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Gone with the Wind Prepared Hollywood for Star Wars

on December 15, 2019, 11:41am

British actress Daisy Ridley has been the subject of much ire from a vocal subset of fans since being cast as the lead of the latest Star Wars trilogy back in 2014 — almost two full years after the project had officially been announced. But in December of 1938, another young, unknown British actress named Vivien Leigh similarly found herself the subject of much fan hand-wringing after being cast as Scarlett O’Hara in producer David O. Selznick’s hotly anticipated big screen adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 bestseller, Gone With the Wind — almost two full years after the project had officially been announced. Both women — handpicked over thousands of hopeful, eager actresses both famous and unknown — were catapulted to global fame, earned praise from critics, and helped their respective films go on to become the highest grossing film of all time (though technically, Gone With the Wind is still the highest grossing film of all-time when adjusted for inflation). It may seem like Gone With the Wind and Star Wars are light years apart, but the similarities between the cultural phenomenons are striking — both exemplify a kind of rabid fandom that has been in existence for well over 80 years. In fact, Gone With the Wind might just be the film that defined modern fandom and the blockbuster model as we know it.

At the urging of her copy editor husband, journalist Margaret Mitchell wrote most of Gone With the Wind  in the late 1920s in their tiny Atlanta apartment following an ankle injury that kept her housebound and bored. Mitchell, a lifelong Atlanta resident and the granddaughter of a Confederate soldier, grew up hearing larger-than-life stories about the Antebellum South and Civil War — many of which would inform the characters and settings in her novel. Published on June 30, 1936, Gone With the Wind was an immediate sensation  and a bonafide bestseller by the end of the year in spite of its staggering 1000+ pages, steep $3 price (the equivalent of about $54 today), and mixed reviews. It earned Mitchell the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1937. Only a month or so after its initial publication, ambitious Hollywood producer David O. Selznick purchased the movie rights for Mitchell’s Great American Southern Novel for the unprecedented sum of $50,000 (nearly $1M today) and hired longtime friend George Cukor  to direct. After that, it was time to start casting, which is when the letters began pouring in.

There is perhaps no Hollywood casting call quite as legendary as the one for Gone With the Wind. The search for Scarlett O’Hara, in particular, has been mythologized in popular culture from the day it started back in 1936 both as an actual nationwide casting call and as a savvy PR blitz by Selznick and the studio. Determined to find an unknown to play Scarlett, Selznick sent executives on a months-long talent search in cities all over the South, which drummed up regular press and kept the public interested. Selznick’s offices received thousands of letters from fans demanding Clark Gable play Rhett Butler and making all sorts of suggestions for Scarlett: Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, Norma Shearer, Tallulah Bankhead, etc. Selznick and Cukor auditioned pretty much all of Hollywood’s most famous actresses at the time, but to no avail. The film began shooting on December 10, 1938 with the “Burning of Atlanta” sequence and doubles being used for the still uncast Scarlett, Rhett, Melanie, and maid Prissy. That night, Vivien Leigh visited the set with future husband Laurence Olivier and Selznick’s brother Myron, and the rest, as they say, is history. Selznick found his Scarlett in the petite British actress who stood before him while “Atlanta” burned behind her — a real-life moment as dramatic and cinematic as any of the fictional ones they’d film over the next few months.

Nothing about Gone With the Wind was small: the book, the fan base, the casting search, the multiple rewrites and directors, the sets and costumes. Even Scarlett herself — with the infamous 17-inch waist — had big heart and ambition. In 1939, Gone With the Wind was not only the most anticipated film of the year but the most anticipated film event in motion picture history (sound familiar?), so the premiere certainly wasn’t going to be a small affair either. Held in Atlanta on December 15, 1939, over 2,000 fans flocked to catch a glimpse of Leigh, Gable, and the rest of the film’s stars on the red carpet (though future Best Supporting Actress winner Hattie McDaniel was noticeably absent due to concerns over the film’s segregated premiere) and paid an exorbitant $10 a ticket to see the film. Also in attendance were the governors of several southern states as well as author Margaret Mitchell herself.

The sheer pandemonium of the event, coupled with the film’s mostly rapturous reviews and the aforementioned hype from its lengthy production and casting process, pretty much guaranteed its gargantuan success at the box office, and its place as an important piece of pop culture. While this kind of consistent mass marketing and outsize premiere is de rigueur in today’s world of superheroes and Jedi, Gone With the Wind — even more so than 1939’s other Technicolor big screen adaptation, The Wizard of Oz — capitalized on its established fan base and source material in ways previously unseen in Hollywood. It was the first blockbuster in all the ways we now define blockbusters — it set the standard.

Gone with the Wind

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind

Prior to Gone With the Wind’s mammoth victory at the box office, only one other film even came close to its scale, widespread popularity, and financial success — a film that also offered a revisionist history of the American South during the Civil War and Reconstruction — D.W. Griffith’s 1915 three-hour silent epic, The Birth of a Nation. While the film, like Gone With the Wind, was a groundbreaking technical achievement that indelibly changed the motion picture industry forever, it is also deeply, deeply racist— to the point its depiction of the Ku Klux Klan as heroic figures led to the organization’s resurgence mere months after the film’s release. Even so, despite riots in several cities and vocal objections from the NAACP and a number of critics, The Birth of a Nation was extremely popular with American audiences. While it’s likely many people were initially drawn to its scope, its popularity in 1915 — just two years after President Woodrow Wilson introduced segregation into federal offices — is probably at least partially due to the film’s racist propaganda itself, which garnered it heaps of press both positive and negative.

