I want to check back in about the history of blockbuster movies, which I’ve been doing sporadically so I can figure out how they work. So far, I’ve talked about the first blockbuster, the 1912 Italian epic Quo Vadis, which set the bar for the kind of large-scale spectacle that audiences could expect from the high-prestige movies. We’ve also discussed the first American blockbuster, the 1915 Ku Klux Klan recruitment film The Birth of a Nation, which pioneered most of the foundational principles of narrative filmmaking, and also made the case for the continued oppression and second-class status of Black people in the United States.
And today, we’re going to look at Gone With the Wind, the flabbergastingly successful 1939 four-hour film epic about the death of the Old South, and… well, the birth of a nation, I suppose.
First, let’s do the numbers.
Gone With the Wind was based on a best-selling 1936 novel by Margaret Mitchell, which sold a million copies in its first six months. The film cost four million dollars to produce, making it the most expensive movie ever made up to that point.
It was also the highest-grossing film since The Birth of a Nation, earning $32 million on first release and $67 million with a 1963 re-release. The Sound of Music finally topped it in 1966, but then Gone With the Wind got the top spot again with a 1971 re-release that made $116 million. The movie’s stranglehold on the highest-grossing chart finally ended in 1972 with The Godfather, followed by Jaws, Star Wars and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
But adjusted for inflation, Gone With the Wind is still the highest-grossing film of all time, which is something of a cultural mystery. I mean, it doesn’t have a single superhero, alien or killer shark in it, and you don’t have to watch six other films in order to understand it, so how could it be popular? It doesn’t make sense.
Gone With the Wind is the story of the most self-centered woman in the world, who gradually becomes more self-centered over time, while continuing to own slaves after slavery is abolished. It begins with an opening crawl that sets the tone for what we’re about to witness:
There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South…
Here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow…
Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave…
Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered.
A Civilization gone with the wind…
So that is the operating worldview going into this movie, that the world of Master and of Slave is one that should be remembered fondly. From the start, this film is openly and actively pro-slavery.
It’s a long movie, but I’ll give you a quick synopsis, if you need it. The main character is Scarlett O’Hara, the pampered and willful daughter of a rich plantation owner in Georgia. In the first part of the movie, which establishes the grand and graceful lifestyle of the slaveowners, she has a passionate attachment for Ashley Wilkes, a dull simp who goes and marries somebody else. To score off Ashley, Scarlett marries someone that she doesn’t love, and then the Civil War starts, which is a great inconvenience to everyone.
Scarlett’s husband dies in the war almost immediately, and she’s shipped off to the family’s home in Atlanta, where she’s courted by the rich, rascally Rhett Butler, who’s gained fame as a blockade runner.
The gallant soldiers of the South start losing the war in great heaps, and Scarlett finds her life in Atlanta increasingly impinged upon. Rhett helps her get out of Atlanta before the dreadful Yankees come and burn it to the ground, and she makes her way back to Tara, her family plantation, which isn’t quite burned to the ground but it’s not feeling very well.
With the help of some relatives, neighbors and a set of unbelievably loyal remaining slaves, Scarlett manages to eke out a living at Tara, no thanks to the mean old Union soldiers and free Blacks who straggle by occasionally to menace women and get shot.
During Reconstruction, the United States of America is terribly mean to the formerly all-powerful white Southern overlords, and Scarlett struggles to run Tara with a drastically reduced number of whip-motivated personnel. To get the money to keep things in operation, Scarlett marries Frank, another rich guy that she doesn’t love.
One day while she’s out driving somewhere, Scarlett gets attacked and almost-raped by two guys — one white, and one Black. Outraged, Frank and Ashley rile up the boys to go and lynch the perpetrators.
Things go sideways during the lynching and Frank gets killed, which means that Scarlett is finally free to marry Rhett, and then there’s a lot more stuff that we don’t need to concern ourselves with. End of synopsis.
The movie’s greatest asset is that it has Clark Gable as Rhett Butler, the only sensible man in the South, who shows up magically at random intervals in order to explain to everybody why they’re assholes.
Rhett is a trickster character, like Lex Luthor in the Superman film, who violates all of the social and cultural norms, and has a wonderful time doing it. He stands just on the outside of any society that he’s in, seeing through other people’s pretensions and making sarcastic remarks. He drinks and gambles and spends time in brothels, and really should be considered a scandal and a pariah, but he has a lot of money, and Ashley likes him. During the war, Rhett earns respect as a smuggler and blockade runner for the South. He’s basically the Han Solo of 1939.
Most importantly, Rhett gets all the funny lines, and when Scarlett’s behavior gets wearisome, he comes along to shake her up, and send her down a more interesting path.
