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Matthew Bernstein delves into complexities of staging “Gone With The Wind” premiere in a segregated Atlanta in 1939

By Alicia Dietrich

On Thursday, October 16, at 7 p.m., Matthew H. Bernstein, Professor of Film and Media Studies at Emory University, discusses “Selznick’s March: Hollywood Comes to White Atlanta” at the Harry Ransom Center.

 

The world premiere of Gone With The Wind in Atlanta was the culmination of months of anxious and complicated negotiations between producer David O. Selznick, distributor MGM, their staffs, and the city of Atlanta. Bernstein offers an in-depth look at the challenges of staging the 1939 premiere in a segregated southern city in his lecture, held in conjunction with the exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind.

 

In the below Q&A, Bernstein discusses the enduring legacy of the iconic film, the thankless staff members who worked behind the scenes to organize the Atlanta premiere, and surprises he found in the David O. Selznick collection at the Ransom Center.

 

The Bernstein program is free and open to the public. Seating is first-come, first-served, and doors open at 6:30 p.m.

 

December marks the 75th anniversary of the premiere of Gone With The Wind in Atlanta. Why, all these years later, does this film evoke such a strong response from audiences?

The hold Gone With The Wind has over certain audiences is extraordinary. I’ve known people who moved to Atlanta because of it, and I know people here in Atlanta take great offense if one mounts any criticism of it. There are many reasons for it.

 

Some are obvious: its landmark status as an Academy Award winner and one of the highest grossing films, adjusted for inflation, in Hollywood history. There is its technical achievement as an extremely well made and spectacular film in one of Hollywood’s strongest years—it’s simply a great pleasure to watch. There are the terrific casting and performances by the leads and the secondary cast.

 

But the film has such a hold over audiences for other reasons as well. The film’s ambivalent treatment of Scarlett is one—she is a modern, brash woman in a genteel society who flouts convention to get what she wants however she can, with little introspection. The film admires her energy and drive, but simultaneously mocks her selfishness, her pettiness, and her pretensions, largely through Rhett Butler’s witty and clear-eyed deflation of her airs. She’s a classic melodramatic heroine, one who makes so many mistakes in her life and loves and ultimately comes to realize the opportunities she has missed.

 

Its deepest appeal, I believe, resides in its portrayal of the tremendous loss and suffering Scarlett endures—the film was a source of inspiration to women struggling through the Great Depression and then World War II across the globe. That portrait endures, even as it is woven into the less-than-progressive racial politics typical of the plantation genre of the 1930 (an area where we should note the film is less offensive than Margaret Mitchell’s novel).

 

You’ve said that the Gone With The Wind premiere in Atlanta was the high point in the city’s history. Is there any comparable event today that would convey just how big of deal this was to Atlantans at that time?

The premiere happened in Atlanta because this is where Margaret Mitchell lived and wrote the novel. The 1996 Olympics are the only phenomenon that equals it. In both cases, Atlanta felt the eyes of the world were upon it. In 1939, a reporter ranked the Gone With The Wind premiere greater than Charles Lindbergh’s visit to the city.

 

You spent some time in the Ransom Center’s David O. Selznick archive researching the premiere in Atlanta. What surprises did you find?

The Ransom Center has always been one of my favorite places to undertake research. The Selznick collection is exceptional, and I found many surprises. One might have predicted the amount of work and energy that went into staging the premiere, but it was still extraordinary to see the details that had to be attended to.  Selznick let his staff plan away, swooping in only at the end to question and in some cases criticize their work. Another big surprise was a letter I found from one Robert Willis, a member of a theater club on one of Atlanta’s black college campuses; this student invited the Selznick group to visit the black side of the city. No one to my knowledge had discussed this aspect of the premiere. I had read Selznick’s last-minute memos about giving Hattie McDaniel a page in the souvenir program for the premiere, but never knew what inspired that. Overall, the most delightful surprise to me was to see the extent to which Margaret Mitchell had Selznick wrapped around her finger. The dynamic there is extremely amusing.

