Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Gone with the Wind is pulled out of HBO Max

Gone With the Wind, the 1939 multiple Oscar-winning film that many critics view as one of the greatest ever made in the history of American cinema, has been pulled from HBO Max, the new streaming service owned by WarnerMedia.  The film is based on the sole novel by Southern writer Margaret Mitchell whose sprawling Pulitzer Prize winner shows an idealization of the antebellum South, implying an approval of slavery, and presents the Civil War as the result of Northern aggression. Further, in the second part of the film (the movie clocks in at 238 minutes) the years of Reconstruction show how these ex-confederates still yearn for the past, while at the same time going to any extent to recreate their lost world, even if it means taking advantage of the newly-freed African-Americans.

So as not to be accused of blind censorship, HBO Max has decided that the film will be suppressed temporarily -- perhaps until things cool down on the streets of America and the world -- and promises that the film will come back with, to quote an HBO spokesperson, "a discussion of its historical context." What does this mean? Does it mean that if you want to stream the film you have to sit through a preamble round table of experts (that you will be unable to fast forward!) who will explore how the movie is a prime example of America's 1930's racist past? Perhaps something similar to what was done when Warner Brothers released their Looney Tunes cartoon collection on DVD/BluRay with a short introduction by Whoopi Goldberg reminding us that these cartoons are a product of a racist time in our country.

Is it fair to censor a film whose screenplay was worked on by novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, screenwriter Ben Hecht and Sidney Howard, who ultimately received the screen credit (and a posthumous Best Adaptation Oscar) for his work? Whatever the film's faults it is a work of art which should never be censored, as many different examples of artistic expression were suppressed and burned during Germany's National Socialism days.

And let's not forget that before there was GWTW, there was The Birth of a Nation, the incendiary 1915 silent movie from film pioneer D.W. Griffith. Based on a novel by Thomas Dixon, whose title was The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, the film has been controversial from its first showing. On the one hand, it is famous for legitimizing the new art of motion pictures, and giving cinema its grammar, and on the other hand for showing the Klan as the savior of the new South. Any discussion of GWTW must begin with Birth. Louis B. Mayer, the head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (who distributed GWTW) paid D.W. Griffith $25,000 for the exclusive rights to show Birth of a Nation in New England. Mayer made millions. When making GWTW, producer David O Selznick made sure that the more incendiary aspects of the novel would not be adapted to the screen. Gone was the "N" word, and there was no mention of the Klan anywhere. In the great scene when Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) is wounded and Frank Kennedy (Carroll Nye) loses his life it's as a result of a raid on a black shanty-town whose members had attacked Scarlet O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) a few days before. I am sure that the raiders wore the white hoods and sheets during that mission, but producer Selznick made sure that they had disrobed before returning to their women folk.

Seems a shame to suppress a film which tried really hard in its day to show compassion for the African American experience. Seems also a shame that modern audiences will not be able to enjoy the performance of Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American actress to win the Academy Award.

While writing this piece, a friend sent me the following information from

"While HBO Max pulled Gone with the Wind –temporarily — from its streaming offering on Tuesday, Amazon has reaped the rewards of the controversy that ensued. The 1939 classic shot to the top of Amazon’s movies and TV bestseller list overnight and on Wednesday occupied the number 1 slot, the number 8 slot and the number 9 slot. It did so in different iterations: DVD, Blu-ray and the 70th Anniversary Edition.
With the exception of what seem to be single copies being offered — and immediately snapped up — on the site, Victor Fleming’s Civil War-era film has sold out in every format. One Blu-ray copy was being offered for $334.01."

I fear the knee-jerk reactions that we have seen played out around the country since the awful death of George Floyd. The same impulsive force that has caused HBO Max to ban the film. I fear that the pendulum swinging so violently to the left will have a direct impact on the possibility of a change of government in the upcoming presidential election in November. How does the old saying go...?

"The road to hell is paved with good intentions."

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