The War About the War

Olivia returns to the Loew’s Grand in Atlanta in 1961 for the re-premiere of her favorite picture.

All my life, the film version of Gone With the Wind was a big deal. In my wonder years, my mother adored Clark Gable as Rhett Butler. Huge crush. And I remember being dragged to see a reissue in a Pittsburgh movie palace where, as a red-blooded boy, I waited impatiently for Civil War battle scenes that never materialized. Just endless talk of war and a bunch of girl stuff. The closest I got to interest was a scene showing the aftermath of a battlefield, but for my four-hour forced investment, I was left embittered.

Some years later I became interested in Hollywood history and ultimately made a career of it, and GWTW became a different animal to me—a cornerstone of that history and a turning point in motion picture production.

So, yes, Gone With the Wind has been a big deal. While researching my book Errol & Olivia in 2009, I came across some photos of the 1961 Civil War Centennial re-release of Gone With the Wind in Atlanta with festivities that mirrored the 1939 premiere, including a relaunch at the Loew’s Grand Theatre, which had been the focus of all in December 1939. Selznick came back for the series of events, along with Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland, Evelyn Keyes, Victor Jory, and some others, and they relived the glory of that December 1939 moment when the world turned to Atlanta and audiences finally, officially, got to see Selznick’s version of Margaret Mitchell’s vision flickering in the dark.

For 76 years of her life, Olivia de Havilland enjoyed a spotlight for being central to the Gone With the Wind experience. More than any other topic, even Errol Flynn, people wanted to talk about GWTW and her Academy Award-nominated performance as Melanie Hamilton Wilkes, and she was always delighted to oblige.

Then in June 2015, New York Post entertainment columnist Lou Lumenick posed a then-shocking question: Wasn’t it time to send Gone With the Wind “the way of the Confederate flag?” Oh, the uproar among lovers of Old Hollywood. I can only surmise now how firmly Lou’s tongue was planted in his cheek as he asked the question because he knew it would stir up a hornet’s nest. More than that, it earned him late-career multimedia headlines.

Since then, for some, GWTW has transitioned from pleasure to guilty pleasure as consciousnesses have been raised to issues of racism in society worldwide, including and especially in the U.S. Deep South, and Lumenick has been revealed as a visionary for his question and its context.

Full disclosure: At first I thought Lou’s argument to be silly, just as I found the uproar over Confederate statues to be nonsense. Now I think, yes, let’s learn, grow, and move on. We shouldn’t be defending the politics that found it necessary to glorify the post-war Southern cause with monument after monument. In the Declaration of Independence, written four-score prior to the Civil War, all men were granted the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If anything is the American way, this is it. And we should be honoring that concept at the expense of pieces of bronze or granite.

As an historian, I view Gone With the Wind, both the book and the film it inspired, as artifacts of their day—snapshots of early 20th century Southern perspectives on race as written by reclusive Margaret Mitchell, a product of her culture and times. Selznick’s picture based on the Mitchell manuscript drowned box offices in cash nationwide. To hold a 1935 fictional book billed as a “romance” to 2020 social and historical standards seems to me to compare apples and vacuum cleaners. And banning it screams fascism—sometimes the Left extends so far left that it ends up on the Right.

Why not just let the legion of GWTW fans enjoy Selznick’s picture for the fantasy it is? To me Rhett Butler represents the devil’s advocate and conscience of the South; never does he take “the Cause” seriously. I would love it if the fans of this picture could acknowledge the goings-on as fantasy and acknowledge the institutionalized racism that has been embedded in our society since long before the Civil War. Racism that endures to present day.

Of course Gone With the Wind is a racist tome; it has to be, based on subject matter that views the Antebellum South as Camelot burned to the ground by damn Yankees.

My point is, OdeH lived so extraordinarily long a life that she got to see her greatest accomplishment tarnished black. When she turned 100 and proclaimed that she planned to live to 110 and then reevaluate, of course I believed her. I had seen her iron will on display both from afar and up close. But then two things happened, either of which may have made her question her extended longevity plan. In 2018 the courts ruled against her lawsuit with the makers of the TV series Feud. Such a bitter pill for the victor of the de Havilland Decision to be forced to swallow. She was just as right this time as that time—one may not defame living people—but the ruling went against her. To be blunt, the grand dame took big business’s sucker punch.

When George Floyd was murdered, the nation quaked, and the shock waves hit her beloved Gone With the Wind full force. I can only wonder if she then reasoned, It’s time for me to go. Who knows?

I still don’t love Gone With the Wind the movie, but I admire the filmmaking and the drama of its production and release. Recounting the epic months on Hollywood soundstages as seen through the eyes of OdeH rates among my favorite aspects of researching and writing Errol & Olivia. And I feel sad that the fallout over racism as it applies to Gone With the Wind occurred in the final reel of the life of Olivia de Havilland, the last titan of Hollywood’s Golden Era.

Author’s note: I wrote this piece seven weeks ago but due to various factors am only posting it now. Aside from a broken bone, the issue is completion of my next book, which I’ll be discussing soon.

2 comments

  1. Good blog post.

    Reminds me of the quote from Napoleon I remember hanging in your office: “What is history, but a fiction, agreed-upon?”

    And the quote often attributed to Winston Churchill: “History is written by the victors.”

    And Pete Townshend’s observation: “The parting on the left is now parting on the right.”

    As you say, we can only try to fix the wrongs of the past by learning, growing, and moving on.

    The tough part is agreeing on what those lessons are.

  2. Hi, Robert!

    Wonderful article, as always. I used to be a rabid fan of GWTW, but over the years, my opinion of it has evolved. I still enjoy it, but my viewing pleasure is tempered with the realization that it’s a relic. I say to myself, that if I couldn’t enjoy watching it with my friends of color, then the movie needs to be reevaluated and placed within the era in which it was made.

    I do wonder how the recent criticism of GWTW affected Olivia. She was rightfully so proud of it and her work in it. I’d like to think she took it in stride, but at her advanced age that would have been hard.

    I’ll make another confession about GWTW; I’ve always thought it overshadowed Olivia’s other great performances, including some of her films with Errol.

    Cheers!

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