 

Selznick and his staff worked for months to plan and execute the premiere in Atlanta. Can you talk about why expectations were so high for the film in Atlanta?

As I mentioned, Selznick was not really involved in the plans. He was far too busy attending to the manifold details involved in Gone With the Wind‘s post-production so that the film would be finished in time for the Atlanta premiere. He delegated the overwhelming majority of the work to his story editor, Kay Brown, who worked with Atlantans as well as the MGM distribution executives in charge of the premiere. Selznick fretted on the sidelines, gave Brown some ideas, but his attention was elsewhere until late November.

 

As for high expectations, in the 1930s, the white citizens of Atlanta craved attention and validation, partly because of the city’s destruction during the Civil War, and partly because of its boosterism. It was a growing city that loomed large regionally, but not nationally.  To have one of its residents write a Pulitzer Prize-winning international bestseller stirred a wave of civic pride. Atlanta also loved the movies as much as any city in the 1930s, but not many films were set in Georgia. So Georgians were thrilled at the prospect of seeing an epic production that was sympathetic to the state’s ordeal during the Civil War and afterwards. Southerners in general felt Hollywood never represented them fairly—here was a film that promised to do so. Add to that the idea that Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh would be on the streets of the city for the premiere and you can see why white Atlantans—officials, business leaders, civic leaders and ordinary citizens—went crazy over this. White Atlantans, that is. Black Atlanta likewise gloried in the presence of the stars, but some leaders questioned the hoopla and the film itself.

 

Can you talk about what role Kay Brown played in organizing the premiere and smoothing relations between Selznick International Pictures and Gone With The Wind author Margaret Mitchell? 

Since Brown was the one who found the Gone With The Wind manuscript and persuaded a reluctant Selznick to option the novel, it seems appropriate that she would handle the Atlanta event. It was difficult, thankless work involving diplomacy and a lot of keeping her thoughts to herself. She is the real hero of this story. Like so much else that Selznick undertook, the Atlanta premiere could not have happened, or worked, without her.  Brown completely charmed the Atlantans, and especially Margaret Mitchell. Selznick needed Mitchell’s good will—if she criticized his film, its box office grosses could have been diminished. So there Brown was, in the field, and communicating back to Selznick about how things were progressing, and playfully letting him now that she was not enjoying it. She didn’t even stay for the Atlanta festivities; she had to head up to Manhattan to plan the opening there a few days after Atlanta. She was quite happy to miss them.

 

There were controversies over race with the premiere in Atlanta, as producers deemed it unsafe for Hattie McDaniel to attend the event and African American audiences were largely excluded from festivities taking place around the city. Can you talk about how Selznick and his staff approached these issues? 

The Loews’ Grand where the premiere took place did not have segregated seating. Black Atlantans waited four months till April to see it in a “colored” theater. Selznick recognized that his film could invite strong attendance among African Americans, and even thought that if black cast members came to Atlanta, they could help promote the film in black neighborhoods.  Kay Brown, like the MGM distribution and advertising executives who planned the premiere, relied heavily on certain Atlantans for advice on many issues, including this one. The “Hollywoodians” knew they were way out of their depth on the “delicate” issue of race relations in the South. Most simply, they followed the advice the Atlantans gave them, which was not to include Hattie McDaniel in the festivities or the souvenir book. Regarding the latter, the rationale was that McDaniel’s photo in the program might give some malcontent a basis for criticism of the film and the premiere, something they wanted to avoid. Besides, as guests of the city, the Hollywood folks thought they should follow their hosts’ suggestions. Kay Brown put it well: “…while it was unfortunate to exclude Mammy, it was the wisest policy.”  They made an unsurprising choice in 1939.

 

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Image: Crowds gather for the parade in Atlanta for the premiere of Gone With The Wind.

