OTD in History… June 30, 1936, Margaret Mitchell’s epic of the old South Gone with the Wind published
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history June 30, 1936, Margaret Mitchell’s epic Southern Civil War drama Gone with the Wind is first published, the best-selling book earns first-time author Mitchell a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1937, and 80 years later has $30 million in sales and is second only to the Bible. Mitchell, a reporter at the Atlanta Journal, started writing the book while she was recovering from a leg injury in 1926. In secrecy, Mitchell drew on stories she heard of the old south from her childhood, combined with meticulous research to write her over 1,000-page drama spanning the antebellum, Civil War and Reconstruction periods. Almost immediately after publication, Hollywood film producer David O. Selznick paid Mitchell, a then-record $50,000 for the film rights, setting his sights on making the biggest blockbuster ever made in Hollywood.
Three years later on July 1, 1939, and after five months, filming wrapped up on the movie version of Gone with the Wind. The making of the movie was a production almost as long as the book. Selznick would wait two years to secure Clark Gable from MGM, Metro Goldwyn Mayer, who would distribute the film. Selznick would also go through multiple screenwriters, scripts, cinematographers, and directors before filming was complete. Principal photography began on January 26, and post-production ended November 11, 1939.
The race to fill the role of Scarlett would capture the media and public’s attention, the 1938s version of a reality show “Search for Scarlett,” with over 1,400 women including every high profile actress in Hollywood vying for the role until, British film actress Vivien Leigh, tested for it in December 1938. Selznick called Leigh his “Scarlett dark horse,” making it easier to choose her was his brother Myron Selznick was Leigh’s agent. Selznick would finally choose 25-year-old Leigh for the role.
Rounding out the other major roles were Clark Gable as Rhett Butler, Scarlett’s third husband, Leslie Howard as Scarlett’s unrequited love, Ashley Wilkes, and Olivia DeHavilland as his cousin and wife and Scarlett’s sister-in-law and best friend. The film’s cost went out of a control, and it was the most expensive ever made to that point. An early rough preview screening in September 1939, left the “audience cheering,” as David Thomson observed in biography Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick for Selznick it was “was the greatest moment of his life, the greatest victory, and redemption of all his failings.”
In December 1939, Gone with the Wind had a star-studded opening in Atlanta, Georgia at the Loews Grand Theatre, where 300,000 attended, topping off a three-day event celebrating the film and the Confederacy. The four-hour film would go on to win then a record ten Academy Awards out of 13 nominations, two of which were honorary. Among its wins includes Best Picture, Best Director (Victor Fleming), and Best Adapted Screenplay. Best actress went to Vivien Leigh playing Mitchell’s heroine Scarlett O’Hara and supporting actress to Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American to win an Academy Award for her portrayal of Scarlett’s beloved Mammy, a slave.
The book was controversial at the time for its romanticizing of the Antebellum and Confederate South, its language describing slaves, inclusion of the racist Ku Klux Klan, it’s sexualized depictions of marital rape and childbirth, and its most famous phrase “Frankly my dear I don’t give a damn” uttered by Rhett Butler to Scarlett. Selznick toned down most of the racist language but the stereotypes remained. The movie is the biggest money-making film of all time when inflation is factored in and considered one of the best films ever made. It was re-released several times including on June 26, 1998, when it was remastered in its original format. Even up to the book and movie’s 75th anniversary, commentators acknowledged its racism but put it into context.
Now as the movie is approaching its 80th anniversary, Gone with the Wind is again controversial. With the Confederate monument removal movement after the 2015 Charleston church shooting and the violence at Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, many are questioning Gone with the Wind’s portrayal of the secessionist south and slavery as a racist ode to the Confederacy. So far, 110 Confederate monuments have been removed, and there are calls to remove Gone with the Wind as well. Last August 2017, the Orpheum Theatre in Memphis, Tennessee, that played the movie each year for the past 34 years, declined to do so because of the film’s racial “insensitivity.” The move caused an outcry on social media for the beloved book and movie.
The cancellation of the screening made journalists question should the book and movie be part of the movement? The results were divided between those they believe it should be retired versus those who understand the film in its context and that it was not a political position on the South but about the individual characters and Scarlett O’Hara’s journey. The problem is many do not see Gone with the Wind as a work of fiction, not history. In 2008, preeminent reconstruction historian Eric Foner noted in a Washington Post book review, “The work of historians, however, has largely failed to penetrate popular consciousness. Partly because of the persistence of old misconceptions, Reconstruction remains widely misunderstood. Popular views still owe more to such films as “Birth of a Nation” (which glorified the Klan as the savior of white civilization) and “Gone With the Wind” (which romanticized slavery and the Confederacy) than to modern scholarship.”
African American writer Angelica Jade Bastien writing in Vulture called Gone with the Wind a “Cinematic Monument to the Confederacy” but concludes, the characters’ “great capacity for racism exists in tandem with their own admirable qualities, making them frustratingly human and trickier to demonize.” While Harvard Professor Cass R. Sunstein writes in the Atlantic, “Finding Humanity in Gone With the Wind The classic novel shows that individual lives cannot be reduced to competing sets of political convictions.” Sunstein does not see Gone with the Wind as political like the Confederate flag, and concludes, “It would be a mistake to disparage the sad magic of half-forgotten songs. Americans have good reason to remember the sweetness, and the deaths, of the countless real-world Tartletons — and never to dishonor those who grieve for them.”
On the opposite side, New York Post opinion writer Lou Lumenick in his article from 2015 believes “Gone with the Wind’ should go the way of the Confederate flag,” and argues it should be retired to museums. Lumenick finds “The more subtle racism of “Gone with the Wind’’ is in some ways more insidious, going to great lengths to enshrine the myth that the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery — an institution the film unabashedly romanticizes.” While Ed Kilgore writing in 2017 concurs, declaring, “Yes, Gone with the Wind Is Another Neo-Confederate Monument.” In his New York Magazine article, where he argues that Gone with the Wind is “a neo-Confederate political symbol” not “an innocent piece of brilliant cinema and anachronistic history that’s under attack by the forces of political correctness,” as film critic Kyle Smith described it.
The debate over Gone with the Wind and its canceled screening is part of a greater trend where political correctness is going overboard on movies and books that depict a time where there were racial insensitivities. This includes a Biloxi, Mississippi public school district removing To Kill a Mockingbird from its reading list, and most recently the American Library Association removing author Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from a children’s book award. Classic books and movies with racial insensitivities are opportunities to be taught critically and in the context of the times, but we cannot selectively erase offensive history, if we do, we will be left with nothing to read or learn from our past.
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.