African American Reactions to David O. Selznick’s Adaptation of Gone with the Wind in 1939, Causes and Context: Part III.

III. Gone with the Wind: From novel to script.

A. A controversial novel.

In 1935, however, somewhere in Atlanta, a book was about to be published, and its adaptation to the screen would challenge the fragile relationship between Hollywood and African-Americans, more so than any other movie since The Birth of a Nation in 1915. Written by the unknown, but soon to become famous Margaret Mitchell, this book was Gone with the Wind. In order to fully appreciate the reactions to its adaptation into a film, from the point of view of African-American audiences in particular, it is essential here to look back shortly at the beginning and reasons of the phenomenon. Therefore it is important to try and understand the reception the book itself got in its days. Born a Southerner in 1900, Margaret Mitchell was a reporter and a writer for the Atlanta

Margaret Mitchell, 1936

Journal. She had started writing her novel in 1926, and it had taken her roughly ten years to finish.[1] Though she did not intend for it to be published as she was writing it, in 1935 she had agreed to do so at the request of MacMillan Publishing.[2] The book came out in 1936, and within six months, it had already sold over one million copies.[3] As early as February of the same year, it had entered the New York Times bestseller list, and held the position for over forty weeks.[4] The book that captivated audiences, dealt with the economic and social struggle that the South had had to face during the Civil War and the Reconstruction period. The embodiment of this struggle was at the center of the novel, in the person of Scarlett O’Hara. In late 1930’s depression-impacted America, it was not hard to understand why the book had reached such a level of success.[5] In a country that was barely recovering from the most serious economic crisis of its history,[6] and at a time when news from abroad dealt with the rise of various fascist regimes, therefore adding to the national depression the possibility of an upcoming war, the central theme of Gone with the Wind could not have failed to appeal to its readers. That theme, and in Margaret Mitchell’s own words, was that of survival.[7] However, and not unlike The Leopard’s Spots and The Clansman by Thomas Dixon, the books of which Griffith’s notably racist The Birth of a Nation had been the screen adaptation, Gone with the Wind was truly the product of a biased Southern mind, with its inherent nostalgia for the old ways and the plantation myth. In fact, it is interesting to note here, as did Ruth Elizabeth Burks in her essay “Gone with the Wind: Black and White in Technicolor,” that Dixon himself had “quickly recognized a kinship with Gone with the Wind‘s author Margaret Mitchell and wrote to let her know ‘not only had she written the greatest story of the South ever put down on paper, you have given the world THE great American novel.’ Dixon was so enthralled by Gone with the Wind, in fact, that he intended to write a book-length study of Mitchell’s novel before he became incapacitated by a cerebral haemorrhage. Mitchell was particularly pleased to hear from Dixon, and to know that he admired her work since, as she acknowledged in her response to his letter of praise, ‘I was practically raised on your books and love them very much.’”[8] Margaret Mitchell’s vision of the Civil War and Recontruction period was not that of a historian, who would pay particular attention to historical facts, but it was that of a Southern woman, who wrote with her heart. As Aljean Harmetz stated in her book On the Road to Tara, “Margaret Mitchell always said that part of her concern about showing her manuscript to publishers was her awareness that the novel had a Southern point of view. The moral correctness of slavery, for example, was never questioned.”[9] As mentioned in the documentary The Making of a Legend: Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell had been “raised on stories of the Civil War, and the Southern gallantry. […] She grew up, steeped in the history of the old South.”[10] As a child, she had often wandered the streets of her hometown of Atlanta alongside her mother, and witnessed the last remnants of the lost grandeur of the South. The ruins of plantation estates that had been burnt to the ground during the fire of November 1864, and “where fine people had once lived,”[11] would remain in her memory forever, as tokens of irretrievable beauty and elegance. Yet, not everything the old South had once stood for was beauty and elegance. Mitchell’s vision, and her subsequent re-creation of the past, also encompassed much less romantic aspects of the Southern way of life and ideology, namely slavery, the supposed inferiority of black people, and of course, the “chivalrousness” and legitimacy of the Ku Klux Klan. Naturally, given that the novel, or at least its first part, took place in pre-Civil War Georgia, the presence of slaves was to be expected. However, not once did Margaret Mitchell express any reservations concerning the justification of slavery, as a base to ante bellum Southern civilization and prosperity. To that, can be added the fact that not only did she not criticize slavery, but she also resorted to the age-old argument that slaves were content with their fate, did not desire their freedom, and furthermore, that they would have been utterly lost without the guidance of their masters. This was exemplified by a piece of advice that Scarlett’s mother Ellen was said to have given her:

“‘Always remember, dear,’ Ellen had said, ‘you are responsible for the moral as well as the physical welfare of darkies God has entrusted to your care. You must realize that they are like children and must be guarded from themselves like children, and you must always set them a good example.’”[12]

As for the supposed inferiority of black people as a “race”, it was to be found at every step of the novel, whether it be gathered from a derogatory description, or openly expressed in the words of a character or another. A description of the main black character, Mammy, can be given here as an example of the first, as she was shown early in the book:

“Mammy emerged from the hall, a huge old woman with the small, shrewd eyes of an elephant. She was shining black, pure African, devoted to her last drop of blood to the O’Haras. […] Mammy was black, but her code of conduct and her sense of pride were as high as or higher than those of her owners.”[13]

