Sunday, 9 April 2017

The 2nd Annual Classic Quotes Blogathon: «Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.»

Gone with the Wind (1939) is widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time. Directed by Victor Fleming, this Civil War epic tells the story of Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh), the strong-willed daughter of a Georgia plantation owner, from her romantic pursuit of her gentlemanly neighbor, Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) who later weds his distant cousin, Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland) to her marriage to Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), a wealthy older bachelor and society pariah. Running at over 230 minutes, the film was massive critical and commercial success, winning a total of ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress for Leigh.

Written by Sidney Howard based on Margaret Mitchell's 1936 best-selling novel of the same name, Gone with the Wind features a series of well-known quotes. The most iconic of these is, of course, the classic «Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn,» which was voted the most memorable American movie quotation of all time by the American Film Institute in 2005. (Mitchell's original line was actually «My dear, I don't give a damn»; presumably, Howard added «Frankly.») The line is spoken by Rhett Butler as his last words to Scarlett, in response to her tearful question: «If you go, where shall I go? What shall I do?» This tart response is supposed to demonstrate Rhett's strenght of character and heartbreaking heroism as he finally breaks away from his poisonous relationship with Scarlett. After more than a decade of fruitlessly seeking her love, he no longer cares what happens to her.

Scarlett O'Hara: If you go, where shall I go? What shall I do?
Rhett Butler: Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.

According to producer David O. Selznick, they had to «put up a strong fight for the line» with the Hays Office, Hollywood's self-imposed censorship board, who objected to the use of the word «damn.» The term had been prohibited by the Motion Picture Production Code Administration (PCA) since July 1934, but it was relatively common in silent and Pre-Code films. For instance, John Gilbert shouted «Goddamn you!» to the enemy during a battle scene in The Big Parade (1925); Winner Lightner ended Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929) by complaining, «Oh, damn it, I forgot my second line»; and in The Big Trail (1930), John Wayne said, «Zeke always told me women were damn funny.»

But obviously, by the time Gone with the Wind began production in early 1939, PCA «chief» Joseph I. Breen protested to the use of the word «damn» under Section Five of the Production Code, which stated that, «Pointed profanity (this includes the words God, Lord, Jesus, Christ unless used reverently Hell, S.O.B., damn, Gawd) or every other profane or vulgar expression, however used, is expressly forbidden.» A list of far less objectionable alternatives was immediately provided. These included «Frankly, my dear, I don't care»; «Frankly, my dear, nothing could interest me less»; «Frankly, my dear, I don't give a hoot»; «Frankly, my dear, it's all the same to me»; and «Frankly, my dear, it makes my gorge rise.» Selznick, however, was concerned that removing the word «damn» would diminish the picture's fidelity to the book, as well as the impact of its conclusion.

David O. Selznick, Victor Fleming, Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable on the set for the final scene
of the film, during which Rhett Butler speaks his iconic line

Determined to maintain the integrity of the iconic line, Selznick went over Breen's head and, on October 20, 1939, wrote a letter directly to PCA chairman Will H. Hays, explaining why «the punchline of Gone with the Wind» should be retained. In his letter, Selznick asserted that «from the reaction of two preview audiences, this line is remembered, loved and looked forward to by the millions who have read this new American classic. [...] A great deal of the force and drama of Gone with the Wind [...] is dependent upon that words. 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.» Furthermore, Selznick pointed out that a number of popular magazines, including such co-called «moral publications» as Woman's Home Companion and the Saturday Evening Post, used the word freely. He ended his lenghty letter to Breen by saying,
I do not feel that your giving me a permission to use «damn» in this one sentence will open 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 [...] it would establish a helpful 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.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh as Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara

Meanwhile, Hays was made aware that if he refused to overrule Breen, then a meeting would take between the major studio heads to discuss the matter. But that was not necessary. On November 1, 1939, a month and a half before the film's release, Hays passed an amendment to the Code that allowed the words «hell» and «damn» to be spoken on screen, when their use «shall be 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.» With this, Breen and the PCA had no further objection to Rhett's closing line. The word «damn» was not used again until John Ford's How Green Was My Valley (1941), wherein Sara Allgood says to a group of miners, «I am Beth Morgan, and you damn well know.»

This post is my contribution to The 2nd Annual Classic Quotes Blogathon hosted by The Flapper Dame. To view all entries to the blogathon, click HERE.


Clark Gable: Biography, Filmography, Bibliography by Chrystopher J. Spicer (McFarland & Company Inc., 2002)
The Making of Gone with the Wind by Steve Wilson (University of Texas Press, 2014) 
TCM's notes on Gone with the Wind


  1. Ahh- this story never gets old and I damn glad they were able to use that word because- well Its not the same- and Clark flawlessly gives the line- no emphasis on Damn- he doesnt act as if he's got a privilege to say it- even though he does- its great! thanks so so much for writing- always enjoy your articles! Emily

    1. I completely agree. The film would not have been the same without this line. And Clark Gable really does deliver it beautifully. Thanks for reading. :)

  2. I am so glad they left this line in there despite objections from the censors. I would be honored if you would submit this to this week's The Classic Movie Marathon link party

    1. I would love to submit this post to The Classic Movie Marathon Link Party. Thanks for making me aware of it. It's a fabulous idea! :)

    2. Thanks for adding it. Look forward to seeing you again next week

  3. Yes, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a hoot" really doesn't pack the same punch.

    Thanks for sharing all your research & great background info about this iconic line. I knew there was a "to-do" about it, but didn't realize how much effort went into keeping it in the script.