We never showed the movie at the St. George Theatre, the 2,672-seat movie palace I had a hand in running back in 1976; but oddly, we ran its trailer. Dean, my husband and partner, longed somehow to match the theater’s splendid red and gold interior with Hollywood’s biggest technicolor sensation from the golden age, even if only for a glimpse of the theater back when epics were epics. Nostalgia is a dangerous thing.
The grand staircases and elegant ballrooms of GWTW were part of my own childhood. I’d been taken periodically to various downtown Cincinnati palaces — the Albee, the Grand — seven or eight times by an older sister infatuated for most of her teen years with the actor, Leslie Howard, who played Scarlet’s main flirt, Ashley Wilkes. As for me, while I was a little girl, I could focus on Scarlet and her hi-jinks, to the exclusion of almost everything else. As a young teen, I chose make-up colors — Revlon’s “Cherries in the Snow” (lipstick) comes to mind — in hopes of ravishing the boys — just like Scarlet.
1966 overthrew these fictions. I was about to graduate from an inner city high school, whose one-third black population were largely bused in. A knifing on campus, in which a boy was thrown off the bridge, and other tensions, grew me up fast in the light of de facto segregation, which kept my program, “College Prep,” almost completely white. I’d flirted briefly with Jim, who was black, in 11th grade art class; he planned, despite poverty and what I was coming to recognize as discrimination, to be a doctor.
On a date my freshman year in college, I saw GWTW again on a big suburban screen, at the Valley Theatre. The uneasiness I’d felt before increased; I wondered for the first time what it would be like to see this movie and not be white. Now, resting my head on my date’s shoulder, I thought of Jim. I imagined him watching with his blazing intelligent eyes, taking in all these paper doll black characters, dumbed down to please followers of what I suspected of being a horrific myth, the story of “Dixie.”
White embarrassment has cost America dearly; like scales on a poorly-cleaned fish, embarrassment can cut. Think of Thomas Jefferson, so brilliant; how could he not have been embarrassed? The man who wrote, “all men are created equal” never freed the enslaved woman by whom he’d fathered six children! For almost two hundred years, this distaff family was denied, but DNA testing has finally brought Sally Hemings’ descendants into the Jefferson family. Some still protest that it may have been, after all, his brother who fathered her children, but evidence suggests otherwise.
If, as historian Jon Meacham suggests, slavery is our original American sin, how does that play out in everyday life? European-descended Americans are slow to own the mistakes of forebears — Not my fault. Which boils down to I don’t care, and ends up ultimately in the hunting down of an innocent runner or the jamming of a cop’s foot into the neck of a man accused of passing a counterfeit bill. What started out embarrassment is reduced to fear, and solidifies into hatred, which kills.
What will happen to Gone With the Wind? Its time as a myth is finished. As statues of Civil War generals are smashed or dragged away, Selznick’s epic will join D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), another racist technical marvel, in an imagined museum of cinema’s horrors and curiosities.
1. Another oddity in that museum would be Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will — a 1935 Nazi propaganda film starring Hitler and crew. It’s shown, along with Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, in film classes, mostly to highlight the early brilliant use of technical innovations. In Riefenstahl’s case, these would include: moving cameras, dramatic lighting, aerial photography, the use of long-focus lenses to create a distorted perspective, and a novel approach to the use of music and cinematography. Riefenstahl made an early and morally unsupportable career decision to stick with the Third Reich. To paraphrase Jon Meacham (in reference to certain racists), she sold her soul, but the check bounced.
2. In 1939, The Daily Worker, the official newspaper of the American Communist Party, had the temerity to fire its movie reviewer, who refused to outright condemn GWTW. The paper then took a stand against the movie. This may have been a bit like a mouse facing down a lion; it took a lot of what was then called “moxie” to object to depictions of slavery in a film that was so trend-setting , technologically innovative, and wildly successful.
3.The Orpheum Theatre in Memphis, Tennessee has had a herky-jerky history concerning GWTW lately, first banning it, then reinstating it.