” One can’t reasonably quibble when Ashley Wilkes or Rhett Butler refer to servants as “darkies”, as such depictions are merely historically accurate. There is an important, and too-often-misunderstood, difference between what a film shows, and what its attitude toward its content is. It is the second half of this equation where Gone With the Wind becomes problematic.
“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. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered ... A Civilization gone with the wind.” –– From the opening title to Gone With the Wind, 1939
Gone With the Wind was a spectacular event.
The Southern planter class before the war consisted of many men who were the patriarchs and rulers of small kingdoms, and who were engaged in mass self-delusion. Drunk on their own power, these men believed that their system of domestic slavery was both the most economically successful and most morally correct way to govern a society. They believed that the black slave was content in bondage, happy to be the childlike subject (as was the wife) of a benevolent, paternal white master.
George Fitzhugh, one of the Old South’s most prominent pro-slavery intellectuals, was engaged in this self-delusion when he wrote Sociology for the South. And Gone With the Wind’s conception of what the pre-war South was “really like” is a virtual carbon copy of Fitzhugh’s vision. GWTW’s antebellum South isn’t realistic, it’s a dream state born out of this self-delusion, a depiction of the South as the film’s aristocratic characters thought it really was. Like Fitzhugh, Gone With the Wind is concerned with the “character of the master.”
“Domestic slavery in the Southern States has produced the same results in elevating the character of the master that it did in Greece and Rome. He is lofty and independent in his sentiments, generous, affectionate, brave and eloquent; he is superior to the Northerner in everything but the arts of thrift.” –– George Fitzhugh, Sociology for the South, 1854
It sees the South only through the eyes of the wealthy, slave-holding class, who are elegant, honorable creatures living in a “pretty world.” The slaves are docile and happy, and treasure their affectionate bond with their master. The vast majority of whites who don’t run plantations, or own slaves, are dismissed as “poor white trash” and kept off-screen.
D.W. Griffith’s silent epic, Birth of a Nation (1915), a celebration of the Ku Klux Klan as an instrument for re-establishing the “Old South,” did more than codify the visual language of narrative cinema. It codified a language of racial stereotypes that GWTW softens and perfects. Eschewing the overt, inflammatory propaganda of Birth of a Nation –– its blatant, hysterical racism –– Gone With the Wind masters the art of suggestion to achieve much the same ends.
The threat to “Southern womanhood” is implicit when Scarlett is attacked riding through a poor settlement. But where the damsel in Birth of a Nation is forced to commit suicide rather than succumb to a monstrous free black man, Scarlett is attacked by both a black man and a white one (no doubt a carpetbagger or scalawag), and she is saved by her former field slave, Big Sam, who earlier in the film assures her, “We’’ll stop them Yankees.” The subsequent rise of the Klan is there as well, but it happens off-camera, and is not explicit. It is merely “men doing what men have to do.”
At first Rhett Butler (the archetypal conflicted American outlaw hero) is a strain of criticism within the film. When he tells a group of Southern “gentlemen” consumed by “honor” that “all we’ve got is cotton and slaves and arrogance,” he’s telling the truth. But this criticism gets removed. When Rhett leaves to join the Army and speaks of a “lost cause,” he, and the film, mean the salvation of this “pretty world,” whose loss the film mourns.
At the time the film attracted criticism from black commentators for its depiction of black people and its glorification of slavery. Carlton Moss, a black dramatist, in an open letter complained that whereas The Birth of a Nation was a "frontal attack on American history and the Negro people", Gone with the Wind was a "rear attack on the same". He went on to dismiss it as a "nostalgic plea for sympathy for a still living cause of Southern reaction"
Moss further criticized the stereotypical black characterisations, such as the "shiftless and dull-witted Pork", the "indolent and thoroughly irresponsible Prissy", Big Sam's "radiant acceptance of slavery", and Mammy with her "constant haranguing and doting on every wish of Scarlett".
Following Hattie McDaniel's 'oscar' win, Walter Francis White, leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), accused her of being an Uncle Tom. McDaniel responded that she would "rather make seven hundred dollars a week playing a maid than seven dollars being one." She further questioned White's qualification to speak on behalf of blacks, since he was light-skinned and only one-eighth black.
Opinion in the black community was generally divided upon release, with the film being called by some a "weapon of terror against black America" and an insult to black audiences, and demonstrations were held in various cities. Even so, some sections of the black community recognized McDaniel's achievements to be representative of progression: some African-Americans crossed picket lines and praised McDaniel's warm and witty characterization, while others hoped that the industry's recognition of her work would lead to increased visibility on screen for other black actors.
In its editorial congratulation to McDaniel on winning her Academy Award, Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life used the film as reminder of the 'limit' put on black aspiration by old prejudices.
In Gone With the Wind the (very real) suffering of the master class is the only suffering that matters. The poor masses, black slaves, and “poor white trash” are barely an afterthought.
Watching the film today, 65 years after it was made, and 150 years after the war itself, as we continue in the struggle to purge our past sins and preserve out past virtues, Gone With the Wind is seductively misguided about what those sins and virtues are.
Instead of mourning the death of the Old South of the Wilkes and O’Haras, we should now celebrate the common culture forged by those Gone With the Wind leaves out –– the strange fruit born of past sins that gives our region its unique vitality, that gave birth to a body of music that stands as one of America’s cultural achievements, that makes our society, though still hobbling and forged from tragedy, a conflicted nation’s best hope for racial healing.
So Gone With the Wind, in all its restored grandeur, it should be seen, as entertainment and as cultural history. But perhaps it can be seen not as it was intended, as a monument to our lost glory, but as a Technicolor tombstone to a culture we’ve overcome.
Academy awards and nominations Award results:
Winner Best Picture Won Selznick International Pictures
Best Director Won Victor Fleming
Best Actor Nominated Clark Gable
Best Actress Won Vivien Leigh
Best Adapted Screenplay Won Sidney Howard
Best Supporting Actress Won Hattie McDaniel
Best Supporting Actress Nominated Olivia de Havilland
Best Cinematography, Color Won Ernest Haller and Ray Rennahan
Best Film Editing Won Hal C. Kern and James E. Newcom
Best Art Direction Won Lyle Wheeler
Best Visual Effects Nominated Jack Cosgrove, Fred Albin and Arthur Johns
Best Music, Original Score Nominated Max Steiner
Best Sound Recording Nominated Thomas T. Moulton (Samuel Goldwyn Studio Sound Department)
Special Award Honorary William Cameron Menzies for outstanding achievement in the use of color for the enhancement of dramatic mood in the production of Gone with the Wind.
Technical Achievement Award Honorary Don Musgrave and Selznick International Pictures for pioneering in the use of coordinated equipment in the production Gone with the Wind.