GWTW at 80, Part VIII (Final thoughts)

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Over the last eighty years, GWTW has rightly won much acclaim, both critical and popular. While much of the story is firmly grounded in the world Margaret Mitchell’s family moved in, and thus doesn’t reflect Southern society as a whole, all stories are necessarily based on the author’s own personal views and/or experience. She wrote about upper-class slave owners because that was her frame of reference. Someone whose forebears were slaves or poor whites would’ve crafted an entirely different story!

We can’t divorce a story from its cultural, social, and historical context. It’s natural to have one’s own personal reaction to something, but we can’t expect everyone to share our views. Even if we might feel uncomfortable at certain aspects, we can’t deny that was “just how things were” in that specific milieu.

If a story’s premise is no longer relevant (e.g., being unable to get in touch with someone pre-cellphone era, a couple pretending they’re married to share a hotel room in an emergency and spending the entire night avoiding actually being in the room together), think about the bigger picture.

If the overall storytelling and characterisations are strong enough, it shouldn’t matter how outdated certain aspects might be.

We also are only as good as the material we have to work with. Some people both then and now might lambaste Hattie McDaniel as an Aunt Jemima for playing so many servants, but what other options did she have? Race movies, shot by and for African–American audiences, had less reach than mainstream Hollywood films, and it’s better to make $700 a week playing a maid than $7 a week actually being one.

In both the book and film, Mammy is one of the most important, strongest characters. It could also be argued she’s the most consistent, and she’s the only one who can talk any sense into Scarlett and hold her in check. She’s hardly a one-dimensional stereotype. Her character has so much humanity and warmth.

Of course I wish there had been more opportunities for minorities to play major roles outside of race films, and that white actors hadn’t been made up to look Black, Chinese, Arab, etc., while shunting actual members of those races into secondary roles in the same films or bypassing them altogether. However, that’s unfortunately how film history unfolded. We can’t change what happened.

Within that context, we should be happy about performers like Hattie McDaniel and Anna May Wong who made the most of those limitations to demonstrate great talent and dignity. I’d much rather see an African-American playing a railway porter or maid as a fully-rounded, strong character than used as cheap material for laughs or depicted as a villain.

People who latch onto needing everything to fall in line with 21st century Woke™ sensibilities are missing out on a lot of truly great art from the past. No one living in reality denies GWTW paints an unrealistic picture of the Old South and (particularly in the book) has some racist content. But that’s not why people are still voraciously reading, watching, and studying it eighty years later.

This is a classic Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story where the journey through life is the plot, set against the epic backdrop of the Civil War and Reconstruction. While it can also be classified as a romance novel, the love story is just one aspect of many. GWTW is the complete package and can’t be tied into just one genre.

This is the story of a determined young woman who starts out a pampered, spoilt brat and evolves into a strong survivor who won’t let circumstances keep her down. In an era and place where so-called respectable women didn’t do the half of what Scarlett does, she claws her way to the top to survive and thrive. Scarlett won’t give up Tara, or her very life, without a hell of a fight.

And so what if it isn’t exactly in harmony with modern life? Every story is ultimately a product of its own time and author’s biases. What matters is the deeper message, and how people across time and culture react to it. People like Dante and Shakespeare also wrote very much for the people of their own time and place, but they’ve become writers for all time and peoples because the themes and characters resonate so deeply regardless of origin.

And that is why GWTW still matters.

GWTW at 80, Part VII (Differences between book and film)

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While no film adaptation of a book can be perfect, I rate GWTW right up there with Fiddler on the Roof and the original 1921 version of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as one of the best. It retains most of the important storylines and characters, doesn’t leave gaping holes where elements were left out, and stays true to the spirit of the story.

Since the book is over 1,000 pages long (a length more than justified by the epic scope), naturally everything couldn’t be squeezed into even a very long film. Among the aspects left out or handled differently:

1. Scarlett has three kids, not just one. In the book, she has one child by each of her husbands. Her firstborn is Wade Hampton Hamilton, born in early 1862, and her second child is Ella Lorena Kennedy. Bonnie is her third child. Alexandra Ripley’s horrible sequel Scarlett gives her a fourth child, Cat. The less said about that, the better!