In comparison with the blatant racism of The Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind is more an attempt to mollify white audience’s anxieties about racism, and it largely succeeds if you let it due to its dazzling production values and terrific performances. The “good” racism depicted throughout Gone With the Wind (as opposed to the “bad” racism in The Birth of a Nation) is supposed to be a feature, not a bug — solidified by the film’s problematic portrayal of its black characters as racist stereotypes who are cheerfully and gratefully subservient to the white characters around them. As a white woman, I have the luxury of viewing Gone With the Wind as just a grand torrid romance should I choose rather than grappling with the realities of slavery and white supremacy during the time period in which the film is set. In my view, that is not only a huge part of the film’s appeal to white audiences from 1939 to present day but a primary reason the film has remained so popular for decades. It tries to disguise its problematic aspects with a glamorous love affair like Scarlett trying to disguise her post-war poverty from Rhett by wearing a dress made of her own emerald green drapes.

In this way, Gone With the Wind is as much a fantasy as Star Wars, Game of Thrones, or Harry Potter — only it’s a fantasy about a chapter of American history that completely whitewashes over the violent racism at the heart of the war the film uses as its backdrop for romance. There are really two love stories in Gone With the Wind: the one between Scarlett and Rhett and the one between Scarlett and the Antebellum South. Scarlett dreams of making plantation home Tara  great again, but she’s thwarted over and over by those gosh-darned Yankees who are determined to make life that much harder for the good-natured if stubborn white Southerners who just want to uphold the status quo. In this roundabout way, the film also tries to position itself as a kind of proto-feminist story with Scarlett and Melanie Wilkes (the great Olivia de Havilland) as two different kinds of Strong Woman — one bold and the other gentle — who must overcome many hardships both during and after the war, echoing the struggles of many Americans during the Great Depression.

But all of that  is meant to play second fiddle dee dee to Scarlett and Rhett’s epic, entertaining love affair (not unlike Jack and Rose in Titanic nearly 60 years later). Gable and Leigh’s onscreen chemistry is downright electric — you can almost feel the heat radiating from the screen. It’s difficult not to get caught up in the sweeping melodrama of it all even in spite of the film’s problematic viewpoints. In a time when people were dealing with an unsure economic future and the darkening clouds of fascism — echoing our own present day socioeconomic political climate — a movie as grand and immersive as Gone With the Wind provided an escape as exhilarating as watching the Millennium Falcon fly across the galaxy.

Gone With the Wind and Star Wars are both enduring cultural phenomenons not just because of the sheer scope of these cinematic sagas themselves but the way they’ve been romanticized to the point of legend. What we know about these films now through both our own experiences with them and decades of cultural osmosis have turned the productions of both into a kind of modern folklore. And while the actual plots of these movies mostly follow the typical “Hero’s Journey” present in our most ancient stories, that narrative DNA doesn’t explain how these films turned into two of the most important and potent cultural touchstones of all-time. Sure, franchising certainly helps, but it’s the totality of the thing from the time in which each film arrived to their reception by the public to how both came to be in the first place. It’s like an oral tradition: We hear the stories and pass them on and on to the point — to borrow from another cultural juggernaut, the Lord of the Rings — history becomes legend and legend becomes myth.

In the way that Margaret Mitchell romanticized the South after the Civil War, revising history to fit her own narratives and prejudices, so too have we romanticized films like Gone With the Wind and Star Wars — forming attachments based on our own narratives and prejudices. Gone With the Wind is a story based on nostalgia for a past that doesn’t accurately reflect the realities of the period in which it takes place. Disney, the company that now owns the Star Wars films, has made nostalgia its primary business model, making heaps of cash from our own warm and hazy memories of supposedly happier times and fantastical escapes, which may or may not accurately reflect the realities of our pasts. But Selznick and Mitchell — and in some respects, D.W. Griffith — did it first, for better or worse.

Gone with the Wind, Vivien Leigh, Hattie McDaniel,

Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind

The latest and last Star Wars movie is arriving at a curious moment for Hollywood — one where blockbusters are increasingly saturating the market, squeezing out smaller films. One where studios and filmmakers more than occasionally give in to the vocal demands of fans (see: the CGI overhaul of the upcoming Sonic the Hedgehog movie) who often treat these franchise properties with an obsessive holy reverence akin to Scarlett’s for Tara. 80 years later, in an era where every film is a sort of Gone With the Wind — that is, “the most anticipated movie of all time” with a massive built-in fan base — can any film actually be an enduring sensation ever again? And more specifically, can an original film like Gone With the Wind break through the monotony of well-trod “legendary” franchises today? As long as studios can continue cashing in on our own rose-colored views of the past — frankly my dears, they don’t give a damn.