The biggest costume drama in history premiered 77 years ago, and we’re easily as in love with the genre today.
Gone With The Wind premiered on this day in 1939, in Atlanta, Georgia. It was huge, writes Carrie Hagen for Smithsonian.com, both culturally and financially. The governor had declared that day a state holiday, and before the movie started “around 300,000 fans lined the flat-decorated streets to greet the movie’s stars,” she writes. Gone With The Wind remains the highest grossing film of all time when adjusted for inflation. But what was behind the appeal of the costume drama?
“Modern audiences can see the intrinsic racial problems in the film’s nostalgic treatment of the Confederacy,” Hagen writes. Similiarly, we can see race and gender problems in period dramas like Downton Abbey. When things like violence against women or overt racism towards black people appear on screen, most people wouldn’t be okay with those things if we saw them out in the world today. But many among us still love the shows, which have extremely high viewing numbers. The question is why.
“We Americans love our costume dramas, and we particularly love those that play at cultural and social experiences beyond the ken of our national collective identity,” writes s.e. smith in a Bitch Magazine article about Indian Summers, PBS’s follow to Downton Abbey. Period dramas like those two or, say, any production related to the work of Jane Austen aren’t set in a world that people today inhabit. This is also true of Gone With The Wind, which was set in the Confederate South, a place that was long gone when the movie premiered.
Period dramas tend to focus on the aesthetics of the past rather than on its real hardships (although some of those are thrown in to keep the story moving.) For the story of Rhett and Scarlett, the success of the 1,000-page novel it was based on helped the movie, but so did “the epic’s record-setting production costs, which brought elaborate wardrobes and new uses of Technicolor and sound to screen,” Hagen writes. “But perhaps another reason for its longevity is its glamorous portrayal of an ideology that lost a war a long time ago.”
“People dress up for Downton Abbey parties as the people upstairs, not the people downstairs,” smith told Sarah Mirk in a separate interview for Bitch Magazine. “You don’t see things that would’ve been common at the time. There wouldn’t have been electricity in the servants’ quarters, servants were probably using outhouses rather than indoor plumbing, servants were eating the worst cuts of meat and the leftovers.” What viewers of Downton Abbey see of the servants’ world is mostly “this kind of bright, idealized version of the comfortable English farm kitchen.” Similiarly, Downton doesn’t really show how life was for people of color or people with disability, Mirk notes. It shows a beautifully set version of how life was like long ago and far away.
The thing about creating the past, as the makers of period drams do, is that it doesn't have to look as complicated as the present. No matter how earnest their intent to replicate the past, in fact, it cannot look as complicated as the present. Of course, to the people who lived in Edwardian England, it was exactly as complicated as 2016 America seems today. We can read the past or see it on the screen, but we never have to truly experience how complex and difficult it was. That can be a comfort for viewers, because really, their lives are complicated enough.