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Clark Gable Desegregated 'Gone With the Wind' Movie Set

Updated on August 21, 2017
RonElFran profile image

Ron is a student of African American history. His writing highlights the stories of people who overcame prejudice to achieve great things.

Clark Gable
Clark Gable | Source

When Clark Gable arrived on the set of “Gone With The Wind” in 1938, he was already one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Lennie Bluett was an 18-year-old extra who wouldn’t even receive screen credit. But what they did together reflects lasting credit on both.

A Young Extra On “Gone With The Wind”

Bluett was a young African American man who lived in Culver City, California and who was just starting a career in which he would make a good living as a movie extra. He had attended Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles, where he claimed Jack Webb of future “Dragnet” fame as a personal friend. He was not shy with movie celebrities -- his father drove a bus for the great silent movie comedian, Buster Keaton, and his mother was Humphrey Bogart’s cook.

A talented singer, dancer and piano player, Bluett’s friendship with Bogart got him an audition for the role of Sam in “Casablanca.” The way Bluett tells it, he was “too young, too tall and too good-looking" to get the part. He was able to land small roles in about 40 films, including "Stormy Weather" and "Cabin in the Sky," acting alongside such luminaries as the Marx Brothers, Spencer Tracy, and Katharine Hepburn.

In 1938 Lennie Bluett was hired as an extra on “Gone With The Wind,” which was expected to be a blockbuster when it was released the next year. Bluett was one of hundreds who would be on the lot to film the burning of Atlanta scene.

The Movie Lot’s Toilets Cause Outrage

When he arrived that morning, Bluett immediately noticed something that to him was quite startling. There were dozens of portable toilets set up to accommodate the large numbers who would be on the lot that day. But what startled, then enraged young Bluett was the fact that above each toilet door was a sign. On some the sign read “White.” On others, “Colored."

Source

Because of characterizations of blacks in Margaret Mitchell's book, black organizations, including the NAACP and major African American newspapers across the nation, had been concerned about the movie version of “Gone With The Wind” from the beginning. But the focus had been on the possibility of blacks being portrayed in a demeaning manner on screen. Producer David O. Selznick had given these groups many assurances (which he came well short of fulfilling) of his sensitivity to black concerns on that score. But no one ever anticipated that segregation would rear its ugly head during the making of the picture.

Certainly not Lennie Bluett. Bluett had grown up in Culver City, where the movie was being shot, in a thoroughly integrated environment. When he discovered that separate toilet facilities had been set up on the movie lot, it was his first exposure to the kind of humiliation that segregation in public accommodations inherently involves.

Lennie Bluett tells his story

As Bluett recalls in the Turner Classic Movies featurette, “Lenny Bluett on Clark Gable,” he immediately went to some of the older black actors to try to organize some sort of protest against what to him was an outrage. But the older cast members were concerned that if they raised any kind of a ruckus, they would simply be replaced. They had families to feed.

Bluett, noting that you couldn’t shoot “Gone With The Wind” without black actors, persisted. He finally got the older performers’ acquiescence that he and two others of the young extras could try to do something about the situation.

Clark Gable Is Outraged

What Bluett did was startling. He went straight to the dressing room of the movie’s star, Clark Gable, something extras just didn’t do.

He recalls in the TCM featurette that when he was admitted (that in itself was an indication of Gable’s graciousness), he explained that he and the other black actors had a big problem, and asked for a few seconds of Gable’s time to show him what it was.

Bluett then led Gable to where the toilets were set up, and showed him the offensive signs. As Bluett recalls it, Gable was outraged. He immediately got on the phone to the movie’s director, Victor Fleming, and told him that if those signs didn’t come down, “you don't have a Rhett Butler!"

The signs came down, and segregation on the set of “Gone With The Wind” was ended.

Clark Gable as Rhett Butler
Clark Gable as Rhett Butler | Source

Black Stars Not Welcome At The Premiere Of The Film

That wasn’t, however, the film’s last brush with the evils of segregation.

According to Leonard J. Leff in an article in “The Atlantic,” producer David O. Selznick had wanted to showcase all the film’s stars, white and black, at the premiere in Atlanta.

The event was to be held at the Loew’s Grand Theatre on Peachtree Street. That theatre, however, like everything else in Atlanta at the time, was strictly segregated. The black stars of the movie, including Butterfly McQueen, who played Prissy, and Hattie McDaniel, who would win an Oscar for her portrayal of Mammy, could appear on stage, but they would not be allowed to sit in the audience with whites, nor attend the grand social functions planned for the white members of the cast.

Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel in 1939
Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel in 1939 | Source

As Leff explains, “Since the Grand was a whites-only theater, McDaniel and the other black ‘guests’ would have no proper dressing rooms backstage, no proper places to enter and exit the theater, and no proper places to go to the bathroom.”

So, David O. Selznick made the decision to simply leave his black stars at home. They would not be allowed to attend the premiere of the film.

