The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.
The classic film “Gone with the Wind” premiered 80 years ago this December. The four-hour blockbuster received a record 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Audiences marveled at the film’s Technicolor brilliance, its dramatic special effects, and the romantic sparks that flew between Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) and Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). Centered on the mythical Tara plantation at the time of the Civil War, the cast featured elegant Southern belles, dashing Confederate officers, and docile slaves.
As with all art, viewers’ cultural and political values informed what they observed. Most – but not all — Americans adored the film as a gallant re-imaging of the Old South. In contrast, Nazi leaders considered it a bold affirmation of racism and slavery; Japanese militarists saw grim portents of U.S. military superiority.
Even in the United States, many African Americans and leftists deplored the movie’s sugarcoating slavery and portrayal of blacks happy in bondage. My own mother recalled that as a politically active teenager in 1940 she picketed a Brooklyn movie theater showing the film — then slipped away from the protest to catch a late screening.
She abhorred the film’s politics but swooned over its conclusion. With her gilded world of plantation privilege vanquished, a dejected Scarlett implores Rhett, “Where shall I go now?” Stunned by her lover’s cutting retort, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” Scarlett memorably declares, “Tomorrow is another day.” Even a crusader for racial justice like my mother felt a clutch in her throat at that moment.
Six months later, on the night of June 22, 1941, as a million German soldiers launched a massive invasion of the Soviet Union, Adolf Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, hosted Nazi big wigs at a screening of “Gone with the Wind.” The film’s delayed debut in Germany resulted from the severing of most cultural and commercial ties with the United States. In 1934, when Nazi thugs in Berlin assaulted the representative of the Warner Brothers film studio, the company ceased distribution in Germany. Other American studios gradually withdrew. By 1940, Germany blocked foreign companies from repatriating profits and few imports appeared on local screens.
Nazis had a conflicted view of Hollywood. The German public and even the rabid Goebbels admired the technical virtuosity of American films. Yet, the regime demonized “Jewish moguls” who controlled several major Hollywood studios. For their part, the Mayers, Warners and Goldwyns were extremely sensitive to widespread anti-Semitism at home and abroad.
They avoided calling attention to their Eastern European immigrant origins by producing films that mostly shunned controversial themes and celebrated “Americanism.”
Although reluctant to make waves, several of the moguls quietly assisted nearly 1,000 Jewish and non-Jewish German film directors, screenwriters, cinematographers and actors in getting work visas (U.S. law required proof of employment lest immigrants or refugees become a “public charge”) after the Nazis purged the film industry of “undesirables.” Exiled luminaries such as Billy Wilder, Marlene Dietrich, Fritz Lang, Fred Zinnemann, Peter Lorre, and Ernst Lubitsch deeply influenced American cinema.
Their qualms aside, Goebbels and his guests were enthralled by this American film. Hitler admired the Old South and lamented its fate.
The Confederacy’s defeat, he rued, had destroyed a “great new social order based on the principle of slavery and inequality.” After 1865, the Fuhrer opined, immigration from Eastern Europe had created a “decadent” America (he decried Miami as the worst of cities!), “half Judaized and the other half negrified” that corrupted everything it touched.
Nazi leaders saw a glimmer of hope in the American South. They envied eugenics laws in Southern states that encouraged sterilization of “defectives” and after taking power in 1933 enacted nearly identical codes. They also felt kinship with the Ku Klux Klan’s “progressive” doctrine of white supremacy and the group’s attacks upon blacks, Jews and Catholics. The KKK, some hoped, might serve as a vanguard of Nazi influence. Accordingly, Goebbels and his guests found much to admire in “Gone with the Wind.”
Six months later, following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Germany joined its Axis ally by declaring war on the United States. With the Americans forced to fight on two fronts, and perhaps with an assist from the Klan, Hitler predicted certain victory.
In Tokyo early in 1942, a select Japanese audience responded to the film quite differently from audiences in Brooklyn and Berlin. A group of military officers and filmmakers watched a “double feature” of “Gone with the Wind” and Disney’s 1938 full-color animated “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” both captured in Singapore when the British surrendered.
Although Japan’s forces easily won the war’s initial battles, the screening eroded their optimism. One viewer recalled a mood of despair among them. How, several wondered aloud, could Japan “possibly defeat a country that had produced” such technologically “astonishing” films.
Perhaps President Roosevelt sensed this psychological vulnerability. In 1943, he proposed filming U.S. assembly lines producing record numbers of tanks, planes and ships, then dropping copies over Berlin and Tokyo. “Why not?” he quipped to startled aides. One look and “they’ll blow their brains out!”
Following Japan’s defeat, U.S. Occupation authorities permitted wide distribution of “Gone With the Wind.” Ordinary Japanese people, their world so completely shattered, reportedly found Scarlett’s final words inspirational, “After all, tomorrow is another day.”