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1st July 2020

‘Forget it Louis, no Civil War picture ever made a nickel,’ so said Irving Thalberg, the doomed ‘boy wonder’ of the archetypal Hollywood studio MGM. Thalberg’s knack for picking successful projects had hitherto been legendary. It was 1936. Thalberg ran MGM with Louis B. Mayer, whose son-in-law, the mercurial film producer David O Selznick, had bought the rights to Gone With the Wind, a yet-to-be published 1,037-page doorstop novel (title lifted from an Ernest Dowson poem) by Margaret Mitchell about a beautiful minx in Georgia before, during and after the US civil war, which became a publishing blockbuster and Pulitzer Prizewinner. Ironically, Mitchell had written the enormous manuscript in a desultory way and half fought against its publication. Mayer wanted to back Selznick’s project.

Soon Thalberg was dead of pneumonia and Selznick, who had hoped to produce the film at his own eponymous studio, found he had to make it with MGM because he did not have enough cash to do it by himself.

The basic story is simplicity itself: wild and wilful coquette Scarlett O’Hara messes several men around, marries some, saves her father’s mansion, Tara, and ultimately loses Rhett Butler, a worldly trader, who is the only man she ever really loved.

The rest of course is history: Clark Gable as Rhett Butler, Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara, Olivia de Havilland (who died only this month at the age of 104) as Melanie Hamilton and Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes, plus a cast seemingly of thousands. It was the most ambitious production ever mounted to that date, was also the longest film yet made at 220 minutes and for years was officially the most successful film ever made. For their budget of nearly $4 million (some sources claim as much as $7 million) tens of millions came pouring back. It was re-released several times and was still being profitably revived thirty years later. Until the great infantilising boom ushered in by Star Wars it was the gold standard Hollywood cash cow.

But there was trouble from the start and it hasn’t gone away. From the minute Selznick announced his production, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People were unhappy about its treatment of slavery and depiction of black people in the south. It and others lobbied for the removal of the word nigger from the script. It is unclear to what extent, if any, the n-word appeared in Sidney Howard’s original script, though it does appear in the novel (several hacks worked the film script over; even Scott Fitzgerald did a bit). The NAACP criticised Hattie McDaniel, who played Scarlett’s black maid Mammy, for appearing in a role demeaning to blacks. Ms McDaniel won a well-deserved Oscar for her role, the first black person to win the award. The NAACP was not impressed with this particular advancement of a colored person, and said Ms McDaniel was an ‘Uncle Tom’. Rather pricelessly, she is reported to have responded: ‘I’d rather make $700 a week playing a maid than $7 being one.’

Poor Ms McDaniel was affronted on both sides of the debate: she was not allowed to attend the film’s premiere in Atlanta as the cinema was segregated; she was only let into the after show party at a segregated hotel ‘as a favour’; and at the Oscar ceremony she had to sit in a segregated area. Clark Gable said he would boycott the premiere if she was not allowed to attend (he also fought against other aspects of segregation while being politically conservative), but Ms McDaniel urged him to go anyway.

Black commentators were also unhappy about the servile demeanour of the two other main black characters, Pork (Oscar Polk) and Prissy (Butterfly McQueen), who is referred to by Rhett Butler as ‘a simple-minded darky’. Also, an early scene of small black children fanning white Southern Belles while they sleep would push the blood pressure of the average Guardian reader (if it still has any) up to very dangerous levels.

Additionally, there was concern that the film was a paean to the antebellum south with all the nasty bits of that era left out, which mostly it is. On this score, the film sets out its shop from the very start, with shots of black slaves working in fields with the following words over the top:

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.

Gone With the Wind went on attracting the Left’s ire – ‘Perhaps the key plantation movie,’ sneered Time Out in the Eighties – and found itself embroiled in last month’s fallout from the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The television channel HBO’s streaming service dropped the film, only to reinstate it last week with a prefatory lecture that says it failed to adequately reflect the brutality of slavery.

That objection to the film strikes me as silly, the kind of silliness, retrospective political correction and point-missing the Left now specialise in. The film is a romantic drama not a historical lecture with slides. It reflects the basic realities of its times in that black people were servants and slaves. This enrages people and they politicise that rage by calling it ‘offence’. It also shows the change in status of black people after the war.

What did people expect from a gigantic Thirties soap opera about the old south, black characters shown in a way that totally contradicts the unfortunate historical realities? That would be a different story, and Gone With the Wind most definitely wasn’t that story. There again, it has many good lines, many of which are rather more telling than the naysayers will admit (how many members of the BLM crowd have actually seen the film all the way through I wonder). For instance when a group of southern men are getting fired up over the impending war, Rhett Butler is sceptical about the chances of a Confederate victory, saying: ‘All we’ve got is cotton, slaves and arrogance.’ (He later blots any liberal plus points for this observation by telling Scarlett: ‘I’ve always thought a good lashing with a buggy whip would benefit you immensely.’)

The wrongness of slavery is touched on in the script: after the disastrous war, Ashley Wilkes says he would have freed all his slaves whatever the outcome.