2. Scarlett’s sister Suellen marries Will Benteen, a legless veteran who works at Tara after the war, and has a child, Susie, with him.

3. The men are in the KKK, and go out to lynch African–Americans to avenge the attack on Scarlett in Shantytown. Prior, Rhett also matter-of-factly admits he lynched an African–American for acting “uppity.”

4. Mr. O’Hara’s deadly riding accident happens in the wake of Suellen trying to get him to sign papers proving he’s pro-Yankee, not chasing off Tara’s former overseer. Scarlett also doesn’t witness his death.

5. Scarlett vomits in front of Rhett while riding with him during her second pregnancy.

6. The prelude to the possible marital rape scene is a lot darker and more violent.

7. There’s no rain while Scarlett’s party flees to Atlanta.

8. Scarlett’s character is a lot darker and more complex, and her motivations are more fully explored.

9. Scarlett and Charles marry the day before Ashley and Melanie, not afterwards. It was a huge scandal in that era for couples to marry against the order of their engagements.

10. Rhett’s relationship with brothel madam Belle Watling is a lot more overt.

11. Pork, Mr. O’Hara’s valet and first slave, has a wife, Dilcey.

12. Charles is courting Ashley’s sister Honey before Scarlett turns his head. In the movie, he’s courting Ashley’s sister India, and Honey never appears.

13. Scarlett, not Melanie, offers her wedding ring to the Confederate cause at the Atlanta Bazaar first. She can’t wait to be rid of that unwanted thing!

14. Melanie reads from Les Misérables, not David Copperfield, the night of the raid on Shantytown.

15. Scarlett’s realisation that she loved a fantasy of Ashley instead of the man himself is less rushed.

16. A LOT of racist content, including many uses of the N-word in the narrative (not just dialogue).

17. Will Benteen, not Mammy. holds Scarlett back from running to welcome Ashley home after the war.

18. Scarlett has an ex-con driver named Archie. He later reappears when he catches Scarlett and Ashley innocuously embracing at the sawmill, with disastrous results.

19. Scarlett already visited Atlanta prior to moving there.

20. Bonnie’s fear of the dark was created by Mammy, who told her “ghosts and buggerboos” lurk in the dark and might hurt her.

21. Rhett’s final words are “My dear, I don’t give a damn.” No “frankly” in there.

22. Several age-gap relationships which were quite unusual for the era, even among the upper-class. Scarlett’s parents are 28 years apart; Scarlett and Rhett are 16 and 33 when they meet; Frank Kennedy is 30 years older than Suellen, the original object of his affections, and 28 years older than Scarlett.

While some of these alterations take away important layers and details which make the book so great, it was necessary to condense this doorstopper. I also 100% agree with the decision to significantly tone down the racist aspects and not mention ages. Very few book to screen adaptations are this fantastic.

GWTW at 80, Part V (Negative responses)

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As with any film, GWTW too has had its detractors over the last eighty years. Not just people who felt, e.g., the film should’ve been trimmed down or that the second half is weaker than the first, but people who hate(d) it altogether.

And given the time and place in which it’s set, coupled with Margaret Mitchell’s own biases as a product of that setting, one can kind of guess exactly what most of that criticism revolves around.

Many African–Americans, both then and now, haven’t had the most positive views on GWTW. They felt the slave characters were too negatively stereotyped instead of complex, three-dimensional people, along with depicting the Old South through rose-colored glasses. Additionally, there’s a strong element (even stronger in the book) of the most sympathetic slaves being those who accept subservience and don’t leave their former owners after being emancipated.

Walter Francis White, executive director of the NAACP, put Hattie McDaniel on blast after she accepted the Academy for Best Supporting Actress, calling her an Uncle Tom. In turn, she fired back by famously saying she’d rather make $700 a week playing a maid than $7 a week actually being one.