The comparison between Mammy and an elephant could seem to be the most offensive part of this description, when in fact the simple word “but”, used here to stress the opposition in the mind of the author/narrator between being black and yet, having high moral standards, created a much deeper and more revolting, disparaging effect. Very often in the book, can the reader find animal-like descriptions of the black characters, such as the canine picture that was made of Big Sam towards the end of the novel.[14] These descriptions undoubtedly reflected the position of most plantation owners of the period, and unquestionably also that of many Southerners of the 1930’s, that black people were little more than animals, to be tamed through slavery, or at least segregated through traditions and laws. To resume on the subject of the book itself, and to add to its crucial and intrinsic flaws, especially viewed from the African-American perspective, another means of depreciating black people was also to be found in Gone with the Wind. That is to say the frequent use of the word “Nigger”. If there ever was a delicate subject as far as Gone with the Wind was concerned, this one was it. Historically, the word “Nigger” had been considered by African-Americans as the most derogatory and hateful word ever used by white folks to refer to their people.[15] And yet, Margaret Mitchell did not boggle at using it freely, on countless occasions throughout the novel. But this particular point will be examined in more details, further in this post, when it will come to the alterations that David O. Selznick, the producer of the adaptation to the screen, deemed necessary to undertake in the making of his picture. Last, but certainly not least, when dealing with the book version of Gone with the Wind and some of its problematic themes, was the presence and glorification of the Ku Klux Klan. In an embarrassingly famous episode of the book, Scarlett found herself attacked in Shantytown, and nearly raped by a black man, who was described as a brute, and who stood for yet another familiar stereotype attributed to blackness, the big black buck.[16] This image of the black sexual predator, lusting over the White Woman, was already present in both The Clansman and The Birth of a Nation, as was seen before in this paper. The dangers of miscegenation had once again been thrown onto the reader as the ultimate threat to the white world. This threat echoed perfectly well in 1930’s American society, especially so in the South, where interactions between black men and white women, let alone sexual interactions, where not only prohibited, but also punished, more often than not, by pure and simple lynching. In his September 2000 essay “What was Jim Crow?”, Dr. David Pilgrim, Professor of Sociology at the Ferris State University, stated that “many Whites claimed that although lynchings were distasteful, they were necessary supplements to the criminal justice system because blacks were prone to violent crimes, especially the rapes of white women.”[17] He also added that between

Lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abraham Smith in Marion, Indiana (August 7, 1930)

1882 and 1951, 19.2 percent of the lynching victims had only been accused of raping white women, a figure that “has been inflated by the fact that a mob which makes the accusation of rape is secure from any further investigation”.[18] In consequence, it came as no surprise to the 1930’s reader, that in Gone with the Wind, the incident of Scarlett’s attack should have called for retaliation on the part of the white male characters, namely Frank Kennedy, Ashley Wilkes, and others. However, this retaliation was being taken care of, not only in the name of caring husband and friends, but also in the name of the whole of the South, in the form of the Ku Klux Klan. The presence of the Klan was not implied, it was plainly and clearly expressed in the words of India Wilkes, Ashley’s sister:

“Of course, Mr. Kennedy is in the Klan, and Ashley, too, and all the men we know. […] They are men, aren’t they? And white men and Southerners. You should have been proud of him instead of making him sneak out as though it were something shameful.”[19]

And a little further, in the mouth of another character, a detailed explanation was given of what the Klan was to do in Shantytown:

“Because you went gallivantin’ this afternoon and got yoreself into trouble through yore own fault, Mr. Wilkes and Mr. Kennedy and the other men are out tonight to kill that thar nigger […] if they can catch [him], and wipe out that whole Shantytown settlement. And if what that Scallawag [Rhett Butler] said is true, the Yankees suspected sumpin’ or got wind somehow and they’ve sont out troops to lay for them. And our men have walked into a trap. And if what Butler said warn’t true, then he’s a spy and he is goin’ to turn them up to the Yankees and they’ll git kilt just the same. […] And if they ain’t kilt, then they’ll have to light out of here for Texas and lay low and maybe never come back.”[20]

Through the presence of the Ku Klux Klan, and its chivalrous depiction, achieved in no covert terms by Margaret Mitchell, it is only too easy to imagine what her opinion was when it came to the Klan. She did picture them as gallant men, flying to the rescue of damsels in distress, and determined to protect their honor from the supposed savagery of African-American men.

Nevertheless, and before getting to the adaptation of the novel into a film, and owing to the many disturbing factors that are to be found in Margaret Mitchell’s work, a very rapid overview of the different types of reactions that the release of the book gave rise to, will undoubtedly enlighten the 2005 audience, both of book and film. Once again, it goes almost without saying that the novel was an enormous commercial success.[21] As far as most literary critics were concerned, and referring to James and Brown’s Book Review Digest of 1937,[22] as it is cited by W. Bernard Lukenbill in his essay entitled “Marketing Gone with the Wind in an Age of Social Conflict”, the book was widely acclaimed in the literary press of the time. Donald Adams, in the New York Times Book Review, called it “the best Civil War novel that has yet been written.”[23]

