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

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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.

 

 

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.