So Red the Rose: The ‘Gone With The Wind’ That Never Was

Abridged by the author from “So Red the Rose: Atlanta’s Gone with the Wind that Wasn’t” Atlanta History: A Journal of Georgia and the South, 43:2 (Summer 1999), pp. 45-67.

Not Scarlet and Rhett: Randolph Scott (Duncan) and Margaret Sullavan (Valette) strike a remarkably Gone With the Wind -like pose for this So Red the Rose publicity still. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art

Bathed in the glow of truck-mounted searchlights and bedecked with Confederate flags, the Atlanta theater welcomed a throng of visitors and distinguished guests, including the governor of Georgia, the mayor of Atlanta, the head of the United Confederate Veterans, and dozens of his aging, white-bearded comrades. Women dressed in pseudo-1860s-era crinoline hoopskirts, accompanied the guests to their seats. A box-office loudspeaker kept sidewalk crowds apprised of the entering celebrities while the Georgia Military Academy band played stirring martial airs. Billed as a “tribute of the new South to the old South,” it was the most thrilling social occasion of the year: a best-selling novel set in the South during the War Between the States made into a major motion picture that was about to have a Hollywood-style premier in Atlanta. Gone With the Wind? Hardly.

It was So Red the Rose, a 1935 box-office disappointment that you’ve probably never heard of. Yet in this forgotten Civil War melodrama, we find all the symbolic elements of White America’s obsession with the myth of the Old South that in 1939 would turn Gone With the Wind into the mega-hit of the century. The remarkable similarities between So Red the Rose and Gone With the Wind serve as a reminder that popular culture icons are not created in a vacuum. By 1939, most of the visual imagery, character stereotypes, and historical flavor of Gone With the Wind had already been established in the minds of viewing audiences through previous and less-successful Old South genre films such as So Red the Rose. In the end, the story of why So Red the Rose never was is the story of the right Old South formula married to the wrong movie. It would take David Selznick and his star-studded cast to finally marry the right formula to the right movie and give us the ultimate expression of an enduring American myth.

So Red the Rose was Paramount Productions’ loose adaptation of the 1934 novel of the same title by Mississippi novelist Stark Young. Directed by King Vidor, the 82-minute black-and-white movie revolves around four members of the Bedford family: the wise father and master of Portobello, Malcolm (played by Walter Connolly); his loyal wife Sallie (Janet Beecher); their spoiled and strong-willed daughter Valette (Margaret Sullavan); and her older cousin Duncan Bedford (Randolph Scott), with whom Valette is madly in love.

As the story unfolds in 1861, the idyll of plantation life is rudely interrupted by the patriotic hoopla of “war fever.” Duncan refuses to enlist on grounds of principle, claiming, “I don’t believe Americans should fight Americans.” Valette rejects him, charging that he is merely a coward. However, the war gradually draws all the Bedford men into its grasp. When family friend Archie Pendleton (Robert Cummings) is “honorably” killed in battle, the Bedfords’s oldest son Edward (Harry Ellerbe), is overcome by his sense of duty and rides off to enlist. When Union troops awaken Malcolm in the middle of the night with a saber slap “across the tender part of my anatomy” and force him to act as their guide, his pride is so hurt that he immediately resolves to go to war. “You don’t believe in this war,” exclaims Malcolm to Duncan, “I wasn’t sure until last night that I did. But by jingo I believe in it now!” Soon after Malcolm’s departure, his wife Sallie has a vision of their son Edward dead on the battlefield. Duncan, Sallie, and their faithful slave servant William Veal (Daniel Haynes) drive a buggy to find the Confederate Army just after the Battle of Shiloh. There, as in her vision, they find Edward dead. Moved by the sight of his slain cousin and thousands of his dead countrymen strewn across the battlefield, Duncan finally gets war fever and goes off to fight.