Original 1936 cover for the MacMillan Company

The American people absolutely loved it, perhaps, as was seen earlier, because the world they lived in was so un-romantic, and they wanted to escape the harsh reality of unemployment, depression, and confusion abroad. All the same, having said all that, it would be too naive to assume that only positive reactions to the book existed. Even without going in details into negative literary critics, some of which categorized the novel as a social phenomenon, if not a literary one,[24] the most vehement diatribe unquestionably, and logically enough, came from the African-American community, as well as those sympathetic to their cause. Malcolm Cowley, the literary editor of The New Republic, complained in the September 15, 1936 issue that “Gone with the Wind is an encyclopaedia of the plantation legend […] false in part and silly in part and vicious in its general effect on Southern life today.”[25] In 1937, as cited by Gary S. Dalkin in his “Retrospective: Gone with the Wind”, The Journal of Negro Life wrote that “the general outline of the history is true, but Miss Mitchell’s presentation in unwarrantedly biased. In her array of ‘Mammies’, ‘Cookies’, ‘Porks’ and ‘Sams’ one only sees ebony black Negroes who had been docile and childlike as slaves, suddenly become impudent and vicious as ‘free issue’ Negroes. […] The book is no doubt honestly written, but at the same time it is written with a passionate sectional and racial bias.”[26] Also in 1937, in The Crisis, the monthly journal of the NAACP, in an acerbic article entitled “Not Gone with the Wind”, George S. Schuyler had written:

Gone with the Wind is much too long, is cluttered with trivia and inconsequentialities, with special pleading, useless descriptions, wooden characters who jump like automatons; but it is eminently readable, bolsters Southern white ego, is an effective argument against according the Negro his citizenship rights and privileges and sings Hallelujah for white supremacy. It WOULD be a best seller. […] Margaret Mitchell’s 1037-page novel may be a Pulitzer Prize to white America but it is just another Rebel propaganda tract to the colored citizen who knows our national history.”

Yet, the most remarkable of these critical reviews of the novel was to be published, as the actual shooting of the filmed version of Gone with the Wind was just beginning. In its editorial of February 9, 1939, the African-American newspaper The Los Angeles Sentinel blasted the book for being:

“[…] a novel that stinks with the preachment of racial inferiority. In its pages are found the usual age-old slanders: that Negroes did not want their freedom and that it had to be forced upon them; that all except a few Uncle Tom Negroes were rapists and murderers; that Negro legislators of Reconstruction were corrupt and dishonest; that the Civil War was all a mistake; and that Negroes were inferiors, and little less than brutes.”[28]

Nevertheless, Margaret Mitchell had always denied ever intending African-Americans any offence. Yet, in her very response to critics that she was indeed a racist, she had displayed the very same paternalist and biased attitude that D. W. Griffith had displayed, more than twenty years before, when responding to the same critics being made against The Birth of a Nation. She wrote:

“The colored people I know here in Atlanta had nothing but nice things to say, especially the older ones. Shortly after the book came out, the Radical and Communist publications, both black and white, began to hammer, but all they could say was that the book was ‘an insult to the Race.’ For two years they could not think up any reason why. I asked a number of Negroes and they replied that they did not know either but guessed it was some Yankee notion. The Radical press tried to use Gone with the Wind as a whip to drive the Southern Negroes into the Communist Party somewhat in the same manner that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was used to recruit Abolitionists. Of course, you know how happy it made me to have the Radical publications dislike Gone with the Wind. I couldn’t have held up my head if they had liked it, but the Negro angle bothered me, for Heaven knows I had and have no intention of ‘insulting the Race’. Recently the Negro press has discovered the way in which they have been insulted. It is because I had various characters use the term ‘Nigger’ and ‘Darkey’. […] Regardless of the fact that they call each other ‘Nigger’ today and regardless of the fact that nice people in ante bellum days called them ‘Darkies,’ these papers are in a fine frenzy. […]

I have had enough twisted and erroneous and insulting things written about me and Gone with the Wind to make me sore on the whole Negro race if I were sensitive or a fool. But I do not intend to let any number of troublemaking Professional Negroes change my feelings toward the race with whom my relations have always been those of affection and respect.”[29]

There was no doubt that Mitchell thought that she had only been faithful to the historical truth and reality of the period she recounted in her book. Being who she was, and especially having been raised the way that she had been, and though this was hardly an excuse, if merely an explanation, she could not have been expected to have thought any differently. She did not understand the feelings of the African-American community towards her book. Yet, very soon, these hostile feelings would not only limit themselves to the existence of the novel, but extend to the idea of a screen version of Mitchell’s story.

B. David O. Selznick’s vision.

For of course, there would be a screen version of Gone with the Wind. And David O. Selznick, a newly independent Hollywood producer would be the heart and soul of this movie version. But who was David O. Selznick and how did he get to become the producer of this adaptation? First of all, it is worth noting that, unlike what many people tend to imagine, the idea of turning the novel into a motion picture had not been born only once the book had revealed itself to be a bestseller. It had already entered someone’s mind, as early as the Spring of 1936, even before it was released. That someone was Katherine “Kay” Brown, who happened to work as a story editor for Selznick International Pictures in New York.[30] Annie Laurie Williams, who represented MacMillan and Company for the rights of Gone with the Wind,[31] had come over to see Kay Brown one month before the book was published, in order to try and sell her the picture rights to Mitchell’s novel. In her own words, Brown stated: “So I read the book and thought it was absolutely wonderful. And I worked, as we all know, for David O. Selznick, and I was responsible for calling to his attention important material. So I called it to his attention.”[32] On May 20, she sent him a message on the company teletype,[33] and told him that she was sending him the galley proofs and a synopsis of a brand new novel, and to that she added: “I beg, urge, coax and plead with you to read this at once. I know that after you read the book you will drop everything and buy it.”[34] And yet, in a memo dated May 25, 1936, and addressed to Kay Brown, David O. Selznick replied:

“Have gone over and carefully thought about Gone with the Wind. Think it is fine story and I understand your feeling about it. […] To pay a large price for it in […] the further hope book will have tremendous sales is, I feel, unwarranted. […] I do not feel we can take such a gamble. If it is not purchased immediately then I know you will watch its sales carefully, and if it threatens to become [a bestseller]… then we presumably will be in as close touch as any other company, but if it is bought in interim, we must have no regrets. […] Most grateful for your interest and early action on this and do not want discourage you from bringing to our attention this forcibly any new or old story which you run across, and therefore most sorry to have to say no in face of your enthusiasm for this story.”[35]

If it had not been for the timely intervention of John Hay “Jock” Whitney, who was one of Selznick’s main financial backers, and chairman of the board at Selznick International Pictures,[36] and who had told Kay Brown to “keep at him [Selznick], if he doesn’t buy the book, I will,”[37] Selznick may never have bought it. He wrote:

“When I hesitated about paying $50,000 for a novel about the Civil War – the largest price ever paid for a book that was not even established as a success – Jock Whitney wired me that if I didn’t buy it for Selznick International, he would buy it , and hold it for the company if I wanted it. This was all the encouragement I needed, and rather than have Jock have the last laugh on me, we went ahead and bought Gone with the Wind. I then went to Hawaii on vacation and read the novel on board ship.”[38]

And so history was on its way. Little did Selznick imagine that for millions in the future, he would forever be “the man who produced Gone with the Wind.” Born on May 10, 1902, David O. Selznick was the son of a Jewish emigrant from

David O Selznick and his brother Myron, 1937

Kiev, who had changed his name from Zeleznick to Selznick on arrival to America.[39] Lewis J. Selznick had been a motion picture pioneer,[40] who had been ruined by what his sons, David and Myron, had felt was the excessive power of the studios.[41] David, who had started to work in the movie business alongside his father when he was still very young, had always pursued the dream of being his own boss. “I simply had to fulfil my ambitions of starting my own company. It has always been an obsession of mine, unquestionably inherited from my father.”[42] Independence from the studios seemed to him as the best way of achieving control over his professional life, as well as his artistic aspirations as a producer. After working for Paramount from 1928 to 1931,[43] he had then worked for RKO from 1931 to 1933,[44],and had gone to work at MGM from 1933 to 1935,[45] for Louis B. Mayer, whose daughter Irene he had married in 1930. Still looking for independence, however, he had resolved to start his own company, Selznick International Pictures. He resigned from MGM in the summer of 1935, as can be read in a memo he had addressed to Nicholas Schenck, president of Loew’s, the conglomerate that owned MGM: [46]

“I have decided that today is my last opportunity to try the things I have wanted to do all my life – and that whatever the cost to me, I must have my fling or regret it all my life.

I have weighed everything very carefully. […] The amount of money I would definitely receive from MGM probably has few parallels in all American industry; […] the freedom that I have had here, and presumably would continue to have, is unknown elsewhere in the business; […] the independence from financial worry in making pictures is something I may never have again; […] I have weighed and weighed – but I am at a crossroads where a sign hangs high: ‘To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.’…

I have no desire to go to work for anyone else. […] But what I must do is get started on my own and try my wings, and once and for all find out whether all by myself I cannot find what I am looking for. […] I am prepared to do with less money if need be […] in order to be absolute master from day to day and week to week and year to year of my instincts, my whims, my occasional desire to loaf, my time, and my destiny.”[47]

Independence from the major studios appeared to Selznick to be an essential element of artistic freedom. He felt this latitude was necessary, in general, and had the intuition that it would be true, especially in the case of his adaptation of Gone with the Wind: “I went ahead and made Gone with the Wind according to my own lights. I was told by the most important people in the business that no independent company could hope to achieve the result that I was after, and I replied, only an independent company could hope to achieve such a result, and that it was impossible in a factory.”[48]

Then how would Selznick’s independence from the major studios, his vision of the world in general, and movie making in particular, shape the adaptation from book to film? In order to set the adaptation of the novel in motion, and to determine the artistic approach to the story, the first step that Selznick had had to take was to find a script writer who would be worthy of the task. He had felt confident that Sydney Howard would be up to it.[49]