“Films of 1939” series kicks off this week

By Alicia Dietrich

The Ransom Center kicks off the series “Films of 1939” with a screening of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn this Thursday, October 2, at 7 p.m.

 

1939 is widely considered by film historians to be one of the most outstanding years in filmmaking. In conjunction with the Harry Ransom Center’s exhibition, The Making of Gone With The Wind, which marks the 75th anniversary of the film, the Ransom Center will screen three other films released in this prolific year: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Idiot’s Delight, and The Wizard of Oz.

 

The screenings are free and open to the public. The Ransom Center’s Charles Nelson Prothro Theater has limited seating. Line forms upon arrival of the first person, and doors open 30 minutes in advance.

 

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Thursday, Oct. 2, 7 p.m.

Mickey Rooney and Rex Ingram star as Huck and Jim in this adaptation of the Mark Twain classic. Daring boy Huck (Rooney) sails down the Mississippi River with Big Jim (Ingram), an enslaved man running away from being sold. Ingram turned down the role of Big Sam in Gone With The Wind to play Jim. Film run time is 91 minutes.

 

Idiot’s Delight

Thursday, Nov. 6, 7 p.m.

Starring Clark Gable and Norma Shearer in their third film together, Idiot’s Delight follows disparate travelers stranded at an Alpine hotel when the borders are closed with war imminent. MGM hoped to reunite Gable and Shearer as Rhett and Scarlett in Gone With The Wind, but the negative public response to rumors of Shearer’s casting ensured that it would not happen. Film run time is 107 minutes.

 

The Wizard of Oz

Thursday, Dec. 4, 7 p.m.

In in this early Technicolor classic directed by Victor Fleming, Judy Garland stars as Dorothy Gale, who is swept away to a magical land by a tornado and embarks on a quest to see the wizard who can help return her home. After completing work on The Wizard of Oz, Fleming took over as director of Gone With The Wind after George Cukor left the production. Film run time is 102 minutes.

 

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Image: Film still from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

John Lahr delves into “treasure trove of Williams material” for new biography, “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh”

By Marlene Renz

Cover of John Lahr’s “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh.”
Cover of John Lahr’s “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh.”

John Lahr, a renowned theater critic who wrote for The New Yorker for more than two decades, took up the task of continuing to record and analyze Tennessee Williams’s life in 2007.  In Lahr’s new biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (Norton), he draws upon his subject’s plays, letters, and even his own experience of meeting the writer to give readers greater insight into the complicated mind of one of America’s greatest playwrights.  His research included a 2011 visit to the Harry Ransom Center, which houses and extensive collection of  Williams’s papers, including original manuscripts.

 

Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, which has been nominiated for a National Book Award, was released today.  To read more about the book and its reviews, visit John Lahr’s website.

 

In a Q&A with Cultural Compass, Lahr discusses how he stayed true to Williams by spending time with primary sources, including items in the Ransom Center’s holdings.

 

Was there a particular aspect of Williams’s life or work that you were particularly drawn to?

So much new primary source material—diaries, letters—had been published about Williams since the first biography was written, that I felt a new narrative was needed to tell the story with a deeper sense of event, and a surer knowledge of the internal issues with which Williams was struggling. Also, the plays needed to be interpreted not just recapitulated. Williams always said the plays were a map of his internal life at the time of the writing. My goal was to chart the trajectory of the mutation of Williams’s consciousness, to show how the plays reflected the man and how the man re-presented his internal turmoil in his plays. The book, which has just been shortlisted for the National Book Award, seems to have met a need for the public for a change in narrative about Williams, to see the man and his work with a new lens.

 

In this biography you sought to avoid capitalizing on the sensationalism of Williams’s public life.  How useful were primary sources in helping keep an objective perspective?

