Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Gone But Not Forgetten

By Chris Herrington

JUNE 29, 1998:  Domestic slavery in the Southern States has produced the same results in elevating the character of the master that it did in Greece and Rome. He is lofty and independent in his sentiments, generous, affectionate, brave and eloquent; he is superior to the Northerner in everything but the arts of thrift.” – George Fitzhugh, Sociology for the South, 1854

“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 of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered ... A Civilization gone with the wind.” – From the opening title to Gone With the Wind, 1939

Gone With the Wind was something more than the Titanic of its day. Opening in Atlanta on December 15, 1939, the governor declared a state holiday and ticket prices were 40 times the going rate. It was the longest, most expensive film production ever attempted, and the first major color film. Made for $3.9 million at a time when average ticket prices were a mere quarter, producer/Svengali David O. Selznick feared he’d never see a profit. He needn’t have worried. The film grossed 25 times its cost on its initial run. By contrast, Titanic would have to gross $5 billion to be as profitable. And, though Gone With the Wind has long been passed as the highest-grossing film ever, it’s still probably been seen by more Americans than any other film.

It’s about to be seen by more. A newly restored version will be given a national theatrical release starting this week, and The Orpheum has gained exclusive Memphis rights to the film, making it the centerpiece of its Summer Movie Series. Gone With the Wind, the grand old Southern movie, will be booked for seven straight days, June 26th through July 2nd, in the grand old Southern theatre. On opening night, Confederate reenactors will be patrolling the area and a Scarlett O’Hara look-alike will be on-hand to kick off the film’s run.

It’s a coup for The Orpheum, and a special event – but not one without complications. Recently enshrined by the American Film Institute as the fourth-best American feature ever, GWTW seems to be as popular as ever. And though its popularity may have a lot to do with the way it eventually winnows its historical sweep down to the barest essentials of romance and melodrama (much like TItanic), one can’t help but think that its persistent, mangled nostalgia for that thing called the “Old South” may be part of the equation.

However much of a legitimately classic spectacle the film is, and however compulsively watchable, the film is hard for a thoughtful Southerner to view today without being embarrassed. The problem with the film is not merely its “racism.” One can’t reasonably quibble when Ashley Wilkes or Rhett Butler refer to servants as “darkies”; such depictions are merely historically accurate. There is an important, and too-often-misunderstood, difference between what a film shows, and what its attitude toward its content is, and it is the second half of that equation where Gone With the Wind becomes problematic.

The Southern planter class before the war consisted of many men who were the patriarchs and rulers of small kingdoms and who were engaged in mass self-delusion. Drunk on their own power, these men believed that their system of domestic slavery was both the most economically successful and most morally correct way to govern a society. They believed that the slave was content in bondage, happy to be the childlike subject (much like the wife) of a benevolent, paternal master.

George Fitzhugh, one of the Old South’s most prominent pro-slavery intellectuals, was engaged in this self-delusion when he wrote Sociology for the South, and Gone With the Wind’s conception of what the pre-war South was “really like” is a virtual carbon copy of Fitzhugh’s vision. GWTW’s antebellum South isn’t realistic, it’s a dreamstate born out of this self-delusion, a depiction of the South as the film’s aristocratic characters thought it really was. Like Fitzhugh, Gone With the Wind is concerned with the “character of the master.” It sees the South only through the eyes of the wealthy, slave-holding class, who are elegant, honorable creatures living in a “pretty world.” The slaves are docile and happy, and treasure their affectionate bond with their master. The vast majority of whites who don’t run plantations or own slaves are dismissed as “poor white trash” and kept off-screen.

D.W. Griffith’s silent epic, Birth of a Nation, a celebration of the Ku Klux Klan as an instrument for re-establishing the “Old South,” did more than codify the visual language of narrative cinema. It codified a language of racial stereotypes that GWTW softens and perfects. Eschewing the overt, inflammatory propaganda of Birth of a Nation – its blatant, hysterical racism – Gone With the Wind masters the art of suggestion to achieve much the same ends. The threat to “Southern womanhood” is implicit when Scarlett is attacked riding through a poor settlement. But where the damsel in Birth of a Nation is forced to commit suicide rather than succumb to a monstrous free black man, Scarlett is attacked by both a black man and a white one (no doubt a carpetbagger or scalawag), and she is saved by her former field slave, Big Sam, who earlier in the film assures her, “We’ll stop them Yankees.” The subsequent rise of the Klan is there as well, but it happens off-camera, and is not explicit. It is merely “men doing what men have to do.”

At first Rhett Butler (the archetypal conflicted American outlaw hero, a precursor to Ric Blaine and Han Solo, among countless others) is a strain of criticism within the film. When he tells a group of Southern “gentlemen” consumed by “honor” that “all we’ve got is cotton and slaves and arrogance,” he’s telling the truth. But this criticism gets removed. When Rhett leaves to join the Army and speaks of a “lost cause,” he, and the film, mean the salvation of this “pretty world,” whose loss the film mourns.

In Gone With the Wind the (very real) suffering of the master class is the only suffering that matters. The poor masses, black slaves, and “poor white trash” are barely an afterthought. Watching the film today, 60 years after it was made and more than a century after the war itself, as we continue in the struggle to purge our past sins and preserve out past virtues, Gone With the Wind is seductively misguided about what those sins and virtues are. Instead of mourning the death of the Old South of the Wilkes and O’Haras, we should now celebrate the common culture forged by those Gone With the Wind leaves out – the strange fruit born of past sins that gives our region its unique vitality, that gave birth to a body of music that stands as one of America’s cultural achievements, that makes our society, though still hobbling and forged from tragedy, a conflicted nation’s best hope for racial healing.

So when Gone With the Wind, in all its restored grandeur, plays at The Orpheum next week, it should be seen, as entertainment and as cultural history. But perhaps it can be seen not as it was intended, as a monument to our lost glory, but as a Technicolor tombstone to a culture we’ve overcome.

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