In the novel, a tearful Scarlett wails, “If you go, where shall I go, what shall I do?” And Rhett exits with the memorable words: “My dear, I don’t give a damn.” At the outset, Selznick knew he would have problems with that darn word “damn.”

The Motion Picture Production Code developed in 1930 by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association of America (known as the “Association”) barred from the screen, among other things, the use of profanity. Specifically, it forbade the use of the word “damn.”

Sidney Howard, aware of the industry’s censorship code, changed the line to “My dear, I don’t care.” But Selznick knew how much the American public would expect the line to be left intact, so he ordered the scene shot with each version of the line. On Thursday, June 8, 1939, Gable prepared to say the “I don’t care” version. At the last moment, Selznick added the word “frankly” to the beginning of Rhett’s line because he felt the word added an offhanded quality to the delivery. Fleming filmed that version. On Saturday, June 10, 1939, Fleming filmed the more dramatic exit line: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Then Selznick prepared to do battle with the Association and its Production Code.

The Code was administered by Joseph Breen who reviewed shooting scripts and completed films for violations. Breen had the power to grant or to deny the certificate of approval that a film needed in order to be shown in theaters. Under the terms of Selznick’s contract with MGM, a studio that supported the Code, GWTW required a Production Code seal.

After Breen had reviewed GWTW’s script, he sent a message to Selznick directing him to eliminate the word “damn” from the dialogue. He concluded the letter with his standard warning: “Our final judgments will be based on the finished picture.”

Since Breen refused to permit Gable’s stronger version, the Saturday, September 9, 1939 preview audience heard the “I-don’t-care” line. They expressed their disappointment on the preview cards they handed back to Selznick.

Breen, too, saw the “I-don’t-care” version of the film later that month after which, on Thursday, September 28, 1939, he granted Certificate No. 5729 to GWTW. With the seal of approval in hand, Selznick set into motion the next phase of his plan to challenge the Association on his use of “damn.”

He shared his strategy in a Thursday, October 12, 1939 letter to Jock Whitney: “If I can’t persuade the Breen office here to see reason on it…then I think the best way of getting it through would be for you to…insist upon a special Board of Directors meeting being called immediately for the purpose of ruling on it.”

When Selznick approached him about the issue, Breen stated that the Code was explicit in forbidding “damn.” And that was that. Or so it seemed.

Selznick subsequently learned through his story editor Val Lewton who was the liaison with the Production Code office that Breen’s official position was not the same as his personal position on Selznick’s “damn” matter. According to Lewton, Breen encouraged Selznick to go over his head and appeal to Will H. Hays, the Association’s president. Doing so, Breen had suggested, might establish a precedent that would be helpful not only to Selznick but also to Breen. But Breen was clear: He could not openly support Selznick’s efforts.

In a Friday, October 20, 1939 letter to Hays, Selznick laid out his arguments. He stated that the Oxford English Dictionary described “damn” not as an oath or curse but as a vulgarism. Selznick also pointed to the public’s general acceptance of the word by citing magazines such as Woman’s Home Companion, Saturday Evening Post, and Collier’s that used the word frequently. Last, he noted the disappointment of preview audiences. “On our very fade-out it gives an impression of unfaithfulness after three hours and forty-five minutes of extreme fidelity to Miss Mitchell’s work.” [The final cut was five minutes shorter.]

Unmoved by Selznick’s arguments, the Hays Office ordered Breen to send an overnight letter to the producer outlining the strongest reasons for refusing his request. Receiving that letter left only one avenue open to Selznick: appealing to the Association’s Board of Directors and lining up support from the Directors who were studio heads and independent producers.

Had the Friday, October 27, 1939 board meeting been a western, the script would have characterized the atmosphere as “rip roaring.” Hays opposed Selznick’s use of “damn.” Aligned with him were the heads of Universal, Paramount, and Twentieth-Century Fox. Supporting Selznick was the formidable Nicholas Schenck, president of MGM, the soon-to-be distributor of GWTW, whose investment was on the line depending upon the meeting’s outcome.

When the dust settled finally, directors representing the major studios and independent producers voted to reverse Breen’s ruling and allow Selznick to use “damn.” Waiving the profanity rule, Hays warned, might violate federal law and could draw unwanted attention from the Justice Department. So the Board took an additional action.

On Wednesday, November 1, 1939, the Association’s Board of Directors amended the Production Code. The words “hell” and “damn” continued to be banned except if they: “…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 the blessing of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association of America, Selznick was permitted to use the word “damn” in a line that has become as famous as Scarlett’s “I’ll think about that tomorrow.” Selznick had cracked the Code, and for him the moment was priceless.

Source: The Complete GONE WITH THE WIND Trivia Book (second edition, 2014)

             Gone With the Wind: 1939 Day by Day (2022)

2023 Twin Year: The 2023 calendar matches the days of the 1939, making 2023 a twin year to 1939. That’s the premise of Pauline’s new book Gone With the Wind: 1939 Day by Day. In that book, she chronicles the production, premieres and reception of GWTW from January 1, 1939 to December 31, 1939. Fans will love following the drama and intrigue of GWTW’s production on each event’s exact day and date.
Blogger Bio: Pauline Bartel is the author of Gone With the Wind: 1939 Day by Day, The Complete GONE WITH THE WIND Trivia Book, and an expert on the film and its history. Follow Pauline on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Request a personally inscribed bookplate by sending a request to Visit her Author Page and leave a review telling other GWTW fans why you love Gone With the Wind: 1939 Day by Day.