Before venturing on a discussion about Gone with the Wind, it’s important to remember a few things. Classic Hollywood was great cinema, but terrible history. Michael Curtiz in The Adventures of Robin Hood and Cecil B. DeMille in The Crusades had as much concern for historical accuracy as Quentin Tarantino did in Inglourious Basterds and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Until the 1960s, American cinema was tightly censored, the Production Code implemented in 1933 having given the Catholic Church the final decision over which films got released, and which ones didn’t. And yes you read that right. By 1939, not only had the Confederate “Lost Cause” won the propaganda war, most liberals and leftists, especially East European Jewish immigrants in Hollywood, wanted to help Franklin Roosevelt keep the Southern Democratic vote, especially as it became more and more inevitable that the United States would go to war with Germany. Finally, the United States had just come out of the Great Depression, which remains, along with the Civil War, the single most traumatic event in American history.
Almost no actual Southerners were involved in making Gone With the Wind. David O. Selznick, its producer and driving force, was the son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants from Pittsburgh. The screenwriter Sidney Howard was from Oakland, California. The director Victor Fleming was from Los Angeles. Max Steiner, an Austrian Jew, wrote the score. The cinematographer Ernest Haller was a German American from Southern California. The cast was equally of “Yankee” or European stock. Vivian Leigh was British. Olivia de Havilland was born in Tokyo, Japan, the daughter of British and French expatriates. Thomas Mitchell, who played Scarlett O’Hara’s father, was an Irish American from my own hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey. While a few of the black actors were from southern border states like Arkansas and Texas, Hattie McDaniel, who won Best Supporting Actress, was from Witchita, Kansas. Clark Gable, who played the most famous southern romantic hero in all of American cinema, didn’t even try to affect a southern accent. He was from Cadiz, Ohio, also the hometown of Edwin M. Stanton, Lincoln’s fiercely abolitionist Secretary of War. In fact, just about the only real southerner in the cast of Gone With the Wind is Alicia Rhett, who played India Wilkes, and had originally auditioned for the part of Scarlett O’Hara. After Gone With the Wind, she never acted in another film.
So why did all of these Yankees, East European Jewish and English immigrants, and yes, African Americans, come together to make a film romanticizing slavery?
I suppose for Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen, the answer is easy. There were few, if any, roles for African American women. The viciously racist Birth of a Nation 20 years earlier had not only portrayed African Americans as rapists obsessed with white women, it had no African American actors in the cast. Almost every good actor will take a badly written part in a movie with horrible politics, the idea being that you can inject enough of your own humanity into the character to override the intentions of the screenwriter. What’s more, none of the black characters in Gone with the Wind present any threat to white, southern women. Big Sam, played by Everett Brown, actually saves Scarlett O’Hara from being raped by a gang of white ruffians. Clark Gable, who was good friends with Hattie McDaniel demanded that the sets on Gone with the Wind be desegregated, refusing to act in the film if the toilets were marked “white” and “colored.” Sadly, and it says more about the United States than it does about Gone with the Wind, the studio that made Gone with the Wind was relatively enlightened for its time.
If Margaret Mitchell’s novel, published in 1936, had been a massive best seller, it hadn’t necessarily been nostalgia for the “Lost Cause.” Unlike the film, which had to pass the Catholic Church’s board of censors put into power by the Production Code, the novel is frank about sexuality. Katie Scarlett O’Hara is a feminist heroine, the kind of liberated women who came to prominence in the 1920s. While far more viciously racist than the movie, the novel is also one of the few best selling accounts of Americans living under a military occupation, told from the point of view of a young woman trying to come to terms with her own sexuality as civilization is crashing down around her. Scarlett O’Hara not only comes through the Civil War and the destruction of the old planter class, she becomes immensely wealthy, far richer than her father ever was, even at the height of slavery. Women, who buy novels, especially romance novels, at a greater rate than men, and who had just come through the Great Depression, which, once again, is along with the Civil War, by far the most traumatic event in American history, surely found her an appealing, even revolutionary character.
