Tomorrow, the Harry Ransom Center presents a panel discussion to answer the question “How do you care for some of the most iconic costumes in film history?” at 7 p.m. in the Center’s Prothro Theater.
Ransom Center Curator of Film Steve Wilson leads a discussion on the preservation of Gone With The Wind costumes, including the green curtain dress and burgundy ball gown, with independent textile conservator Cara Varnell, Ransom Center Assistant Curator of Costumes and Personal Effects Jill Morena, and independent scholar Nicole Villarreal.
This program is in conjunction with the current exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind, which features five costumes from the film and is on view through January 4.
In 2010, the Ransom Center raised funds to conserve original costumes from Gone With The Wind, which are part of the Center’s David O. Selznick archive. Donors from around the world graciously contributed more than $30,000 to support the conservation work, which enabled the Ransom Center to display the costumes safely on custom-fitted mannequins in the current exhibition.
The Ransom Center’s detailed and careful conservation work took more than 180 hours and occurred between fall 2010 and spring 2012. A description of some of the conservation work conducted on these costumes is available. View videos of conservation work in progress and interviews with curators and the conservator.
Molly Haskell, film critic and author of Frankly, My Dear: Gone with the Wind Revisited, explores the popularity and influence of both the book and film, from their first appearance to the present on Wednesday, November 19, at 7 p.m. The program, which is held in conjunction with the exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind, will be webcast live.
In her book Frankly, My Dear, Haskell explores how and why the saga of Scarlett O’Hara has kept such a tenacious hold on the national imagination for almost 75 years. In the first book ever to deal simultaneously with Margaret Mitchell’s novel and David O. Selznick’s film version of Gone with the Wind, Haskell seeks the answers. By all industry predictions, the film should never have worked, but Haskell argues that what makes it work so amazingly well are the fascinating and uncompromising personalities involved of Mitchell, Selznick, and Vivien Leigh.
Below, Haskell answers questions about her own experiences with Gone With The Wind, her take on Scarlett O’Hara’s legacy, and more.
You talk about how the popularity of Gone With The Wind might have diminished its reputation in the eyes of critics: “According to the stern moral axiom that a film can’t be both great and popular, our affection for it is almost a mark in its disfavor.” (pg. 34) Why do you think this is, and do you think this rings true for films today?
I think it’s still true. Gone With The Wind was, in a way, the first blockbuster, though Jaws is the one with which we associate the current use of the term, and it was followed by Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars—the latter almost in a class by itself. Then there are more Spielberg and Lucas mega-hits—the Indiana Jones films and Jurassic Park cum sequels. None of these is taken seriously, though I think standards have shifted somewhat, and the distinction between high culture and popular culture is far less rigid than it once was.
You describe reading or seeing Gone With The Wind for the first time as a “formative experience.” Do you remember where you first experienced Gone With The Wind?
If you mean the movie, I can’t pinpoint the date. I read the book when I was about 12 or 13, swallowing it whole overnight. By the time I saw the film, I was a little more ambivalent about Scarlett: she was gutsy, courageous, ambitious, indecorous (all pluses to my way of thinking), but she was also a Southern belle, something I very much didn’t want to be. Except just a little!
You noted certain parallels between Margaret Mitchell and Scarlett O’Hara. To what extent do you think Mitchell wrote herself into the role of the protagonist?
I think she thought she was creating Scarlett in the image of her grandmother, a powerhouse of a lady (as were the war widows and survivors of her generation, in Mitchell’s eyes). But so much of the flapper-micshief-maker-tomboy Peggy Mitchell went into the role, and with such galvanic force, that she became the heroine almost in spite of her author.
When Gone With The Wind emerged, girls and young women everywhere fell in love with Scarlett as a role model for passion and independence. Do you think Scarlett is relevant to young women today?
Definitely if viewers are able to see beyond the Southern manners, the period trappings, and the always troubling treatment of slavery and the blacks. Scarlett has so many modern offspring, women who have been liberated by feminism (and women’s suffrage, for which Mitchell’s mother fought), without necessarily acknowledging it: Madonna, Lady Gaga, even the Sex and the City babes and Girls!.
When casting Scarlett, Selznick reviewed more than 1,400 candidates over two years and spent $92,000 before settling on Vivien Leigh for the role. Can you describe the level of desire and competition for girls who were dying to be Scarlett?