In my other biographies, I had primary sources to hand. For Notes on a Cowardly Lion: The Biography of Bert Lahr, I had my father to depose and the experience of a lifetime of living with him; in Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton, I had exclusive use of Joe Orton’s diary of the last eight months of his life as a backbone of the narrative; in Dame Edna Everage and the Rise of Western Civilization: Backstage with Barry Humphries, I was backstage with him at the Drury Lane Theatre and on the road. With Williams, my tactic was to stay as close to his words and what he wrote at the time of writing each play to get a sense of the man and to give the reader the pulse of his metabolism. His published diaries, his published letters (which only go up to 1957), and the remaining correspondence of nearly a quarter of a century to which I had access formed the primary source for my narrative. I think of this as a sort of “global positioning device” for the interpretation both of the plays and the man.

 

Do you recall if there was a particular item that you found interesting?

The Ransom Center is a treasure trove of Williams material; so it’s really impossible to say which item was more revelatory.  For me, I think the letter from his institutionalized sister Rose (“I’m trying hard not to die”) and the typing lessons which the blighted Rose, who never in the end held a job, were scorching. Miss Edwina, her mother, had her typing Puritan platitudes about the blessings of work and rigor and attainment—a regimen that finally helped to drive her crazy. And of Williams, there is a beautiful valedictory letter to his first real companion, Pancho Roderiguez, telling him in later life to walk tall in the world.

 

 

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Fellows Find: Digital tool allows Spalding Gray scholars to compare various drafts of performance notebooks

By James Sitar

James Sitar is an editor at the Poetry Foundation and teaches literature classes at Loyola University Chicago. Sitar’s work in the Spalding Gray archive was supported by the Andrew Mellon Foundation. He discusses his digital project that allows comparisons between Gray’s performance notebooks. The Ransom Center is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 2014–2015.

 

Many who know of Spalding Gray’s storytelling first experienced it by watching the film version of Swimming to Cambodia or by reading the book. Gray performed over a dozen different monologues, but this one catapulted his career and ensured that his innovative performance style would influence a new generation of actors. I was certainly captivated by the movie when I was 10 years old (which was probably too young). And ever since my college days, I’ve been drawn to archival recordings, whether it was the all-encompassing lectures or “talks” of Robert Frost or the countless bootlegs of Bob Dylan. When I heard that the Harry Ransom Center acquired the archive of Spalding Gray, including scores of audio and video recordings, I knew I had to visit. After all, how often do your childhood fascinations align with your interests as an adult?

 

Thanks to a fellowship from the Ransom Center, I was able to spend a month listening to and comparing Gray’s performances of Swimming to Cambodia, which occurred over a span of about 20 years. Gray would record his one-man shows and then listen to them the next day, and this listening would inform his approach to the next performance. No performance is the same, which means that this monologue is what we refer to as a living text: there’s no one version of it that is more important or authentic than any others. It’s clear from interview and diary entries that he never thought of the film or the book versions as definitive or superior performances, though certainly he viewed them as successful versions that were true to the mediums of film and print.

 

By listening along, I discovered how important this flexible, evolving, experimental approach was to Gray. He never worked with a script, or even solidified particular details or vignettes. Instead, he’d only sparingly glance at the spiral-bound notebook he had on stage, in which he had written certain important words or phrases; if he got caught up in a tangent, as he was wont to do, his notes would help him find his way back to his narrative arc. The opportunity to perform in person, in front of small audiences, was crucial to Gray. His loose narrative style and method, and his desire to make each performance a unique connection to place and time and audience, make each performance different. This fact also reflects his avant-garde approach to theater and his artistic preoccupations with the evolving natures of memories, the construction of personal truths, the production and performance of a public self, and the complications of making art out of life through the problematic notions of authenticity and confession.

 

As a researcher and editor, I want to deliver remarkable materials into the hands and ears of fans and scholars and to present these materials in the most helpful, enjoyable, responsible, and authentic ways possible. I’m currently building a website devoted to Swimming to Cambodia that’s true to the living nature of the monologue, with audio and video recordings, notebooks, and different types of transcripts with annotations and background materials that allow visitors to experience the monologue’s myriad iterations. I want to present Gray’s performances as moments, as I look for innovative ways to preserve some of the fluid and ephemeral essences of speech and performance in the fixed form of text. It will serve as an archive that collects all of the Swimming to Cambodia’s that we can revisit.

