Mixing fun and education doesn't always work, but the exhibit now at the Historic Arkansas Museum is a well-measured blend.
It's called "Reel to Real: Gone With The Wind and The Civil War in Arkansas," and the "Reel" part of it is about the making of the famous movie. This part features items from a privately owned collection of GWTW memorabilia, including photographs, costumes that were worn in the movie, letters and memoranda to and from principals in the movie's production, and souvenirs of Margaret Mitchell, the newspaper reporter who wrote the famous book on which the famous movie was based.
Frivolous by nature, like Butterfly McQueen, The Observer went to the "Reel" part of the exhibit first. Perhaps, we thought, there are people who would be unimpressed by looking at the Oscar that Vivien Leigh won for playing Scarlett O'Hara, or at a suit Clark Gable wore in playing Rhett Butler. For sure, we thought, we're glad those people aren't here.
When you go, be sure to stop at the area in the corner where they're showing what appear to be film clips from a black-and-white movie, not the glorious Technicolor of GWTW. These are actually screen tests for people who wanted to be in the movie, as just about everybody did. We saw Joan Bennett and Jean Arthur as Scarlett, both playing scenes with "Ashley Wilkes." (The actors playing Wilkes weren't names we recognized). The Observer later learned that Bennett and Arthur were among four finalists for the part. Leigh and Paulette Goddard were the others.
From today's perspective, Gone With the Wind has acquired a new layer of history. Most people who could remember the antebellum South were gone with the wind themselves by the time the movie was made in 1939. And not many people around today can remember pre-World War II America. Movies and movie stars were bigger in those days before television. Newspapers were bigger too; air travel was smaller. A newspaper photograph of some of the GWTW party getting off an airplane at Atlanta for the premiere reminded us that average people didn't start boarding airplanes until after the war.
But there are still a number of people around who can remember the last big national celebration of the Civil War, the centennial of 1961. The Observer recalls how timid the country was then, how fearful of hurting segregationist feelings. Mention of the real cause of the Civil War was considered bad form. People spoke instead, lengthily and dishonestly, about states' rights, and an unfortunate difference of opinion between two equally well-intentioned factions.
The HAM's "Real" exhibit announces early and forcefully that the Civil War was about slavery, and that if any states' rights were being violated, it was the rights of the Northern states compelled to return runaway slaves to Southern slavemasters.
The exhibit shows what life was truly like in Arkansas during the civil war, for blacks and whites, the poverty and misery and wartime atrocities by both armies. And the misplaced pride that drew so many white Arkansans to fight for a cause not really their own. Most didn't own slaves.
Clothing is on display in this part of the HAM's exhibit too, but it's real clothing, military and civilian, that was worn by real people. The weapons here are real as well, and deadly in their day, not props for a movie.
A shot of entertainment and a shot of truth. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon.
The Observer believes in Synchronicity. We have to. It's the only way we can wrap our head around some of the stuff that happens to us from time to time.
Take this, for example: El Jefe, Max Brantley, was in San Francisco last week. He was riding an elevator in his hotel when it stopped at the fourth floor. And who should get on but former Whitewater prosecutor Ken Starr.
For those who don't remember the '90's in Little Rock, this is pretty much like: Spiderman is on vacation. He's riding the elevator, and Doctor Octopus gets on, wearing flip-flops, a Hawaiian shirt and drinking a strawberry daiquiri.
The unscheduled reunion, we hear, was civil. Starr even agreed to pose for a photograph just so the folks back home wouldn't think Max had turned fibber.