As those interested in our popular culture should know, this is the 70th anniversary of the release of the 1939 Gone With the Wind, which the estimable Molly Haskell so recently praised in her book, Frankly, My Dear. Good for Haskell, but I always realize that I have never liked Gone With the Wind and have liked it less and less over the years because there is no evidence to support what critic Richard Schickel correctly called “the South's yokel notion that it once supported a new age of chivalry and grace.”
Yet I have found that there are unexpected others who do adore the film. One of them included a black college student of mine named Hubert. On a privileged California campus during the black studies heyday of pretentious hostility toward white people, Hubert nearly stunned me in the early 1970s by unabashedly loving the film because Clark Gable was “sharp as a motherf—.” Obsessively having seen the film a number of times, Hubert had counted every one of Gable’s costume changes and could run each of them down. That’s actual Americana for you, always stronger than race politics.
When Vivien Leigh slapped Butterfly McQueen for being what Rhett Butler called “a simple darkie,” the white audience roared with laughter. But Day-Day was appalled.
My mother also liked GWTW because she thought that Gable was “almost as handsome as Duke Ellington.” However, grandmother, whose married name was Matilda Ford but was nicknamed Day-Day, did not have a taste for the most famous cinematic lie about supposedly refined rednecks since 1915’s The Birth of a Nation. As was her patented way, Day-Day made her distaste for the movie shockingly and audibly clear one afternoon among well-to-do white folks.
In 1954, there was a re-release of the first blockbuster, and it was being shown at the fancy Carthay Circle Theater in West Los Angeles. My mother was very excited about taking her mama, my baby sister, and me out to a movie house much better than the Lincoln Theater on Central Avenue, which was near our home in what is now known as South Central Los Angeles. That section of town was just the “East Side” then, and the Lincoln, which had already seen its glory days of Negro jazz bands, comedians, jugglers, dancers, and magicians, was run down, as were all of the movie theaters in the working-class black community. None of them showed first-run movies.
On Saturdays at the Lincoln, popcorn boxes folded flat were thrown into the air during intermission. Kids hooted, screamed, and shouted as one sat back in worn seats with feet sometimes turned on their shoe edges because the floors were sticky from spilled sodas and whatever else made them sticky. There were advertisements that had been shown so many times that they were crackling, hissing images. Among them were 7-Up advertisements in which we could see Negroes living the way middle-class black people do in television advertisements now. These advertisement black people were quite exotic to all of us because we knew no one anywhere in Los Angeles who lived as 7-Up told us that they did: families traveling together to spacious parks and playing games we did not know in very neat casual clothes but never once eating any barbecue, which usually went with black family outings to the park. Odd. Maybe there was another state where one could find Negroes like those. We didn’t know.
So traveling out to the Carthay Circle Theater in West Los Angeles on San Vincente Boulevard was a big deal. Only first-run movies were shown there, and people dressed up to attend them. The Carthay Circle had been highly regarded since the Spanish-style film palace had opened in 1926 but was to be destroyed and replaced by a bland office building in 1969, nine years after my grandmother died and more than a decade following the afternoon that Day-Day proved herself much more ready for Scarlett O’Hara than either Hattie McDaniel or Butterfly McQueen.
My grandmother could not respond in a silent way to things that she did not like. It was even more difficult if she saw something that she actually hated and would not have accepted if done to her. That day, when Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara slapped Butterfly McQueen for being what Rhett Butler called “a simple darkie,” the white audience roared with laughter. But Day-Day was appalled. Matilda Ford immediately silenced the laughing audience when she shouted with irrepressible anger, “Hit her back! You better hit that heifer back!” You couldn’t hear a peep in the theater for the rest of the movie.
My maternal grandmother was like that and had always been. Her sensibility was the same as those pioneer women who walked next to the wagon trains, fought Indians, and settled those towns in the Old West. Day-Day was a family legend due to feats that lodged in anybody’s mind that either saw or heard about them. Like her husband, Lilborn Ford, she “treated everybody like they was one color,” as one of my grand uncles described the two of them. Lilborn was known as a “crazy n***r” because he took no stuff and was ready to die on the spot if anybody got out of line. He was, however, no more hard-to-handle than his wife, who stood less than five feet tall, had hands a little large for her petite size, and the kind of resolute stare that left little doubt as to what she was thinking if on the verge of being riled.
Born the daughter of an African sailor from Madagascar and a Choctaw woman from Mississippi some time around 1890, Day-Day began to acquire her reputation early on. She first got her gossip bars as a defender of herself when she took a mop with a very heavy handle to a Negro bully whom she knocked cold and who used to come through her neighborhood in Jefferson, Texas, with no good on his mind.
She crossed the color line in her refusal to take any stuff when the white judge of Jefferson drove over the hoof of her buggy horse as she and sister Mary were enjoying themselves. The new fangled metal contraption left their animal wheezing, moaning, and screeching as only a horse does.
The irritated judge said the roads were no longer for horse flesh but for au-to-mobiles. “You little n***r girls need to stay off these roads now,” he said. Snatching the buggy whip, Day-Day got out, went to the door of the strange machine, began pulling the door handle, and demanded that the man get out. The judge’s wife cooed that Day-Day and her sister were only little girls and he should ignore them. “Little girls, hell,” replied my grandmother. “You let that red-head son of a bitch out of this damn thing and we will beat the shit out of him.”
The judge did not get out.
When her family moved to Los Angeles in the middle 1930s, Day-Day sometimes worked as a domestic and found it necessary to pour ice water on the security blankets of entitlement some of the white women she worked for tried to wear with customary ease. Matilda Ford was obviously not well made for the servant class. She bought rental property in Los Angeles after her husband died in the early 1940s and also owned a chili joint in Bakersfield, a hot and dry town 110 miles north of L.A. Bakersfield was where rough and country Negroes picked cotton all week but then, full of that cheap wine carried in brown paper bags and called “short dogs,” might cut each other with pocket knives all through the weekend.
Day-Day was ready for them. A .45 was worn under her apron, just as I found when spending the night at her house that there was a pistol under each of the pillows on her bed. (You could come up with a handful of harm no matter what side of the bed you slept on.) She also had a pistol in the glove compartment of her mint-green Pontiac which I saw her pull on a man and threaten to blow his head off when he came to her car window, calling her everything but a child of God and threatening to put his foot in her ass for slowing down traffic to let a goddam woman cross the street. I had never and have never since seen such a quick reversal of mood and etiquette. It was as if the man had been suddenly and magically turned from a ruffian to a knight luminously intent upon upholding Day-Day’s honor.
When not ruffled by drivers or knuckleheads or Scarlett O’Hara, Day-Day was one of the sweetest people you would ever meet. Whenever contemplating the role John Wayne played as the seasoned gunfighter inThe Shootist, another movie beaming out from the screen, I have sometimes thought of my grandmother when Duke says in a tone of magisterial melancholy, “I won't be wronged. I won't be insulted. I won't be laid a-hand on. I don't do these things to other people, and I require the same from them.”
Stanley Crouch's culture pieces have appeared in Harper's, The New York Times, Vogue, Downbeat, The New Yorker, and more. He has served as artistic consultant for jazz programming at Lincoln Center since 1987, and is a founder of Jazz at Lincoln Center. In June 2006 his first major collection of jazz criticism, Considering Genius: Jazz Writings, was published. Next year the first volume of his biography of Charlie Parker will appear.