A few years ago, one of the greatest classics made in cinema started to have serious problems in the current context. Gone with the Wind, the film that romances a slave-holding and “homesick” southern United States, could no longer sustain itself as a love story film set against the backdrop of the American Civil War. It is a work that is no longer withstanding the test of time, even though it is still a phenomenon 84 years after it was released. Until I understood just the bare minimum of what structural racism is, I loved Scarlett O’Hara’s story, the costumes, and the sheer scale of the film. Today I feel bad, and uncomfortable with every scene, even more so because I read the book and I know that not even half of the horrors of the slave culture made it to the screens. Complex.
Why am I saying this? Because the historian David Vincent Kimel located some drafts of the original script of the film where the scenes that would address the racial problems were cut, reviving the discussion. One of the arguments about the film is that the writers “sanitized slavery” in the final version, “denying the horrors of slavery, as well as its legacies of racial inequality. ” It is true because it was a period of racial segregation, not only in the south. Actress Hattie McDaniel, won the Oscar for her amazing Supporting role yet she was not allowed to enter the Oscar party – they only made an exception to go up on stage – just because she was black. This was in 1939, almost 74 years after the American Civil War. To make matters worse, the N-word was said openly in messages as well as in the book and in the script.
Rediscovering the original scripts is an interesting part of this research. The novel by Margaret Mitchell, herself a white Southerner, was written in 1936 and sold nearly 30 million copies, it was a rage at the time. It was 1037 pages long and was criticized early on as misrepresenting the national view of slavery. For Margaret, and for Hollywood, the American Civil War was just the “background of a love story”, so there was no commitment to delve into the issue. A pitfall that only if we remember – again – how structural racism was spreading is that the book’s big problem becomes clear.
Gone with the Wind, the film, generated many legends about its backstage, as conflicting as the fight between North and South. And yes, it started precisely in the scripts. Although the credit for the final screenplay goes to Sidney Howard, several writers worked on adapting the novel for the screen, no less than at least six writers (including producer, David O. Selznick) and others like writer F. Scott Fitzgerald. For Selznick, there is a “comparatively small amount of material in the image that is not from the book, most of which is mine personally” and he and Sidney Howard wrote most of the original dialogue, accepting inclusions from Ben Hecht and John Van Druten. “I doubt there are ten original words by [Oliver] Garrett in the entire script”, Selznick said in an interview “As for the construction, that’s about eighty percent my authorship, and the rest split between Jo Swerling and Sidney Howard, with Hecht having materially contributed to building a sequel.”
But what the historian discovered, after paying $15,000 for the original copy of one of the versions of the script – with more than 300 pages – is that the conflict between the writers was even greater. The document, which should have been destroyed, belonged to casting director Fred Schuessler and includes scenes that were cut and handwritten notes by screenwriters who disagreed about how racism should be portrayed in the film. “Much of the excised material was a stark portrayal of the mistreatment of slave laborers on Scarlett’s plantation, including references to beatings, threats to throw [black maid] ‘Mammy’ off the plantation for not working hard enough, and other depictions of physical and emotional violence,” he wrote.
Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) is an obnoxious woman, in the book even more so than in the movies. Narcissistic, sociopathic, and even cruel, she is a survivor but has no empathy for anyone. As the example of a woman who imposes herself on the patriarchy, she effectively works, but on the shoulders of very serious causes. For Scarlett, being rejected by the man she loved, Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) was the trigger for a series of impulsive and destructive choices, ruining people’s happiness as long as she managed to stay alive and with money. In the end, she is “punished” for losing the only man who loved her as she was, Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), but she doesn’t regret anything she did.
In the writers’ room, Kimel discovered, there was a divide between ‘Romantics’ and ‘Realists’, i.e. those who wanted to portray scenes of mistreatment to highlight Scarlett’s brutality and condemn slavery and those who, like the producer, Selznick, wanted to make a film about “the old south”, romanticizing them as people of principle, loyalty, and chivalry. In the note written by Selznick we can read: “I would like to see a montage of two or three minutes of the most beautiful pre-war shots imaginable… I would like to see… n singing”, he wrote. “Then we could get into the story of disappointed love, betraying foremen, n working hard, and girls fighting.” In other words, he did it because that’s how Gone with the Wind was sold and consumed for over 80 years.
Writers Sidney Howard and Oliver H.P. Garrett are pointed out by Kimel as the leaders of the “realistic” writers and if you wonder, Fitzgerald was in favor of the romantics, even though he didn’t stay long on the team. But even though he was credited as the sole author, much of the realism that Sidney Howard wanted to include was eliminated. “His material depicting race relations was so gritty and uncompromising that some of it was cut from drafts even before the script was created in my possession,” stated Kimel.
In the historian’s research, he found correspondence between Selznick and the press agent, Val Lewton, where they discuss the use of the n-word in the film – as long as it was uttered by black cast members, but Lewton warned the producer that it would be negative to enter in any way or form. At least that was excluded.
The result is that Gone with the Wind is not erased, yet, but is considered a classic with reservations. Possibly, little by little, it will be “gone”. If it had taken the opportunity to deal seriously with such a profound theme, perhaps it would have had even greater longevity.