In 1939 and 1940, did Gone With The Wind break stereotypical roles for its African American cast members? Did the director and white cast members take a stand against forms of racism? Or did it merely perpetuate and increase racial stereotypes?
One area that that I’ve been exploring more closely over the last few weeks has been the culture of creating and presenting Gone With The Wind and what that meant in the 1930’s and 1940’s. The following observations are not meant to justify any segregation or racism of that era. However, I think it is important to acknowledge the “rebels” of that era in Hollywood and how they were pressing for change within a flawed system.
To some viewers during the movie’s release in 1939 and 1940, Gone With The Wind was seen as humbling and demeaning travesty in the black community. As mentioned in the previous blog post, Hattie McDaniel (who portrayed Mammy) faced heavy criticism from the NAACP and some African American presses. She saw the situation differently.
David O. Selznick, the movie’s producer, also saw it differently. Recognizing the racial and segregation debates gripping the United States and seeing the larger global backdrop with racism and genocide in Nazi Germany, Selznick took deliberate and definitely measures to alter details from Margaret Mitchell’s novel. For example, he refused to name or portray the Klu Klux Klan, turning Ashley, Frank, and the others into a revenge group (unnamed) that was going to defend Scarlett’s honor. He also purposely changed the perpetrator of Scarlett’s attack to an unruly white man and gave a freedman the role to rescue Scarlett.[i] Selznick debated with his scriptwriter, Sidney Howard, and insisted: “I, for one, have no desire to produce an anti-Negro film either. In our picture I think we have to be awfully careful that the Negroes come out decidedly on the right side of the ledger.”[ii]
Influenced by the Roosevelt administration and a new generation of black activists, Hollywood had already been changing in the 1930’s. Though film roles were limited and often stereotypical, more opportunities opened and some movies offered strong, emotional roles for black actors and actresses. The changes were small (and almost imperceptible to the 21st Century eye), but they happened. Selznick was part of that movement.
Margaret Mitchell worried about her book and how it would translate to film —especially parts that dealt with race. She declared that she would “sweat blood to keep it from being like Uncle Remus.”[iii] She spent time doing sincere research, albeit from a heavily Southern and Lost Cause perspective, and was greatly irritated by the marketing and pop-cultural portrayals of the big plantation scenes which she felt/knew were not historically accurate.[iv] Susan Myrick worked as one of the historical advisors on the GWTW sets. Margaret Mitchell recommended her because she did not believe the myths of the Old South, and Myrick fought against racially cringeworthy cinematic moments.
On set, the African American cast created their own boundaries and refused to be devalued or treated unfairly as they created cinematic art. The cast threatened to walk out unless the restrooms were desegregated; Clark Gable made a call to declare that if there weren’t changes for equality, he would not play Rhett Butler.[v] Butterfly McQueen, who played Prissy, declared she would not continue a scene because Vivien Leigh was slapping her too hard. “I can’t do it, she’s hurting me….I’m no stunt man, I’m an actress.” Though the director got angry, McQueen held her ground and Leigh apologized, apparently not realizing she had been hurting her.[vi] In small ways, equality was demanded and then upheld on the sets of Gone With The Wind.
Essayist Thomas Cripps described the moments of change and old tradition with Gone With The Wind this way:
Although Selznick-International turned out one of the great events of film history, for blacks Gone With The Wind remained an ambiguity caught between old dying black images and as yet unformed new images. While no Klansman appeared, neither did a single rebellious slave or black soldier. No black characters shared any emotional bonds, except those of loyalty to white, and those few who left the plantation in favor of freedom were depicted as shantytown renegades. Yet Mammy grew from her stolid presence on Mitchell’s pages into a heroic, rocklike figure on whom the defeated whites relied. Other blacks, though lacking depth, conveyed a plodding resilience and warmth. Thus, if McQueen’s comic bits caused blacks to wince, other actors maintained a studied dignity that pleased black audiences and confounded black critics.[vii]
Was it a case of pushing boundaries…but not quite far enough to make a memorable stance for racial portrayal on the Hollywood screen?
