RALEIGH – Sprinkled throughout an exhibit of memorabilia from the movie “Gone with the Wind” at the N.C. Museum of History are reminders that racial attitudes during the era when the film was released had not changed much since the period shown on screen.
The exhibit, “Real to Reel: The Making of Gone with the Wind,” opens Friday. On display are 120 items from the personal collection of Jim Tumblin, a former head of the Universal Studios makeup and hair department who lives in Oregon and Hawaii.
It includes costumes, Vivien Leigh’s Academy Award and the story boards created by William Cameron Menzies. Curator Katie Edwards also notes the ugliness of the times, such as the original segregation of the set in Culver City, Calif., and the banning of the black actors from the December 1939 premiere in Atlanta.
“Just like you can’t talk about the Civil War without talking about slavery, you can’t talk about ‘Gone with the Wind’ without talking about racism,” said Steve Wilson, film curator at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, home of producer David O. Selznick’s papers.
Selznick decided early on not to mention the Ku Klux Klan in the movie, Wilson said, and the n-word also wasn’t used. Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy, and Butterfly McQueen, who played Prissy, were three-dimensional characters, which was unusual for the times, yet they also were stereotypes, he said.
The curator’s notes highlight aspects of the era in which the movie was filmed, including this one: The Culver City, Calif., set was segregated until an extra complained about the separate bathrooms to Clark Gable, who said the actors would quit if it continued.
The stars of the show are the clothes: Scarlett O’ Hara’s dress from the Shantytown scene; Bonnie Blue’s velvet dress from her final scene; Belle Watling’s burgundy velvet jacket and fur muff; and the uniform that Ashley Wilkes wore when he returned home at the end of the Civil War.
The Shantytown dress was Tumblin’s first acquisition after he saw it on the studio floor and learned it was going to be thrown away. He bought it and a rack of clothes from other movies for $20. He paid $8,500 for his next item, Scarlett’s straw hat from the Twelve Oaks barbecue, and $500,000 for Leigh’s Academy Award.
The exhibit also includes a copy of the script that Selznick gave McDaniel, who became the first black person to win an Academy Award, and a copy of “Gone with the Wind” that Tumblin owned.
Tumblin said he fell in love with the movie when he first saw it at age 7. His mother gave him money for a bus ticket and movie admission. When he returned, he told her the movie ended with a woman eating dirt. That scene actually marks the intermission of the four-hour movie.
“She gave me another $1 the next day and said to stick around until it said “The End,” Tumblin said in a phone interview Thursday.
Wilson is working on an exhibit in 2014 to mark the 75th anniversary of the movie. He believes it was popular when it came out during the Great Depression because the lead character, Scarlett, gets through tough times herself.
“The survivor aspect of her character really resonates with people,” he said.
The exhibit complements three historical exhibits, including one about North Carolina and the Civil War, said museum director Ken Howard. Accompanying programs focus on how filmmakers and writers have created a romanticized version of the Old South and how fiction and film have reinterpreted Civil War history.
“Gone With the Wind” is an idealized version of a past that never existed, said Dale Pollock, professor of cinema studies at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. It remains popular because it’s a beautifully made movie, he said. “If you hear that score cue, it evokes emotion in you,” he said. “It’s almost impossible not to.”
It was racist, but not as virulent as others of that time, he said.
“We have to recognize it as a document that reflects a certain time looking back at the Civil War,” he said.
Edwards said she hopes the exhibit will be popular with all races. The movie “is definitely a romanticized version of the Old South,” she said. “ ... That’s why we delve into the racial conflicts.”