Neither the novel nor the film Gone With the Wind is sympathetic to the “Lost Cause.” Man for man, the Army of Northern Virginia was as tough, and brave, as any army that’s ever taken the field. For over 4 years, they fought one of the word’s great industrial powers to a draw, a draw that was only broken when Lincoln decided to let Phillip Sheridan and William Tecumseh Sherman wage total, economic warfare on the southern people. Yet early in Gone With the Wind, when Rhett Butler explains to a gathering of aristocratic planters at Twelve Oakes, the estate owned by Ashley Wilkes and his family, that the south has no chance of winning the war, young, aristocratic southern men are portrayed, not only as foolish hotheads, but as outright babies. Rand Brooks, who plays Melanie Wilkes younger brother Charles, and who foolishly challenges Rhett Butler to a duel, has soft, dough like features. It’s clear that had Butler actually accepted his challenge, it would have been murder, not a contest of honor between gentlemen. Hamilton enlists in the Confederate Army, but he’s not cut down by Yankee gunfire while leading a charge at Gettysburg. He dies of the measles. During the siege of Atlanta, Confederate soldiers are not the formidable warriors who terrorized Yankee troops with the rebel yell. They’re little boys who cry out in pain for their mommies or broken down old men who can barely limp along the road in retreat from Sherman’s juggernaut.
Women in Gone with the Wind are another story. From Scarlett herself, to Melanie Wilkes, who hides a will of iron beneath her angelic exterior, to Belle Watling, the sex worker more honorable and devoted to the southern cause than any of the film’s “respectable” women, to Mammy, the only person with the ability to stand up to Scarlett, a black woman essential to keeping a white, slave-owning family from going to pieces during Reconstruction, the women of Gone with the Wind are better soldiers than the men. Indeed, the only time we see any southerner in Gone With the Wind kill a Yankee is when Scarlett O’Hara shoots a would be rapist in the face. With the exception of Rhett Butler, men in Gone With the Wind are soft, romantic, and incompetent. Ashley Wilkes would be far more believable as an English professor teaching Shakespeare at a women’s college in New England than he is as a man who came through the ghastly Battle of Spotsylvania Court House and a Yankee prisoner of war camp. Scarlett, in turn, is more believable pining over Ashley early in the film than she is as a fully mature adult after she eats a uncooked radish from the ground and declares “as God as my witness I’ll never be hungry again.” At that point, her unrequited love for the sad Mr. Wilkes just seems baffling and self-destructive, which is, of course, exactly the point. Katie Scarlett O’Hara is now a successful lady capitalist profiting far more by using convict (slave) labor than her father ever profited using chattel (slave) laborer. We want her to forget about Ashley and live happily ever after with Rhett Butler, her soulmate.
If Rhett Butler is the only genuinely masculine male character in Gone with the Wind, it’s largely because he’s a self-interested capitalist and not a romantic aristocrat pining over the “Lost Cause.” Supposedly he’s from Charleston, but his accent is pure Mid-Atlantic bourgeois by way of California the Midwest. He does in fact do more for the Southern cause than poor little Charles Hamilton, spending most of the war as a blockade runner, then enlisting in the Confederate Army after the Battle of Atlanta, but in both cases it’s purely out of self-interest. Blockade running is profitable. A brief tour with Joseph E. Johnston’s Army against the hated Sherman and the rank of Captain were handy status symbols after the restoration of White Supremacy and the Southern Democrats in 1876. If Ashley and Melanie Wilkes represent the romantic “Lost Cause” than Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara represent the new capitalist south that emerged in the late 19th Century, the old south with a new and improved economy but with its old racial and class hierarchies largely intact. As Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa said in The Leopard, his famous novel about the unification of Italy, “if everything is to stay the same, than everything has to change.” Rhett and Scarlett are the ideal conservatives, wealthy, upper-class aristocrats who can change with the times and subvert any attempts of the working class to rise to power. This also opened the door for the successful children of Jewish immigrants like Selznick. Gone with the Wind romanticized an aristocracy, but not, it must be stressed, the “old” aristocracy. Indeed, old aristocratic WASP Americans like Ashley Wilkes would give way to a new, better, brighter, stronger elite, men like David O. Selznick, or women like Katie Scarlett O’Hara, also a first generation American.