Sydney Howard, 1936

The fact that Howard was also a free-lancer, not hampered by any studio contract, certainly had an appeal to Selznick, as well, of course, as his talent as a writer. By the time it had come to the writing of a script version of the novel, the book had eventually reached the status of bestseller, and Margaret Mitchell had become a celebrity. As soon as the information had leaked out that he was going to undertake the adaptation of Gone with the Wind, Selznick had tried to ensure Mitchell’s participation to the movie. He wanted to reassure the public that they would not be betrayed by a poor version of the story they had so loved. Just the same, Mitchell had remained firm in her refusal of his offer: “I wrote the book, and that is all. My connection to the motion picture ended when I signed the contract selling the film rights. I’ve sold them to you lock, stock, and barrels. From that day forward, they have been yours to do what it is you please.”[50] And further: “When I sold the book to the Selznick Company, I made it very plain that I would have nothing whatsoever to do with the picture, nothing about additional dialogue, nothing about advising on backgrounds, costumes, continuity. They offered me money to go to Hollywood to write additional dialogue, etc. And I refused. I sold the book on that understanding.”[51] Selznick finally gave up the idea. As to who the director of the movie would be, at first Selznick trusted his friend George Cukor to hold the part ideally.[52] Interestingly enough, though, in a memo dated January 5, 1937, David O. Selznick mentioned the possibility that had occurred to him to associate to Cukor, another director, who would be responsible for a second filming unit for the most historically charged scenes of the movie. And that director, whom Selznick was thinking of, was no other than The Birth of a Nation‘s D. W. Griffith: “Even more extensive than the second unit work on [The Prisoner of] Zenda is the work on Gone with the Wind, which requires a man really capable, literate, and with a respect for research to re-create, in combination with Cukor, the evacuation of Atlanta and other episodes of the war and Reconstruction period. I have even thought about […] D. W. Griffith for this job.”[53] This could be seen, if needed, as evidence that Griffith was still regarded by his peers, as an artist who could be trusted to render the authenticity of historical facts, in spite of past criticism that he had been inaccurate and biased in his re-creation of the Reconstruction period in The Birth of a Nation. But the fact that he had thought of hiring Griffith for a second unit – which he eventually ended up not doing – should not be seen as a sign that Selznick was indifferent to the opinion of the African-American community, who had so loathed Griffith for his biased view of history. As a matter of fact, several elements tend to prove that indeed, he cared about the African-American community, and did not wish to offend them in any way. These very same elements also show that he was aware of the controversial character of the novel he was adapting, and that he would place special emphasis on “correcting” certain aspects of the book, which had been deservedly deemed offensive by the African-American community. In a famous memo dated January 6, 1937, and addressed to Sydney Howard, Selznick had discussed a rough draft of the story which Sydney had sent him, and the possibility of cutting certain episodes from the final version of the story:

“Here we come to a very touching point and I am hopeful that you share my feelings on it. I have already discussed it with George [Cukor] and he agrees – but then, our feelings are prejudiced. I refer to the Ku Klux Klan. I personally feel quite strongly that we should cut out the Klan entirely. […] (I, for one, have no desire to produce any anti-Negro film. […] In our picture, I think we have to be awfully careful that the Negroes come out decidedly on the right side of the ledger, which I do not think should be difficult.) Furthermore, there is nothing in the story that necessarily needs the Klan. The revenge for the attempted attack can very easily be identical to what it is without their being members of the Klan. 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.

I do hope that you will agree with me on this omission of what might come out as an unintentional advertisement for intolerant societies in these fascist-ridden times…”[54]

And then, in yet another memo, addressed this time to Jock Whitney:

“Dear Jock, I have gone to extremes in the preparation […] of the picture, to avoid any deregatory representation of the Negroes as a race, or as individuals, and to eliminate the major things in the story which were apparently found offensive by Negroes in the Margaret Mitchell’s book. I feel so keenly about what is happening to the Jews of the world, that I cannot help but sympathize with the Negroes and their fears about material, which they regard as insulting and damaging.”[55]

Selznick was very anxious to try and distance himself from the prejudiced point of view adopted by Mitchell. As expressed in both memos cited here, the fact that Selznick was indeed Jewish, seems to have played a particularly important role in his attitude towards the African-American community. In the words of Aljean Harmetz, “what worried Selznick most during those early weeks of production was that there might be ‘repercussions not simply on the picture, and not simply upon the company and upon me personally, but on the Jews of America as a whole…’”[56] Selznick’s own fears concerning the possible repercussions on the American Jewish community as a whole, may not only have been brought about by his own reflexion, but also by the warnings that came to him, directly from members of his own community. In an article entitled “Gone with the Wind and Hollywood’s racial politics,” Leonard J. Leff reported that Selznick International had received numerous letters of protest because of their prospective adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s novel. Notably “an associate of the Conference of American Rabbis told Selznick that the novel, though it entertained readers, also excited a latent ‘anti-Negro antipathy.’ Selznick, the correspondent said, must not cater to the public’s narrow-mindedness, in part because it was wrong, and in part because he, David O. Selznick, like most of his Hollywood peers, was a Jew.”[57] Here, a parallel can be drawn between the African-American community and the Jewish community. In his book Blackface, White Noise, Michael Rogin initiated that parallel,[58] and noted that before coming to America, the Jewish community was not considered as white in Europe, and was prejudiced against in just the same fashion as the African-American community was, in the United States:

“As anti-Semitism racialized Jews in Europe, […] European immigrants to the United States were coming under the banner of a new racial invention: whiteness. ‘No one was white before he or she came to America,’ wrote James Baldwin.[59] ‘It took generations and a vast amount of coercion before this became a white country,’ Baldwin explained. ‘Jews came here from countries where they were not white, and they came here in part because they were not white… Everyone who got here, and paid the price of the ticket, the price was to become white.’ The differentiation of white immigrant workers from colored chattel, a process organic to the creation of race-based slavery at the origins of the United States, was repeated for the waves of European immigrants that came to these shores after slavery had come to an end.”