Whatever its merits and demerits are, it is simply absurd to damn an eighty-year-old film for not being Woke. Intelligent members of the Left know this perfectly well but they encourage it because they know it is a rabbit hole they can push the whole history of film down – thereby demonstrating the thing they lust after most: power. Why are black nationalists and white Marxists so concerned about an old film being seen? After all, sane people know that the south were beaten (while slavery in the East goes on to this day and is ignored by the Woke), and 12 Years a Slave was financed, made and awarded three Oscars (including Best Film) in a country the Left insists is racist but which at the time had a black president who served two terms. The Confederate flag is more or less banned and the statue of General Robert E Lee in Richmond, Virginia, is under permanent threat. It will go in the end of course. The Left has won, but now all traces of the past must be destroyed or vandalised in standard communist practice.

Evidently black people object to seeing negative representations of themselves in fiction and film. Given their sometimes tragic history in America, this poses problems for artistic veracity. I don’t suppose Jews much enjoy their presentation as victims of pogroms and the Holocaust, but history is a painful mess. Denying it, censoring it and rewriting is a grave mistake: lies lead to bigger lies; bigger lies lead to conflict.

The broader Left believe that minority characters should never be shown in an unflattering light, a view that is the enemy of art never mind truth. Yet I would argue that Mammy, who wields a certain power at Tara, has dignity notwithstanding the circumstances, and also shows far more common sense than most of the other characters. Pork, who has some good lines, shows a non-Marxoid concern with labour status when he asks: ‘Who’s gonna milk that cow Miss Scarlett? We’s houseworkers.’ Scarlett must have some sort of regard for him: she gives him her dead father’s gold watch.

Meanwhile if we play the counting game, the scores look like this: by my reckoning in Gone With the Wind there are four references to ‘darkies’ as against a grand total of nine references to ‘white trash’, almost all of which come out of the mouths of black characters. This should remind balanced and educated viewers that it was never a bed of roses to be an impoverished white in the south, or indeed anywhere. Did not Friedrich Engels, co-author of The Communist Manifesto, say that millworkers in the north of England had a lower standard of living than many black slaves in the south?

What of the film itself? Now in its ninth decade it stands as the highpoint of golden age Hollywood, a triumph of popular art; its appeal being that of a strong story, perfect casting and magnificent production values. The memos of David O Selznick (the O he added himself, as he thought all moguls needed a middle initial), and he sent meteor showers of them, often use the word ‘integrity’ in relation to the production, and it shows. Selznick set about filming the famous burning of Atlanta sequence before he had even cast the role of Scarlett. His art directors William Cameron Menzies and Lyle Wheeler – who deserved medals and won Oscars – came up with the idea of burning the sets of King Kong and The Garden of Allah on the RKO backlot. An executive told Selznick model shots would be better (and no doubt cheaper) but he went ahead anyway. On December 10, 1938, this most famous of film infernos was shot. Selznick watched from a specially built viewing platform as seven three-strip Technicolor cameras captured the doubles of Rhett and Scarlett fleeing in a wagon. As the towering inferno roared, Selznick’s brother Myron arrived from dinner, a little drunk, and said: ‘I want you to meet your Scarlett O’Hara!’ His dinner guests were with him: Laurence Olivier and his mistress Vivien Leigh. Her eyes shone in the light of the flames. Later Selznick said: ‘I took one look and knew she was right … I’ll never recover from that first look.’

Selznick was a proto-auteur but he believed the producer, not the director, was the real artist. On Gone With the Wind he got through more than one director, Victor Fleming getting the credit, and George Cukor having most influence on the performances.

Yes, the Technicolor. Lush, at times almost garish and at others simply beautiful, the process soon altered – and for the better – but there’s nothing quite like three-strip, so called because of running three negatives to obtain the finished colour. Today it is almost eerie to see Gable and Leigh so close, so clear, so vivid, in such legendary scenes.

Then there is Max Steiner’s magnificent score, containing almost 100 pieces of music.

The first half of the film is by far the best, the second suffers from slight sprawling and an intermittence of pace, but the story never palls.

After Rhett Butler walks out on her, Scarlett’s thoughts turn to Tara, the thread of her life she realises. It is Tara, the studio Tara, which provides the best symbol for the film today: made from plywood and papier-mâché, it was pure artifice bordering on kitsch; at one time it was going to be cut up into 1ins x 3ins rectangles and sold to fans. Today it is said to be in storage somewhere in the south. When it was dismantled in the Fifties, Selznick said: ‘Nothing in Hollywood is permanent. Once photographed, life here is ended. It is almost symbolic of Hollywood. Tara had no rooms inside. It was just a façade. So much of Hollywood is a façade.’

‘What do people do when their civilisation breaks up,’ asks Ashley Wilkes in the film when the war has ended. ‘Those who have courage and brains come through all right; those that haven’t are winnowed out.’

That question has a renewed piquancy in the chaos of today’s culture wars.

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