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.

“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.

 

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: Film still from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

In the Galleries: Producer David O. Selznick defends casting Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara

By Gabrielle Inhofe

British actress Vivien Leigh is best remembered for her part as Scarlett O’Hara, the beautiful Southern belle who will stop at nothing to get what she wants. Her inspired performance won an Academy Award for Best Actress. However, when word got out that she was being considered for the role, letters against the selection poured into Gone With The Wind producer David O. Selznick’s office.

 

The president of a chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy wrote a letter stating that she and the members “vigorously protest against any other than a native born southern woman playing the part of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind. Furthermore, we resolve to withhold our patronage if otherwise cast.” The Hollywood Reporter’s Joe Shay wrote to Selznick calling it “an unfortunate selection” should someone other than a Southerner be cast.

 

Selznick wrote a letter to Ed Sullivan, an entertainment columnist at the time, defending Leigh. He notes that Leigh’s parents are French and Irish, just like Scarlett’s, and he draws comparisons between England and the South. Selznick writes, “A large part of the South prides itself on its English ancestry, and an English girl might presumably, therefore, be as acceptable in the role as a Northern girl.” Furthermore, he notes the relationship between the Southern and British accents is much closer than that of the Southern and Northern accents. He also points out that the English have warmly received the portrayals of Englishmen by Americans, so Americans would be ungrateful to do the same. Finally, Selznick points toward successful cross-cultural performances in American theater, like the British actor Raymond Massey as Abraham Lincoln and the American actress Helen Hayes as Queen Victoria.

 

When Leigh’s selection as Scarlett was made official, the reaction in the South was overwhelmingly negative. Susan Myrick, who advised the filmmakers on historical detail, helped to convince Mrs. W. D. Lamar, President of the United Daughters of the Confederacy on the soundness of the choice. According to Myrick, Lamar “greatly preferred an Englishwoman for the part of Scarlett O’Hara, rather than a woman from the East or Middle West, as she had always felt there was a close kinship between the Southerner and the English people.”

 

The memo is on view through January 4 in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind. A fully illustrated exhibition catalog of the same title will be co-published by the Harry Ransom Center and University of Texas Press in September with a foreword written by Turner Classic Movies (TCM) host and film historian Robert Osborne.

 

Related content:

View other Gone With The Wind blog content

 

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

 

Image: Ed Sullivan, then a gossip columnist, had learned that Vivien Leigh was Selznick’s choice for the role of Scarlett.  Selznick denied it but, anticipating resistance to his decision, had already developed a five-point justification, which he began to circulate to entertainment reporters.

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.

 

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

 

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.

 

Stay up to date with the Harry Ransom Center’s latest news and information with eNews, the Center’s monthly email newsletter. Subscribe today.

 

Related content:

View blog content related to Gone With The Wind

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.

 

Related content:

View blog content related to 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.

 

Stay up to date with the Harry Ransom Center’s latest news and information with eNews, the Center’s monthly email newsletter. Subscribe today.

 

Related content:

View blog content related to Gone With The Wind

 

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.

 

Stay up to date with the Harry Ransom Center’s latest news and information with eNews, the Center’s monthly email newsletter. Subscribe today.

 

Related content:

View blog content related to Gone With The Wind

 

Fall symposium to explore American cultural life during Civil War

By Alicia Dietrich

The Ransom Center announces the 11th Flair Symposium, “Cultural Life During Wartime, 1861–1865” to take place September 18–20.

 

The symposium is organized in conjunction with the Ransom Center’s upcoming fall exhibition, The Making of Gone With The Wind, which opens September 9. In the 75 years since the film’s release, Gone With The Wind and the novel that inspired it have helped shape the way many Americans understand and remember the Civil War.

 

The symposium looks back to the nineteenth century to examine the cultural world of Union and Confederate painters, photographers, musicians, theater companies, and writers. The songs, images, poems, books, and plays that appeared between 1861 and 1865 offer a nuanced perspective on the Civil War that challenges later narratives, both fictional and historical.

 

Historians, literary critics, musicologists, and art historians will gather in Austin to discuss the works of well-known figures such as Walt Whitman, Louisa May Alcott, and Frederick Douglass, as well as works related to “Rose’s War,” an 1865 slave insurrection, and the 1864 “Siege of Atlanta.” Panelists will also reflect on the expanding Civil War canon and the legacy of the war’s cultural productions.

 

Deborah Willis, professor and chair of Photography & Imaging at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, will deliver the keynote address, which is co-sponsored by the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies at The University of Texas at Austin.

 

To register and view more information, including the full list of panelists and a schedule, visit the Flair website.

Ransom Center exhibits “Gone With The Wind” materials at TCM Classic Film Festival

By Jennifer Tisdale

Turner Classic Movies (TCM), premier sponsor for the Harry Ransom Center’s upcoming exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind, hosts its fifth annual TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood April 10–13.

 

Within Club TCM, the gathering point for festival passholders in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, the Ransom Center will exhibit a selection of Gone With The Wind storyboards and concept art from the Center’s David O. Selznick archive.

 

Also at the festival, TCM will commemorate the 75th anniversary of Gone With The Wind (1939) with a screening of a recent restoration of the film in collaboration with Warner Bros. Studios.

 

Beginning September 9 at the Ransom Center, more than 300 original items from Gone With The Wind will be on display in the exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind, including behind-the-scenes photographs, storyboards, correspondence, production records, audition footage, fan mail, and costumes worn by Vivien Leigh. Drawing from its extensive archive of the film’s producer, David O. Selznick, the Ransom Center is in a unique position to tell, and share, the story of the making of this epic film.

 

Image: Dorothea Holt’s concept painting of Scarlett at the Butler House in Gone With The Wind.