 

You can take a look at a very early and small sample of the work, which uses an inventive piece of software called the Versioning Machine. This sample presents the same passage from many different notebooks and performances of the monologue, a passage in which Gray chronicles his difficulty remembering some lines in filming The Killing Fields (1984). It’s Gray’s inability to memorize lines that makes this part of the monologue so funny and painful, and this inability is also what makes his monologues so unscripted and alive. It’s a revealing moment behind the scenes of filmmaking, and I hope my digital project can similarly look behind the scenes of Gray’s craft.

 

I’m grateful for and indebted to so many people’s help in making Gray’s work available online, including Tanya Clement, Quinn Stewart, Daniel Carter, Erin Donohue, the entire Ransom Center staff, and the estate of Spalding Gray.

 

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Fellows Find: Early recordings show how performance artist Spalding Gray developed his signature style

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“The Journals of Spalding Gray”: An interview with editor Nell Casey

A Graduation Diploma: “The Eviction Notice Written in Latin”

 

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Image: First page from Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for Swimming to Cambodia.

Thanks to “The Making of Gone With The Wind” Members’ Preview participants

By Christine Lee

The Harry Ransom Center thanks our generous sponsors who helped make Friday’s The Making of Gone with the Wind event a success. Guests enjoyed a preview of the Center’s The Making of Gone with the Wind exhibition with barbeque sandwiches from Freedmen’s. Walton’s Fancy and Staple added a sweet touch with their southern-themed desserts.

 

The Ransom Center’s theater presented screentests of actresses auditioning for the role of Scarlett O’Hara, footage from the Atlanta premier, and clips from the 1939 Academy Awards. Guests posed for photos in front of Tara and entered to win two prize packages. The “Lucky Eight” prize package featured local treats, including a stay at Hotel San Jose, gift cards for Spider House and Freedmen’s, horseback lessons at Bel Canto Farms, a selection of books and subscription to Texas Monthly, champagne from Austin Wine Merchant, and film-themed surprises, including a membership at Austin Film Society, one year of rentals at I Luv Video, and tickets and drink vouchers at Alamo Drafthouse.

 

Premier exhibition sponsor Turner Classic Movies donated a robust prize package with DVDs and movie night essentials.

 

The Ransom Center would also like to thank the Cain Foundation, Capital Metro, and HEB for their generous exhibition support.

 

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Image: Guests enjoy the members’ preview event for The Making of Gone With The Wind.

#Franklymydear, we want your best line

By Alicia Dietrich

“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

 

The iconic last words of Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind almost weren’t, because use of the word “damn” in films was expressly prohibited in the Production Code. Anticipating objections by the Hays Office (the entity that governed moral code in film), producer David O. Selznick asked his story editor, Val Lewton, to compile a list of uses of the word “damn” in print media and, if possible, cinema.

 

A list of alternate lines was also compiled, including such gems as:

 

“Frankly, my dear, nothing could interest me less.”

 

“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a hoot!”

 

“Frankly, my dear, my indifference is boundless.”

 

“Frankly, my dear, the whole thing is a stench in my nostrils.”

 

Selznick knew that the Code would have to be changed for him to be able to keep Rhett Butler’s final line, a change that could only be approved by the board of directors. Leading up to a decisive October 27, 1939, meeting, Selznick and business partner Jock Whitney lobbied board members to change the Code. Although deliberations were described as “very stormy,” Selznick prevailed, and the Production Code was amended to make future use of the word “damn” discretionary.

 

Although Selznick promised to “put up a strong fight for the line,” he took Lewton’s precautionary advice to film the scene twice, once as written, and a second time substituting “Frankly, my dear, I don’t care.”

