How Gone With the Wind Took the Nation by Storm By Catering to its Southern Sensibilities

From casting to its premiere, how Southerners viewed the film made all the difference

Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) embraces Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) in a famous scene from the 1939 epic film Gone with the Wind. (© Bettmann/CORBIS)
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For two and a half years, the press speculated about who would play the iconic role of Scarlett O’Hara in David O. Selznick’s production of Gone with the Wind. Various names were attached to the role by the media, including stars Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, and Paulette Goddard. David O. Selznick found his leading lady after a search that the New York Times called “a national emergency over the selection of a Scarlett O’Hara.” Fourteen hundred women auditioned to play the Georgia belle from Margaret Mitchell’s bestselling 1936 book – but when it went to Vivien Leigh, a British actress with only a few screen credits to her name, readers gasped. Southerners in particular were less than thrilled.  

“Scarlett O’Hara is southern, old southern, with traditions and inborn instincts of the South,” one reader wrote to the Los Angeles Times. “How in the name of common sense can an English actress possibly understand Scarlett, her times and the characterization is beyond a thinking American.” So concerned were Georgians with Leigh’s preparation that they created an agricultural problem: when the actress said she wasn’t familiar with the june bug, hundreds mailed specimens to her at Selznick-International Studios in Culver City. The California agricultural commission, worried about the Georgia insect’s effect on western peach buds, reportedly asked the post office to stop mailings from Georgia to Vivien Leigh.

The Southern investment in Leigh’s portrayal of Scarlett O’Hara was an act of self-preservation. Scarlett had become the personification of Southern romanticism; the story of her struggle to preserve her family’s plantation through war and the redistribution of Southern aristocracy was on its way to becoming the bestselling American novel of all time. Sixty years after the war had ended, Margaret Mitchell couched arguments for slavery and secession within the drive of a protagonist with hoop skirts and fistfuls of dirt. Scarlett O’Hara, a sexy, stubborn heroine in search of securing her agrarian roots became the symbol of the Southern character during Reconstruction.

The success of the book surprised its author. After giving her manuscript to a Macmillan editor, Mitchell, then 35, wanted to recall it. She got a contract instead, and the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 1937. “I just couldn’t believe that a Northern publisher would accept a novel about the War Between the States from the Southern point of view,” she said. 

In his review of the book for “Books of the Times,” Ralph Thompson wrote, “How accurate this history is for the expert to tell, but no reader can come away without a sense of the tragedy that overcame the planting families in 1865 and without a better understanding of the background of present-day Southern life.” The screen would give Mitchell’s story a larger audience and a louder voice. Because of the resonance of the heroine’s struggle --- and the press that covered the search for a Scarlett --- the success of the film largely depended upon how well Vivien Leigh interpreted and projected her role.           

Film producer David O. Selznick bought the rights to the book for $50,000 soon after it was published in the summer of 1936. It was the most money Hollywood had given to a first-time novelist.

The screen adaptation of the 1,037-page book ran for nearly four hours and capitalized on the glamour of a romanticized world and a beautiful cast. The foreword text, layered over scenes from plantation life, including those of slaves picking cotton, promises just as much:

There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and Slave. Look for it in books, for it is no more, a dream remembered. A Civilization gone with the wind … 

Modern audiences can see the intrinsic racial problems in the film’s nostalgic treatment of the Confederacy.  Geraldine Higgins wrote in Southern Cultures in 2011 that “Gone with the Wind is most often interpreted as shorthand – for moonlight and magnolias, plantation mythology, Confederate nationalism, or, to be very short, racism.”  Margaret Mitchell disputed charges of racism at the time, writing that “radical publications” would not accept the historical accuracy of the nicknames her characters used for African Americans.  “Regardless of the fact that they call each other ‘Nigger’ today,” Mitchell wrote, “and regardless of the fact that nice people in antebellum days called them ‘darkies,’ these papers are in a fine frenzy … But I do not intend to let any number of trouble-making Professional Negroes change my feelings toward the race with whom my relations have always been those of affection and mutual respect.” Scholar William E. Huntzicker analyzed Mitchell’s correspondence, suggesting that Mitchell “was both trapped by and sought to escape from Southern stereotypes.” The author’s true allegiance to Southern stereotypes is debatable, but her work’s projection of them launched a blockbuster, securing their place in the American imagination.

The film’s premiere in Atlanta on December 15, 1939, offered an occasion to recreate “this pretty world.”  The governor of Georgia had declared the day a state holiday, and Atlanta’s mayor had built a three-day festival around the showing.  By 8 p.m. that night, the front of Loew’s Grand Theater resembled a reproduction of Twelve Oaks, the O’Hara mansion on the Tara plantation, and most of the 2,000 audience members dressed in period costume. Women wore hoop skirts, black laced gloves and family heirlooms, and many men donned the Confederate uniforms and swords of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers.

Before the movie began, approximately 300,000 fans lined the flag-decorated streets to greet the movie’s stars. Many of these stargazers also wore period clothes, including elderly women who held fading Confederate banners. A black choir in plantation dress – wide straw hats, cotton shirts and dresses and red bandanas, sang, “Thank the Lord.”

As the actors arrived, officers pushed crowd surges back. But not all of the main players were there: although her role as Scarlett’s servant Mammy would win her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, making her the first black actor to receive an Academy Award, Hattie McDaniel was barred from attending the festivities with her co-stars in segregated Georgia.

Inside the theater, the audience honored the film’s foreword. They cheered at the playing of “Dixie,” yelled at references to war with the North, and cried during battlefield hospital scenes. And Vivien Leigh won their hearts with her Scarlett O’Hara. 

The president of the United Daughters of Confederacy said, “No one can quarrel, now, with the selection of Miss Leigh as Scarlett. She is Margaret Mitchell’s Scarlett to the life.” Vivien Leigh took the Oscar for Best Actress.

When adjusted for inflation, Gone With The Wind is the highest grossing film of all time and sits at #6 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American films. The book’s success facilitated much of this, as did the epic’s record-setting production costs, which brought elaborate wardrobes and new uses of Technicolor and sound to the screen.  But perhaps another reason for its longevity is its glamorous portrayal of an ideology that lost a war a long time ago.

About Carrie Hagen

Carrie Hagen is a writer based in Philadelphia. She is the author of We Is Got Him: The Kidnapping that Changed America, and writes about history and culture for Smithsonian.com and other publications.

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