Meanwhile, at Portobello, the announcement of the fall of Vicksburg causes a rebellion among the enslaved workers. Believing that Union army liberation means no more work and the beginning of a life of leisure, field hand Cato (Clarence Muse) tells them that all they have worked for on the plantation is rightfully theirs. They round up hogs, chickens, and mules and loudly proclaim: “I got mine!” When the faithful house servant William Veal raises his buggy whip to stop Cato, he is quickly tackled by the field hands. Yet the challenge to White supremacy is easily overcome with White logic and an appeal to personal loyalty. Valette steps atop a cotton bail and reproaches her charges: “You don’t know these Yankee people—this is your home; why do you want to destroy your home?” Then, she reminds Cato of how he cared for her as a child and her young brother Middleton (Dicky Moore) pleads with Cato to build him a long-promised rabbit trap. Realizing the error of their ways, Cato and his fellow rebels go back to the fields.

The death of a Southern gentleman. Mortally wounded, Malcolm Bedford, the master of Portobello (Walter Connolly) draws his last breath soon after sipping his last mint-julep. He is surrounded by (left to right) Aunt Mary (Elizabeth Patterson), Sallie (Janet Beecher), and Valette (Margaret Sullavan). Outside, the slaves sing mournful spirituals. Such is the fate of the Confederacy in So Red the Rose. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art

At almost the same moment a wounded Malcolm returns home. Sallie walks to the nearby window to acknowledge the singing, waving, and “harmonizing” slaves gathered to pay their respects to their beloved master. But as she walks away, Malcolm Bedford succumbs to his wounds. As the camera tracks in on his Confederate belt plate, his spilled glass of bourbon flows like blood across the carpet, symbolizing the death of the cavalier planter class. A heartbroken Sallie announces to the slaves, “You’re free to go where you please. Your master won’t need you any longer.”

Soon after, two renegade Union soldiers invade Portobello and threaten the Bedford women. Confederate cavalrymen quickly arrive on the scene, killing one renegade and wounding the other. Valette takes pity on the wounded soldier, who is only a boy pleading for his life. She hides the boy by dressing him in a grey jacket and claiming him as her brother, only to find that one of the pursuing Confederates is Duncan. Now he is no longer a pacifist, but a hardened and cynical soldier bent on revenge. Valette succeeds in convincing Duncan not to hang the boy, but as Union soldiers arrive to drive off the Confederates (and capture Duncan), they find the grey-clad boy dead. On charges of harboring a rebel, the Union soldiers burn Portobello to the ground. At the end of the war, Valette, Sallie, and the remnants of the Bedford family (including the loyal William) are living in an outbuilding and cooking over an open fire when Valette senses Duncan’s imminent return. The final scene is a tearful reunion in the woods between Duncan and Valette, now the older and wiser heroes of a tragic war. Here was a near-perfect expression of Lost Cause ideology (or “myth”) as it existed in the 1930s.

As first envisioned by white Southern novelists, artists, and veterans of the 1860s and 1870s, the Lost Cause justified the painful reality of Confederate military defeat as a great moral victory. The South, so they claimed, was a noble and moral society that upheld ideals of duty and honor, family loyalty, Protestant Christian faith, an agrarian Jeffersonian lifestyle, and the necessary and self-evident racial hierarchy based on White supremacy. When this so-called way of life was threatened by evil and tyrannical Northern Republicans bent on subverting Southern liberties, white Southerners had no honorable recourse except to take up arms in self-defense. By fighting the good fight against overwhelming odds and losing, Confederates demonstrated their moral superiority over their oppressors. This Lost Cause ideology also served as a justification of slavery (hence, redemption from guilt) and a general plea of innocence by those who felt unjustly accused of wrongdoing and disloyalty.

In its most popular form between 1900 and 1940, the Lost Cause also meant something else. It meant the Old South: a “land of cavaliers and cotton fields” (as the Prologue of Gone With the Wind would put it), living peaceably in a simpler, nobler time before the advent of the telephone, the automobile, the crowded industrial city, labor unrest, and masses of “undesirable” immigrants (especially Black Southerners). The southern myth justifying defeat played nicely into the national myth of an innocent youthful past, the idyllic time of “original” American values.