Everything in the film is very heightened and dramatic, with lots of short, fast-moving scenes of passionate people urgently discussing their feelings about everything: love, war, land, the dirty Yankees, and whether they’ll ever be hungry again. The music is sweeping and impressive. There are a lot of gowns.
From the outset, the movie is determined to invent a romantic fantasy world for the Old Southerners to inhabit, where everybody has fancy dress-up parties and proposes to each other constantly. Here’s a quick sample:
Ashley: You seem to belong here… as if it had all been imagined for you.
Melanie: I like to feel that I belong to the things you love.
Ashley: You love Twelve Oaks, as I do.
Melanie: Yes, Ashley. I love it as more than a house. It’s a whole world, that wants only to be graceful, and beautiful.
This graceful and beautiful world, obviously, is not available for everyone; once you get outside this specific percentile, it gets a lot less graceful in a hurry.
So, I hear you ask, if the movie is primarily concerned with the love life and bank account of a plantation owner’s daughter, when do they acknowledge that slavery was cruel and violent, causing incalculable suffering and long-term injustice? The answer to that question is never. Not even once.
There is not a single scene in the movie that shows a slave who’s even spoken to sharply, except for Mammy, who takes it in her stride. We only see working field slaves once, at quitting time, and they don’t even look tired.
Besides Mammy, an aggressively mentally deficient housemaid and an old guy who kills a chicken, the house slaves are background at best, occasionally glimpsed helping somebody out of a carriage, or passing out drinks. They don’t even do that very often; there’s a sequence set at a fancy ball in Atlanta, which is apparently being catered by nobody, because you don’t see a single Black face in the whole sequence. All the slaves must have taken a break at the same time; that’s the only way to explain it.
Unlike The Birth of a Nation, we don’t see much of the actual Civil War. The story of Gone With the Wind is told from Scarlett’s perspective, so all we see is the Confederate soldiers marching off, and then being carried back on stretchers.
At one point, there’s a big spectacle scene where Scarlett is urgently trying to find a doctor to deliver Melanie’s baby, while the doctor is busy tending to the wounded Confederate soldiers. As she hunts for him, the camera pulls back and back and back, way more than you’d think they would, and we see the entire studio backlot, awash with the injured and the dead.
So the rebellion was defeated and the Union preserved, which the film presents solely in the negative. There’s no hint of a justification for why the United States ought to exist, and there isn’t a single Southern character who says, well, maybe we were a scoche in the wrong, thinking that we could purchase human beings. Even Rhett can’t muster up a moment of self-reflection on that score.
The situation is presented entirely from the point of view that the North was rude and ungallant, and jealous of how great the South was, so they burned it all down for no reason and then acted like dicks about it.
This scene of Ashley and Scarlett making post-war speeches at each other sums up the lunatic hypocrisy of the entire endeavor:
Ashley: Oh, I could never make you understand, because you don’t know the meaning of fear. You never mind facing realities… you never want to escape from them, as I do.
Scarlett: Escape? Oh, Ashley, you’re wrong! I do want to escape, too! I’m so very tired of it all! I’ve struggled for food and for money, I’ve weeded and hoed and picked cotton until I can’t stand it another minute! I tell you, Ashley, the South is dead! It’s dead! The Yankees and the carpetbaggers have got it, and there’s nothing left for us!
So what we’ve got here are two characters on a plantation in the 1860s saying that they’re tired of picking cotton and are desperate to escape, and they’re both white, and the audience is expected to take that seriously.
As far as the Black characters go, the best you can say is that by 1939, they’re not casting white actors in blackface anymore. Hattie McDaniel is actually excellent as Mammy and deserves the Academy Award that she won, but it’s a degrading part, playing the “good” slave who loves her masters so much that she continues taking care of them after the war, hardly even noticing that she’s been emancipated.
And the other house slave, Prissy, is a fucking nightmare: a screeching, simple-minded lunatic who has multiple comedy scenes based on how stupid and pathetic she is.
For my money, the craziest moment in the film is when Scarlett goes to Atlanta, and she sees two Black men walking down the street in suits and hats, laughing with each other and entirely minding their own business, and she just stares at them with a look of abject horror and despair.
The movie even criticizes the idea of giving Black people the vote. The Atlanta sidewalk scene includes a Northern carpetbagger giving a sales pitch to a group of ignorant Black people, who respond to him in an exaggerated comedy-minstrel voice.
Carpetbagger: You know what we’re gonna do? We’re going to give every last one of you forty acres and a mule!
Black voice: Fo’ty acres an’ a mule?
Carpetbagger: Forty acres and a mule!
Black voice: Gee!
Carpetbagger: Cause we’re your friend! And you’re gonna become voters! And you’re gonna vote like your friends do!