One African American who was there

Although Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel and the other black cast members were not allowed to attend the premiere, there was, ironically, another African American of note who did participate in the festivities. It was 10-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr., who sang at the whites-only Junior League Ball as part of the "Negro boys choir" from his father's Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Gable Again Outraged By Segregation

When Clark Gable found out that Hattie McDaniel and the other black stars of the film would not be allowed to go to Atlanta along with the white members of the cast, he hit the ceiling.

Gable was already good friends with McDaniel prior to making the movie, and he angrily threatened to boycott the premiere unless she was allowed to attend. It was McDaniel herself who talked him into going.

Clark Gable was a big enough star to undo segregation on a Hollywood movie lot, but segregation in the heart of Dixie was too much even for him.

© 2013 Ronald E Franklin

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      El Gato Negro 2 days ago

      Ron,

      Thank you for the wonderful story about Clark Gable. He was as big in his real life as he was on the silver screen.

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      Cindy Jackson 3 weeks ago

      This is just another outrage of people that do not know the whole story. Yes, history can be ugly but people are NOT always ugly. Clark Gable Desegregated 'Gone With the Wind' Movie Set. I believe this film should be seen with the story of 18 year old Lennie Bluett included. Please read article before you form your opinions. The movie is not racist it only appears that way because the time period it is portraying was racist. The actors were not racists they were bringing to light the plight of the slaves and for that I applaud them and we should not condemn them for working on this film.

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      Parrish Sheffield 4 months ago

      Thanks for sharing your story the only subject I did good in school was history American history world history but as I'm older now in my upper 50s I love Hollywood history classic movies an its Clark Gable month I always read about the star of the month which I knew a little about him but hearing small stories like this put a smile on my face I was born and raised in Mississippi I was in like the third grade when segregation started and my parents were never prejudiced or judgemental towards blacks called coloreds at the time so I was never taught prejudice. And these days everyone knows it's on both sides. Anyway thanks for sharing

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      Alastar Packer 10 months ago from North Carolina

      Apologize, meant Hattie McDaniel, of course, the first African-American to win an Oscar.

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      Alastar Packer 10 months ago from North Carolina

      Some credit should be given to Selznick, too. Notice the N-word wasn't used and at the bridge scene where Scarlett was attacked it was a black and white man that Sam clobbered saving Scarlett. Got an article coming out on my website soon about Robert Smalls you might like, Reverend. Mostly original digitals as that is one thing viewers like about the site. Btw, don't you think the Louise Beavers character had a great deal of dignity, unfortunately, not so the Prissy character.

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      CJ Kelly 10 months ago from Auburn, WA

      Fantastic work once again, Ron. I had heard about Gable's efforts and always admired him for it. People who always complain about "Hollywood" forget how much good can be done entertainers willing to speak out. Sharing everywhere.

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      Ro 10 months ago from Midwest

      I concur. I wonder if Clark Gable could have been that courageous but for the fact he had the notoriety? I don't mean to detract from Mr. Gable's deportment of social issues but would it have been possible to be that brave if he were the supporting actor?

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      Ronald E Franklin 10 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Thank you, Irish Shrew. I think Hollywood plays to its audience, then and now. In 1939 a film that treated African Americans with dignity would not have been exhibited in the South, so Hollywood rarely showed such characters on screen. It took rare courage to stand against that, and that's the kind of courage Clark Gable had.

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      Ronald E Franklin 10 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Thanks, letstalkabouteduc. There are a lot of stories about Gable shooting GWTW that appear in documentaries about the making of the film. This story hardly ever does, and I think that's sad. Gable, and Lennie Bluett too, should receive credit for taking a stand that was a difficult one in 1939.

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      Ronald E Franklin 10 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Thanks for reading, amatjuhink.

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      Ro 10 months ago from Midwest

      What an interesting Hub. I had never heard that story before, but not naive to believe there aren't more like this one. It's sad to think only until recently we have been getting more diverse with our leads in movies, breaking away from the stereotypical characters, etc. It's hard to look back at our cinematic history(as well as our cultural) without shuttering at the unjust portrayals of minorities. Ironically, Hollywood is the one that breaks the barriers first- then society follows soon after.

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      McKenna Meyers 10 months ago from Bend, OR

      Your well-written story, Ron, makes me both happy and sad. It's refreshing to hear something positive about a celebrity for a change. However, as a teacher and parent, I've seen many segregated schools and it feels like not much has changed.

    • amatjuhink profile image

      Amatjuhink 10 months ago from Indonesia

      It's my favorite and Clark Gable king's of Cinema.

    • RonElFran profile image
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      Ronald E Franklin 10 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Janis, I think you're right that it was a brave thing for Gable to do. If it had hit the papers at that time, there would have been a lot of people who wouldn't have liked it

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      janis g. 10 months ago

      That was a kind and brave thing for Clark to do at a time when whites were still sensitive about segregation. I applaud him for standing for what was fair. These people deserved recognition as much as the rest of the cast.