In this way, the Lost Cause also served as a means of reconciliation between North and South: as Whites in the North came to admire traditional Southern “values,” Whites in the South acknowledged the value of preserving the Union, and to a much lesser extent, abolishing slavery. In tandem with that acknowledgement came Northern admissions of the allegedly needless excesses of the Radical Republicans during the Reconstruction era. Each side was free to acknowledge the positive qualities of the other without having to constantly assess blame. Meanwhile, the value of White supremacy and its legal continuation was a concept that both sections could agree upon. It was a vision that proved remarkably popular and resilient for the next fifty years and more.

By the mid-1930s, national interest in the Civil War was at an unprecedented peak. As if to escape the unpleasant realities of their Depression-era financial woes and assuage their fears about the future of the American free-enterprise system, white Southerners and Northerners joined in a nostalgic look backward. The Civilian Conservation Corps relief program helped rebuild trenches on Civil War battlefields, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps staged Civil War battle reenactments, and the nation joined its aging veterans of the Blue and Gray in commemorating the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1938. Throughout these celebrations, as Edward Campbell points out in his 1981 study The Celluloid South, Hollywood’s film versions of the South reflected what national audiences “came to expect and believe was accurate.”

“The film moguls,” he comments, “had only to look at the popularity of novels which nostalgically captured the culture, by writers such as Stark Young and Margaret Mitchell, to realize that the trend was not dying. The public wanted more.”

And Hollywood was eager to provide it. Beginning with short subjects in the early 1900s, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1903), and highlighted by the extremely racist (and controversial) The Birth of a Nation (1915), the Old South theme continued in full force in films such as The General (1927), Only the Brave (1930), Operator 13 (1934), The Little Colonel and The Littlest Rebel (1935), Jezebel (1938), and of course, Gone With the Wind (1939).

The early productions developed a series of stereotypical characters and settings that would, by the 1930s, constitute the standard palette of colors with which every picture of the Old South would be painted. Usually found on that palette was the white columned plantation mansion; the white-suited, benevolent, fatherly master of the plantation; the status-conscious, very well-dressed ladies, including the strong-willed and flirtatious daughter; the impetuous hot-headed son; the moody and deep-thinking son, relative, or friend; and the thieving renegade soldier, usually a Yankee. Of course, no plantation setting would be complete without the happy, childlike, and easily misled slave “Sambo-” type field hand; the redoubtable and lovable “Tom” or “Mammy-” type house servant; and a host of other enslaved Black characters, most of whom exhibited an inexplicably strong affection for their enslavers. Characters in So Red the Rose are almost interchangeable with characters in the other Old South films that had preceded it and that would follow it.

So Red the Rose film poster. Courtesy IMDB

In 1935, So Red the Rose was merely the most recent in a long line of films fashioned around the same Old South formula. By contrast, Gone With the Wind was (and is) an unparalleled national phenomenon. Premiering in Atlanta in December 1939 and playing there more or less continually ever since, the movie reached the status of a national icon—the ultimate visual expression of the Old South myth.

Against the overwhelming critical and financial success of Gone With the Wind, So Red the Rose pales drastically in comparison. Yet despite its shortcomings, So Red the Rose actually had much in common with its more successful offspring. Both movies were based on best-selling novels written by white Southern authors. Both novels were melodramas set on the Southern home front during the Civil War. Both were considered as potential film topics almost as soon as they were published (1934 and 1936). Both stories included petulant but strong female leading characters; reluctant but honorable “Southern cavalier” male characters; and the usually contented but easily misled stereotype enslaved people.

Hollywood premiered both films in the South, and Atlanta, and shaped their national promotional campaigns around the same Old South imagery. In the end, the movie versions of So Red the Rose and Gone With the Wind were remarkably similar because they were products of the same romanticized view of the past—The national Lost Cause or Old South myth. Why then, did So Red the Rose sink into oblivion while Gone With the Wind soared to immortality?