It was not just the great role of 1939, it was the role of a lifetime. Actresses who were completely wrong for it, like Katharine Hepburn, campaigned. Stars who hadn’t auditioned in years auditioned for it, while others covertly let it be known that they were available. Selznick scoured the South. Women wrote to Mitchell begging her to intercede for them. The “quest” stoked stories and filled fan magazines, until it seemed as if everyone in the country had weighed in one way or another. And not just as to the role of Scarlett, but Rhett Butler, too. Though that was practically unanimous: Clark Gable.
Do you think there are any actresses today who could come close to Leigh’s performance?
It’s hard to say, since we no longer have the studio system grooming stars, and no longer want or expect the particular kind of glamor that those stars radiated. It’s such a different game, and each era’s definition of what’s convincing and “real” in acting changes radically. This is a good thing, I think. Who would want to recreate that unique experience? When people try, as in remakes, it usually fails.
On Thursday, October 23, at 7 p.m., novelist Jayne Anne Phillips reads from Quiet Dell, a novel based on the true story of a murderous West Virginia con man who preyed on widows, in a Harry Ransom Lecture. A reception and book signing follow. View a trailer for the book.
Stephen King said of Quiet Dell: “In a brilliant fusion of fact and fiction, Jayne Anne Phillips has written the novel of the year. It’s the story of a 1931 serial killer’s crime and capture, yes, but it’s also a compulsively readable story of how one brave woman faces up to acts of terrible violence in order to create something good and strong in the aftermath. Quiet Dell will be compared to In Cold Blood, but Phillips offers soothing Capote could not: a heroine who lights up the dark places and gives us hope in our humanity.”
Phillips, whose papers reside at the Ransom Center, is the author of Lark and Termite, a National Book Award finalist. Known for her poetic prose and in-depth study of family dynamics, Phillips has received critical acclaim and major literary prizes, including a Guggenheim fellowship and two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Phillips is professor of English and director of the Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing at Rutgers University, Newark.
Below, Phillips discusses the inspiration behind her novel Quiet Dell, her archival research for the book, her writing process, and her own archive.
Your work often seems to draw upon your own family history for inspiration. The murders in Quiet Dell, for example, took place near your hometown in West Virginia. Can you talk about how history and family memory evolved into your novel?
My mother remembered holding her mother’s hand at age 6, walking along a crowded dirt road in the heat and dust of August—cars parked on either side as far as she could see—past a “murder garage” being taken apart piece-by-piece by souvenir-seeking crowds. Ever after, when we drove past the hamlet, ten miles or so from my hometown, she would point out “the road to Quiet Dell.” Thousands walked past the scene in the summer and fall of 1931, attracted almost as though to a religious site: an unimaginable slaughter of innocents. A con-man led a double life, found “wealthy” middle-aged widows through matrimonial agencies, and skillfully courted them in letters for months. He imprisoned and murdered an Illinois widow and her three children, 14, 12, and 9, and a Massachusetts divorcee, all of whom came to Quiet Dell willingly. The tragedy preoccupied a Depression-era nation, and the media spun it as a warning and lesson to women. The murderer was christened a modern Bluebeard, but the deeper story was far more complex. Quiet Dell is true to an evolving real event, but creates the world in which it happened, beginning the Christmas before the crime. I was interested in the children, in whom the novel finds “the angelic core of the dark world,” in creating lives for the women that reveal why they were vulnerable. For me, the tale began in 9-year-old Annabel Eicher’s voice at the magical turning of the year. Quiet Dell meets the history of a family that vanished with a counterpoint story in which that family is alive, and then alive in memory, directly influencing the lives of those who seek justice for them. The reader is endowed with a foreknowledge of event, but the fact of the event touches only the surface of its effects.
Can you tell us about the archival research you conducted with primary materials while writing Quiet Dell?
