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D E C E M B E R  1 9 9 9

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.)

THE atmosphere on the set appeared nice, very nice. One afternoon Hattie McDaniel entertained the cast and crew by humming and limp-stepping her way through "Old Folks at Home." As she turned and kicked and rolled her eyes,visitors to the set reportedly "laughed [them]selves sick." Even Butterfly McQueen, who still wanted to distance herself from her role, masked her resentment and occasionally played to white expectations. Watching McQueen take direction early on, Susan Myrick told Margaret Mitchell that the actress was "'nigger' through and through."

Russell Birdwell, a Selznick International publicist, encouraged the "sepia players" (as the black press called them) to turn these cheerful faces to the public. The black actors of Gone With the Wind, he told Selznick, "should do by-line stories, which we would plant in their papers throughout the country." The news releases not only would be good for the actors, Birdwell said, but also would help to counter any future attacks on the picture in the black press. Selznick agreed.

Oscar Polk, who played Pork, contributed to Birdwell's campaign. "As a race we should be proud that we have risen so far above the status of our enslaved ancestors," he wrote in a letter to the weekly Chicago Defender. Moreover, he and his fellow GWTW black actors "should be glad to portray ourselves as we once were because in no other way can we so strikingly demonstrate how far we have come in so few years." The Defender (which The Pittsburgh Courier once called the "Chicago Surrender, World's Greatest Weakly") printed the letter. The Courier, too, was ballyhooing the black actors, and gradually -- again, for the moment -- acclaim for McDaniel and others eclipsed the admonitions that had been hurled at the production.

By late spring of 1939, as Selznick started watching rough-cuts of important sequences in Gone With the Wind, his excitement increased; his accomplishment, he thought, would surpass even that of D. W. Griffith in The Birth of a Nation. The yoking of the two films was apposite, as a memorandum from Selznick to his assistant, Val Lewton, made clear.

Increasingly I regret the loss of the better negroes being able to refer to themselves as niggers, and other uses of the word nigger by one negro talking about another. All the uses that I would have liked to have retained do nothing but glorify the negroes, and I can't believe that we were sound in having a blanket rule of this kind, nor can I believe that we would have offended any negroes if we had used the word 'nigger' with care; such as in references by Mammy, Pork, Big Sam, etc.

Lewton responded immediately. Yes, he conceded, the absence of the word "nigger" had cost the picture an ounce of dramatic punch and a pound of comic material. Since the company had promised the "negro societies" that the word would not be used, however, its restoration to the picture would cost Selznick his integrity. Selznick nonetheless continued to obsess over the question, as over much else in Gone With the Wind. He even ordered his script supervisor to comb the screenplay for places where Sidney Howard had used a line from Margaret Mitchell but had elided or employed a euphemism for "nigger."

Politics, not race, settled the question, as an examination of Hollywood archives shows. Selznick expected a tough fight with the censors over the word "damn" in Rhett Butler's curtain line. Concessions on "nigger," a word whose use Breen now adamantly opposed, might soften the Hays Office later on "damn" -- or so Selznick apparently reasoned. "About the word, 'niggers,'" the producer wrote his assistant. "Okay, we'll forget it."

BY late fall of 1939 Gone With the Wind had been shot, cut, and scored. "Frankly, my dear, I just don't care," Rhett Butler would say in prints of the film screened at previews. At the December 15 premiere in Atlanta, however, and at all screenings that followed,a Hays Office dispensation would allow him to curse. His "damn"would become news, as would the premiere itself; the free publicity it generated would help to build audiences -- white and black -- throughout the nation.

Black moviegoers' interest was high, as the studio could tell from the black press and even the daily mail. In November of 1939 a correspondent from Atlanta University had told Selznick that "your Negro Public" was just as eager as "your White Public" to receive the GWTW company. The writer hoped that Selznick would deny the "wholesale talk of forcing us to the back, during the parade so that we may not hinder other people who want to see their favorite Movie People." Among the favorites, perhaps chief among them, was "Hi-Hat Hattie" -- McDaniel's nickname on radio's The Optimistic Do-Nuts Show.

