Gone with the Wind and America’s Nostalgia for the Old South

gwtw

A few days ago, stories on the 75th anniversary of the premiere of Gone with the Wind (GWTW) on December 15, 1939 circulated in the news media. A new anniversary edition of the film has been released, one of many that have appeared as different anniversaries of the film have been celebrated.  It is a testament to the staying power of the film David Selznick produced when he brought Margaret Mitchell’s book to the big screen.

Gone with the Wind is a story that holds the “land of Cavaliers and cotton” on a pedestal, and when it arrived in theaters in 1939, it fed America’s nostalgia for the Old South then and for decades to come.

Shirley Temple was box office gold during the Depression.
Shirley Temple was box office gold during the Depression.

Hollywood already had terrific success with antebellum stories set against plantation backdrops. Throughout the 1930s there had been numerous films set in the Old South, many of which were successful. Some, not so much.

But it didn’t matter. Old South nostalgia was a Hollywood staple.

Among the successes were The Littlest Rebel and The Little Colonel which appeared in 1935, both of which starred child star Shirley Temple. In 1938, the most successful pretender to the GWTW throne was Jezebel, starring Bette Davis who won an Oscar as Best Actress for her performance as a “scarlet spitfire.” (The GWTW reference was intentional.)

Film still. So Red the Rose (1935)
So Red the Rose (1935)

Surprisingly less successful was So Red the Rose, a film based on the best-selling plantation novel of the same name written by Stark Young.  Young’s novel, set in Natchez, Mississippi, might have been the most important plantation novel of the decade had it not been for Gone with the Wind.

This is all of way of saying that Hollywood had primed the Old South pump for years, so that by the time GWTW premiered, a lot of the groundwork for the film’s success had already been laid. Still, there can be no doubt that GWTW eclipsed all that had come before.

From the opening scenes and first few minutes of dialogue, moviegoers were whisked into the mythical South of faithful slaves, southern belles, cavalier gentlemen, cotton fields and beautiful mansions.  American popular culture fed this nostalgia, too, particularly during the 1930s, and not just on the big screen.  It could be found among advertising icons like Aunt Jemima, radio shows such as the Maxwell House Showboat, and through the revival of Stephen Foster’s music and the “Dixie songs” of Tin Pan Alley. The film version of Gone with the Wind had all of that helping it succeed, too.

As the film is being celebrated on its 75th anniversary, it is interesting to note the ways in which Americans are still nostalgic for the Old South represented in GWTW.  In Georgia, there are tours of the facade of Tara (the film set), there are online fan clubs, a website dedicated to Scarlett touted as “the most comprehensive Gone with the Wind site on the Internet,” and you can still eat at Aunt Pitty Pat’s Porch in Atlanta.

It is important to note that Gone with the Wind is also reviled for its racism, and yet despite this it is easy to predict that when the film turns 100, there will be another anniversary edition for sale.

America’s nostalgia for the Old South is a hard thing to shake, thanks in large part to the cultural imprint this film has made.

 

 

The Ongoing “Allure” of the Antebellum South

Pop South welcomes this post by Joshua Rothman, professor of history at the University of Alabama.

Still shot from Gone with the Wind.
Still shot from Gone with the Wind.

Although I feel very fortunate to have a job where I actually get paid to teach courses on the American South, slavery, and memory to college students, there is one thing about being a professor of southern history that gets more grating every time I do it. Roughly once a year, I make myself (and my students) watch Gone with the Wind (GWTW). I could assign the book, of course, but the film really is the elephant in the room where American popular cultural memories of slavery reside.

Even now, seventy-five years after its release in 1939, the images of the intrepid belle Scarlett O’Hara, the embattled and torched city of Atlanta, the sympathetic scoundrel Rhett Butler, and the heartless Yankee invaders form the core of how a significant number of Americans, and particularly white Americans, imagine the South to have looked and operated during the era of the Civil War. And in my more generous moments, I concede that it’s not hard to understand why.

Hattie McDaniel as "Mammy" in GWTW.
Hattie McDaniel as “Mammy” in GWTW.

The film is sweeping and epic in its scope, drenched in color, and filled with so many iconic lines of dialog, characters, and screenshots that after a while it simply washes over you. It becomes beautiful, seductive and, superficially at least, nearly immune to critical engagement. There’s just one problem, of course. The film is racist as hell. The legendary performances of Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen notwithstanding, a clear-eyed viewer recognizes GWTW as a fantastical reading of the lives of the richest people in the antebellum South that one can only believe and fall in love with by denying how the real life O’Haras collectively subjected millions of black people to cruel violence and systematic exploitation to make their lives possible.