Hattie also questioned his qualifications to speak on any subject regarding African–Americans, seeing as he was an octoroon (one-eighth Black) with very light features. He had far more European than African ancestry, and easily passed for white.

While there were demonstrations against the film in some cities, and heated criticism which included calling GWTW “a weapon of terror against Black America,” other African–Americans were very happy Hattie won that award. They hoped it might lead to increased cinematic recognition for their people, more chances to play important, multi-faceted roles.

Sadly, it would be twenty-four years until another African–American won an Academy, Sidney Poitier for Lilies of the Field in 1964.

Though the film significantly tones down the racism of the book (which I’ll go into more detail about in a later post), it regardless still retains the depiction of an Old South that wasn’t reality for the vast majority of people, either white or Black. As I mentioned in my BOAN posts in 2015, the now-debunked Dunning School of Reconstruction was very much in vogue during this era.

The Dunning School wasn’t just a POV sympathetic to the Southern side of Reconstruction, but falsified history akin to denying the Shoah or Armenian Genocide. It cast white Southerners as saintly victims, while the only good slaves were happy to be slaves and loved their masters. Anyone of either race who opposed slavery and wanted equal rights for African–Americans was an enemy.

While there were obvious failures during Reconstruction, legit corruption, and a dearth of the reconciliatory spirit Pres. Lincoln hoped for, the Dunning School took true instances of bad behavior way out of context and acted like that constantly happened in every single instance. It was also loaded with ugly racism, esp. in depicting the KKK as knights in shining armor, even as they lynched African–Americans.

While there certainly were people who treated their slaves very well and had mutually harmonious relationships with them, there were others who abused their slaves horrifically, à la Simon Legree. Between those two extremes were a wide variety of experiences.

In 1994, the Atlanta Historical Society hosted an exhibit entitled “Disputed Territories: Gone with the Wind and Southern Myths,” including an exploration of the question “How True to Life Were the Slaves in GWTW?” Through documentary evidence, they showed Margaret Mitchell’s depiction of “happy darkies” was a myth, just as false as the claim all slaveowners were Simon Legrees.

It obviously doesn’t make slavery morally right, but it shows, as with most things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. It’s historically and intellectually dishonest to pretend either extreme was the norm.

The racist material also raises difficult questions about whether we can really condemn someone for having strongly-held, long-established, very consistent views which, while now recognised as inaccurate, wrong, offensive, etc., were a matter-of-fact product of that time and place.

For example, many people find it hard to believe the Torah allows slavery when the Israelites just escaped slavery. But in Antiquity, slavery was a fact of life. No one could imagine a society without it, since there were no counterexamples. The best one could do was establish laws about treating slaves humanely and offering them freedom after a certain point.

By and large, we live what we know. Of course Margaret Mitchell had a very rose-colored view of the Old South and believed that was how most people lived, since she grew up hearing those stories and was from a very privileged family. Someone from a poor white family or descendant of former slaves would’ve written a much different novel!

Another sticking point with many is the suggested marital rape. Just as in the prelude to the rape in The Son of the Sheik, there’s absolutely no doubt as to what’s about to happen.

However, unlike Yasmin, Scarlett seems to be in euphoric afterglow in the next scene. In the book, it’s described as the most intense, powerful sexual act of Scarlett’s life, something she didn’t object to for long, and wasn’t forced into after the initial impetus. She wanted Rhett to take the initiative and have his way with her.

Also, in this era, rape was the only kind of sex a so-called “respectable” woman could fantasize about, since it was forced on her, not something she actively sought out. As awful as this sounds today, it was “just how things were.”

Bottom line: While everyone has a right to exercise free speech and judge things as we see fit (since personal reactions and feelings can never be policed), we also can’t divorce art from the cultural and historical context in which it was created. What was radical in 1920 may seem quaint or cringey today, but the big picture should matter most.