He went on to add that “immigrant Jews […] led the fight for civil rights. […] Jewish activists were distinctively allied with African-Americans in the struggle for racial equality.”[60] And further again:

“In US politics as in culture, in the fight for equal rights as in melting-pot entertainment, many Jews forged a special relationship to African-Americans. Jews who escaped from European anti-Semitism had a stake in believing both that the United States offered freedom to all and that they themselves were not going to become the central target of American racism, that they were not black. Many Jews treated American freedom not as a given, however, but as something to be achieved in the struggle against all forms of discrimination. Jews opposed racial prejudice in greater numbers, proportionately, than did any other white ethnic group.

[…] From one point of view, […] politically oriented Jews identified with African-Americans as a persecuted, diaspora people.”[61]

It is not very hard to imagine how a Jewish David O. Selznick could have identified with the repulsion felt by African-Americans when it came to the racism of the book, and especially the depiction of the retaliation by the Ku Klux Klan. This was all the more true as Selznick was not insensitive to the fate of German Jews, who had suffered the attacks of the Nazi during the infamous Kristallnacht, or Crystal Night, on the night of November 9-10, 1937. Indeed, as Lukenbill noted, “Selznick was a socially sensitive man. Being Jewish, he was aware of the problems which Jews were experiencing in Germany and Austria, and he could make a logical connection between their plight and the historic plight of slavery and the role which African-Americans were forced to play in prewar […] America.”[62] At this point, it is also important to stress, as was already done earlier, that the Klan of the Reconstruction period, was not the same as that which had started to rise again in 1915. The second Ku Klux Klan was not only hostile toward black people, as its forerunner had been, but it was also utterly biased against the Jewish community, Roman Catholics, foreigners in general, and organized labour. In the words of David O. Selznick himself : “It would be difficult, if not impossible, to clarify for audiences the difference between the old Klan and the Klan of our times. (A year or so ago, I refused to consider remaking The Birth of a Nation, largely for this reason).”[63] This short digression was necessary in order to understand some aspects of David O. Selznick’s attitude concerning the removal of the Klan from the filmed version of Gone with the Wind. This can also help understand, as will be seen later, his rejection of the word “Nigger”, the presence of which had so infuriated the African-American public, when the book had been published. Being his own boss at Selznick International Pictures, he benefitted from a total latitude in matters of artistic choices. This allowed him to modify, or purely and simply delete, offensive bits of the script. The angle from which he wanted to tackle the story, was entirely up to him, especially since Margaret Mitchell wanted nothing to do with the adaptation of her book on screen.

C. African-American reactions to the perspective of an adaptation of the novel.

But what were the reactions of the African-American community when it came to the perspective of a filmed version of Gone with the Wind? Though it is true that David O. Selznick was a reasonably sensitive man, it would be utterly naive to assume that the attention he paid to the black issues in the film had been born entirely from a desire to do good, morally speaking. Selznick was a business man, of the late 1930’s. He had to protect his investment. In order to make sure that he would not be alienating himself a portion of the public potential, he needed to address the various critics that the African-American community was making against his project. He called these issues, “the Negro problem”.[64] When it came to the African-American community, and more generally to the left wing press of the country, Selznick was largely criticized for attempting to adapt such a biased and racist novel. As a matter of fact, and as Leonard J. Leff reported, as early as the Spring of 1937,

“spurred by memories of racism in The Birth of a Nation, black organizations on both coasts had written to Selznick International about Gone with the Wind. ‘We consider this work to be a glorification of the old rotten system of slavery, propaganda for race-hatreds and bigotry, and incitement of lynching.’ […] One studio official called such opinions ‘ridiculous’, yet many blacks were convinced otherwise; they genuinely feared that what they saw as an ‘anti-Negro’ novel would become an ‘anti-Negro’ film. Selznick International meanwhile hastened to assure them that no movie company ‘intends to offer to the public material that is offensive or conductive to race prejudice.’”[65]

As can be seen in W. Bernard Lukenbill’s essay, Selznick was faced with the need to market his film to both white and black audiences. Therefore, he had to juggle with what would seem acceptable to both communities, which was not an easy thing to do. The NAACP tried to make the critics and demands of its own community known:

“Walter White, then head of the NAACP,

Walter White, chief secretary of the NAACP (1929-1955)

in a June 26, 1938 letter to Selznick, wrote that the book is ‘so essentially superficial and false in its emphases that it will require almost incredible effort to make a film from the novel which would not be both hurtful and inaccurate pictures of the Reconstruction era.’ He goes on to write: ‘Our interest is solely that of the accuracy according to the most rigid standards of historical truth.’ He reminded Selznick that most historical treatments of the period give a distorted and essentially vicious treatment of the African-American.”[66]

