As I promised a few months ago, I recently rewatched the 1939 film version of Gone with the Wind to see how the dancing in it looked from a historical perspective. The short answer: pretty good, with some caveats.
The novel was heavily trimmed for the screen, even though the film clocks in at close to four hours, and the dancing is cut back as well. What remains is fairly faithful to the novel.
For more detail on the book's descriptions, please see my previous post on the topic. Here, I'm just going to talk about the movie. Frank Floyd and Eddie Prinz are the known (though uncredited) dance directors.
Going through the dance elements bit by bit:
The scene with the Tarleton brothers demanding all Scarlett's waltzes at the Wilkes' upcoming ball is included. As in the novel, the ball does not come off because war is declared and the men all run off to enlist immediately. Fanny Elsing's wedding ball, late in the book, is not shown in the film at all (that whole subplot is cut), so that leaves us with the famous Atlanta fundraising bazaar ball, which gets several minutes of screen time. This is big character-establishing scene for both Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) and Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh), as they defy Atlanta society to dance together while Scarlett is in mourning for her first husband.
All of the dance numbers from the bazaar can be seen in this conveniently edited video:
In the film, there are three dances at the bazaar: a polka, a Virginia Reel, and a waltz.
The polka opens the scene. As far as I can tell, it's all extras dancing, none of the major characters. The dancing is shown at a slight distance. That's convenient, since we can actually see what they do. The dance floor is pleasantly chaotic, with people moving more or less counter-clockwise but with dancers both around the edges and in the center, more like a mob than a circle of couples. The footwork appears to be the (hop) slide-close-slide of the less technical polka. The dancers turn, with a great deal of dramatic body sway, opening up on the eighth measure to a "military" position, side by side with the gentlemen's arms around their partners' waists. Some of the women hold their skirts with their free hand, but several have their arm extended out to the side. The couples dance forward for four measures, then wheel as a couple in place. For the first twelve bars or so the whole group seems to be moving unison; after that, it breaks down somewhat, but the focus shifts to the main characters and the dancing recedes behind some potted plants.
Turning polka is, of course, perfect for the period, though I could do with a little less body sway. It's a polka, not a maxixe.
The "military position", with the dancers side by side without joining their free hands in front, is a bit more of a stretch. That position is more typical of the later nineteenth century. Early polka manuals that still give figures for the polka do not include it. Promenading dancers are either in a full ballroom hold with hands joined in front or linked only by one or both hands.
By the 1860s, those early figures are deprecated and polka descriptions are generally limited to forward-back-natural-reverse and the Bohemian (heel and toe). But opening up side by side does appear in polka imagery, as can be seen at left in the image La Leçon Chez Cellarius from the 1844 La Polkamanie (click to enlarge). The hold can also be seen in the lower left corner of the cover of the sheet music for Jullien's Original Polka Quadrilles (1850s), on which it is labeled "The Drawing Room Polka". Don't be fooled into thinking that means that this was the way polka was danced in drawing rooms, however. The name refers to another of Jullien's compositions, "The Drawing Room Polka", the cover of which can be seen near the bottom of the page here.
Overall, though this hold is not, as far as I can tell, described in dance manuals early in the period of popularity of the polka, I feel quite comfortable with it for early polka, and fairly comfortable even for1860s America.
Wheeling as a couple is another slight stretch; yes, there were similar moves in the mazurka, but that was in a quadrille formation. Spending four measures dancing in place on a crowded floor of circling dancers seems less likely. It works in the film because they all do it together.
Taken as a whole, I think the polka strikes a good balance between good visuals and historically reasonable moves. The ahistorical group choreography is balanced by the pleasantly chaotic dance floor that keeps it from looking artificial. That's nice work by the choreographer. I just wished that all the ladies who were holding their free arms straight out while dancing would lower them or hold their skirts before they smacked someone in the face!
Put your arms down, ladies!
