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.
“Dramatically, Selznick was a great story,” Thomson said. “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 such as “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 such as 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 said.
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.”