Just over three quarters of a century ago, Gone With the Wind had its premiere in Atlanta. Most industry experts were confident that the movie would flop. After all, it was a four hour long color film in an era of black and white flicks that were usually less than half its length; it was a narrative about the journey of a flawed female protagonist in a medium usually privileging the stories of heroic men; it was a war film without a single battle scene; it was hampered by the firing of the original director and cameraman and incessant conflicts between producer David O Selznick and his crew; it was one of the most expensive movies ever made; and it had spiraled dramatically over-budget. “I’m just glad it’ll be Clark Gable who’s falling on his face and not Gary Cooper,” said Gary Cooper with a singular lack of prescience. Of course, Gone With the Wind proved to be the most successful film of all time in the United States despite the relatively low cost of tickets when it was first released and its incredible running length (“hard on one’s ass,” quipped Vivien Leigh). In fact, it became perhaps the most widely seen film around the entire world over the course of the twentieth century. Rhett and Scarlett have been immortalized in global discourse as archetypical tragic lovers no less iconic or recognizable than many of their Shakespearean antecedents. “Selznick’s Folly” proved to be a canonical text in the history of world film, and the story of its making emblematic of the entire history of Golden-Age Hollywood.
While academic and critical circles tend to regard Gone With the Wind as a great achievement in spectacular entertainment rather than exceptional film art per se, I think a strong argument can be made that in the eyes of history, it should be seen as one of the most important aesthetics achievements of the twentieth century: a film that literally invented the role of production designer, pioneered the finest color cinematography of the first half of the twentieth century, challenged the boundaries of censorship, set the upper time limit and two act structure for a host of subsequent epics, and included some of the finest music and costumes ever featured on screen, all the while faithfully interpreting a Pulitzer Prize winning story grounded in strong undercurrents of feminism, to say nothing of touching the lives of untold millions of people with its message of survival in the face of adversity. Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett is, in my book, the most impressive performance I have ever seen by an actor, male or female; the entire success of the film rests on her shoulders, since she is in 95% of the scenes for the entire four hour duration (why Cameron Crowe thinks that Gable is the one who does the “heavy lifting” acting-wise in the picture is beyond me.) Gone With the Wind’s perennial appeal and craftsmanship are so powerful that today, it is virtually the only popularly respected monument to the ghosts of a dead civilization, men and women who deserve to be mourned even if their culture does not. In short, it’s a true American epic set against the backdrop of the most dramatic moment in our national history.
But these days, the movie is in need of some rehabilitation. Its very popularity and political incorrectness have blinded mainstream critics to its artistry (though there are exceptions to the rule, like Molly Haskell, who takes the film seriously). Paul Thomas Anderson even recently boasted about never having seen it, nor having any interest in doing so. Spike Lee criticized George Clooney for celebrating Hattie McDaniel’s achievement when he won his Oscar (luckily, no one criticized Mo’Nique for doing so when she also gave McDaniel a shout-out.) The Oscars are beginning to highlight The Wizard of Oz every year instead of acknowledging the true winner of 1939’s race, the most competitive in the history of the awards. Too long and “popular” for inclusion on academic curricula and tainted with a legacy of alleged racism to boot, the film’s continuing popularity belies the fact that it is becoming somewhat taboo among the self-appointed judges and preservers of art history, and fading from the forefront of the popular consciousness as a living document. This is a great shame, however. An American masterpiece is being unduly neglected.
This will be the first in a series of articles reexamining the film. We’ll begin with its most controversial aspect: the performance of Butterfly McQueen.
Malcolm X was not a fan of Prissy in Gone With the Wind. “When Butterfly McQueen went into her act,” he wrote, “I felt like crawling under the rug.” He wasn’t alone in his disapproval of the ditsy slave girl who sweeps through the climax of the first act of the film with no less force than the whirlwind evoked in the stanza of Ernest Dowson’s poetry appropriated by Margaret Mitchell for the title of her book. In an article written in celebration of Gone With the Wind’s 75th anniversary, for example, a first-time viewer recently described the role as “horrifying,” suggesting that McQueen is nothing but a “dim-witted girl who exemplifies every negative racial stereotype.” But is the role really so horrendous? Roger Ebert, for example, called her “subversive.” I concur that there’s much more going on with Prissy than meets the eye. On close inspection, the character isn’t just subversive, but openly rebellious. However, as a slave at the mercy of others, she masks her aggression behind a false veneer of passivity and helplessness impenetrable enough to escape the notice of her oppressors, but also movie-goers too horrified by appearances to take a closer look at her. Yet if my reading of one pivotal scene in the film is correct, Butterfly McQueen may have even one-upped and preempted Clark Gable’s infamous “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” by mouthing “fuck you” to Scarlett O’Hara before explicitly singing about her hope for liberation from slavery.
