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December 18, 2014 12:17 am

On 75th Anniversary, Looking at the Jewish Influence on Gone With the Wind

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JNS.org The 75th anniversary of the premiere of “Gone with the Wind” on Dec. 15 presents an opportunity to examine the Jewish influence on one of the most popular films of all time. That influence starts with the American Civil War epic’s famed producer, David O. Selznick.

Adjusted for inflation, “Gone with the Wind” remains the highest-grossing movie ever made. It earned the 1939 Academy Award for Best Picture, the same honor another Selznick film, “Rebecca,” garnered in 1940. Selznick was born in 1902 to a Jewish family in Pittsburgh. He worked as an apprentice to his father Lewis, a silent film distributor, until 1923, when Lewis declared bankruptcy. That event may have had something to do with Selznick’s fear of failure—a fear that propelled him toward success.

David Thomson, author of the 1993 book “Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick,” believes Selznick had the most interesting career path of the legendary movie producers because he began in the studio system, went independent, and experienced both success and failure.

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“Dramatically, Selznick was a great story,” Thomson told JNS.org. “His memos showed that he was an extraordinary character. He was smart, egotistical, funny, and involved in all aspects of filmmaking.”

According to Thomson, Selznick did not observe Judaism in any obvious ways—to the contrary, he enjoyed Christmas. Yet Selznick’s Jewish upbringing did influence his sense of storytelling and character development, especially for female characters like “Gone with the Wind” protagonist Scarlett O’Hara. According to Thomson, it started with Selznick being part of the group of Eastern European immigrants and their descendants who came from poor backgrounds, but later became wealthy and successful in the film industry.

“They had been very nervous of there being an anti-Semitic reaction to their success and to the film business,” Thomson said of Jewish film industry giants like Selznick. “In the early days of the movies, there was a lot of talk from other churches, academia, and government to the effect that the movies were dragging young people down a dark and wrong path. They were nervous about having it identified as a Jewish operation. Not many of them made a big point of stressing Jewishness and certainly did not like to deal with what you might call Jewish subjects. That said, there is David’s sense of family and of storytelling, which were two great passions in his life. I don’t think you can separate those from a Jewish upbringing and background.”

Selznick’s father made a practice of reading to him as a boy, something the producer routinely described as having had a potent influence on his life, according to Thomson.

“He was very conscious of family, and he loved books and writers and the classics,” said Thomson. “With all of that generation, family meant a great deal to them. ‘Gone with the Wind’ is very much about a woman (Scarlett O’Hara) standing up and guarding the home, surviving the war, and being an active person. To David, that was something that came from his mother. David was interested in feminine psychology, and I think that comes from his background.”

Adapted from Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1936 novel, “Gone with the Wind” is set in the 19th century American South and tells the story of O’Hara, the strong-willed daughter of a Georgia plantation owner, from her romantic pursuit of Ashley Wilkes to her marriage to blockade runner Rhett Butler. Told from the perspective of white Southerners, the story unfolds against the backdrop of the American Civil War and the subsequent Reconstruction era. The movie premiered on Dec. 15, 1939, in Atlanta.

British actor Leslie Howard, who portrayed Ashley Wilkes in the film, was a Hungarian Jew. Born Leslie Howard Steiner, he is best known as an actor, but he was also active in anti-German propaganda and was supposedly involved with British or Allied intelligence. In 1943, an airliner on which Howard was a passenger was shot down over the Bay of Biscay, sparking conspiracy theories regarding the actor’s death.

“It is always said that the plane [Howard] went down on was attacked because people knew he was on it,” Thomson said. “I’m not sure how true that is. Still, he’s an interesting figure.”

Estel Eforgan—author of the 2010 book “Leslie Howard: The Lost Actor”—said research on Howard continues today, “especially in the area of the plane crash and Leslie’s now-emerged links with British secret service.”

“As I and other researchers have found, the more we explore the background, the more mystery emerges. Leslie still keeps his secrets,” Eforgan told JNS.org.

Additional Jewish influence on “Gone with the Wind” can be traced to George Cukor, the film’s original director, who was fired and replaced by Victor Fleming. Although Cukor did not work on the film through its completion, his Jewish upbringing may have impacted the movie in its depiction of strong women. Born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Hungarian Jewish immigrants, Cukor got his big break when Selznick assigned him to direct several major films of the RKO Pictures production company.

“Cukor became famous for his direction of actresses and female parts,” Thomson said. “He had a special understanding of women. He worked privately with [‘Gone with the Wind’ actresses] Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland even after he had been replaced by Fleming.”

Though Selznick was known as “an arrogant manipulator, a megalomaniac hooked on Benzedrine, and a brash charmer,” the producer had noble goals, Thomson said.

“Selznick believed he was pursuing perfection as a noble aim neglected by Hollywood,” he said. “He certainly believed the standard and quality of movies needed to be improved. Hollywood would sometimes buy a book for its title or fame and be casual about what they did with it. [Selznick] believed in trusting the book. This mattered to him a great deal, and he was concerned to have Margaret Mitchell’s approval [to make ‘Gone with the Wind’ into a movie]. When Mitchell came to the premiere, she told David she liked the film.”

Though some contemporary critics consider Mitchell’s book a bit dated, especially in its treatment of slaves and slave owners, Thomson said “Gone with the Wind” is much more than a story about slavery—at its heart, an unflinching look at the costs of war.

