Knights & their ladies fair
On the cold-eyed realism of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.
by Bruce Bawer
Just after the opening credits of Gone with the Wind and before the start of the film proper is a title card that reads as follows (ellipses in the original):
There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South . . .
Here in this patrician world the Age of Chivalry 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 . .
These are four very important sentences, because they’re intended to shape the way we view the entire 238-minute movie. Down through the decades, they’ve continued to serve that function. But those four sentences were not written by Margaret Mitchell, the author of the 1936 novel on which the film was based. They aren’t even remotely based on anything in the novel. On the contrary, when Mitchell first encountered the title card at the film’s Atlanta premiere, according to her biographer, Anne Edwards, she winced. “ ‘Cavalier,’ ” wrote Edwards, “was not a word she liked associated with the South.” The words don’t appear in the final shooting script, credited to Sidney Howard, or in any of the innumerable earlier versions of the screenplay done by other hands (including F. Scott Fitzgerald). Instead, the title card, along with six cards that appear later in the film, was composed by the prolific screenwriter and playwright Ben Hecht at the last-minute instigation of the movie’s producer, David O. Selznick (“i am certain you could bat them out in a few minutes,” Selznick telegraphed), and was slipped into the beginning of the picture a few weeks after its first sneak preview.
Many people who’ve seen Selznick’s movie but who’ve never opened Mitchell’s novel have acquired the impression that the book is just what Hecht’s title-card suggests: a gauzy, romantic take on the pre-war South. In fact, when the novel is mentioned in passing in accounts of the movie, it’s often summed up by a statement to precisely this effect. For example, in a 2005 biography of Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy in the film, Jill Watts, a professor of film studies at csu San Marcos, wrote that “In Mitchell’s view, the antebellum South was an era of greatness.” In 2004, Matthew Bernstein, a professor of film studies at Emory, described the racial politics of Selznick’s movie as “less-than-progressive,” while adding that “the film is less offensive than Margaret Mitchell’s novel.”