One reason was the difference between the two novels. Despite overall similarities in form, setting, and historical assumptions, Gone With the Wind is simply a much better read than So Red the Rose. Mitchell’s characters and plot are more believable and complex; her language and descriptions are clearer and livelier; she suffers less from Stark Young’s overblown attempts to re-write Civil War history from a white Southern perspective. Apparently, most readers agreed.

While So Red the Rose reached the number three spot on the 1934 fiction best-seller list, Gone With the Wind topped the list at number one for 1936 and 1937, dominating fiction sales as nothing before or since.vii For Atlantans, there were other important differences between the two novels. So Red the Rose was set on a fictitious Mississippi plantation; Gone With the Wind, though set partly on a fictitious Georgia plantation, was also set in Atlanta and included actual street and location references to Atlanta. Additionally, Stark Young was from Mississippi, while Margaret Mitchell was a native Atlantan. Perhaps for this reason alone, news that the local author’s book was to be made into a major motion picture electrified Atlanta.

As early as October 1936, the Atlanta Constitution featured a front-page story reporting that Margaret Mitchell’s novel was “definitely on the way to the screen,” but that “at least three months’ time will be needed to perfect preparations.” The article was complete with large photographs of actors Miriam Hopkins and Alan Marshall, rumored to be under consideration for the leading roles of Scarlett and Rhett. Over the next three years, Atlanta papers featured dozens of articles about the upcoming film, the selection of its stars, its historical setting, local connections, and how Atlantans were planning to celebrate its premier. The nation-wide search for a Scarlett O’Hara and the subsequent “discovery” of Vivien Leigh topped off the phenomenal publicity surrounding Gone With the Wind.

On the day of the Fox Theater premier, the Atlanta Journal featured this elaborate half-page ad touting the “World Premier a la Hollywood.” In fine print at the bottom, the ad encourages readers to “step back into the romantic past” and “join Prominent Atlantans in honoring the aged Confederate Heroes.” Note that the ad makes no mention of black actors. Courtesy of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

By contrast, the premiere of So Red the Rose received virtually no advance attention in Atlanta newspapers prior to the weekend before opening. (Even the laughably obscure film Fighting Youth, about communist infiltration of a high-school football team, managed three articles in the Atlanta Constitution before its opening.) Ironically, news of Clark Gable’s separation from his second wife made front-page news in the Atlanta Constitution on November 15, 1935, the day after the premier of So Red the Rose, while news of the premier was relegated to page fourteen. Ultimately, only Gone With the Wind brought to Atlanta an exclusive world premier and glamorous movie stars. The best that Paramount could offer Atlanta with So Red the Rose was a premier shared with 10 other southern state capitals, none of them with the stars in attendance.

A more obvious reason for the different public receptions was the quality of the two films. Gone With the Wind was nearly three times as long So Red the Rose and filmed in color. The plot structure and character development of Gone With the Wind is much richer and more complex than that in So Red the Rose. The unique interaction of Scarlett with Rhett and other characters in the film has become legendary; their personalities and mannerisms still arouse fascination. Gone With the Wind featured the star power of Clark Gable, who was ranked as the third largest box-office draw of 1934-1935 (behind Shirley Temple and Will Rogers) according to a poll of theater managers in the Motion Picture Herald. Margaret Sullavan and Walter Connolly, the top-billed stars of So Red the Rose, were ranked well down the list at numbers 69 and 112, respectively.

Advertisement for So Red the Rose depicting scenes from the film. Atlanta Constitution, Nov. 14, 1935

In The Celluloid South, Edward Campbell suggests another reason why So Red the Rose was not as successful as Gone With the Wind—a blatant anti-Northern bias which alienated audiences outside the South. What was objectionable about So Red the Rose, he argues, “was not its outline of aristocratic and conservative society per se, but its attack on the Union as solely responsible for the war. That was the rub with northern audiences.” Campbell notes that if the Old South myth, itself, had been the cause of dissatisfaction, it might have affected similar films such as Jezebel in 1938 or even Gone With the Wind in 1939. He asserts that Paramount Productions failed to do what even D.W. Griffith had done in The Birth of a Nation: “Whatever the view of Southern society, the war itself had to be shown as between two equally sincere and honorable opponents. Not to do so only rekindled animosities which detracted from the antebellum romanticism.”

