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.

 

 

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The American South at the Oscars

12 Years a Slave
12 Years a Slave

The American South has been the subject and setting for countless films over the years and many of them have been nominated for Best Picture, and more than a few have won the Oscar.  And this year is no exception. Among the nominees for Best Picture are “12 Years a Slave,” most of which is set in Louisiana, and “Dallas Buyers Club,” set in Texas. (Update: 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture)

While the 1930s was known for movies set in the Old South, the first motion picture set in the region to receive an Oscar nomination was “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang,” (1932) in which a wrongly-convicted James Allen (played by Paul Muni) serves time on a southern chain gang.  The next southern-based film to get an Oscar nomination was “Jezebel” (1938), starring Bette Davis who won the Oscar for Best Actress. Set in Louisiana, it is one of the better films in the genre of the plantation legend, because of its stars, but it still employs African Americans in stereotypical roles. One year later, in 1939, “Gone with the Wind” (GWTW) surpassed all previous films of its kind and not only won Oscar for Best Picture, it was truly one of the first films to become a blockbuster, and its representation of the South shaped popular perceptions of the region for decades to come.

Gone-With-the-Wind-gone-with-the-wind-4368646-1024-768
Gone with the Wind

Oscar-nominated films set in the American South after GWTW include the following:

*Denotes winner of Best Picture

The Little Foxes (1941)
The Yearling (1946)
All the King’s Men (1949)*
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
The Defiant Ones (1958)
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
In the Heat of the Night (1967)*
Midnight Cowboy (1969)*  (included because of Jon Voight’s character Joe Buck)
The Last Picture Show (1971)
Deliverance (1972)
Sounder (1972)
Nashville (1975)
Norma Rae (1979)
Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)
The Big Chill (1983)
Tender Mercies (1983)
A Soldier’s Story (1984)
Places in the Heart (1984)
The Color Purple (1985)
Mississippi Burning (1988)
Driving Miss Daisy (1989)*
JFK (1991)
The Prince of Tides (1991)
Forrest Gump (1994)*
The Green Mile (1999)
Ray (2004)
Capote (2005)
There Will Be Blood (2007)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
The Blind Side (2009)
Winter’s Bone (2010)
The Help (2011)
Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
Django Unchained (2012)
12 Years a Slave (2013)*
Dallas Buyers Club

Back in 1938, German director Kurt Neumann said that the South was “one of the best subjects Hollywood has ever had for sustained interest,” adding “we are just beginning to understand the South.” At the time, Hollywood was still making films focused on the Old South. While films with a southern setting continue to draw on regional stereotypes, not all of them do. And yet even in 2014, it seems fair to conclude that Hollywood is still “just beginning to understand the South.”

Taragate–A Gone with the Wind Scandal? Not exactly.

If you were to drive south on I-77 and exit onto Arrowood Road in Charlotte, North Carolina, you would eventually run across a development called “Taragate Farms.”  I had no idea it existed until recently, when I was invited to have dinner at a home in the neighborhood.

At first, I didn’t think too much about the sign that sets out in front announcing one is entering “Taragate.”  However, as I followed directions on my Garmin I started noticing street names.  Driving down “Scarlett Circle” my eyes were alerted to themes of Gone with the Wind and the Old South. In the same neighborhood, just off of Scarlett Circle is “Rhett Court” and “Rice Planters Road.”  “Julep Lane” intersects with “Pitty Pat Court.”  “Antebellum Drive” is just off of “Johnny Reb Lane,” and “Sherman Drive” (appropriately) crosses over “O’Hara Drive.”

Well, of course, I had to investigate.  It turns out that sometime in the 1980s, Ryan Homes created Taragate and, hold on to your hoop skirts, “Twelve Oaks”–two neighboring housing developments in an area that is so far south of the city, one might call it the Deep South of Charlotte.

I have no idea to whom they were marketing these neighborhoods twenty-five years ago, but today the residents reflect a far more diverse population than one would expect to be living in a development with attachments to the Old South or Gone with the Wind.  Indeed, my dinner hosts were African American, and their neighbors were both white and Asian.

On the one hand I was impressed by the extended marketing reach of the novel and the film, such that in the 1980s developers wanted to “recreate” Tara and Twelve Oaks.  Yet,  I also wondered what my dinner hosts thought about it–you know, with references to plantations and all.  But while I was fascinated, they seemed unfazed.

Clearly, Gone with the Wind has lost some of its relevance, despite the big 75th anniversary celebrations of the book going on this year.  Today, however, neither the book nor the film does the kind of damage it once did to the progress of race relations in the United States, even though the portrayals of African Americans remain offensive.  Although people around the globe will be commemorating Margaret Mitchell’s tome on the Old South in 2011, at Taragate and Twelve Oaks there will be folks wondering what the fuss is all about.

Gone with the Wind as Southern History

Unless you have been living under a rock, you know that this year marks the 75th anniversary of the publication of Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War epic, Gone with the Wind.  The book and its characters are being celebrated and discussed around the world.  From Atlanta to Calcutta, people have weighed in on why they like the book, how many times they’ve read it, and how it has influenced their lives.

Aside from the personal connections readers have made with the book and its characters, however, Gone with the Wind’s most enduring legacy has been in shaping a popular understanding of the Old South and the Civil War.  From the beginning, fans have accepted as truth the book’s Lost Cause narrative of the pre-Civil War South as a region gilded by romance and whose cast of characters included cavaliers, belles, mansions, and of course, loyal slaves.

Yet it is fair to say that the film, more than the book, has influenced this popular view of the southern past.  Even Margaret Mitchell called this one.

Indeed, a few years after the film premiered, she wrote to her friend Virginius Dabney, editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, mortified that she was “included among writers who pictured the South as a land of white-columned mansions whose wealthy owners had thousands of slaves and drank thousands of juleps.”

Her embarrassment derived from the fact that the film had done more to influence what people had learned about the Old South than her book. “Southerners could write the truth about the antebellum South,” she said, but “everyone would go on believing in the Hollywood version.”

One could certainly argue that what Mitchell produced, despite her meticulous research, was not necessarily a “truthful” southern history, but one in step with the Lost Cause version she grew up with. Yet, Mitchell was on target about the film’s influence in shaping a popular understanding of southern history.

“People believe what they like to believe,” she wrote, “and the mythical Old South has too strong a hold on their imaginations to be altered by the mere reading of [my] book.”  This was true.  As the most influential medium of popular culture in the first half of the twentieth century, movies shaped what people learned about history.  And during the 1930s, movies set in the Old South were very popular.

When the book was made into a film, Gone with the Wind became Hollywood’s first blockbuster, and as such it cemented an image of southern history in the popular imagination—much to the chagrin of African American leaders who recognized that this kind of popular “history” not only damaged the morale of their race, but hurt the cause of civil rights nationally.

This year’s celebrations of the book and the film probably won’t lead most people to think, much less hold serious discussions, about Gone with the Wind’s influence on popular perceptions of southern history.  That would ruin the historical fantasy that Margaret Mitchell created and which they love.  And frankly, I’m not sure they give a damn.

Note:  This blog post originally appeared on the UNC Press Blog.