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.”