Gone With the Wind’s racial politics are dizzyingly dated, no doubt. The opening intertitles literally dub the days of slavery “a dream remembered,” the florid prose inducing Margaret Mitchell herself to roll her eyes during the premiere. Films like 12 Years a Slave remind us of the horrors of the so-called peculiar institution, whose existence was a disgrace to the ideals of American history. And yet, Gone With the Wind endures as a cultural phenomenon because the problematic racial issues, while present, do not form the underpinning of the narrative as, for example, in The Birth of a Nation, whose plot gets completely derailed in the second half of the drama by an obsessive promulgation of a message of hatred. For all of its political incorrectness, Gone With the Wind remains relatively popular in modern America while older plantation-bound favorites like Song of the South have fallen to the wayside. The latest anniversary of the movie was met by the creation of a new sequel, an umpteenth box set, theatrical revivals, and several articles online and in magazines. Of course, in most cases, critics are careful to qualify their praise of the dinosaur with trigger warnings about its naïve depictions of race relations. To his credit, Selznick eliminated references to the KKK and excised the n-word from the script (he’d entertained having the black characters say it to each other for “historical accuracy” and comedic value.) Nevertheless, slavery is portrayed as largely benign; the Yankees bring hardship rather than liberation; the former slaves are manipulated by the carpetbaggers during Reconstruction; Mammy doesn’t even have a first name. And worst of all, purportedly, is Prissy, described by Rhett as a “simple minded darky.”
Gone With the Wind is a film of the 1930s, and to a large extent it deals in a naive racist shorthand when presenting its black characters. As a white commentator, I don’t want to underrate the importance of the visceral negative reactions of many viewers of color to aspects of McQueen’s performance that they see as demeaning. I don’t know what it means to watch Gone With the Wind grounded in the lived experience of an African American still suffering from the repercussions of the era romanticized in the film. Gone With the Wind is not a masterpiece due to its insights into the nature of the experience of slavery by a long shot, any more than The Merchant of Venice is a great play thanks to its understanding of Judaism. But in this article, I do want to suggest that the filmmakers portray race relationships in a way that is more nuanced than it may first appear, and that the contributions of the African American actors to the richness and complexity of the final narrative should not be underestimated. Working from a script written at the height of the Jim Crow era just 75 years after the abolition of slavery itself, they nonetheless crafted three dimensional characters that were actually quite pioneering in their complexity by the standards of 1939. This idea is usually grudgingly acknowledged in the case of Hattie McDaniel’s Academy Award winning turn as Mammy, though a writer at Time recently called her work “infantilized” and worthy of inspiring “cringing.” McDaniel’s character displays a remarkable combination of wisdom, understanding, compassion, shrewdness, and even, sometimes, repressed rage; she speaks bitterly and angrily more than once, and there is an undeniable aggressiveness brewing just below the surface at many times during the movie. Her performance weeping her way up the stairs after the death of Bonnie probably clinched the Oscar for her; it’s one of the most extraordinary long takes I’ve ever seen. Her love for the child and pain at her death are excruciatingly palpable. Bodily fluids ooze from her face. It is a totally uninhibited, raw moment.