If change had arrived on the movie sets and friendships and mutual admiration of talents had been forged between white and black cast, these Hollywood “rebels” against the typical cultural of the 30’s faced a different world outside the studio. One of the most remarkable public displays of fond memory of the Old South and a victorious display of Lost Cause-ism of the early 20th Century came during the Atlanta Premiere of Gone With The Wind on December 15, 1939. From costumes, speeches, parties, music, dance, and even the food, it was a whirlwind of memory…inspired by a book and movie, but taking literary and cinema story to a level of inspiration not necessarily intended by author, producer, cast, or crew. Pop culture got hold of the moment and had a party to celebrate their views of the Old South and how they wanted to remember it. Among the casualties? The advances for equality and the stand against racism that cast and crew had made were swept away by how the South wanted to remember its past.
Due to Georgia’s strict segregation policies—which the Atlanta civic leaders refused to bend or break at that time—the movie studio decided that Hattie McDaniel and the rest of the black cast would not be allowed to attend the opening night. Privately, some of the film’s white stars expressed displeasure—with Clark Gable again raising heavy protest—but they were trapped by a system that was unwilling to accept change.
Margaret Mitchell sent a letter to Hattie McDaniel during the festive December week in Atlanta, reading in part: “Your very fine letter reached me just when the excitement about the Atlanta premiere of “Gone With The Wind” is at its height. I am so glad you wrote to me and I thank you for your letter and all the nice things you said about my book. Thank you for wanting to play “Mammy.” I take that as a compliment to the character. Of course I have seen many still pictures of you in this part and I am looking forward with the greatest interest to seeing you on the screen….Should you be in Atlanta at any time, please telephone me. I would like to see you and talk to you.[viii]
On December 16, Mitchell sent a telegram to Los Angeles:
THE PREMIERE AUDIENCE LOVED YOU AND SO DID I. THE MAYOR OF ATLANTA CALLED FOR A HAND FOR OUR HATTIE MCDANIEL AND I WISH YOU COULD HAVE HEARD THE CHEERS. CONGRATULATIONS.[ix]
Perhaps the book’s author felt regret or was at least sensible of the injustices forced by the system of segregation. (At one point during the premiere festivities, Mitchell and Gable talked privately, and neither revealed the subject of their conversation. I have often wondered if they spoke about segregation since Gable was a strong advocate and was upset that Hattie McDaniel and the rest of the cast was not present.) Later in her life, Mitchell donated significant portions of her earnings for community centers and services for the black community in Atlanta, but—again due to the segregation and racist feelings of her society—she was forced to keep her support and donations a secret.
A couple months after the Atlanta Premiere, David Selznick, Clark Gable, and other cast members were able to break a segregation rule for Hattie McDaniel to attend the Academy Awards and receive her Oscar in person. McDaniel spent part of the event at a table with her fellow cast, though other parts of the evening were painfully segregated and uncomfortable.
Olivia de Havilland struggled that evening. She had hoped to win Best Supporting Actress, but the award was given to McDaniel. De Havilland later described that she was mad at God over losing the award, but then: “One morning I woke up in more ways than one, filled with delight that I lived in a world where God was certainly present, and where justice had indeed been done. . . . I suddenly felt very proud . . . that I belonged to a profession which honored a black woman who merited this [the Academy Award], in a time when other groups had neither the honesty nor the courage to do the same sort of thing.”[x] She had begun to realize the significance of the moment in history.
As I try to tie these facts and thoughts together, I keep coming back to Thomas Cripp’s statement and evaluation: “Eventually, Gone With The Wind became a template against which to measure social change.”[xi] And that is a part of the movie’s legacy that continues to evolve and live on—especially in this moment as the discussion continues about how to separate history from memory and fact from story to make sure we can appreciate a work of cinematic art with context.
To be continued…
[i] Pyron, Darden A. (editor) Recasting: Gone With The Wind: In American Culture. (University Presses of Florida, Miami, 1983). Page 137
[ii] Ibid., Page 140
[iii] Ibid, Page 138
[iv] Ibid., Page 140
[vi] Pyron, Darden A. (editor) Recasting: Gone With The Wind: In American Culture. (University Presses of Florida, Miami, 1983). Page 144
[vii] Ibid., Page 144-145
[viii] Mitchell, Margaret, edited by John Wiley, Jr. The Scarlett Letters: The Making of the Film Gone With The Wind. (Globe Pequot Press, Guildford, CT. 2014). Page 306
[ix] Ibid., 319
[x] Jackson, Carlton. Hattie (Life of Hattie McDaniel) (pp. 52-53). Madison Books. Kindle Edition.
[xi] Pyron, Darden A. (editor) Recasting: Gone With The Wind: In American Culture. (University Presses of Florida, Miami, 1983). Page 148