3 April 2014

David Selznick gives a 'damn'

One of the most famous lines in movie history is without a doubt "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn", spoken by Clark Gable in David O. Selznick's production of "Gone with the Wind" (1939). In 1939, with the Production Code in full swing, use of the word 'damn' was nevertheless strictly forbidden. So how did it get past the censors and end up on the big screen?

Left photo: David O. Selznick; right: Will H. Hays
A few months prior to the release of "Gone with the Wind", Joseph Breen (head of the PCA and responsible for the enforcement of the Code) had disallowed the word 'damn' and wanted it removed from the movie. Alternatives like "I don't give a hoot" or "I just don't care" were consideredbut producer David Selznick was adamant about keeping 'damn' in his crucial scene. In a final attempt to get his way, Selznick wrote a letter to Will Hays (Joseph Breen's boss) pleading with him not to forbid 'damn'. Hays proved sensitive to Selznick's arguments. On 1 November 1939 (a month and a half before the film's release), the Production Code was amended. 'Damn' was still forbidden, unless it was "essential and required for portrayal, in proper historical context, of any scene or dialogue based upon historical fact or folklore...or a quotation from a literary work, provided that no such use shall be permitted which is intrinsically objectionable or offends good taste". 

Selznick's fascinating letter to Hays can be read below.


October 20, 1939

Mr. Will H. Hays
Motion Picture Producers & Distributors of America, Inc.
28 West 44th Street
New York, N.Y.

Dear Mr. Hays:

As you probably know, the punch line of "Gone With the Wind", the one bit of dialogue which forever establishes the future relationship between Scarlett and Rhett, is, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."

Naturally I am most desirous of keeping this line and, to judge from the reactions of two preview audiences, this line is remembered, loved and looked forward to by the millions who have read this new American classic. 

Under the code, Joe Breen is unable to give me permission to use this sentence because it contains the word "damn," a word specifically forbidden by the code.

As you know from my previous work with such pictures as "David Copperfield," "Little Lord Fauntleroy," "A Tale of Two Cities," etc., I have always attempted to live up to the spirit as well as the exact letter of the producers' code. Therefore, my asking you to review the case, to look at the strip of film in which this forbidden word is contained, is not motivated by a whim. 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.

It is my contention that this word as used in the picture is not an oath or a curse. The worst that could be said against it is that it is a vulgarism,  and it is so described in the Oxford English Dictionary.  Nor do I feel that in asking you to make an exception in this case I am asking for the use of a word which is considered reprehensible by the great majority of American people and institutions. A canvass of the popular magazines shows that even such moral publications as Woman's Home Companion, Saturday Evening Post, Collier's and the Atlantic Monthly, use this word freely. I understand the difference, as outlined in the code, between the written word and the word spoken from the screen, but at the same time I think the attitude of these magazines toward "damn" gives an indication that the word itself is not considered abhorrent or shocking to audiences.

I do not feel that your giving me permission to use "damn" in this one sentence will open up the flood-gates and allow every gangster picture to be peppered with "damns" from end to end. I do believe, however, that if you were to permit our using this dramatic word in its rightfully dramatic place, in a line that is known and remembered by millions of readers, it would establish a helpful precedent, a precedent which would give to Joe Breen discretionary powers to allow the use of certain harmless oaths and ejaculations whenever in his opinion they are not prejudicial to public morals.

Since we are trying to put "Gone With the Wind" into the laboratory this week, I should appreciate your taking this matter under immediate consideration. Mr. Lowell Calvert, our New York representative, has a print of the scene referred to which will take you, literally, only a few seconds to view. It is not a Movietone print, and must be exhibited with a dummy head, and therefore Mr. Calvert will have to arrange a room that is so equipped for you to see it. However, you may feel it possible to give the consent without viewing the film.

The original of the line referred to is on page 1036 of the novel, "Gone With the Wind," and you might have your secretary secure it for you.

We have been commended by preview audiences for our extremely faithful job on "Gone With the Wind," and practically the only point that has been commented on as being missing is the curious (to audiences) omission of this line. It spoils the punch at the end of this picture, and on our very fade-out gives an impression of unfaithfulness after three hours and forty-five minutes of extreme fidelity to Miss Mitchell's work which, as you know, has become an American Bible. 

Thanking you for your cooperation in this, 

Cordially and sincerely yours,


Blind copies to Mr. Whitney, Mr. Calvert


Source: harry ransom center (click here for the original image)

Note: John Whitney was Selznick's business partner and the film's main investor.

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