Classic Essays

Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind Was Not Selznick’s

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THERE ARE obvious parallels between the films Gone with the Wind and D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (Instauration, Dec. 1977). Both films present the Civil War and Reconstruction era from the viewpoint of white southerners. Each in its time set a precedent in the scale of its production and magnitude of its box-office success. (ILLUSTRATION: Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Margaret Mitchell, and David Selznick)

The two screen epics of the South are also linked by the circumstance that a sharklike Jewish manipulator, Louis B. Mayer, profited hugely from both. An immigrant from Russia and one-time ragpicker, Mayer in 1915, bought the rights to distribute The Birth of a Nation in New England. By filing understated reports of grosses with Griffith’s company and appropriating to himself much of the producers’ share of the profits, Mayer was able to amass his first million dollars. He used the money to launch himself as a movie producer and within a decade he was the studio head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and the mightiest of the Jewish despots who turned American film-making into a anti-creative factory system in which White geniuses like Griffith could not function. (The Mayer story is told with bite and relish by Bosley Crowther in Hollywood Rajah, a 1960 biography that depicts its subject as predatory and infantile. The character of an equally primitive mogul, Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures, was summed up by writer Bob Thomas in the punning title of a 1967 biography, King Cohn.)

Mayer had two sons-in-law. He set up one as a partner in a rival film company and conferred an MGM earldom on the other, David O. Selznick, the son of a Jewish immigrant from Kiev whose over-extended movie empire had collapsed in the 1920s. The younger Selznick spent a few depression years at Mayer’s studio as a $4,000-a-week executive — the situation inspiring the acid comment, “The son-in-law also rises.” He then began a career as an independent producer and in 1936, on the advice of a White female associate, he bought the film rights to the newly published Gone with the Wind, a 1,037-page novel by an Atlanta woman, Margaret Mitchell.

Within six months the book sold a million copies. Most of its readers, then and now, have found it a totally engrossing experience. Literary purists deem the book, fairly enough, a middlebrow historical novel of no great profundity that owes some rather conspicuous debts to Vanity Fair. But they have also been quick to acknowledge the remarkable vigor and power of its narrative and characterization.

An early and admiring reader was Thomas Dixon, whose fiction had served as the basis for The Birth of a Nation. He sent the author a complimentary letter and she replied with a humorous account of her “dramatization” at age 11 of his book The Traitor. Part of Dixon’s approval stemmed no doubt from the fact that Gone with the Wind echoes many of his views on Reconstruction. For example, in the chapters she devotes to black-white conflict, Margaret Mitchell is in tacit accord with Dixon on the compelling need for white sovereignty.

In her novel the racial theme is a secondary one and, as most of us know, the focus is centered on the relations of the characters Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. Each is a pragmatic self-seeker, with Scarlett a frigid bitch in the bargain. But both are also possessed of some biologically admirable traits, among them the drive, resourcefulness and cunning which enable the two to survive and prosper in an Atlanta devastated by the war and Reconstruction. Margaret Mitchell infuses the pair with such vitality that they have become archetypes in the collective American imagination, larger-than-life figures who make their Southern ambiance real and credible.

Reader involvement with the fortunes of Scarlett and Rhett was from the first intense and proprietary, so much so that the projected movie version of Gone with the Wind became a topic of national debate in the late 1930s. The people’s choice, in one instance, carried a high price tag for producer Selznick. The overwhelming favorite for the role of Rhett Butler was Clark Gable, an actor under contract to MGM. To get him, Selznick had to deal with Louis B. Mayer. The old mogul — perhaps reasoning that he had done enough already for his son-in-law — drove a bargain which can only be described as extortionate. For Gable’s services, Selznick had to give MGM a 50% interest in the film.

Another imperative was a faithful screen adaptation. “People seem to be simply passionate about the details of the book,” Selznick wrote fellow Jew Sidney Howard, the first of several writers to work on the screenplay. Outright changes, the producer went on, “may give us some improvements, but there will be five or ten million readers on our heads for them.”

So Selznick had his writers adhere to Margaret Mitchell’s text — except when minority interests were at stake. Then he did not hesitate to order “improvements.” He told Howard that references to the Klu Klux Klan should be “cut out entirely” so as to avoid “an unintentional advertisement for intolerant societies in these fascist-ridden times.” He had “no desire to produce any anti-Negro film either.” “In our picture,” he wrote, “I think we have to be awfully careful that the Negroes come out decidedly on the right side of the ledger.” Accordingly, the novel’s sequence in which Scarlett is assaulted by a Negro and the Klan stages a bloody reprisal raid becomes in the film an attack by a white man that is avenged off-screen by an ad hoc group of Scarlett’s friends and relations.

Such changes and omissions make for a film which sympathetically portrays the South’s struggle to overcome the blight of Reconstruction while studiously avoiding any reference to the racial clash. This is roughly equivalent to doing a movie tribute to Walter Reed’s conquest of yellow fever without once identifying the Aedes aegypti mosquito as the transmitter of the virus. Yet color-blind though it may be, Gone with the Wind does offer some impressive scenes of Majority élan and these are powerful, albeit implicit affirmations of a racial spirit. And overall, the film is by Hollywood’s standards a very good one, its strong points being some fine acting and the superb pace of Margaret Mitchell’s narrative.

Ironically enough, a Hollywood project now under way, certain to be an exercise in defaming the white South, is a movie sequel to Gone with the Wind. The 1939 film is the most enduringly popular picture of all time (NBC drew a record audience for its first television showing in late 1976) and Hollywood promoters, from Selznick on, have drooled at the commercial possibilities of a follow-up. While she was alive, Margaret Mitchell refused to write or permit the making of any kind of sequel. For many years following her death in 1949, her brother, serving as literary executor, honored her wishes. But two years ago he made a deal with Hollywood, observing with resignation, “I figured I might as well let them have a go at it.”

We have been given a foretaste of the new movie’s perspective on race by its scriptwriter, one James Goldman, who says: “The blacks in the book and movie would not be acceptable now. Not so much because they would make us angry but for the fact that they were not true portraits.” Judging by this, Goldman’s mentor on race and Reconstruction is Alex Haley; and we can expect the new movie to be both a travesty of Margaret Mitchell and yet another venomous perversion of our history.

[The “sequel” passed into almost instant obscurity. — Ed.]

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Source: based on an article in Instauration magazine, June 1978

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