“It’s important to remember that one of the reasons audiences were moved by that film when they saw it in late 1939 was exactly that they knew world war was coming,” Thomson said. “The damage caused by war was a very important message. ‘Gone with the Wind’ had as great an impact on the world as any film has ever had.”

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  • Estel Eforgan

    Mr Leslie Howard was NOT a Hungarian Jew. He was born in London and was not Jewish, by birth or upbringing. He had, as is well known some Jewish background and family. Try reading my book – at the library!
    E. Eforgan

  • charlie johnson

    Islam invaded a great deal of the world to make slaves of various peoples. Few of our great liberal educators read history facts. Egypt was invaded long ago by the Islamics who installed a new form of government who gave all the rights to a select few and created slaves of the millions.Jerusalem was not created by Islamics,It was taken by them.In the days of Jesus there were no Islamics around but they lay claim to Jerusalem.If my memory serves.The Islamics invaded Europe before the dreaded Christian Crusaders came in force to the Mid East.But when we hear of slavery the white man gets all the flack,As if every white man was an advocate of slavery.My ancestors were borderline slaves themselves. One black American went to Ireland sometimes around 1800 and made a comment of how the Irish miners were not much better off than black USA slaves. To point out at one race of people as the sole source of sin is very foolish.Is that not the style of a racist? Look at those poor fools in Afghanistan making their children human bombs.Look at slavery in Africa today. We should condem slavery where we find it.If I was a leader of the rights of blacks I would remind people that the new product for the plantation masters is drugs,Not cotton and the plantation owners come in rainbow colors. They can be ignorant or educated but greed/power seems to be their greatest source of inspiration.

  • Robert Weintraub

    As far as I know Selznick never publicly identified himself as a Jew. none of his films dealt with Jewish themes such as the Holocaust or the struggle for Jewish independence at a time when such identification might have done some good. As for valuing strong family ties as a Jewish trait Italians do it much better.

    • charlie johnson

      I suppose that those times were when a man let his works reveal his true self and be judged by what he has accomplished.For that I give this man high grades. Race nor ancestry will not put a man much farther than his talents and skills. But my guess that he was a Jew and a great Jew to boot.The old guys thought deeply compared to these times . A great work of today is not much more than a five minute TV commercial. For some this is looked upon as racist white south .The great thing about a free nation is freedom of thought and speech. So that if one chooses they can read Uncle Toms cabin written by a white Christian that contributed a great deal to the civil war between the states.It is not advocating slavery but the ones who so radically opposed slavery also opposed fighting in the war. The war was ended by starving both black and white southerners and destruction of the means of feeding both races.As a southerner .I consider George Washington Carver a great hero of both races in the south. Also,In the south were a number of Jews who were good citizen. You can look for Uncle Toms cabin on Wikipedia .You may find it interesting,I did.

  • Baht Harim

    Both the book and the movie are apologetic of slavery and racism, showing ugly stereotypes of black people, which Jews should neither be proud of, nor want to associate with. Ick. This is not something to brag about. What next, a TV comedy about the Holocaust? Oh, yeah, that’s been done, too. Feh.

  • charlie johnson

    I can see terrible things going on today that is as bad as slavery in the long past.No many complainers though. The big city drug trade,Porno industry and there is Boko Haram right there in Nigeria holding,Torturing and executing slaves under the banner of the I.S. I had thousands of dollars of tools stolen from me by drug heads.All the hard work I did to get the tools was turned in to slavery to drug heads.So ,Slavery is still going strong.It is not old white southern men. It is an equal opportunity profession today.Once in the long ago past ,The folks of Israel were slaves to the Roman tax collectors.Tax is another road to slavery.I look forward to a young Jew to put that into a movie.

  • charlie johnson

    Nice of a Jew to make a movie of the South that leaves out,White trailer trash,Rednecks ,Crakas and inbred hillbilly. He may be gone from this world but not forgotten by some citizen of the South.I am a fan of the old Jews.The older the better.I read a lot.Noticed the treasury secretary of the Confederacy was a Jew. I quit watching and believing TV since that TV doctor of the late fifties was proven to just another actor. I wonder how many took his medicine? I noticed the medical symbol is a snake on a stick.

  • Julian Clovelley

    Much as I enjoy the film I cannot ignore the fact that it is ardently racist and at best isolationist in its 1939 intent

    Its portrayal of black slaves is “Uncle Tom” insulting and historically disgracefully inaccurate. It also seeks largely to exonerate the South, which left the Union predominantly in order to preserve the right of landowners to purchase, exploit, torture , mutilate, kill and rape slaves. It does this by painting a sentimental portrait largely of house slaves

    It was well directed – as was its predecessor on the subject of the Civil War “Birth of a Nation”. It suffered from the same defects.

    “Gone With The Wind” is a white racist film that – as such i- s a bad film. At the same time it deserved its awards on a cinematic and acting level

    I hope one day a better film is made on the subject of the American Civil War – one that recognises that the flag of the old south is nothing to be proud of

    Historians are unable to accurately assess just how many died as a result of the slave trade – including the slaving wars within Africa – but the numbers dwarf the Holocaust by a multiple factor of between two and ten

    • Eric R.

      Sayeth the man whose country treated its native aboriginal peoples as badly as we treated blacks and native indigenous peoples – combined – and did so till long after we abolished slavery.

      However, how convenient of you to forget that the reason America got those slaves is because African kings – primarily Muslim ones, I might add – captured and sold mostly Christian and pagan Africans.

      Nice of you Communists to forget that.

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