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Gone with the Wind: a wolf in sheep's clothing


Outmoded attitudes: Hattie McDaniel and Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind

Outmoded attitudes: Hattie McDaniel and Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind

Outmoded attitudes: Hattie McDaniel and Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind

Across the western world, statues are tumbling, institutional racism is being called out, and even classic movies are not immune. Last week, HBO temporarily removed the 1939 epic Gone with the Wind from its streaming roster, citing "ethnic and racial prejudices that were wrong then and are wrong today". The network was of course responding to the heightened sensibilities of the post-George Floyd era, with US racism under the microscope as never before.

Gone with the Wind would be back, HBO was keen to point out, but only when a contextualising introduction has been added: a few days ago it was announced that the African-American film scholar Jacqueline Stewart will be doing that job. So, was HBO right, and why is everyone getting so worked up about a frothy movie that was made more than 80 years ago?

It is hard now to appreciate the excitement and razzmatazz that surrounded the release of the three-and-a-half-hour epic in December of 1939. For a start, it was based on a sensationally successful 1936 novel by Margaret Mitchell that had sold seven million copies by the time the film appeared. Speculation as to who would play the mercurial heroine Scarlett O'Hara had been feverish, and patriotic noses were out of joint when an unknown British actress called Vivien Leigh was cast ahead of huge domestic stars such as Jean Arthur, Tallulah Bankhead, Katharine Hepburn and Paulette Goddard.

Clark Gable was then one of the biggest heartthrobs of the silver screen, David O Selznick was Hollywood's hottest producer, and Gone with the Wind's $3.8m budget made it one of the most expensive films ever made. More than 300,000 turned out for the movie's premiere in Atlanta, a three-day festival which US President Jimmy Carter would later recall being "the biggest event to happen in the South in my lifetime". For months afterwards, excited punters queued around the block to see it: adjusted for inflation, Gone with the Wind may still be the highest-grossing film of all time.

The frenzy around the novel and movie created a craze for all things Dixie: Margaret Mitchell was inundated with requests to authorise Gone with the Wind-themed pens, dolls, hats and fabrics, and Macy's of New York devoted a couple of floors of its flagship store to products associated with the film. The Confederate flag also made an insidious comeback.

What was gone with the wind? The old South, sundered by war and much lamented, according to the film's opening title cards, which spoke of a "land of cavaliers and cotton fields", a pretty world where "gallantry took its last bow". The film's most famous scene, the burning of Atlanta, was presented as a wanton tragedy -how or why would anyone want to destroy such a pretty old town?

To judge by the happy and healthy-looking plantation slaves in Gone with the Wind, you'd never know. Hattie McDaniel famously became the first African American to win an Oscar for her portrayal of Scarlett's hectoring, scolding but fiercely loyal maid Mammy. If McDaniel's performance was not a cliché, the role written for her certainly was, and there were worse pantomime blacks on display in the film, like Oscar Polk's gurning house servant Pork, or Butterfly McQueen's feather-brained maid Prissy.

In his autobiography, Malcolm X would recall seeing the film as a teenager. "I was the only Negro in the theatre," he wrote, "and when Butterfly McQueen went into her act, I felt like crawling under the rug."

So what, you might say. Times have changed, and lots of classic Hollywood movies are now problematic due to their outmoded attitudes to race, and gender (have any of you watched The Philadelphia Story recently?). All of which is true, but Gone with the Wind is different, because it isn't just a film that expresses the commonly held views of its time: it actively distorts and mythologises a key aspect of American history, and in doing so has helped to disseminate some pretty noxious ideas.

Comparisons have been made between Gone with the Wind and DW Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, that other propagandising bête noire of American film history which, as we mentioned in this column last week, was once used by the Ku Klux Klan as a recruiting tool. On the face of it, Gone with the Wind seems altogether more benign; it may be more insidious.

Beautifully designed, lavishly costumed, mawkishly sentimental at every turn, it made a compelling case for the 'lost cause' view of the Confederacy as a just and noble endeavour that had been crushed under the wheels of the world's first industrial war. Things had been pretty good in the old South by this reckoning, and all the lynchings and Klan stuff and Jim Crow came after the Confederacy's tragic fall.

If there's a bigger historical lie than that one, I've yet to find it. The 'happy' slaves in Mitchell's novel would in reality have been beaten, chained, raped, tortured and/or strung up without a second thought if they had dared to run away. The South's booming antebellum economy depended entirely on the availability of free mass labour, and sentimental dressings up such as Gone with the Wind were intended to disguise the grim fact that for several centuries black men, women and children had been treated as livestock.

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Selznick's film disguised that ugly reality splendidly, and the wily producer was careful to drop scenes from the book that might be politically problematic. The N-word, used now and then in the book, was excised, as were all references to the Ku Klux Klan, which Mitchell had described as "a tragic necessity". In the book it is implied that Rhett Butler may have been a member.

Crucially, Selznick decided to alter a scene in which Scarlett, while alone in a shantytown, is almost raped by a black man, prompting a heroic retaliation by the Klan. In the film, the attacker is a poor white man, and the avenging posse wears no hoods and appears to have no sinister white supremacist agenda.

Then again, if Selznick had chosen to include those scenes, and his finished film had been more overtly racist, it might not have had the persuasive staying power that saw it restored, re-released numerous times and selected for preservation by the US Library of Congress. Yet those deleted scenes reveal the author of Gone with the Wind's real intent.

When confronted with accusations of racism, Mitchell reacted with haughty disdain. In a letter to a friend, she said: "I do not intend to let any troublemaking Professional Negros change my feelings towards the race with whom my relations have always been those of affection and mutual respect." She sounds like she's talking about her pet dog.

Meanwhile, the leading African-American star of the film adaptation might have made history by winning that Oscar, but at the 12th Academy Awards ceremony Hattie McDaniel was separated from the rest of Gone with the Wind's victorious cast and forced to sit at a cramped table at the back of the Coconut Grove with the handful of other black guests in attendance.

In the wake of her success, McDaniel was accused by some African-American commentators of being an Uncle Tom. Her response was robust: she'd "rather make $700 a week playing a maid than $7 being one". Which sounded great, but she was typecast as a maid for the rest of her brief career.

But issues of race and historical fantasy aside, is Gone with the Wind a good film? Well it's a nice film to watch, beautifully designed, with well-directed set pieces and a wonderfully imperious central performance from Vivien Leigh as the tough and wilful Southern heiress Scarlett. But it's also self-indulgent, silly, histrionic and terribly long, its writing woefully inadequate to the task of describing the South's fall and the endgame of the American Civil War.

The idea that it has appeared on lists of the greatest movies made seems absurd, and it's more a cultural artefact than a finished, unified film. A pretty noxious artefact too, given that it attempts to gloss over the horrors of slavery by creating a fantasy world in which bought and paid-for black underlings were depicted as happy, grateful children.

Should we watch it? I suppose it's no harm. But while HBO's decision to give the film a contextualising introduction might seem nannyish and condescending to some, Gone with the Wind, for all its airs and graces, is a central part of an ingrained supremacist belief system that afflicts America to this day.

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