GWTW at 80, Part IV (Release and reception)

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A rough cut of GWTW was screened 9 September 1939 at Riverside, California’s Fox Theatre, running four hours and twenty-five minutes. Moviegoers expected a double bill of Hawaiian Nights and Beau Geste, but when the first film ended, there was an announcement of a special preview. People could leave, but wouldn’t be readmitted after the film began and the theatre was sealed.

The audience was receptive from the moment the title appeared onscreen, and they gave a standing ovation at the end.

The grand première at Loew’s Grand Theatre in Atlanta on 15 December 1939 was attended by 300,000, and was the pinnacle of three days of festivities hosted by Mayor William B. Hartsfield (the city’s longest-serving mayor to date). Other celebratory events included a costume ball, a limo parade with the stars, and receptions. Gov. Eurith D. Rivers declared 15 December a state holiday.

Both residents and visitors lined the streets for seven miles to see the stars arriving in limos. Noticeably absent were Leslie Howard, who’d returned to his native England after the recent outbreak of war, and director Victor Fleming. Also painfully absent were all the African–American actors, prevented from attending due to Jim Crow.

Clark Gable threatened to boycott the event after learning about this racist exclusion, but Hattie McDaniel convinced him to go.

After the grand première in Atlanta, there followed premières in NYC and L.A. The latter was attended by some of the actors considered for Scarlett, such as Paulette Goddard, Joan Crawford, and Norma Shearer.

Until July 1940, the film only played at roadshows with tickets bought in advance, at a limited amount of theatres. Tickets were more than one dollar, over twice the normal price at that time. Also atypical of the era, MGM pocketed 70% of box office earnings instead of the usual 30–35%.

When GWTW reached its roadshow saturation point, MGM changed their cut to 50% and cut ticket prices in half. Finally, in 1941, it entered general release for normal prices. (I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen at a local indie theatre for just 35 cents!)

Producer David O. Selznick liquidated his company in 1942 for tax reasons and sold his GWTW share to his business partner John Whitney for $500,000. Whitney in turn sold it to MGM for $2.8 million, whereupon MGM rereleased it in spring 1942, 1947, and 1954.

The lattermost rerelease showed the film in widescreen, which sadly forever altered five shots. The widescreen process cut into the three-strip negative in the process of optical reframing.

Another rerelease followed in 1961 to mark the Civil War’s centennial, with a gala première by Loew’s Grand Theatre. Selznick and many of the stars attended.

The next rereleases were 1967, 1971, 1974, 1989, 1998, 2013 (in the U.K., to mark Vivien Leigh’s centenary), and 2014.

GWTW first appeared on TV on HBO on 11 June 1976, playing fourteen times during that month. Other cable channels also broadcast GWTW during June. In November, it made its network début on NBC. The station paid $5 million for the rights.

NBC split the film over two nights to great success. Their broadcast of GWTW was the highest-rated TV program in history to that date, and remains the highest-rated film ever broadcast on TV.

In 1978, CBS signed a deal for $35 million to broadcast GWTW twenty times in twenty years. The film’s rights have since been bought by TCM and TNT.

Critics by and large raved about the film upon its release, though some felt it too long and unconvincing. Though a lot of things in the book were left out, some critics felt there was still too much left in the screen adaptation.

GWTW smashed all records at the 12th Academy Awards, with thirteen nominations and eight wins. It collected awards for Best Screenplay, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Art Direction, Best Editing, Best Cinematography, and Best Picture. Additionally, it won honorary awards for usage of color and equipment.

Many consider 1939 the greatest year in cinematic history, but GWTW just blew all the worthy competition out of the water.

Hattie McDaniel was the first African–American to win an Academy, though she shamefully was forced to sit at a separate table at the back of the room and needed special permission to attend the ceremony in a segregated hotel.

Despite everything, she gave a very moving acceptance speech, one which many consider one of the finest in Academy history.

GWTW remains the highest-grossing film in history, earning millions upon millions of dollars each time it’s been theatrically released. It’s estimated to have sold over 200 million tickets in North America, 35 million in the U.K., and 16 million in France.

Many surveys into the present day rate it the most popular film of all time. It also routinely charts high on those incessant best-of lists.

