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Q&A: Film critic Molly Haskell discusses “Gone With The Wind”

By Sarah Strohl

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.

 

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Image: Cover of Molly Haskell’s Frankly My Dear: Gone With The Wind Revisited.

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.

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.

Conservators find best treatment for wedding veil from "Gone With The Wind" is no treatment

By Elana Estrin

The wedding veil from ‘Gone With The Wind.’ Photo by Pete Smith.
The wedding veil from ‘Gone With The Wind.’ Photo by Pete Smith.

Gone With The Wind is full of lessons about love, life, and loss. Almost 75 years later, Scarlett’s silk wedding veil has one more lesson.

“At the end of our life, it is the end of our life. We are all organic material. When a costume has come to the end of its life, it is no different than we are,” says Cara Varnell, a specialist in Hollywood film costumes and the conservator working on the Ransom Center’s five Gone With The Wind dresses.

Scarlett’s silk wedding veil arrived at the Ransom Center in the early 1980s brittle and lined with permanent creases, indicating that the fibers were damaged and deteriorating. Because of its fragility, the veil is a prime example of an item conservators may decide not to conserve.

Varnell explains that the conservation team could conceivably decide to support the veil with replacement tulle netting. The problem is that they wouldn’t be able to stitch the tulle to the cap because the cap is friable, meaning it will turn to dust if handled too much.

“It becomes this trade-off,” Varnell said. “If we try to conserve it, what will happen? I wouldn’t achieve anything by way of support, and it would require so much handling I might end up with nothing. If we leave it alone, what will happen? We’ll pack it properly, it shouldn’t be shown, and it will be an object to be studied, not one to be displayed.”

Since conservation will probably deteriorate the veil even further, Varnell and the conservation team have decided to keep an eye on the veil and regularly monitor its condition.

“My fundamental philosophy is just because I can do it, doesn’t mean I should do it,” Varnell says.

The veil teaches another lesson: sometimes conservators should not wear gloves.

“You can’t tell the condition of this silk tulle just by looking at it. And if you wear gloves, not only are you causing potential damage, you get no sense of the condition of the fibers. As soon as you touch it without gloves, you realize it’s very crunchy, which means that the fibers are damaged,” Varnell says.

Although the veil is deteriorating, the conservation team can still tell that the cap is “incredibly well made,” Varnell says. The team also found that the veil tulle is diamond shaped, whereas the tulle that makes up the cap is square. All of this evidence suggests that, if not studio-made, the cap may have been an original Southern woman’s cap from the mid-nineteenth century.

“Walter Plunkett spent several weeks traveling the South researching costumes from the period and meeting with women introduced to him by Margaret Mitchell,” says Jill Morena, Ransom Center collection assistant for costumes and personal effects. “Some of the women gave Plunkett swatches from period garments. I wouldn’t be surprised if a woman in the South gave him this cap.”

Learn more about this project, view answers to frequently asked questions, and follow the progress of conservation efforts at this website.

The team welcomes insight from the public. If someone you know worked on the production, viewed the dresses during an “exploitation tour” in the 1940s, or has color photos of the dresses before 1970, please email GWTWinsight@gmail.com.

If you have any questions about the conservation process, please leave a comment with your question at the bottom of this post. We will choose some to answer on the Cultural Compass blog over the next few months.