But what about Butterfly McQueen as Prissy? Is she really such a disgraceful character? To many, she seems a mere stereotype employed for comic relief. But I think that to insist upon this reading of the character is to underestimate McQueen’s talents as an actress. To begin with, believe it or not, McQueen used her real voice in the film. She wasn’t affecting that unforgettably weird tone halfway between Walt Disney’s Snow White and Minnie Mouse. Of course, one could argue that she was cast because her ultra-high pitched voice inherently spoke to offensive stereotypes, but did it really? I’ve heard of stereotypes about slaves speaking in an exaggerated dialect before, but never stereotypes of slaves speaking as if they’d just inhaled helium.She was chosen because her voice was extremely unique and in fact the very opposite of stereotypical. No one in the world sounded like her, and Selznick believed that her voice and comedic talent would make the role memorable. It wasn’t easy to get a part in a movie in 1939 as a black woman in Hollywood, let alone one who sounded like Butterfly McQueen. But she took her opportunity and rolled with it. Perhaps she thought of Hattie McDaniel’s rejoinder to her critics that she’d rather play a maid than be one. At any rate, while McQueen’s voice is distracting and strange for many viewers, to assume that it in itself denotes stupidity in the character is to make a mistake. Referencing her choices as an actress, McQueen later said, “I didn’t mind being funny, but I didn’t like being stupid.” In fact, Prissy is far from a simpleton. She is actually very sly.
I interpret Prissy as a a rebellious character. She dislikes working as a slave, and so she puts on an act that empowers her to abrogate responsibility whenever she can. She lies to Scarlett and Doctor Meade about knowing how to deliver babies, nonchalantly endangering the life of her former owner’s wife for the mere reason that she feels like boasting. As Melanie struggles in childbirth in a life-or-death battle, Prissy shuffles about Atlanta “as slow as molasses in January,” taking her sweet time finding the doctor. She whines and cowers when Scarlett upbraids her, but becomes calm quickly enough as soon as her mistress’ back is turned. In fact, the more that Scarlett screams at her and threatens her, the more she whimpers and whines, but the slower she works. The character is almost lethally passive aggressive during a time of great crisis, speaking to a form of rebelliousness less satisfying to a modern perspective than the cathartic overt vengeance of Django Unchained, perhaps, but representing something altogether more realistic. As the future emperor Claudius discovered, playing the fool could sometimes have its benefits.
Consider the scene in the clip at the top of this article. As Scarlett fans the dying Melanie while they both wait for the doctor, she hears Prissy’s voice outside the window. The slave is moving as slowly as possible, and she is singing—not just any song, but “A Few More Days to Tote the Weary Load.” Could she possibly be referencing the impending ending of slavery, or is she too stupid to know the symbolic implications of the lyrics? When she encounters Scarlett, she begins her interaction in a surly manner, casually explaining that she couldn’t find the doctor and was too afraid to look for him. When Scarlett presses her, she begins to weep and whine. Scarlett leaves to find the doctor herself. She threatens “Don’t you be upsetting (Melanie), or I’ll whip the hide off you.” And then, there is this magical moment where Butterfly McQueen ad-libs a line that shows she knew exactly what she was doing with the character. Prissy straightens her back, stops sniffling so promptly it is clear that it was all an act, and proceeds to linger so long on the F of “a few more days for to tote the weary load” that it actually looks very much like she is saying “Fuck you” to Scarlett O’Hara. Unfortunately, the pivotal moment takes place just after the ending of the clip, above. But revisit the film for yourself and look for it. It’s there. Audiences often even gasp at it. In that elongated “F” is an entire history of pent up rage behind a passive aggressive veneer in which incompetence and “stupidity” can be used as weapons to avoid hard labor. I don’t think that this was the director’s contribution. I have a feeling that it was all Butterfly.
In his otherwise very cogent and engaging essay “On Plantation Politics” in Gone With the Wind, Wesley Morris suggests that “as Prissy, Butterfly McQueen is giving the same high-strung performance as Vivien Leigh. To see McQueen falling down and squawking is to think there really isn’t a huge difference between her dithering emotionalism and Scarlett’s, except that Prissy is written as a fool and Scarlett as a superhero.” There is so much wrong here that I don’t know where to begin. Prissy is clearly faking most of her theatricality; Scarlett is always completely serious, and much less over-the-top. Behind her melodramatic veneer, though, Prissy is actually a different person behind closed doors. Selznick evidently understood this about the character in a way that the original director George Cukor did not. According to McQueen, Selznick visited the set one day while Cukor was shooting a scene with Melanie in childbirth. Prissy is supposed to say, “Ma says that if you put a knife under the bed, it cuts the pain in two.” Cukor wanted her to say it hysterically. Selznick told her to cool it down and say it more calmly, perhaps to draw more of a contrast between Prissy as she normally is and Prissy when she is being passive aggressive. Cukor was furious. A few days later, he was fired. In the movie, McQueen says the line calmly. Selznick always got his way in the end. He admired McQueen, and gave her work in his subsequent epic Duel in the Sun. She plays the servant girl Vashti, a much kinder and sweeter character than Prissy, and altogether less interesting. Prissy is more diabolical and hilarious. Really, for all of the problematic baggage surrounding the performance, Butterfly McQueen steals the show in the most pivotal part of the biggest and most famous movie of all time. For better or worse, “I don’t know nothing about birthing babies” is one of the most famous lines in film history. It is usually associated in the popular imagination with incompetence. It should perhaps be associated with masked rebellion.