Selznick had planned to showcase the GWTW stars, black and white, who would arrive in Atlanta in style and appear briefly before or after the screening of the picture. He heard from a studio liaison in Georgia, however, that "Southerners would not care to have the Negro members of the cast" present. Selznick was caught. He wanted nothing -- and certainly not racial tyranny -- to harm the potentially "enormous Negro audience" for the picture. He was nonetheless wary of offending southern whites' racial sensibilities.

Polling studio employees from below the Mason-Dixon line, Selznick learned that southerners were second to none in their affection for Negroes "in what they regard as their proper place." Atlantans would warmly receive Hattie McDaniel and Oscar Polk and the others when they appeared on the stage of the Loew's Grand Theatre -- but Atlantans would not dine with them, invite them to the Junior League Ball in honor of the other Hollywood visitors, or sit with them in an auditorium. And since the Grand was a whites-only theater, McDaniel and the other black "guests" would have no proper dressing rooms backstage, no proper places to enter and exit the theater, and no proper places to go to the bathroom. Selznick had lived with Gone With the Wind long enough to know a Lost Cause when he saw one. He acknowledged "the very delicate Southern attitude" toward black people and, regretfully, decided to feature only his white cast members in Atlanta.

To the astonishment of almost everyone, particularly Selznick, the interdiction of black actors had one more paragraph, until now a footnote to the history of Gone With the Wind and Jim Crow.

The printer's proof of the souvenir program for Gone With the Wind contained scene stills along with formal portraits of the stars of the film. On the front cover were pastel illustrations of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara, on the back studio portraits of other actors, including Hattie McDaniel, not in character but as themselves. Selznick, who already envisioned an Academy Award nomination for McDaniel, believed that the actor merited a place in the program because she "gives a performance that, if merit alone ruled, would entitle her practically to costarring."

When the Atlanta studio liaison saw the proof, however, he was wary. The program could include Mammy, the actor in costume, he said, but highlighting McDaniel "might cause comment and might be a handle that someone could seize and use as a club." Selznick was initially amused; the man was "nuts concerning use of Negroes" in the program. Southerners on the Culver City lot agreed -- he was "completely cockeyed." Then again, Selznick thought, the studio was producing not only a $4 million epic but "the Greatest World Premiere in History!" Lest the latter harm the former, maybe he should "play it safe" and not, as his liaison had warned, provide "an opportunity for anyone else to make trouble." Less than a month before the premiere he ordered two editions of the program, one with McDaniel, one without. He brooded that the slight was unfair, putting him "on the spot of seeming ungrateful for what I honestly feel is one of the great supporting performances of all times."

THE Atlanta premiere -- from the separate telephone switchboard in the Selznicks' hotel suite to the rousing performance of the Ebenezer Baptist Church choir at the whites-only Junior League Ball -- was nonpareil. So were the reviews that followed, as Gone With the Wind made its way to Los Angeles, New York, and other major cities across America. "Mightiest achievement in the history of the motion picture," the Hollywood Reporter concluded, and most metropolitan dailies concurred. Reaction in the black press was often as enthusiastic. Several critics praised Hattie McDaniel for the moral force she brought to the witty, sympathetic character she played; indeed, the portrayal of Mammy's grief on the death of the Butlers' daughter, filmed in an uncut shot as McDaniel climbed the stairs with De Havilland, was at once heartrending and authentic. Other critics thought that Hollywood's GWTW had tempered the novel's southern chauvinism and, as one prominent black magazine noted, "eliminated practically all the offensive scenes and dialogue."

