THE SONIC BOOMER
I am reading The Scarlett Letters, which sounds like something you had to read in high school, but isn’t. This is the book edited by John Wiley Jr. featuring all the letters Margaret Mitchell wrote to friends and business associates about the making of her book, Gone with the Wind, into a film.
I am halfway through this book, and I am starting to get angry.
In the first place, Mitchell wanted all her correspondence destroyed so this sort of thing wouldn’t happen. However, she had no control over what the recipients of her missives did. And, for a writer, I must admit it’s very interesting reading. Writers are, by nature, introspective and shy, yet this poor woman was besieged night and day by acquaintances and strangers who wanted her to get them into the movie, wanted to send their great-granddaddy’s Civil War uniform to Hollywood for use in the movie and demanded that she make absolutely, positively sure the Southern dialect would not be incorrect in the movie.
Almost every letter reminds her correspondents that she has nothing to do with the making of the film, and that she sold the movie rights lock, stock and barrel for this very reason. Wisely, the producers asked her for recommendations of local experts, and then they hired them. They even went so far as to have a jar of Georgia clay sent to the studio to try to get the dirt right.
But it’s something else that’s making me the most angry. And, perhaps, this is something I already should have known.
Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy, was not allowed to attend the premiere of the movie she had worked on for two years because of Georgia’s segregation laws. (It was held in Atlanta on Dec. 15, 1939.) The theater had no balcony where blacks would have been allowed to sit and, of course, the main floor was completely off-limits. If this had happened 20 years later, every civil rights group in the nation would’ve been down there protesting. The premiere never would’ve been shown because the audience never would have gotten inside.
I was pleased to read that Clark Gable (who was the favorite down south for the part of Rhett Butler long before any other parts were assigned) had suggested McDaniel for the role of Mammy due to his admiration of her previous work and stood by his woman. Knowing that he was going to be a huge attraction the night of the premiere (and its associated parade and parties), Gable threatened to boycott the event unless she was allowed to attend. It was McDaniel herself who insisted he go. She would see the movie a week later, in Hollywood.
McDaniel won an Oscar for her performance (which has since gone missing) and stated in her will that she would like to be buried in the Hollywood Cemetery. No go. She died of breast cancer in 1952 and was buried elsewhere due to segregation.
The Scarlett Letters tells of the reaction of Atlantans to the movie as it unfolded — their joy when it looked like the south was winning, their despair when the tide had turned. Mitchell’s hope that the south would be presented in a dignified way was answered. The reason for the Civil War was now crystal clear, but it was not because of the book or the movie. It was because of the shameful treatment of one of its biggest stars.