Navigate / search

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.

 

Related content:

View blog content related to Gone With The Wind

 

Receive the Harry Ransom Center’s latest news and information with eNews, a monthly email. Subscribe today.

 

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

From the Outside In: Walker Evans’s Allie Mae Burroughs, 1936

By Jane Robbins Mize

The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators. Interact with all of the windows at From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows.

 

The haunting eyes of Allie Mae Burroughs look straight at us in this photograph taken by Walker Evans in the summer of 1936. Her gaze has a certain resignation, and her mouth doesn’t quite smile. This is the face of a woman old before her time, who has known not only hard work but the realization that her children have gone to bed hungry. Allie Mae Burroughs was 27, a mother of four and the wife of Alabama sharecropper Floyd Burroughs, when Walker Evans photographed her for what would become an iconic image of the Great Depression in the United States. The Burroughs family’s life was chronicled in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans.

 

James Agee was a journalist working for Fortune magazine in 1936 when he was given an assignment to document the lives of poor white Southern farmers. At Agee’s insistence, photographer Walker Evans, finishing up his assignments as a Farm Security Administration photographer, accompanied him to Hale County, Alabama, in July and August of that year. Agee and Evans happened upon three men who had just been told that even under the New Deal programs designed to aid the poor, their families did not qualify for help. The journalists ended up spending weeks documenting the everyday lives of these men and their families through photographs, detailed lists of the contents of their homes, and a text miscellany that includes poems, long reflections, bits of dialog, and a survey response to the Partisan Review.

 

Agee created a portrait of life in the Depression that was too comprehensive for Fortune to publish, and he considered the story too important to be cut and rewritten in a manner that would suit the magazine. It took until 1941 for Agee’s notes and Evans’s photographs to be compiled into a manuscript that was accepted for publication. By that time, however, the war in Europe was reigniting the American economy, and the Depression was no longer a story that interested the public. The first printing of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men sold little more than 500 copies. Interest in the text was renewed in the 1960s, however, and today the book is considered not only a great work about the Depression but also a masterpiece of photography and writing.

 

Evans is a celebrated photographer known for the straight-forward elegance of his style and for his study of American culture from the late 1920s to the 1970s. In Looking at Photographs (1973), John Szarkowski, Director of the Photography Department at the Museum of Modern Art, wrote: “Evans’s work… was puritanically economical, precisely measured, frontal, unemotional, dryly textured, insistently factual, qualities that seemed more appropriate to a bookkeeper’s ledger than to art. But in time it became clear that [his art] constitutes a personal survey of the interior resources of the American tradition, a survey based on a sensibility that found poetry and complexity where most earlier travelers had found only drab statistics or fairy tales.”

 

The Harry Ransom Center holds the James Agee collection, which includes an original typescript of the book and nearly 300 prints produced by Walker Evans over the course of this project.

 

Ransom Center volunteer Karen White wrote this post

Sanora Babb: “An Owl on Every Post”

By Ady Wetegrove

Cover of Sanora Babb's "An Owl on Every Post."
Cover of Sanora Babb's "An Owl on Every Post."

Known for her evocative depictions of life in the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression, author Sanora Babb shares her family’s perpetual bouts with struggles against crop-failure, starvation, mortgage foreclosures, and loneliness in her memoir An Owl on Every Post. Experiencing pioneer life in a one-room dugout shelter, Babb viewed the land—which both tormented and beguiled her—from an up-close, eye-level perspective.

When her family relocated from the security of a small town to an isolated 320-acre farm on the western plains, the young Babb sought to find beauty and joy in her vast and desolate surroundings. The result of her introspection is a body of work that includes essays, short stories, poems, and five books.

In a new edition of her long-out-of-print memoir, An Owl on Every Post, Babb writes with immediacy and lyricism about growing up on the Colorado Plains. An Owl on Every Post reveals the values—courage, pride, determination, and love—that kept Babb’s family from despair and total ruin. The memoir, originally published in 1971, is now available with a new introduction by Pulitzer Prize–winning author William Kennedy.

The Ransom Center holds the Sanora Babb papers, and some of the materials related to An Owl on Every Post are highlighted in the Center’s web exhibition Sanora Babb: Stories from the American High Plains.

Digital collection highlights photos taken in Corpus Christi during Great Depression

By Courtney Reed

The Ransom Center has made available online the digital collection “The Itinerant Photographer: Photographs of Corpus Christi Businesses in the 1930s.”

The collection highlights photographs taken of businesses in Corpus Christi during the Great Depression. The project to make these materials accessible online was funded by a TexTreasures grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services to the Texas State Library and Archives Commission under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act.

Until now, access to the collection was limited, due to the fragility of the collection material and its uncataloged status. The Center has now constructed a Web site as a portal to the itinerant photographer collection. It is an introduction to the collection and its imagery, and a searchable gallery of the 473 glass plate negatives provides a comprehensive exhibition of this physically fragile collection. All the imagery on this Web site was produced from the glass plate negatives. An online finding aid of the collection has been created as well.

In early 1934, a traveling photographer arrived in Corpus Christi, Texas, searching for businesses that would pay him to take pictures of their establishments. Part photographer, part salesman, he went door to door offering his services. He left town after only a few weeks and abandoned his glass plate negatives with a local photographer because they no longer had any commercial value to him.

The images portray a wide range of businesses operating in Corpus Christi, which was relatively prosperous in the midst of the Great Depression, including those in the agricultural industry, retail and wholesale businesses, city and county government offices, manufacturing businesses, and those offering numerous types of services.

Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.