Gone With the Wind: Cultural Legacy

“Forget it, Louis. No Civil War picture ever made a nickel”–Irving Thalberg to Louis B. Mayer

“I was the only Negro in the theater, and when Butterfly McQueen went into her act, I felt like crawling under the rug”–Malcolm X

“Gone With the Wind” (GWTH) was released in December 1939, at a time when the U.S. was aware of the growing political unrest in Europe and its potential threat for the U.S. Hope and optimism were needed in the face of these new threats and fears. As Americans watched the Old World of Europe crumble, they were reassured by GWTW that their American world would live on, no matter what might happen.

In London, during the War, GWTW was a very popular film, playing throughout the War years. It was also popular in liberated Europe after the War, even without subtitles. In Nazi Germany, however, Scarlett O’Hara was seen as a bad role model for German women, and subsequently the film was banned.

While GWTW indirectly refers to the world situation of its day, its also indirectly about the years of the American Depression. At the end of the movies first part, when Scarlett returns to a decimated Tara, she cries out, “As God is my witness–as God is my witness–they’re not going to lick me! I’m going to live through this, and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again–no, nor any of my folks!–if I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill! As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.” This powerful monologue was like a rallying cry for Americans who had survived the Depression and could now see a light at the end of the tunnel.

However, perhaps the greatest change GWTW caused historically was in the renewal of Southern pride. Selznick’s glorification of the Old South was seen by Southerners as a healing of North-South tensions still left over from the Civil War. For them, the South could finally be understood for what it was in a positive sense. A million people flocked into Atlanta for the films premiere, which was declared state holiday by the governor, an indication of the pride Southerners felt of the film.

GWTW revised the Old Souths history and culture, and perhaps Americas history and culture as well, by creating a legend of plantation life. The society seen at Tara before the War, its Knights and Fair Ladies, manners, clothes, and activities, is largely a Hollywood fiction. The plantation itself is fancier than the average Southern plantation, or even the Tara as depicted in Mitchell’s novel. The Old South in GWTW is not an accurate portrait, but rather a romantic, ahistorical depiction loosely based on the antebellum era. However, the sentimental view of a great-lost world was appealing to Americans. This is expressed most clearly when Rhett Butler tells Scarlett, “Take a good look, my dear. It’s a historical moment. You can tell your grandchildren how you watched the Old South disappear one night.” GWTW gave viewers the sense that they were witnessing the disappearance of the Old South.

Several critics have faulted GWTW as a reductive, hyped-up novel. Theres no denying that the films raw, overbaked melodrama, with its shamelessly sadomasochistic elements, brought a lot of pleasure to mass audiences. Take, for example, the themes of rape and vengeance. Therere no less than two attempted rapes of Scarlett, and a third successful one by her own husband. At the time, conservative male viewers suggested that a selfish and hurtful woman like Scarlett might deserve to be mistreated by Rhett.

Moreover, few characters from any novel have entered into the communal dreams and collective consciousness as Scarlett OHara, Rhett Butter, Ashley Wilkes, Melanie, and Mammy. However, with the exception of Rhett and Scarlett, all the other roles are stock figures whose persona could be summed up in one sentence. Melanie is good-hearted and generous to a fault, playing a self-sacrificing maternal role. Then there are Belle Watling, as whore with a heart of gold, Mammy as Scarletts loyal servant, and Prissy, as the sniveling and comic servant.

One of the movies most problematic aspects is its depiction of black slaves, as the prologue states, “Here was the last ever seen of Master and of Slave.” The Mammy figure (played by Hattie McDaniel) and her younger counterpart Prissy (Butterfly McQueen) are offensively racist portrayals. While they have hearts of gold and are loyal, theyre often used for comic relief in the film. The films “Jim Crow” humor has come under attack by many black critics, including Malcolm X, who wrote in his autobiography after seeing the film, “I was the only Negro in the theater, and when Butterfly McQueen went into her act, I felt like crawling under the rug.” The blatant racism is reflected in the pity, pathos, and condescension toward the black characters. Mitchell was not alone in thisSouthern literature often described Negroes as darkies who had to be handled gently like children, that is, to be commanded, praised, patted, and scolded.

Nevertheless, blacks and whites alike have made GWTW the most successful film of all-time. If the films box-office grosses are adjusted to today’s economy, GWTH could easily beat out every blockbuster, including Titanic and E.T. NBC paid $5 million for one showing of the film, then CBS paid $35 million for showing of the film over ten years. In 1984, when GWTW was first placed on the video market, it did great business, and I expect the same of Warners new DVD edition.

GWTW is now firmly lodged in American pop culture. The Alexander Doll line has continued to make GWTW dolls since 1937, especially Scarlett O’Hara dolls. Additionally, there have been collector plates, commemorative stamps, drinks named after Scarlett and Rhett, children and pets named after favorite characters.

Language from the film, including the infamous line “Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn,” has found a permanent place in American rhetoric. Joseph I. Breen of the Hays office had forbidden the line, which was also filmed, as “I don’t care,” just in case. However, after six months of please to Will S. Hays, and payment of a token fine, the (in)famous line remained intact, to be quoted by generations of moviegoers. Other memorable lines, assuming folkloristic role, include, “I’ll think about that tomorrow,” “Tomorrow is another day,” and “Don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ babies.”

Not to be underestimated are the pop culture parodies and homages that have accompanied the films success. Cynthia Marylee Molt writes, “not often does a day pass without a line or scene being adapted by the popular media.” On TV, GWTW has been imitated on such programs as “Bewitched,” “The Carol Burnett Show,” “Fantasy Island,” “Hart to Hart,” “Here’s Lucy,” and “The Richard Simmons Show.” In recent years, several TV movies, such as Charleston and the North and South miniseries, have borrowed heavily from their predecessor. In theatrical releases, GWTW was hilariously parodied by The Muppet Movie. But GWTW has also featured in documentaries and docudramas both about the film and the era in which it was released. These include: Brother Can You Spare a Dime Gable and Lombard, and the That’s Entertainment anthologies.

Finally, fashion. Prior to the release of GWTW, women spent the 1930s in long slinky dresses. But that changed with costumer Walter Plunkett’s nipped waist, bouffant skirts, and petticoats designed for Scarlett. Velvet, corsets, hats and scarves were suddenly in vogue. Watching the film over and over again, women tried to decide which of Vivien Leigh’s 40-plus costumes was their favorite. So influential was Scarletts wardrobe that a rule was passed to outlaw the look. With World War II, the L-85 Rule was created to put an end to the personal use of luxury fabrics, which were needed for the war effort. In times of war, if a woman needed a beautiful gown, she would have to make it from old green velvet curtainsjust like Scarlett.