No discussion of Butterfly McQueen’s role in Gone With the Wind would be complete without a discussion of Scarlett’s slapping her in the face after her admission about lying. It’s a jarring moment—the heroine of the film is actually beating her slave. Gone With the Wind is often criticized for glossing over the horrors of servitude, but here, at least, is an indication that the threat of physical force is always just below the surface. Of course, Scarlett has been called “an equal opportunity slapper” who beats a whole host of other people over the course of the film, and McQueen joked that she herself would love to have slapped Prissy. But the moment is absolutely shocking to modern audiences. I’m glad it was included. I think the audience is meant to feel a sense of callousness on the part of Scarlett that is in part reprehensible—she is not portrayed as a “superhero” in this instance.
There is a distinct disconnect between the world of the black characters and the white characters’ understanding of that world. Earlier in the film, Scarlett meets her former slaves conscripted by the Confederate army and greets them enthusiastically, but does not seem to notice that they are singing the hymn “Let My People Go.” Later, her father chastises her for behaving too brutally to Prissy and Mammy, urging her to be more gentle with “inferiors.” In the final act, while Mammy is hunched over in misery complaining about her aching back, Scarlett breaks into song, completely (and glaringly) heedless of her surrogate mother’s plight. And when Rhett leaves Georgia for England, he walks gruffly into Pork as he passes him in the hallway, aggressively bumping into him without apologizing. These microaggressions against the black characters are deliberate inclusions by the filmmakers suggestive of the dehumanizing nature of servitude in the South, or at least the obliviousness of white characters to the inner emotional landscape of their house workers. The experience of slavery is not explored very deeply in Gone With the Wind, but the thematic gulf between the complete self-involvedness of the white characters and the hurt silences and passive aggressive tactics of their black servants is certainly highlighted. All of the slaves run away from Tara except two. When Ashley complains that he “will not make money from the enforced labor and misery of others,” even Scarlett has to laugh at him. He assures her that they didn’t treat their slaves like that, and that he would have freed them all after his father died. Scarlett tactfully changes the subject.
For all of the discourse about the simpering stupidity of her character, Butterfly McQueen was actually the most rebellious member of the cast. She refused to be literally slapped by Vivien Leigh during her climactic scene, even against the violent protests of Cukor; she said that she would scream loudly if the slap was simulated, but would take it completely silently if her face was touched. Her insistence was honored. Later, she also refused to eat watermelon on the porch of Tara. The filmmakers compromised, and she carves it in the background in the final cut of the scene (she later jokingly admitted that she regretted her obstinacy in this case; it might have been funny to spit out the seeds nonchalantly, she said, while the other characters were engaged in their melodramatics all around her). When Hattie McDaniel first auditioned for the role of Mammy, she actually visited Selznick’s office dressed like a slave, showing him that she was willing to embrace the part in all its facets, and was not ashamed of it in any way. Hattie McDaniel told Butterfly McQueen during the shooting of Gone With the Wind that she would never work in Hollywood again. “You complain too much,” she said.
(One wonders if the author of the second article didn’t accidentally mistake the characters of Prissy and Mammy. Indeed, this confusion is all but confirmed by the correction at the bottom of the article which retracted the idea that Mammy was the one who delivered the famous line about birthing babies. The adjective “infantilized” is totally wrong to describe the part of Mammy; the idea that McDaniel’s no-nonsense and aged character is in any way immature seems bizarre.)