The actual names and facts of the crime seemed a Victorian fairy tale set in the ’30s: Sherriff Grimm, Judge Southern, Duty (the Eicher dog, “twice bereft,” whose photograph appeared in newspapers across the country), the Gore Hotel—and the fact that the trial took place on the stage of an Opera House before a towering backdrop of painted forest trees, left over from a previous production. The Clarksburg Harrison County Public Library allowed me to Xerox numerous pages of newsprint, and many pages of a haphazard “scrapbook” on the crime assembled by a 13-year-old boy, James Law (who grew up to own the most important bookstores in the area). I’ve always found photographs, particularly of strangers, to reveal whole dimensions of information, and I carried a small copy of the last known photo of the Eicher family in my wallet for years. Annabel’s gaze in that image, so wary and adult, suggested her character in the novel. As I was beginning my research, a family friend who knew I was writing about the Quiet Dell crime gave me an envelope he’d found in an antique dresser in Rock Cave, West Virginia. Across the front in faded pencil, it read, Piece of sound proof board used by Harry Powers during his notorious Murdering in the fall of 1931. I opened the envelope and held in my hand a thick felt square marked with a 3. As Rilke said, “Every angel is terrifying.” I came to know the woman who grew up in the Eicher home in Park Ridge, Illinois, and lives there today; the playhouse, and the mural Asta Eicher painted on the walls for her children, still exists. I gleaned hints from newspaper interviews with those who said they’d known Harry Powers under one alias or another; the statements were wildly contradictory. Not so the obituaries I was able to find online: the phrasing and tone implied specific narratives. I found the grandchildren of photographer Floyd E. Sayres through a hint in his obit; they allowed me to include his images of scenes associated with the crime, though the images are far more beautiful than the versions that appear in Quiet Dell. Letters from Powers and women who wrote to him appeared in newsprint; the trial transcript was a matter of record. These events took place nearly 85 years ago; the history was distant enough that I could use real names, yet invent the perceptions, thoughts, relationships, of the characters to tell my own “dark fairy tale.” The scant patterns of a real history, for me, cast a spell that is almost bewitching.
As a writer, how do you approach establishing a sense of place and time for your reader?
There is the Pound dictum, “No ideas but in things,” to guide the writer: specific physical fact infused with sensory detail. Words, in careful association, are sensual triggers for the reader; each reader brings a world of unconscious and subconscious memory to the text. Certain sense memories, smells, sounds, can connect us to pasts we did not experience. Readers have said to me, “When I read your work, I don’t feel as though I’m reading a story; I feel I’m inside the story.” Another said, of Termite (from Lark And Termite), “You make us want to be him.” Every art is a form of alchemy: transforming one element into another, widening, deepening, until one world connects to worlds before and beyond it. Literature is a crafted seduction in which the reader actively participates.
Can you tell us about your writing process? (For example, do you write on a laptop or desktop? Do you have an office or studio space dedicated to writing? Do you write during certain hours of the day? How do you go about revising your work?)
I began writing as a poet, and I continue to compose line by line, slowly, aware of the music and stress of the syllables in the lines. I write both by hand and on the computer (laptops and desktops, since I live in three cities), and print out every page, not only because I distrust machines, but because I revise on paper. I write in the daytime, never at night, in front of a window. I often work on longer projects in the summers, when I’m not engaged in my labor-intensive day job. Editing, teaching, discussing literature, advocating for talented students, is far too compelling.
Your archive is now open and accessible to researchers. What do you hope people will be able to learn from your papers and work?
Those spiral notebooks in which I composed my early stories seem to belong to another universe I once inhabited, while the archive of the present, boxes of more recent drafts, artifacts, lists, and correspondence, piles up around me. Access to an archive, not in a writer’s rooms but in a neutral, sacred space, the clean well-lighted place that is the Ransom Center, is a privilege, an intimate investigation. Touching actual pages, photographs, letters, comparing small and large changes from one draft to another, takes the reader inside the books, into the works themselves. It’s delicious.
You are the director of the Rutgers University- Newark MFA program. How does teaching influence your writing, and how do your experiences as a writer shape how you teach?
I don’t think teaching influences my writing, except to intensify the pressure of not writing—a tool I have always used, pre-dating teaching. Part of writing is the yearning toward what is still unseen and unknown. For me, ideas, rumination, research, are not the true thing; they only swirl around it. A book begins with language: a line of prose, a paragraph. The book is inside those words and the long struggle is to deepen and sustain what is genuine. I suppose I teach that one’s relationship to writing is as complex as one’s relationship to the self: it’s endless and mysterious, full of the mundane and the celestial in shifting quantities. No writer approaches words the same way; the “why,” unique as a fingerprint, is ineffable. The writer creates meaning where none is obvious, invents the dots and connects them. We’re like practitioners of the same unrecognized religion: the process itself is the experience. It’s witchcraft and soothsaying, and hard, grinding work.
What books are currently on your nightstand?
Fat City, by Leonard Gardner; The Beggar Maid, by Alice Munro; Mrs. Bridge, by Evan S. Connell (all books I’m teaching); a galley of Colm Toibin’s new Nora Webster; HER, a memoir by Christa Parravani, and Prelude To Bruise, just-published poems by Saaed Jones (these last two both recent graduates of RU-N MFA program).
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.