Find the fainting couch; “Gone with the Wind” has been touched up.
In early June, WarnerMedia’s HBO Max announced a small change for their offering of the 1939 classic film. Film historian and African American media studies scholar Jacqueline Stewart, Ph.D., provided a short introduction with historical context for the soapy melodrama reigning Lost Cause cinema.
This shouldn’t be new to Mobilians. University of South Alabama African American Studies Director Kern Jackson, Ph.D., addressed the film’s casual yet caustic racism at the movie’s 2012 Saenger Theatre screening.
The movie was pulled from HBO’s subscription service until Stewart’s portion was added, on June 25. Meanwhile, it was still available elsewhere.
That didn’t matter in an age of outrage where seeing red is the new black. Riled Johnny Rebs yelled “heritage loss,” then swapped bayonets for credit cards and charged into battle. Digital and DVD sales of the film skyrocketed. Fitting, since profit is the root of Hollywood’s Lost Cause love affair anyway.
D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation” sparked the tryst. Its appalling racist stereotypes — heroic Ku Klux Klansmen saved Southern women from barbaric Blacks — didn’t matter when it became the most profitable silent movie ever made. Box office receipts spoke loudest.
“After film moved into sound in the 1930s, before ‘Gone with the Wind,’ there were about 75 films set in the Old South and part of the Lost Cause narrative is a romanticized Old South,” Karen L. Cox, Ph.D., said.
A professor at the University of North Carolina–Charlotte, Cox’s 2011 book “Dreaming of Dixie: How the South was Created in American Popular Culture” explained how a rapidly modernizing nation projected nostalgia onto its pre-industrial past.
“The North moved fast and worked hard. They saw the South’s slower pace and the contrast was very appealing and part of the reason is because of the Depression. It’s an escape,” Cox said.
Another component of the genre’s appeal came after 6 million African Americans fled the Jim Crow South starting in 1916. They flowed north seeking work and dignity.
“[The films] had Black people in servant roles. Because of the Great Migration, Blacks coming to their city, they didn’t behave in the way [Northerners] had seen in popular culture. [Northerners] thought, ‘This isn’t what we had in mind.’ They weren’t as subservient,” Cox said.
Southern tourism bloomed. Mobile created the Azalea Trail in 1929 as part of the trend. Natchez, Mississippi, cultivated the “Pilgrimage,” its annual Confederate pageant.
In films like “So Red the Rose” and Bette Davis’s Oscar-winning vehicle “Jezebel,” slaves were loyal, content and protective. Bill Robinson’s character is delighted to tap dance with Shirley Temple in “The Littlest Rebel” and “The Little Colonel.” There are no whippings, no dehumanization, no screaming children sold away from wailing mothers.
As movie theaters spread across the Jim Crow South, so did the vision of a kindly Confederacy. It exceeded diversion and was embraced as tantamount history.
David O. Selznick’s decision to turn Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer-winning novel about Scarlett O’Hara into a movie captured national interest. The same United Daughters of the Confederacy who altered textbooks and festooned the Southern landscape with monuments homed in on Hollywood.
“They let producers know they were paying attention and would boycott if they didn’t like it. They didn’t want any bad accents,” Cox said.
Selznick’s lavish final product is excellently crafted, with splendid acting, camera work and production values. That’s why it was nominated for 13 Academy Awards, winning eight. It’s the apex of its genre, in an industry more than willing to exalt the mythic Old South because it was profitable. They didn’t care about ideology, just dollar signs.
Ironically, if you peer intently into Selznick’s Uncle Remus-visits-Wuthering Heights presentation, it’s possible to glimpse subtle refutations of Southern apologetics. Other aspects aren’t so easily skirted. It erases the horrors of slavery and reduces its victims to minstrel show stereotypes. It softens and coddles Ku Klux Klan activity.
The title crawl is the quintessence of Lost Cause mythos: human chattel silhouetted against Technicolor’s fiery sunset, the ornate font conjuring “cavaliers … gallantry … knights and ladies fair,” all set to a grand orchestral sweep.
For way too many, that’s all that matters. They don’t care to go deeper. But if movies are a mainline to America’s collective unconscious, what has this injected over generations?
“The question is, what emotional investment do you have in this film that something like this [added context] would make you upset?” Jackson wondered. “The film itself isn’t being changed.”
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