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      Ronald E Franklin 14 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Thanks, heidithorne. You're right about the portrayals of blacks in GWTW. Though David O. Selznick claimed to have eliminated the worst of those portrayals, he also knew that if he showed black characters with any real dignity, the film would not be exhibited in the South.

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      Heidi Thorne 14 months ago from Chicago Area

      Wow, I did not know of this GWTW lore! Progressive.

      I agree that even though the black actors were very talented, their characters' portrayals were very stereotyped. Sad, because in other respects it's such an achievement.

      Thanks for sharing this GWTW backstory!

    • RonElFran profile image
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      Ronald E Franklin 19 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Claudia, I've never heard that about Gable.

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      Claudia Marie 19 months ago

      Isn't it true that Clark Gable himself has a black heritage?

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      Ronald E Franklin 19 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      morgan, you're right that there were a number of Hollywood stars who stood against racial discrimination. Thanks for reading.

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      morgan 19 months ago

      Not only did Clark Gable took issue with the academy awards thing about the black actors.Betty Davis,Henry Fonda,Olivia De Havilin,Tullula Bankhead,Joan Crawf0rd and others did not like it.

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      Ronald E Franklin 22 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Hi, annasmom. This episode shows a side of Gable that deserves to be well known. Thanks for reading.

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      annasmom 22 months ago

      Yay Clark Gable!!! It is refreshing to hear that not all whites were bigots.

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      Ronald E Franklin 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Thanks, NateB11. I've always been impressed that among actual performers in Hollywood, who worked with one another day in, day out, there was very little race prejudice. But for the studios, mindful of potential lost profits in the South, it was a different story.

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      Nathan Bernardo 2 years ago from California, United States of America

      Wonderful story, Ron. It says a lot about Clark Gable. I recall Frank Sinatra refused to stay at a hotel in Vegas that wouldn't accept Sammy Davis Jr; this story reminded me of that incident as well.

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      Ronald E Franklin 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Hi, mesanagros. I'm glad you enjoyed the article. Thanks for reading.

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      Andrew Papas 2 years ago from Adelaide, South Australia

      I enjoyed reading your article Ron and I am glad that Clark Gable made a stand for righteousness.

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      Ronald E Franklin 3 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Thanks, Robert. And I agree - bravo for Gable.

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      Robert Levine 3 years ago from Brookline, Massachusetts

      Bravo for Clark Gable, and for you for writing this informative and interesting Hub.

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      Ronald E Franklin 3 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Thanks, Silva. I think it's a great story and a great tribute to Gable.

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      Silva Hayes 3 years ago from Spicewood, Texas

      I loved reading this about Clark Gable!

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      Ronald E Franklin 3 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Hi, cmoneyspinner1tf. Yes, a true story that probably few would have wanted to hear at the time. But it's an important part of movie (and American) history.

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      Treathyl FOX 3 years ago from Austin, Texas

      Wow! True story huh? I love behind the scenes movie trivia.

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      Elizabeth Parker 4 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      I agree!

    • RonElFran profile image
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      Ronald E Franklin 4 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Thanks, Shinkicker. It shows a great side of Gable's character that most people don't know about. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

    • RonElFran profile image
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      Ronald E Franklin 4 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Thanks, epbooks. It's an episode in Gable's career that's not well known, but should be.

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      Shinkicker 4 years ago from Scotland

      Fantastic Hub. I didn't know this fact. Great that Clark Gable took this stance.

      Voted up and shared on Facebook too.

      Thanks

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      Elizabeth Parker 4 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      Very well written and interesting. Never knew this information!

    • RonElFran profile image
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      Ronald E Franklin 4 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Thanks, Christian!

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      Christian 4 years ago from Lancaster, PA

      really enjoyed this hub

    • RonElFran profile image
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      Ronald E Franklin 4 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Thanks!

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      Anthony Carrell 4 years ago from Lemoore California

      Very well done.

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      Ronald E Franklin 4 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Thanks, Patrice!

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      PWalker281 4 years ago

      Thanks for sharing this little known and fascinating story, Ron! Voted up and shared!

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      Ronald E Franklin 4 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      KrisL, I think you are right that not only white, but also many black Americans forget where we've come from, and how it took people of integrity who would stand for what is right to get us to where we are.

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      RonElFran 4 years ago

      Thanks, amandajoyshapiro. I think it's important to remember that celebrities are real people, who can make a real impact for good or bad.

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      KrisL 4 years ago from S. Florida

      Voted interesting and shared.

      We white Americans (and maybe some black ones too?) can easily forget what a short time ago the horror of segregation ended.

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      amandajoyshapiro 4 years ago

      This is why DVD special features are a gem for modern movie watching: you get so much more information than just celebrity gossip and some leaked production notes. You wrote this really well: informative and passionate.

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      Ronald E Franklin 4 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Thanks, LCDWriter. It shows a side of Gable I'm sure many people never knew about.

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      L C David 4 years ago from Florida

      This is fantastic and well-written. Definitely a story worth telling! Voted Up!