To these harsh critics, “Selznick responded warmly. He, too, was a member of a persecuted race, he told White, and was sensitive to minority peoples’ opinions.”[67] In its editorial “Hollywood Goes Hitler One Better”, which has already been cited earlier, The Los Angeles Sentinel argued that “Hollywood is hard at work making one of the most vicious anti-Negro pictures of its long, and as far as Negroes are concerned, dishonorable career. David Selznick is the producer. The picture is Gone with the Wind, a movie version of a novel that stinks with the preachment of racial inferiority.”[68] Furthermore, the Los Angeles-based newspaper “called for a boycott of ‘every other Selznick picture, present and future. What’s more,’ the paper continued, ‘let’s start a campaign and find out whether or not some of those who oppose Hitler from a safe distance have courage enough to oppose race prejudice when it may hit them in their careers and in their pocketbooks.’”[69] Undoubtedly, and understandably, the African-American community was alarmed at the prospect of a movie, which in their mind, would be only too reminiscent of the infamous Birth of a Nation. The echoes of Griffith’s film were still very much alive in the mind of the black audiences. They knew that Margaret Mitchell’s novel contained some of the demeaning clichés, which they had always fought against. Indeed, many members of the African-American community feared that the movie version of Gone with the Wind would be “a sequel to The Birth of a Nation because of its reported allegiance to Mitchell’s novel.”[70] The mere fact that African-Americans would be depicted as slaves was, however, not the main concern when it came to the adaptation of the book. In Donald Bogle’s words: “The problem with Civil War spectacles has never been that they presented Negroes as slaves – for how else could they be depicted? – but that the films have humiliated and debased them far beyond the callings of the script. Gone with the Wind was often criticized because the slaves were not shown taking up rifles against their former masters.”[71] As soon as he had had endeavoured to make his own version of Gone with the Wind, David O. Selznick had started to receive letters after letters from African-American groups, or individuals. He could not help but be aware of the scrutiny he would be under as producer of the film. In his essay on the African-American press’s reception of Gone with the Wind, James F. Tracy referred to the fact that one of the main factors that contributed to the final approach of the black characters in the film, was indeed the “outspokenness and activism of the African-Americans themselves.”[72] As a matter of fact, Walter White of the NAACP was not the only one to complain to Selznick about the pernicious content of the story. In his editorial, dated February 4, 1939, Earl J. Morris, who was the motion picture editor of the African-American newspaper The Pittsburgh Courier, condemned the fact that the word “Nigger” had been used in the book, as it would probably be used in the movie version as well. He had then urged his readers to write to Selznick and his staff, in order to prevent the word from appearing in the motion picture.[73] As Leonard J. Leff noted, “using the screenplay’s racial epithets as a battle cry, the paper threatened a letter-writing offensive and, if necessary, a boycott of the finished picture.”[74] Furthermore, only a few days before the actual start of the shooting of the film, Joseph Breen, who was the administrator of the Production Code,

Joseph Breen, head of the Production Code Administration (1934-1954)

“warned Selznick – not for the first time – that ‘this word [Nigger] is highly offensive to Negroes throughout the United States and will be quite forcefully resented by them.’ In a memorandum written for his files on February 9, Breen expressed relief that Selznick had agreed not to use the word. Selznick had been shaken by hundreds of letters from individual Negroes and Negro organizations and by attacks in Negro newspapers. For a year, Margaret Mitchell’s 1,037 page novel had been Selznick’s bible. He had sent memo after memo telling his screenwriters, his set designers, and his directors to look for answers in what he always called ‘the book’. And now he was discovering that ‘the book’ – with the stalwart Ku Klux Klan defending white womanhood and former slaves who were unhappy at being freed and still devoted to their masters – infuriated Negroes.”[75]

As Ruth Elizabeth Burks noted: “While the NAACP did not protest as vehemently against Gone with the Wind as it had, under W. E. B. Du Bois’s leadership, rallied against The Birth of a Nation (in part, because the NAACP had begun to unravel in 1935 when Du Bois resigned because of major differences of opinion with its new secretary Walter White), the [prospect of the] release of Gone with the Wind did spark severe opposition from the left as well as from the National Negro Congress and other black organizations.”[76] Selznick finally removed the word “Nigger” from the script, “based as much on the advice from Joseph Breen at the Hays Office, who was worried that angry blacks would throw bricks at the screen as had happened previously when that epithet was used, as on his desire to comply with black leaders who initially made the request.”[77] Marcella Rabwin, who was David O. Selznick’s secretary at the time, recalled that “there was a very difficult period with the black press. They had threatened a boycott of the film because they were afraid of ‘Uncle Tomism’ and the depiction of the slaves.”[78] Though the depiction of slaves was unavoidable, given the period in which the action of the movie was to take place, the artistic direction however, and the angle from which the black characters would be depicted, were entirely up to Selznick and Howard.


(Next: IV. African-American actors and the making of the film; V. African-American reactions to the film itself, or how to forget The Birth of a Nation.)

[1] Thomson, David. Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1992, p. 196.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Edwards, Anne. The Road to Tara: The Life of Margaret Mitchell. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1983, p. 247.

[4] Lukenbill, W. Bernard. « Marketing Gone with the Wind in an Age of Social Conflict ». The Acquisition Librarian. Volume 14. Issue 28. 2002, p. 199.

[5] Stokes, Melvyn. « Crises in History and the Response to Them as Illustrated in The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind« . La Licorne n°36. Université de Poitiers. 1996, pp. 66-77.

[6] Rice, Arnold S. and John A. Krout. United States History from 1865. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1991, p. 224.

[7] Vertrees, Alan David. Selznick’s Vision: Gone with the Wind and Hollywood Filmmaking. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997, p. 25.

[8] Burks, Ruth Elizabeth. « Gone with the Wind: Black and White in Technicolor ». Quarterly Review of Film and Video. Volume 21. Number 1. January/February/March 2004, p. 55.

[9] Harmetz, Aljean. On the Road to Tara: the Making of Gone with the Wind. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Incorporated, 1996, p. 144.

[10] The Making of a Legend: Gone with the Wind. David Hinton – Director: L. Jeffrey Selznick – Producer; MGM/UA Home Entertainment, 1988, 8’42.