The Virginia Reel, on the other hand, could best be described as heavily trimmed. The film maintains the idea that each dance will be preceded by a reel, with the gentlemen bidding for partners. We are only shown the reel preceding Scarlett and Rhett's waltz. In it, the lines of dancers move forward and back, then the top gentleman and bottom lady turn by two hands, then the top lady and bottom gentleman, then the top couple gallops down the set. Then it cuts over to the waltz.
Is this a convincing Virginia Reel? Sort of. The forward and back is an unusual beginning, more like an English galopade than an American dance. It turns up in a mid-century English version of Sir Roger de Coverley (described here). That dance is the English ancestor of the Virginia Reel. That's quite a stretch as an actual connection for the lines forward and back move, however. I feel pretty safe saying that they didn't have that connection in mind while choreographing the scene. Possibly there's a twentieth-century version of the Virginia Reel that uses that move.
The two-hand turns are a standard part of the Virginia Reel, but should be preceded by three or four other figures. I also noted that Rhett and the bottom lady turn once round while Scarlett and her partner turn twice. Maybe Vivian Leigh liked spinning? She was giving some significant weight there, too the photo at left (click to enlarge).
The two-hand turns should really be followed by several more figures, but instead they go directly to the final figure of the dance, the top couple galloping down the middle to the bottom position. Then it goes to the waltz.
To recap, the full Virginia Reel can be summarized as:
lots of stuff
lots more stuff
The film alters it to:
lines forward and back
By period standards, that's a pretty dull dance, but it would certainly make it short enough to go through all the couples in a set quickly and to make starting every dance off with a reel not completely insane. Not spending enough screen time to dance a full Virginia Reel, or even a full iteration of it, is a very reasonable directorial choice, and the trimmed-down version does capture the general feel of the dance.
I did have to laugh a little at the well-choreographed made-for-film timing that had all the sets moving in perfect unison. In my experience, that never works for long in the Virginia Reel!
Finally, we have Rhett and Scarlett's big waltz together. Waltz is the ultimate nineteenth-century couple dance, of course, so it's completely appropriate here.
Co-star Olivia de Havilland claimed that Leigh couldn't dance and that the distance shots where you can see Rhett and Scarlett whirling around the floor were actually Gable and a dance-double. You can't see Leigh's face in those scenes (there's barely a glimpse of Gable's) so this could well be true. The closeup shots of the waltz were filmed with the Gable and Leigh on a spinning platform, which can be seen clearly in surviving behind-the-scenes shots like the one about two thirds down this page.
The waltzing we do see (both the stars and the surrounding extras) owes somewhat more to twentieth-century ballroom style than to the old valse à trois temps of the mid-nineteenth century. There are lots of long straight first steps, pauses, and reversing. At one point in the closeup shots, Gable and Leigh simply go back and forth in place, which looks like a kludge for people who have trouble actually waltzing, though one must also consider that it's much easier to film a conversation if the talking heads aren't rotating around each other constantly.
Mitchell's description in the novel was also more reminiscent of twentieth-century ballroom style; my guess would be that neither Mitchell nor the film's choreographer was interested in (or even aware of) how waltz had evolved over time.
A final few notes:
As I said in my notes on the book, having a slave caller and slave musicians was legitimate historical practice.
The bandleader, Levi, played by William McClain (left; click to enlarge), gets a good close up shot at the “Choose yo’ padners fo’ de Ferginny reel!” line. He has his fiddle in hand, which is very appropriate. Sadly, he doesn't get to actually call a dance like the character does at Fanny Elsing's wedding ball in the book.
The other musicians, also correctly cast with black actors, appear briefly in the background a couple of times. They can be seen in video cuts of the bazaar scene that include the "auction" announcement, such as this one and this one.
And, finally, the soundtrack notes show that the film used period tunes, leaning heavily on the famous American composer Stephen Foster, and traditional dance music for the ball scenes.
All in all, this is an impressive job for a 1930s film. There are films today, with access to much more information on historical dance, that do considerably worse.