Fiddle-dee-dee indeed.

Blake Lively
Blake Lively

Which—and here I’m making a transition that I never thought I would make and did not actually think was possible—brings me to Blake Lively, a 27 year-old actress. I am uncertain of whether I ought to be proud or embarrassed to admit that before the other day I was not entirely sure who or what a Blake Lively was. Apparently she is in some television shows and movies that I have never seen, and she has parlayed that into running a “lifestyle” website called Preserve whose goals are things like “support[ing] the America we’ve always known, and the one we haven’t yet met.” It’s a site, in other words, that sells $80 t-shirts, $45 jars of sugar, and $325 floral teepees for children, all of which are “curated” for the consumer who doesn’t have enough overpriced and precious things in his or her life. It parodies itself, really, and is usually easy to ignore.

But this fall, Preserve proudly brings you the “Allure of Antebellum,” a fashion collection inspired by the “southern charm” and the “authenticity” of the “Southern belle.” These were the women, the website observes, who possessed “inherent social distinction [that] set the standards for style and appearance” and “epitomized Southern hospitality with a cultivation of beauty and grace, but even more with a captivating and magnetic sensibility.” Want a piece of that? Well, then, “embrace the season and the magic below the Mason-Dixon with styles as theatric as a Dixie drawl.”

The Allure of Antebellum. Photo credit: preserve.us
The Allure of Antebellum. Photo credit: preserve.us

The problem here isn’t the clothes. Indeed, how exactly stiletto heels, triangular earrings that look strikingly like the Star Trek insignia, and a leopard print skirt evoke belles or the antebellum South is a complete mystery, though the site claims it has something to do with “artful layering,” and I regret to inform you that that skirt is currently sold out. The problem is not even necessarily that Preserve proffers fashion purportedly inspired by a historical ruling class that sat atop its world by preying upon and slowly draining the life out of those they deemed inferiors, as arguably many fashions across time and space owe themselves to similar inspirations.

The problem is that at our current historical moment, the failures of the United States to reckon effectively with its particular legacy of slavery, and its seeming determination to perpetuate elements of that legacy in its public policy a century and a half after slavery’s demise, as evidenced most alarmingly in our criminal justice system, are glaringly on display. To glom onto that legacy culturally and materially, and to sell it back to American consumers—not merely with a total lack of self-awareness but as an aspirational virtue—may be a longstanding tradition in its own right.

But it is more than in bad taste. It’s rubbing it in.

scarlett-ohara1Historical sensibility does not seem to be the strong suit of Preserve, and I would venture that whoever conceived the “Allure of Antebellum” campaign and wrote its insipid ad copy had no malicious intent. But even casual ignorance and unintentional callousness deserve to be called out. It’s long past time to leave Scarlett O’Hara behind.

Portraits of Aunt Jemima in Black and Blackface

Aunt-JemimaOne of the most iconic advertising images of the twentieth century is Aunt Jemima, and recently the heirs of Nancy Green and Anna Harrington, just two of the women whose portraits were used as the “face” of the brand, are suing Quaker Oats for $2 billion and future revenues, claiming that not only did Green and Harrington portray Aunt Jemima, they were influential in shaping the recipe.  Attorneys for Quaker Oats are saying “hold on a minute,” Aunt Jemima might be the brand, but she was “never real.”

Yes and no.

The “biography” of Aunt Jemima was the creation of the J. Walter Thompson Agency based in New York. More specifically, it was the creation of James Webb Young, a native of Covington, Kentucky.  According to internal documents of the agency, the story of Aunt Jemima was that she came from Louisiana.  So, yes, the story is a creation.

256px-Aunt_Jemima,_AB_Frost
Portrait of Nancy Green by Arthur Burdette Frost.

Yet it is also true that Nancy Green, then a Chicago domestic, portrayed “Aunt Jemima” at the 1893 World’s Fair and made a career of doing so for nearly twenty years after the fair. More to the point, Green’s face was, in fact, the first image of Aunt Jemima to appear on the pancake box.  The Thompson Agency hired Arthur Burdette Frost, better known for his illustrations of Uncle Remus tales, to paint Green’s portrait.

If she contributed to the recipe, we may never know, but we do know that white women often took their maids’ recipes and passed them off as their own, a tradition that even Paula Deen maintained when she co-opted recipes from Dora Charles, a black woman who had worked in Deen’s Savannah restaurant for years.

It is true that several black women portrayed Aunt Jemima at various state fairs during the early decades of the twentieth century. They greatly assisted the brand by lending an authenticity to the product as being a particularly “southern” recipe.  This was in keeping with the character created by the Thompson Agency, whose story was that Aunt Jemima had been a slave and that she created the recipe that brought her such fame that it caused jealousy among other mammies.

