Clark Gable Desegregated 'Gone With the Wind' Movie Set
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."
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
Audio: National Public Radio
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.
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.
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