 

What would you have suggested as an alternate line? Give us your best family- and censor-friendly versions of the line in the comments below or via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Tumblr using the hashtag #franklymydear.

 

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Read Turner Classic Movie Host Robert Osborne’s introduction to the book “The Making of Gone With The Wind”

By Alicia Dietrich

A fully illustrated catalog by Ransom Center Curator of Film Steve Wilson has been co-published by the Ransom Center and University of Texas Press to complement the exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind.

 

Featuring more than 600 images from the Ransom Center’s archives of David O. Selznick, the film’s producer, and his business partner John Hay “Jock” Whitney, The Making of Gone With The Wind offers fans and film historians alike a must-have behind-the-camera view of the production of this classic film.

 

Read the foreword of the book by Robert Osborne, film historian and host of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), where he notes that Gone With The Wind was the first film aired when TCM launched in 1994.

 

Join the conversation about the exhibition online with the hashtag #makinggwtw. Stay up to date with the Harry Ransom Center’s latest news and information with eNews, the Center’s monthly email newsletter. Subscribe today.

 

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Database of fan mail documents emotional response from “Gone With The Wind” fans, detractors

By Alicia Dietrich

As part of the recently launched web exhibition Producing Gone With The Wind, the Ransom Center has launched a new database of fan mail from the David O. Selznick collection.   Researchers now have the opportunity to explore a selection of letters sent to Selznick International Pictures in the 1930s through this database of fan mail correspondence, preview questionnaires, and protest letters. Letters in the database demonstrate the public’s engagement with the film production of Margaret Mitchell’s novel, Gone With The Wind. Emotions ranging from enthusiasm and sorrow to optimism and disdain surface from individuals who wrote in to solicit auditions, submit opinions, and, in some instances, protest the film’s production.   Visitors to the site can browse the database by type of mail and search by name of correspondent to see if relatives’ letters are within the database.   Join the conversation about the exhibition online with the hashtag #makinggwtw. Stay up to date with the Harry Ransom Center’s latest news and information with eNews, the Center’s monthly email newsletter. Subscribe today.   Please click on the thumbnails below to view larger images.

Web exhibition “Producing Gone With The Wind” launches today

By Alicia Dietrich

The Harry Ransom Center launches Producing Gone With The Wind, an updated web exhibition, in conjunction with the exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind.

 

The web exhibition explores the purchase of the rights to Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone With The Wind; the casting of the star actress, Vivien Leigh, as Scarlett O’Hara; and the research-intensive aesthetic work in the film related to costumes, hair, and makeup.

 

The exhibition also gives online visitors and researchers an opportunity to search through a selection of more than 3,000 letters from the David O. Selznick collection, by individuals who sought auditions, solicited employment, and protested the production.

 

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Image: Concept painting of Scarlett O’Hara at Tara in Gone With The Wind.

Opening tomorrow: “The Making of Gone With The Wind”

By Alicia Dietrich

The Making of Gone With The Wind opens tomorrow, September 9, and offers a behind-the-scenes view of one of the classic films of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Featuring more than 300 rarely seen and some never-before-exhibited materials, the exhibition is drawn entirely from the Ransom Center’s collections and includes on-set photographs, storyboards, correspondence and fan mail, production records, makeup stills, concept art, costume sketches, audition footage, and producer David O. Selznick’s memos. The green curtain dress and other gowns worn by Vivien Leigh are displayed together for the first time in more than 25 years.

 

Before a single frame of film was shot, Gone With The Wind was embroiled in controversy. Selznick struggled to balance his desire for authenticity with audience expectations of spectacle. Americans debated who should be cast as Rhett and Scarlett. There were serious concerns about how the 1939 film, based on the 1936 novel by Margaret Mitchell, would depict race, sex, and violence in the South during the U.S. Civil War and Reconstruction.

 

This insider view reveals why Gone With The Wind remains influential and controversial 75 years after it was released.

 

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