But on radio, it was a different story. In a short program called Aunt Jemima Radio, which ran from 1930 to about 1942, she was portayed by several white women who were essentially doing a radio minstrel act. One of those women was Tess Gardella, an Italian-American actress from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Gardella had played “Queenie” in the stage version of Show Boat, and she parlayed that experience into performing as Aunt Jemima on the radio. She also played Aunt Jemima in a film short.  It is even on her gravestone.

Gardella's gravestone
Gardella’s gravestone
Tess Gardella as Aunt Jemima, early 1930s

Tess Gardella is also interesting because she filed a lawsuit against NBC for allowing an “imposter to broadcast as ‘Aunt Jemima,’ when as a matter of fact she [Gardella] had been using that name for years on stage and air.”  The actress further claimed that she had the right to use the name “by virtue of authority from the Quaker Oats Company.”  She won her lawsuit and nearly $116,000 in damages.

The heirs of Nancy Green and Anna Harrington may have a difficult time in the courts because, unlike Gardella, they did not have a contract.  Still, their lawsuit brings into sharp relief the ways American companies have profited by using images of African Americans to brand their products.

*Some of the ideas expressed in this post are drawn from Dreaming of Dixie: How the South was Created in American Popular Culture (UNC Press, 2011), 40-41.

 

Pop Culture’s Southern Gentleman

This winter Atlanta, (and the South more broadly), got skewered in the media when a snowfall of just two inches snarled traffic on the interstate highways that cut through the heart of the city, causing several hundred people to abandon their cars and walk home, in some cases, for several miles. Saturday Night Live‘s Weekend Update covered the news story in classic SNL style by having “Atlanta resident” and storm survivor “Buford Calloway” offer a firsthand account.

The character of Buford Calloway is one in a long line of southern gentleman and a central figure in the pop culture pantheon of southern icons who make up the plantation legend. The southern gentleman, in fact, has a history in popular culture that extends well into the antebellum period. One of the earliest descriptions of the southern gentleman can be found in John Pendleton Kennedy’s book Swallow Barn (1832), who appears in the character of Frank Meriwether, a 45 year-old Virginia planter. Kennedy introduces him this way:

“Good cheer and a good temper both tell well upon him. The first has given him a comfortable full figure, and the latter certain easy, contemplative habits, that incline him to be lazy and philosophical. He has the substantial planter look that belongs to a gentleman who lives on his estate, and is not much vexed with the crosses of life.”

Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind
Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind

The southern gentleman has long been seen as an insular man who doesn’t venture far beyond his homeland (the South) or, in the case of Frank Meriwether, his estate. He is well-read and attentive to his personal appearance, but he’s not really a man’s man. He’s a tad soft, because he owns the land and doesn’t work it. You can see hints of these character traits in SNL’s Buford Calloway. He clearly doesn’t venture beyond Georgia, or even Atlanta, and lumps South Carolina in with “the North.”  And, he’s a well-groomed fellow who not only doesn’t appear to engage in manual labor, he likely gets manicures.

Tom Hanks in The LadyKillers (2004)
Tom Hanks in The LadyKillers (2004)

A century after Americans were introduced to Frank Meriwether, the southern gentleman of popular culture had changed very little. He made regular appearances in films of the 1930s.  He was Duncan Bedford (played by Randolph Scott) in “So Red the Rose,” Herbert Cary (played by John Boles) in “The Littlest Rebel,” and Preston Dillard (played by Henry Fonda) in “Jezebel.” More than anyone, he was Ashley Wilkes who Leslie Howard brought to life in “Gone with the Wind.”  (Sorry ladies, Rhett Butler was not a gentleman.) More recently, Tom Hanks offered his interpretation in 2004’s “The Ladykillers,” a Coen Brothers remake of the 1955 film set in London, as Professor Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr.

The Southern Gentleman drinks bourbon.
The Southern Gentleman drinks bourbon.
The Southern Gentleman Costume
The Southern Gentleman Costume

The southern gentleman has also been used as an advertising icon, most often for the sale of Kentucky bourbon, but also beer.  There’s even a southern gentleman “costume” that can be purchased for special occasions.

What’s notable, of course, is that there’s nothing modern about the southern gentleman. At least not in popular culture. He’s still a character of the Old South. He has a mustache and goatee. He probably drinks bourbon. He may even dress like he’s still wedded to the land of his ancestors.

He’s Buford Calloway. The only difference is Buford’s modern suit of clothes.