Part of the national success of Gone With the Wind may well have been its self-conscious adaptation of this “politically correct” version of the Lost Cause. For example, the only “renegade” Yankees shown in this film (not in the book, however) is a single lone desperado who confronts Scarlett and Melanie at Tara near the end of the war and is promptly shot. Meanwhile, the “obnoxious” carpetbagger politician forcing returning Confederate soldiers off the road with his carriage can serve as a convenient character type representing unwelcome intrusion and change for both Northern and Southern audiences. Nowhere in the film are Union soldiers or the Union cause presented in a blatantly disrespectful manner.

Can the same be said for So Red the Rose? At three key points in the movie there are graphic scenes by 1935 standards of Union soldiers invading, looting, and finally burning the Bedford home. The most extreme of these is the home invasion by two renegade Yankee cavalrymen. While one hungry renegade, a tough sergeant type with a menacing grin, intrudes on the women seated around the dinner table, chiding them with an evil-sounding “Good eeevening, ladies… ,” the other, a mere boy, steals Valette’s favorite white gown, bragging, “Look! I found a party dress for Mamie back home!” Clearly the renegades intend to loot Portobello; worse still, their singular presence among “defenseless” women implies the potential for still more heinous acts. However, the harshness of the scene is immediately and unexpectedly mitigated by the image of the boy pleading for his life to Valette and apologizing for stealing her dress (“I don’t hate you people! Please have mercy on me!”).

Demonstrating that human compassion conquers even the worst wartime excesses, Valette takes pity on the boy and hides him from the pursuing Confederates. While the unruly behavior of these two Union soldiers may well have prompted righteous indignation on the part of northern audiences, the scene of a war-hardened Duncan Bedford entering the house, shaking the badly wounded and defenseless Union boy by the collar and fully intending to hang him, could hardly have done less for white Southern audiences.

So Red the Rose depicts Union and Confederate soldiers alike as victims of something larger and more sinister than sectional controversy: the corrosive moral and psychological effects of war. As in The Birth of a Nation, So Red the Rose implies that no one but a few extremists wanted the war (hence the Bedford men’s reluctance to enlist). However, unlike The Birth of a Nation, So Red the Rose graphically portrays what war supposedly does to men who feel forced by honor and circumstance to fight it. The same wartime corrosion of character that turns a young Northern boy into a heartless thief also turns the formerly pacifist Duncan into a fiend intent on killing him. It is only Valette’s untarnished compassion that saves both of them. In this field of tension between madness and mercy, the validity of the Union and Confederate causes are seldom mentioned; indeed, they are largely irrelevant.

This distinctly anti-war tone in So Red the Rose owed much to screenwriters Laurence Stallings and Maxwell Anderson. In 1926, the two men had co-authored the play and film What Price Glory? a World War I drama which emphasized the grim face of war. Anderson is better known for adapting the classic anti-war novel All Quiet on the Western Front for the screen in 1930. If, as Campbell argues, references to sectional conflict had a negative impact on the box-office performance of So Red the Rose, it was probably less a matter of wounded sectional pride and more a problem of largely isolationist audiences of the 1930s who anticipated escaping into an idyllic Old South but were instead greeted with uncomfortable scenes of wartime horrors. There had already been enough horrors in the World War I and the Great Depression; no one wanted to be reminded of others.

Ironically, the Stallings-Anderson “war is hell” movie rendition of So Red the Rose actually masked the novel’s more extreme “forget? hell!” white supremacist and anti-Northern biases, which really would have been unpalatable for many Northern and Southern audiences. Stark Young’s So Red the Rose is in many ways an alternative history lesson angrily and passionately argued from a 1930s neo-Confederate perspective.xv Its pages are filled with every cliché version of Yankee villainy: unscrupulous spies, hypocritical abolitionists, tyrannical officers and politicians, and an assortment of blue-coated devils addicted to mayhem and anarchy. Significantly, in the novel it is a band of drunken “N____r Yankees” (as enslaved house servant William Veal puts it) who invade the family home and threaten the women. Stark Young imagines it as follows:

A big black who seemed to be in command gave a guffaw, and the other negroes, watching him evidently, followed. One of them came up to her and with his open hand boxed her on the cheek. At once another negro put a pistol against her breast; she could smell his sweat. Then the big negro who had struck her said, “Don’t shoot her, Mose, slap her. Slap the old slut.” He broke into a stream of abuse.