In 1989, GWTW was among the freshman class inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

GWTW at 80, Part III (Behind the scenes in a nutshell)

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In July 1936, producer David O. Selznick bought film rights to Margaret Mitchell’s immensely popular historical saga, a mere month after its publication. Many other studio execs had declined this project, little realising just how popular it would immediately become. Selznick paid $50,000.

Casting proved to be anything but simple, as everyone wanted a chance to star in such an epic film. In particular, there was fierce competition for the two leading roles. Since the studio system made it very difficult for actors under contract at one studio to work for another, production was delayed till late 1938.

Selznick had wanted Clark Gable to be Rhett from the jump, but MGM was loath to lend him to other studios. Gary Cooper was also considered, but his own boss, Samuel Goldwyn, likewise refused to lend him elsewhere. Because Selznick wanted Gable and no one else, he agreed to his father-in-law Louis B. Mayer’s pricy deal in August 1938:

Pay Gable’s weekly salary and give half the profits to MGM in exchange for $1,250,000 (half the film’s budget). Meanwhile, Loew’s, Inc. (MGM’s parent company) would release the film.

During the very long production delay, Selznick drummed up publicity and revised the script. He particularly focused on a $100,000 casting call for Scarlett. Though this proved to be ultimately ineffective, it created great buzz. The original casting call screened 1,400 unknowns, and then the big names began competing for the role.

Thirty-one women made it to actual screen tests, including Tallulah Bankhead, Diana Barrymore (John Barrymore’s daughter by his second marriage), Jean Arthur, Joan Bennett, Paulette Goddard, and Vivien Leigh. The lattermost two became the finalists, and the only ones tested in Technicolor.

Margaret Mitchell most wanted Miriam Hopkins to play Scarlett, but in her mid-thirties, she was far too old. In the book, Scarlett ages from 16–28, thus ideally calling for someone in her early twenties.

According to urban legend, Paulette Goddard lost the role because of controversy regarding her relationship with Charles Chaplin. To this day, there’s still doubt about whether they were ever legally married, or just lived together. However, Selznick knew Vivien Leigh was cohabiting with Laurence Olivier because their respective spouses refused to grant divorces.

The real reason for not giving Paulette the role was apparently Selznick’s worry over legal issues arising from competing contracts with his studio and Chaplin’s studio.

Vivien Leigh’s casting was announced 13 January 1939.

Since the source material is over 1,000 pages long, there needed to be judicious cuts for the screenplay. Sidney Howard’s original script would’ve resulted in a film over six hours long, but he refused to leave New England and come to California to make on-set revisions. Thus, various local writers shouldered the task.

Director George Cukor was fired three weeks into production and replaced by Victor Fleming, who was simultaneously directing The Wizard of Oz. When Fleming voiced dislike of the script, Selznick hired Ben Hecht to do a complete rewrite in five days.

By the end of the week, he’d revised the first half. Selznick began work on the second half, but after falling behind schedule, Howard was brought back for a week.

Since there’d been so many pens on the script, there was questioning as to whom should receive screen credit. The decision was sadly made for the studio when Howard was killed in a tractor accident at age 48, four months before the première.

Urban legend claims Selznick was fined $5,000 by the infamous Hays Office for Rhett’s famous final line, but in reality, the Motion Picture Association passed an amendment on 1 November 1939 to forbid the words “hell” and “damn,” unless their usage “shall be essential and required for portrayal, in proper historical context, of any scene or dialogue based upon historical fact or folklore … or a quotation from a literary work, provided that no such use shall be permitted which is intrinsically objectionable or offends good taste.”

The score was composed by Max Steiner, and became his longest work to date, at two hours and thirty-six minutes. He also spent the most amount of time writing it, twelve weeks. Five conductors were hired.

Today, the theme most people associate with the film is that of Tara, though Steiner wrote two other themes, one for Scarlett and Ashley, and another for Ashley and Melanie. Interestingly, he wrote no theme for Scarlett and Rhett.