American Roadside: The Mammy of Natchez

Mammy's Cupboard is located on Highway 61 on the outskirts of Natchez, MS
Mammy’s Cupboard, Natchez, MS

mammyhead

Visitors who travel to Natchez, Mississippi, by way of Highway 61 will be able to see an interesting relic of roadside architecture known as Mammy’s Cupboard. While some visitors just want to stop and photograph the building, locals go there because it’s a great place to get a meat and three and a slice of banana caramel pie that by itself is worth the five-mile drive from town.  For others, the building’s association with a “southern mammy” is enough for them to keep on driving.

Built in 1940, Mammy’s Cupboard originally operated as a family-owned Shell Gas station and convenience store.  It was a good investment at the time. The Natchez Pilgrimage, the spring tour of the town’s antebellum mansions, had grown exponentially since it began in 1932. Tourism to the town exploded following the enormous success of Gone with the Wind, which premiered in 1939. Many Americans who saw the film later went in search of houses like Tara;Natchez offered them that and more.

Today, the gas pumps at Mammy’s have been closed off, but it remains a family-owned restaurant that is primarily open for lunch.

White tourists, of course, were drawn to the Natchez mammy from the beginning.  By 1940, Aunt Jemima–a marketing figure based on a southern mammy–was already the most recognizable advertising icon in the country.  She reminded whites that this kind of happy servitude was still within reach.  For African Americans, mammy icons were a reminder of their second-class status.

Former Howard University Professor Sterling Brown wrote about the figure while traveling through the region in the early 1940s.  In A Negro Looks at the South, he observed:

Weston
Edward Weston’s photo, 1941.

“Outside of Natchez, as a come-on for tourists, is the Mammy Gas Station and Barbecue Stand. With clean-cut features, a trim waist, and an elegant hoopskirt, a tall erect statue of a Mammy stands there, fronting the highway so proudly that her bandana seems out of place.  My host explained why: the yarn goes that she was intended to be a Southern belle, but when the bodice was poured, the bust filled past all planning.  Natchez objected to the breasts being so pendulous, and the statue’s complexion was colored to a deep chocolate.  Hoopskirt and waist and features still belong to the belle, but it is a colored girl, Egyptian-like, who welcomes the tourists to Natchez and invites the white natives to barbecue.”

In the more than seventy years that Mammy’s has been open, her skin tone has grown lighter in appearance–more white than black. She was still rather dark in the early 1990s, but has since become very fair–perhaps a tacit acknowledgement by the owners that the dark skin was at best inappropriate, and worse, an offensive reminder of the not-too-distant past.

mammypostcard
Postcard, 2013

Yet if you were to stop by Mammy’s Cupboard today, you’d still be able to get a postcard of the restaurant from the days when she was still dark.  It’s a small reminder of William Faulkner‘s oft-quoted line from Requiem for a Nun. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

What Happens When a New York Company Tries to Brand “Southern Style” Sweet Tea

Southern Style Sweet Tea from AriZona by way of Brooklyn, NY.
My friend’s Southern Style Sweet Tea from AriZona by way of Brooklyn, NY.

Recently, a friend and I were having lunch when I noticed an image on the side of her AriZona “Southern Style” sweet tea.  It caught my attention because of the image used to brand this tea as southern–19th century steamboats on what we can probably assume is the Mississippi River.

I find it interesting that in 2013 that a company determined that it would associate “southern” with antebellum paddle-wheelers that were used to not only carry travelers, but tons of cotton cultivated by thousands of slaves. That’s when I did my research and discovered that AriZona had originally used an even more offensive image to suggest “southern style” when the product came out in 2008.

Back then, the tea was branded with the image

The original image of AriZona's Southern Style Sweet Tea featured an antebellum plantation.
The original image of AriZona’s Southern Style Sweet Tea featured an antebellum plantation.

of the “big house” of a southern plantation, with a southern belle in the foreground.  It was reminiscent of early advertising that incorporated images of the Old South–advertising tropes that are more than a century old. The original can rightly drew the ire of consumers for promoting an image of the Old South and the slavery that’s associated with plantations. It forced the company to change the image and make a public apology.

But why did the company approve the image of a plantation in the first place?  Why did they follow it up with another image from the same era? I’d argue that it’s because the company, founded by two guys from Brooklyn, have no sense of American history nor do those in charge of its marketing understand modern southern culture.  Rather, they rely on the same tired tropes of the South. Clearly, there’s some sense that the South not only hasn’t made it into the 21st century; it never made it into the 20th!

So, to marketing firms above the Mason-Dixon I say this:  Come visit and quit relying on tired stereotypes.  You’ll thank yourself and you won’t make stupid mistakes like AriZona.