Seventy-five years ago this Monday, a controversial classic movie and one of the biggest money makers of all time debuted. On Dec. 15, 1939, Gone with the Wind premiered with all the pomp and ballyhoo Atlanta and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer could muster (and none of the black actors in attendance). Gone With the Wind 75 years later is still beloved and vilified for its depiction of the Civil War and slavery.
The longest and most expensive Hollywood film ever when it debuted, Gone with the Wind is still the all-time domestic box office champ with a gross of $1.6 billion, after adjusting for inflation, and has earned multi-millions more in videos, DVDs and television rights. The 220-minute movie received 13 Oscar nominations, and won eight Academy Awards, which included those for best film, actress (Vivien Leigh in the role of Scarlett), director (Victor Fleming) and supporting actress (Hattie McDaniel in the role of Mammy), as well as the statuettes for screenplay, editing, cinematography and art direction.
TIME magazine’s article on Dec. 25, 1939, describes the attention the debut of Gone with the Wind drew in the Southern area it depicted (it was filmed in Los Angeles). The governor of Georgia, Eurith Rivers, declared a state holiday and, according to the magazine “prepared to call out the National Guard.” William Hartsfield, mayor of Atlanta, also declared the premiere events a city festival. The article says, “To Georgia it was like winning the battle of Atlanta 75 years late, with Yankee good will thrown in and the direct assistance of Selznick International (which made the picture).” According to other publications, Rivers also declared, “This is the first time that I have seen our side of the War Between the States faithfully depicted.”
McDaniel’s and other black actors’ omission from the premiere, because it was held in the still-segregated South, was unconscionable. Clark Gable (who portrayed Rhett Butler) reportedly threatened not to attend if McDaniel could not, but the actress persuaded him to go.
Portrayed as redemption, her Oscar for playing Mammy was monumental (no other black was nominated until 1954 or received an Academy Award until 1963). However, she and her date for the evening sat at a separate table segregated from white attendees (the Oscars then were presented at a banquet).
While Gone with the Wind is entertaining, well-acted and cinematically stunning, it is hard to ignore – and one would hope the current leaders in Georgia would recognize – that the film’s racial stereotypes and the way the Confederacy is glorified are disturbing. Contrast the way servant Mammy is shown as a welcome member of the family with the movie The Help to examine what life might have been like for Mammy (or Prissy) 100 years after the Civil War.
Many claim the film does not show that slavery is wrong. Actually, even though Rhett Butler discounts him as “wooden headed,” Ashley Wilkes is the Gone with the Wind voice against slavery and mistreating others. He tells Scarlett that he would have freed the family slaves after the death of his father if the war had not already freed them. He also tells Scarlett, who now has him running her mill, that he wants to hire “free darkies” and not lease convicts. Ashley adds, “I will not make money out of the enforced labor and misery of others.”
Gable was the voice of racial integration behind the scenes during the filming, not just at the premiere. According to the Los Angeles Times, he threatened to walk off the set because there were segregated toilets. They were removed that night.
Other movies have been more realistic about the South, slavery and the Civil War. But, Gone with the Wind is still a cultural milestone worth revisiting – and discussing in the context of good and bad – 75 years later. How many other movies have had that kind of staying power, not to mention box office bang?
Opinion by Dyanne Weiss