[11] Ibid, 8’55.

[12] Mitchell, Margaret. Gone with the Wind. New York: Warner Books, 1993, [The MacMillan Company, 1936], p. 465.

[13] Ibid, p. 25.

[14] Ibid, p. 771.

[15] Kennedy, Randall. Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. New York: Knopf Publishing Group, 2002.

[16] Mitchell, op. cit., p. 780.

[17] Pilgrim, David. « What Was Jim Crow? ». Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University. September 2000.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Mitchell, op. cit., p. 790.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Vertrees, op. cit., pp. 23-24.

[22] James, M. M. And D. Brown, eds.. The Book Review Digest: Thirty-Second Annual Cumulation, March 1936 to February 1937 Inclusive, Vol. A-Q, New York: H. W. Wilson, 1937, as cited in Lukenbill, op. cit., p. 199.

[23] Adams, Donald. The New York Times Book Review, as cited in Thomson, op. cit., p. 216.

[24] DeVoto, Bernard. « Fiction Fights the Civil War ». Saturday Review of Literature. January 1938.

[25] Cowley, Malcolm. The New Republic. September 15, 1936, as cited in Vertrees, op. cit., p. 37.

[26] The Journal of Negro Life, 1937, as cited in Dalkin, Gary S.. « Retrospective: Gone with the Wind« . Amazon Retrospective.

[27] Schuyler, George S.. « Not Gone with the Wind« . Crisis. July 1937. Volume 44. Issue 7. Pages 205-206, as cited in Burks, op. cit., p. 53 and 62.

[28] « Hollywood Goes Hitler One Better », The Los Angeles Sentinel. February 9, 1939, as cited in The Making of a Legend: Gone with the Wind, op. cit., 52’49.

[29] Mitchell, Margaret. Letters, pp. 273-274, as cited in Burks, op. cit., pp. 59-60.

[30] Molt, Cynthia Marylee. Gone with the Wind on Film: A Complete Reference. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1990, p. 60.

[31] Ibid, p. 64.

[32] The Making of a Legend: Gone with the Wind, op. cit., 11’10.

[33] Thomson, op. cit., p. 212.

[34] Thomas, Bob. Selznick, the Man who Produced Gone with the Wind. Beverly Hills: New Millennium Press, 2001, p. 123.

[35] Behlmer, Rudy, ed.. Memo from David O. Selznick. New York: Modern Library & Random House Ltd., 2000, pp. 152-153.

[36] Molt, op. cit., p. 64.

[37] Thomas, op. cit., p. 128.

[38] Behlmer, op. cit., p. 151.

[39] Thomas, op. cit., p. 5.

[40] Behrman, S. N.. « David O. Selznick in Person », as cited in Behlmer, op. cit., xxii.

[41] The Making of a Legend: Gone with the Wind, op. cit., 6’50.

[42] Behlmer, op. cit., p. 103.

[43] Ibid, p. 13.

[44] Ibid, p. 41.

[45] Ibid, p. 59.

[46] Vertrees, op. cit., p. 7.

[47] Behlmer, op. cit., pp. 89-90.

[48] The Making of a Legend: Gone with the Wind, op. cit., 6’25.

[49] Behlmer, op. cit., p. 155.

[50] The Making of a Legend: Gone with the Wind, op. cit., 15’40.

[51] Thomson, op. cit., p. 221.

[52] Ibid, p. 219.

[53] Behlmer, op. cit., p. 158.

[54] Ibid, p. 162.

[55] The Making of a Legend: Gone with the Wind, op. cit., 53’05.

[56] Harmetz, op. cit., p. 144.

[57] Leff, Leonard J.. « Gone with the Wind and Hollywood’s Racial Politics ». The Atlantic Monthly. Volume 284. Number 6. December 1999.

[58] Rogin, Michael. Blackface, White Noise. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996, p. 12.

[59] Baldwin, James. « On Being ‘White’ and Other Lies ». Essence, April 1984, pp. 90-92, as cited in Rogin, op. cit., p. 12.

[60] Rogin, op. cit., p. 16.

[61] Ibid, p. 66.

[62] Lukenbill, op. cit., p. 206.

[63] Behlmer, op. cit., p. 162.

[64] Leff, Leonard J.. « David Selznick’s Gone with the Wind: The Negro Problem ». Georgia Review. Issue 38. Spring 1984.

[65] Leff, 1999, op. cit..

[66] Lukenbill, op. cit., p. 201.

[67] Leff, 1999, op. cit..

[68] The Making of a Legend: Gone with the Wind, op. cit., 52’49.

[69] « Hollywood Goes Hitler One Better », The Los Angeles Sentinel. February 9, 1939, as cited in Leff, op. cit., 1999.

[70] Tracy, James F.. « Revisiting a Polysemic Text: The African-American Press’s Reception of Gone with the Wind« . Mass Communication and Society. November 2001. Volume 4. Number 4, p. 424.

[71] Bogle, Donald. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks. New York: Continuum Publishing, 1991, [1973], p. 88.

[72] Ibid.

[73] Lukenbill, op. cit., pp. 201-202.

[74] Leff, 1999, op. cit..

[75] Harmetz, op. cit., p. 144.

[76] Burks, op. cit., p 56.

[77] Ibid, p. 64.

[78] The Making of a Legend: Gone with the Wind, op. cit., 52’40.

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