This is exactly the same as the “forty acres and a mule” scene in The Birth of a Nation. The obvious takeaway from this moment, in both films, is that Black people don’t deserve the franchise, because they’re too ignorant to know what to do with it.
And then Mammy pushes her way through a group of young Black men on the sidewalk who, again, are completely minding their own business. As she passes, she swats at them with her umbrella, saying, “Out of our way, trash! Get out of the way, here! Get away!”
There isn’t a single moment in this true-to-life historical epic that challenges the idea that Black people are born to be servants, and that any Black person who isn’t currently in the process of making life easier for a white person is a waste of time and a danger to society.
So, no: this is not the greatest movie of all time. It’s not even a great movie, period. It’s too long and it’s repetitive, and most of the characters are weak and forgettable, especially Ashley, Scarlett’s sisters, and her first two husbands. As far as romance goes, it’s unclear who you’re supposed to be rooting for. Also, it actively promotes white supremacy.
I’d go so far as to say that it’s a good movie, if you don’t care about Black people. This is especially true if you just watch the Clark Gable scenes, which is what I would suggest.
So if I don’t think the movie’s so great, then how do I account for it becoming such a sensation?
And it really was an unbelievably huge deal. The pre-release publicity was too elaborate for me to explain, so I’m just going to give you one paragraph from The Art of Gone With the Wind: The Making of a Legend about the three-day festival in Atlanta leading up to the premiere:
On Thursday [the day before the premiere], the people of Atlanta were already walking the streets in salvaged Civil War finery and antebellum dresses. There was a 10:15am lamplighting ceremony at the corner of Whitehall and Alabama streets: The lamppost had withstood Sherman’s siege and was relit to symbolize the undying Confederate spirit. Kurtz and Ann Rutherford made speeches. The governor gave everyone the rest of the day off, since he had declared Premiere Day a state holiday.
So people were treating the opening of this movie as if it would actually undo the results of the Civil War, and bring back the Confederacy. And it wasn’t just insane people in the South who flocked to the film; it happened all over the country.
To explain this phenomenon, I can only point back to The Birth of a Nation, which was the first homemade American blockbuster, twenty-five years before Gone With the Wind.
The film version of Gone With the Wind doesn’t openly shill for the Ku Klux Klan — the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was able to head that off, at least — but the novel absolutely does. At one point, the narrator explains about the tragic necessity:
“It was the large number of outrages on women and the ever-present fear for the safety of their wives and daughters that drove Southern men to cold and trembling fury and caused the Ku Klux Klan to spring up overnight. And it was against this nocturnal organization that the newspapers of the North cried out most loudly, never realizing the tragic necessity that brought it into being.”
They still do the lynching sequence in the movie, with Frank and Ashley running out to string up the degenerates that tried to assault a white woman, but they don’t actually put on hoods. The producer, David O. Selznick, wrote a memo to the screenwriter asking for the Klan not to be mentioned: “A group of men can go out to ‘get’ the perpetrators of an attempted rape without having long white sheets over them and without having their membership in a society as a motive.”
But in every other way, the film fully endorses the “tragic necessity” of keeping Black people in their place, and it expresses a deep longing to return to the beauty and grace of slave-assisted plantation life.
So it simply can’t be a coincidence that The Birth of a Nation was the most popular film ever made, until Gone With the Wind came along, and both movies just happen to be about how great it was when Black people could be traded like baseball cards.
You can say that it’s about the romance or the music or the gowns, but there were a lot of very good movies produced between 1915 and 1971 that didn’t advocate for the return of the Confederacy. I can’t think of any of their names off the top of my head, but there must have been some; it stands to reason. The overwhelming success of those two specific films means that the racism was a feature, not a bug.
Hollywood is the American fantasy factory, churning out an endless succession of dream worlds and imaginary love affairs, and for most of the 20th century, America indicated that the dream we prized the most was to relight that lamppost in Atlanta, to symbolize the undying Confederate spirit.
And here in the 1970s, where you and I currently are, we should probably figure out how to get some truth, justice and the American way into our blockbuster movies, before it’s too late. I think we’re going to need a bigger boat.
There’s a great article from the Atlantic called “Gone With the Wind and Hollywood’s Racial Politics“, which tells the whole story of David O. Selznick’s struggles with the NAACP and the Black press during the production, including Selznick’s deeply-felt conviction that the N-word should be in the movie. I planned to include some of that story in this post, but I didn’t get around to it, so go and check out the article, because it’s fascinating.
Also, because this probably ought to have some kind of connection to Superman somehow: the 1950s TV Superman, George Reeves, appears in Gone With the Wind as Stuart Templeton, one of the redheaded Tarleton twins. The twins appear in the first scene talking to Scarlett about barbecue and waltzes, and then a couple more times in party scenes. In the picture below, he’s the one on the right.
— Danny Horn