Gone With The Wind – A wartime PR success

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I expect the fact the most popular film of the war was American would have sat uneasily with some members of the British film industry but the pre-publicity for Gone with the Wind may explain some of its popularity and give an insight into wartime PR (before PR even existed …). It was a PR storm of epic proportions….

The British public was initially told that Gone with the Wind would not be released until after the war was over. This was met with skepticism

Did you see all that stuff in the paper this morning about “Gone With the Wind” (The Daily Telegraph), they said they were not going to show it here until after the war but now the paper says that it will be shown in three cinemas at once. I suppose all that stuff about it being too expensive to risk showing in war-time was just a publicity stunt, pretty lousy if you ask me.

Wallace 1940

The delay in release was the first controversy surrounding Gone with the Wind’s arrival at UK cinemas. The next was that the cost of tickets would be higher than usual. They were to be charged advanced prices rather than the cheaper prices usual for tickets purchased on the day.  Two of the large exhibition chains Odeon and Gaumont-British both refused to negotiate for the exhibition of Gone with the Wind “Under conditions which insist on minimum prices of 3s. 6d. and 4s. 6d. to be charged to cinema patrons. Both these leaders of the cinema industry have no intention of paying 70 per cent rentals, which would compel them to raise their prices of admission to the public.” (“Gone with the Wind” Dispute over prices of admission.  1940). Despite these problems it was initially released in four Leicester Square cinemas:

Special Announcement in the Empire Cinema, Leicester Square. “Gone with the Wind” Will be presented at the Palace Theatre, the Ritz cinema and the Empire Cinema at advanced prices … all seats bookable … there will be two performances a day at the Palace and Ritz, it will be shown continuously at the Empire …. “Gone With the Wind” Will not be shown at ordinary prices in any cinema for at least a year.

Wallace 1940

English: Cropped screenshot of Vivien Leigh fr...
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It is clear that despite the initial controversy over its release Gone with the Wind swiftly became a hit. The Little Ritz cinema in Leicester Square showed it constantly for four years and two months (Lejeune 1944). Gone with the Wind was produced before the war and set eighty years previously during a different conflict on foreign shores but it appeared to strike a chord with the British public. This could have been because the primarily female audience related to a story about a woman whose life is turned upside down by war. Scarlett (Vivien Leigh) loses everything and watches her home town burn, an experience many women would have been able to relate to. It was also a historical romance which were popular during the war due to their promise of escapism.

“Gone with the Wind” Dispute over prices of admission. 1940. The Times, May 1st 1940, 3.

Lejeune, C. 1944. LondonMovie Doings ‘ Wind’ Ends Historic Run — Korda Returns To Directing — Anna Neagle’s ‘Emma’. New York Times, June 25, 1944.

Wallace, G.L. 1940. The Cinema in Wartime. Mass Observation TC17 Box 1 page 5.

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What people watched at the cinema in world war two.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
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As shown in my post on cinema-going in wartime despite the potential threat to life and limb people needed to occupy themselves and people flocked to the cinema. According to Kinematograph Weekly’s annual round ups (Table 1) the most popular films at the British box office were often melodramas and part of the counter-narrative. Few of the critically acclaimed films such as Millions Like Us appear in the listing with only This Happy Breed featuring.

Although it doesn’t appear on the Kinematograph Weekly’s list, the most popular film released in the UK during World War Two was Gone with the Wind which showed continuously between April 1940 and D-Day. It remains the most successful film of all time at the British Box Office[1] (BFI 2004). The Wicked Lady is often considered a wartime film despite featuring in the list in 1946. It was produced during the war and was the most successful of the Gainsborough melodramas.

Year Biggest Winner(s) Best British film
1940 Rebecca Convoy
1941 49th Parallel 49th Parallel
1942 Mrs Miniver The First if the Few
1943 In Which We Serve,Casablanca, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Hello Frisco Hello, The Black Swan, The Man in Grey In Which We Serve
1944 For Whom the Bell Tolls, This Happy Breed, Song of Bernadette, Going My Way, This Is the Army, Jane Eyre, The Story of Dr. Wassell, Cover Girl, White Cliffs of Dover, Sweet Rosie O’Grady, The Sullivans, Fanny by Gaslight This Happy Breed
1945 The Seventh Veil The Seventh Veil
1946 The Wicked Lady The Wicked Lady

Table 1: British Box Office Information, 1940 – 1950[2] (Lant 1991, 231-233)

The Seventh Veil
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It is clear a large number of the most popular films  were American and the idea that American films could be the films consumed in Britain was something to be feared during the pre-war years

Of all people they [Americans] are closest to ourselves in mind and spirit. But to allow these cousins of ours to put a stranglehold on this fundamental power of national expression, which is the British cinema, is carrying blood-relationship a trifle too far.

Editorial essay  1937

The reasons for the appeal of American films included in large part the perceived glamour. Something that the films produced by Gainsborough Pictures began to address. They signified an increase in escapism. The importance of glamour in British wartime cinema will be explored in later posts.


[1] This is in terms of tickets sold.

[2] Due to the lack of British Cinema statistics this table is taken from Kinematograph Weekly’s  annual survey, compiled by R.H. “Josh” Billings and collated in Antonia Lant’s Book Blackout

References

BFI. 2004. The Ultimate Film, 4/9/2006 2004 [cited 03/07/2010 ]. Available from http://www.bfi.org.uk/features/ultimatefilm/.

Editorial essay. 1937. World Film News (No. 8):5.

Lant, Antonia. 1991. Blackout : reinventing women for wartime British cinema. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.