Such gross racism was all too reminiscent of the Thomas Dixon novels that had inspired The Birth of a Nation and its controversial portrayal of blacks just twenty years earlier. By contrast, the So Red the Rose movie script turns Stark Young’s black beasts into Stallings’s and Anderson’s white soldiers victimized by war, one of whom even apologizes for his behavior. This plot adjustment conveniently shifts the locus of evil away from race and toward something that all Americans, regardless of race, could agree on—the horrors of war. In the end, the film version of So Red the Rose, as Gone With the Wind, was probably as carefully attuned to audience sensitivities, both racial and regional, and to the successful Old South formula as Hollywood thought possible.

Outwardly, at least, the two films seemed to have much in common. So similar were the two stories, that David O. Selznick, producer of Gone With the Wind, almost balked at making a movie version of Margaret Mitchell’s novel. In May 1936, just seven months after the premier of So Red the Rose (and with its disappointment fresh in his mind), Selznick read a synopsis of the soon-to-be-published Gone With the Wind. Evaluating its potential as a film, Selznick commented that “its background is very strongly against it, as witness So Red the Rose, which also threatened to have tremendous sale and which in some particulars was in same category and which failed miserably as a picture.”

One of the antebellum houses that served as inspiration for Margaret Mitchell’s Tara was the Mann House in Clayton County, Georgia, seen here (with Mitchell in foreground) just prior to George Cukor’s visit in April, 1937. After showing Cukor and his Gone With the Wind production team dozens of houses such as this one, Mitchell wrote, “I am sure they were dreadfully disappointed, for they had been expecting architecture such as appeared in the screen version of So Red the Rose.” Courtesy of the Atlanta History Center

Margaret Mitchell also felt So Red the Rose had set a bad example, but for different reasons. In April 1937, she had shown then-director George Cukor and a visiting Gone With the Wind production team some rather shabby-looking antebellum houses in north Georgia that she had in mind as models for a screen version of Tara. “I am sure they were dreadfully disappointed,” Mitchell wrote a few days later, “for they had been expecting architecture such as appeared in the screen version of So Red the Rose. I had tried to prepare them by reiterating that [in] this section of North Georgia . . . white columns were the exception rather than the rule. I besought them to please leave Tara ugly, sprawling, columnless, and they agreed.” Of course, in fine Hollywood tradition and despite Margaret Mitchell’s objections, the screen version of Tara turned out to be just another white-columned Portobello.

Fortunately for film buffs, historians, and modern-day critics, David O. Selznick overcame his doubts about the film version of Margaret Mitchell’s novel. His Gone With the Wind was anything but another So Red the Rose disappointment. In the final analysis, Gone With the Wind was the movie that captured the American imagination; So Red the Rose was simply not up to the task. Like previous Old South genre films, So Red the Rose was but another dress rehearsal for the veritable explosion of Gone With the Wind in 1939. These earlier films had done Hollywood valuable service in establishing familiar plot devices, scenic icons, character stereotypes, and other shorthand visual symbols of an idyllic Old South that in turn represented a mythologized national past. More importantly, films such as So Red the Rose served to test the waters of American tastes. If David Selznick had looked carefully in 1936, he may have seen that these films had already established the audience for Gone With the Wind; what was lacking was the right vehicle for carrying the myth and the proper sensitivity in portraying it. Thus, when Gone With the Wind premiered in Atlanta in December 1939, it stood triumphant at the end of a long train of cinematic distortions of the South, the Civil War, and America’s past.