Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Rhett, Scarlett, and the Word "Damn": Censorship in "Gone With the Wind"

Paper Abstract:

The film and book versions of Gone With the Wind are compared and contrasted in terms of censorship, their relationship to the Production Code, and the requisite changes from the book to the screen. On a filmmaking level alone, Gone With the Wind is practically unparalleled in its scope and production issues, but the Production Code Administration (PCA), the governing censorship body of Hollywood, kept a close, critical watch on the preproduction and production of the film. The censors wanted to eradicate the book’s racier elements. Many compromises were made to satisfy Production Code regulations, and many battles were fought over the content and representation, but the film remains remarkably faithful to the novel in spite of the circumstances. The paper discusses some especially prickly censorship issues, including one scene in particular with Scarlett O’Hara propositioning Rhett Butler for money. For all the trouble caused by the Production Code Administration, Gone With the Wind emerged relatively unscathed, and there are still moments when the viewer senses the filmmakers winking, quietly celebrating something they managed to sneak in under the censors’ noses.

Paper Excerpts:

When Daniel Lord and Martin Quigley drafted the Production Code, they established the rules of morality that would govern films for over thirty years. Basically, the Production Code assigned movies the daunting task of teaching the masses about morality, essentially turning art and entertainment into religious indoctrination. Luckily, many filmmakers found ways to get around the rigid confines of the Code, but more often than not, it involved significant compromises, much like in Gone With the Wind. One major part that suffers due to compromise and alteration is the scene where Scarlett visits Rhett at the jail and propositions him for money. It is not that the scene does not work in the film, because it works adequately enough, but it pales in comparison to the original scene in the novel. The scene suffers more from omission than from any real creative changes. Basically, the chapter selection on the DVD says it all by calling the scene “Appeal to Rhett.” However, the book makes it abundantly clear that this “appeal” is actually an indecent proposal.

Upon seeing Scarlett’s overworked hands, Rhett senses an ulterior motive. In the film, he simply accuses her of putting on an act to get something, but in the book, his anger at her deception borders on verbal abuse. “`But no, you had to come jingling your earbobs and pouting and frisking like a prostitute with a prospective client’” (Mitchell 570). At this point in the film, Scarlett begs for the money to save Tara, and when Rhett asks for collateral, she implores, “You once said you loved me. If you still love me, Rhett…” After he reminds her that he is not the marrying type and she says that she remembers, he looks her up and down very quickly, and a heavy pause lingers between them, causing Scarlett to cast her eyes down. Finally, he breaks the silence, “You’re not worth three hundred dollars. You’ll never mean anything but misery to any man.” During that pause, one could almost infer that something other than marriage is being considered, so maybe this was a way for the filmmakers to get the real point across. But before the viewer can really question it, Rhett’s comment about Scarlett bringing misery to men negates that idea and definitely implies marriage. Also, the use of the word “love” in the film clearly points to marriage, thus making Scarlett’s offer grudgingly acceptable according to the Code.

On the other hand, the word “love” does not enter the equation in the novel. Scarlett decides that she will do whatever it takes to get the money, whether that means marriage or simply sex. Instead of “love,” the words “mistress” and “prostitute” get thrown around, but their use would have been strictly forbidden in the film. Finally, when Rhett asks her for collateral, she boldly states, “`I – I have myself’” (Mitchell 573). She further supplicates, “`You said – you said you’d never wanted a woman as much as you wanted me. If you still want me, you can have me’” (Mitchell 573). Again, the book uses the word “want,” whereas the film uses “love” to make it seem honorable. Finally, Rhett responds, “`What makes you think you are worth three hundred dollars? Most women don’t come that high’” (Mitchell 573). Clearly, they are discussing sex, and only sex. Rhett torments her by bluntly summing up the situation, “`I’ll give you three hundred dollars and you’ll become my mistress’” (Mitchell 574). The filmmakers did not really try to get around the Code or subvert it; they merely changed the sex to marriage and love in order to appease the censors. Unfortunately, this change causes the scene to lose some of its original desperation and meaning. In the book, it is important to understand just how far Scarlett is willing to go to save Tara. Maybe the filmmakers circumvented the Code a bit by suggesting that something else is happening with a long pause, but the implication is so vague and subtle, if it is even an implication at all, that it could hardly be considered subversion. This scene perfectly encapsulates the pervasive influence of the Production Code on filmmaking.

When producer David O. Selznick purchased the rights to Gone With the Wind, he made one of the biggest and riskiest decisions of his life. Since the novel contains graphic depictions of war, violence, rape, and various other immoral behaviors, it was only a matter of time before the PCA became involved with the production. “The censors first paid attention to Gone With the Wind in September 1937 – sixteen months before the movie started shooting. As usual, the anxieties of the Production Code Administration centered on sex – implicit, explicit, or illicit – and the consequences of sex” (Harmetz 137). Obviously, some of the biggest sexual issues involved prostitution, Rhett’s rape of Scarlett, and any relations between Scarlett and the married Ashley. These concerns, along with many others, were detailed by Code administrator Joseph Breen after reading the first draft of the script. “When the first screenplay for Gone with the Wind was submitted, Breen’s response on October 14, 1937, consisted of seven pages with fifty specific warnings and suggestions” (Walsh 149). Sex was hardly the only problem Breen had with the film, but it was certainly the main one.

In the novel, the Ku Klux Klan plays an integral part, but the PCA and Selznick reached a mutual agreement to cut out the Klan entirely from the film and to eliminate the word “nigger.” Considering the backlash from Negro associations against the portrayal of blacks in the novel, this was a wise decision (Cameron 42-43). Selznick fought another major battle with the censors about the scene where Rhett rapes Scarlett. The main debate concerned Scarlett’s positive reaction the next morning. “Breen objected strongly to Scarlett’s ‘figuratively licking her chops’ after having been raped by her husband” (Walsh 150). Eventually, the scene got cut shorter, but surprisingly, it still made it into the film. Scarlett literally glows with ecstatic contentment in her bed the morning after her husband rapes her, a true victory for Selznick. Undoubtedly, the biggest clash between Selznick and the PCA transpired over the use of the word “damn” in Rhett’s famous line at the end of the film. In a personal letter to Will Hays from October 1939, only two months before the film’s release, Selznick pleaded his case: “A great deal of the force and drama of Gone With the Wind, a project to which we have given three years of hard work and hard thought, is dependent upon that word” (Behlmer 245). Ironically, with so many controversial subjects to choose from, one four-letter word created the most trouble and almost jeopardized the effectiveness of the whole film. Luckily, Selznick triumphed, and that little word ended up costing him $5,000 (Cameron 216). Clearly, the PCA formed an intensely close relationship with the production of Gone With the Wind.

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