Gone with the Wind, therefore, while not “Lost Cause” propaganda, is poisonously reactionary propaganda. Released in 1939, after capitalism came close to utter collapse during the Great Depression, and was saved by the aristocratic Franklin Roosevelt, the film says “there is a natural hierarchy. Whether under slavery or free market capitalism, aristocrats like Scarlett O’Hara, Rhett Butler, and Franklin Roosevelt deserve to rule. Keep your place and it will all work out for the best.” In contrast to the noble and sympathetic black characters of Gone with the Wind, the Big Sams and Mammys, who remain passive, upwardly mobile “white trash” like the O’Hara’s old overseer Jonas Wilkerson and his wife Emmy Slattery, are invariably vicious and spiteful. Gone With the Wind is a racist film, if only because it centers the sufferings of the white planter aristocracy and not the epic struggle of the African American freemen to resist the violence of slavery and the Klan, but the screenplay reserves most of its true hate for low class whites who take advantage of the collapse of the old order, either to elevate themselves, or to elevate the ex-slaves. One ludicrous scene of a carpet bagger promising ex slaves “40 Acres and a Mule” consciously distorts history. It wasn’t the carpet baggers who proposed giving the ex-slaves 40 Acres and a Mule. It was William Tecumseh Sherman and the Union Army, a promise the federal government ultimately reneged on.
What’s more, Gone with the Wind is an antiwar film at exactly the time an antiwar film was most dangerous. The United States in 1939 had a powerful “America First” movement led by the openly fascist Charles Lindbergh that prevented Roosevelt from declaring war on either Germany or Japan until the Japanese actually bombed Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war on us. A film in which both romantic leading men hate the idea of war for different reasons, Ashley Wilkes because it would destroy the old South and Rhett Butler because it would destroy wealth, and which vividly depicted Southern “boys,” boys not men, crying for their mommies as their legs were sawed off without anesthesia, was rank “America First” propaganda. David O. Selznick, while Jewish, was strongly suggesting that a war against Hitler might just not be worth it. Let those Europeans take care of their own problems. We’ve already had our apocalyptic battles at Gettysburg and Atlanta. Why get American boys killed to save Poles, Frenchmen, Russians and East European Jews? Why upset a capitalist social order that had just been saved by a honey voiced Democratic Party aristocrat?
Hitler and the Nazis, of course, loved Gone with the Wind. How could they not love a film so firmly on the side of an aristocratic racial hierarchy? Ironically, while we never see Vivian Leigh and Leslie Howard kiss in Gone with the Wind –Ashley has Scarlett solidly in the “friend zone,” stringing her along for his own ego — it would have meant the death penalty in Nazi Germany. Leslie Howard, born Leslie Howard Steiner, was a Hungarian Jew from London, and sexual, or even platonic, romantic relations between Jews and Aryans had been outlawed in 1935 by the Nuremberg Laws. Perhaps that’s why Hitler’s air force found Howard’s DC-3 flying in 1943 flying over the Bay of Biscay and shot it down. It wasn’t the Yankees who killed Ashley Wilkes. It was the Nazis.
News of the air disaster rocked Britain, and delighted the Nazi propaganda minister, Dr Goebbels. Leslie Howard, while at the pinnacle of Hollywood success as the star of The Scarlet Pimpernel, Pygmalion and Gone With The Wind, had sacrificed his royalties, bought himself out of his contract, and returned to Britain in 1939, to work for the war effort. He made propaganda films for the Ministry of Information, and on his own initiative directed and starred in two films that had irritated Goebbels: Pimpernel Smith, about freeing young Jewish refugees from the Nazis, and The First Of The Few, about the designer of the Spitfire, which bolstered morale during the Battle of Britain. He broadcast letters to America designed to bring neutral USA onside, and had visited Ireland on a bridge-building mission to the anti-British premier Eamon de Valera.