Not everyone agreed, and certainly not those who, early on, had hoped for no mention of "darkies," for slaves in rebellion, for indictments of Ku Klux Klan activity and southern lynch mobs. Carlton Moss, writing in the Daily Worker, sternly condemned the picture. "Sugar-smeared and blurred by a boresome Hollywood love story," he told readers, Gone With the Wind offered up a motley collection of flat black characters that insulted the black audience. Hattie McDaniel's Mammy was especially loathsome in her love for a family, the O'Haras, "that has helped to keep her people enchained for centuries." The reviewer for the Chicago Defender called GWTW a "weapon of terror against black America."

Black activists responded with actions as well as words. As Gone With the Wind opened in American cities throughout the early 1940s, organized blacks made signs and walked picket lines in front of box offices. "YOU'D BE SWEET TOO UNDER A WHIP!" read one placard outside a Washington theater. "Gone With the Wind glorifies slavery" and "Negroes were never docile slaves," demonstrators shouted in Chicago. The police were on site, but the rally was peaceful. Not so in Brooklyn, where the line at the box office snaked around the Loew's Metropolitan. When the picketers began to weave in and out of the queue, the police moved them across the street from the theater. From there they continued to annoy the crowd. Eventually they stepped outside the blockade and started to bandy words with the police. According to the New York Sun, a seventeen-year-old black "swung like a cyclone" at a patrolman, "who took the gesture on the nose and in bad part." After the youth was arrested, his companions staged a "sit-down protest" to prolong their noisy demonstration against the picture.

Word of these incidents reached -- and touched -- David Selznick. "I like to think of myself as being a liberal," he told his business associate John Wharton in a long memorandum. Now, though, owing to the Daily Worker and those black papers whose censure had fostered the demonstrations, he feared that he would endure what D. W. Griffith had. Griffith had spent years trying to prove that he was not racist, and never succeeded. "I think that by our silence we may be giving the appearance of truth to the slanders," Selznick ruminated in that memorandum. He considered suing the Worker, but finally let Lillian Johnson and other black fans defend him. "I crossed a picket line," Johnson, a columnist, wrote in the Gary American, and "I wasn't sorry." Many other blacks followed her lead. By February of 1940, as the Academy Awards ceremony neared, even hostile voices in the black press had joined the rooting section for Hattie McDaniel.

On Oscar night, wearing an ermine stole over a blue gown, McDaniel arrived at the Ambassador Hotel and, like the other stars, entered to the cheers of movie fans black and white. For her and Selznick International the evening would be as radiant as the Oz of The Wizard of Oz, so magical that nothing could spoil it, not even a small band of demonstrators outside the hotel, protesting against the racism of Gone With the Wind. Inside the Coconut Grove, as McDaniel collected her Oscar, Clark Gable shook her hand and Vivien Leigh kissed her. At the podium, tearfully, she told the audience and newsreel cameras that she hoped to "always be a credit to my race." Black activists may have cringed.

BY late winter of 1940, when Gone With the Wind was in general release, newspapers were teeming with reports of the war and predictions that America would eventually be drawn in. Moviegoers attending GWTW, hearing the cannon fire approaching Atlanta, seeing the city burn and the fields go fallow, may have understood Ashley Wilkes's melancholy. Ashley never recovered from his war. Too much had been lost, he said near the end of the picture -- not only lives but a way of life. Moviegoers sensitive to the advancement of the black cause no doubt bristled at Ashley's nostalgia for the days of "cavaliers and cotton fields" and, as Ashley says wistfully, "high, soft Negro laughter from the quarter." Soon, though, "Mammyism" would disappear from the screen and black performers like Dooley Wilson (Casablanca) and Leigh Whipper (The Ox-Bow Incident) would excel. A momentous era of civil-rights advances would follow. In retrospect the dialogue of African-Americans and Selznick International over Gone With the Wind seems a notable early landmark.

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.)


Leonard J. Leff has written for Film Comment, Opera News, and other magazines.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1999; "Gone With the Wind" and Hollywood's Racial Politics - 99.12 (Part Two); Volume 284, No. 6; page 106-114.