'Gone With the Wind': After 3 Years of Hullabaloo, It Emerges a Great Picture
Source: Newsweek, 12/25/1939 pg26-29
On July 30, 1936, David 0. Selznick who had read an advance copy of Margaret Mitchell's GONE WITH THE WIND, paid $50,000 for the right to screen the first novel of an unknown author. Next day the president of Selznick International Pictures, Inc., sailed for a Honolulu vacation. When he returned, the 1037 page story of the South in Civil War and Reconstruction days was a sensational best seller.
Later Selznick was to turn down a $1,000,000 offer for the book's screen rights, but the first inkling that he was holding a bear by the tail came when America's movie fans took over the job of casting the film for him. Clark Gable was the almost unanimous choice for Rhett Butler-that hard-boiled iconoclast who became Scarlett O'Hara's third husband-but as the book's popularity grew by phenomenal bounds and thousands of letters flooded the studio, the casting of the fiery, calculating Scarlett became the chief storm center.
Letters vociferously and variously demanded Miriam Hopkins, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn. and a host of other favorites for the role. Selznick sent three talent expeditions-as well as George Cukor, slated to direct the film-all over the nation in search of an unknown Scarlett. The search lasted more than two years, reaped acres of publicity, engendered as many comic allusions as arguments, and was burlesqued in the Broadway success "Kiss the Boys Goodbye."
Finally, when his movie public began showing signs of apathy, Selzniek announced, on Jan. 13, 1939, that the O'Hara sweepstakes were over. Some 1,400 candidates had been interviewed and 28 screen tests at an estimated cost of $92,000, but Scarlett had been found in Hollywood and she was an English girl to boot.
The girl the lightning struck was Vivien Leigh ("Storm in a Teacup," "A Yank at Oxford") , a talented actress but comparatively unknown in this country. The choice of an English girl (born in Darjeehing, India) to impersonate a Southern belle aroused a storm of protest, particularly in the South. Speaking for the defense, Selznick pointed out that Miss Leigh, like Scarlett, was green-eyed, wasp-waisted, and of French-Irish stock. But the official seal of approval was awarded by Mrs. Walter D. Lamar, president general of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who emphasized the resemblance between the language of cultured England and of the South.
The summer before Selznick had signed Clark Gable on a releasing deal with MGM. Sidney Howard, noted playwright who recently met death in an accident had been slaving on the script since 1936. And finally, on Jan. 26, 1939, "Gone With the Wind" went before the Technicolor cameras.
Even in production the Selznick epic met with delays. After serving a few weeks as director, George Cnkor resigned, to be replaced by Victor Fleming ("Captains Courageous," "the Wizard of Ox") April, Sam Wood took over for a week when Fleming collapsed from overwork. But eventually, after 140 shooting days, the most talked of and anxiously awaited film in Hollywood history was ready - except for the job of cutting 225,000 feet of printed film to the proximately 20,000 that run 3 hours 40 minutes on the screen.
But this time West Coast cynics were convinced that Selznick had stalled too long for his own good. After three years of delay and publicity that had over-reached itself, public and critics alike were prepared to meet the film in a challenging mood.. But last week, at a special press preview in Hollywood and later at the Atlanta premiere, "Gone With the Wind" rose from the adjectival ashes of its past to rank as one of the foremost films in screen history.
Except in telescoping its Reconstruction period problems, Sidney Howard's fine script is a faithful transcription of the Margaret Mitchell novel. The first half of the film-there is an intermission after 1 hour and 4.5 minutes-is especially notable, capturing perfectly the feeling of Southern hospitality and charm before the Civil War. In these sequences the characters are all part of a larger theme-the Old South that crashes with the utter ruin of war.
After the intermission the film becomes a drama of persons rather than people and, in accenting Scarlett's battle against the world and her ruthless domination of everything about her loses its epic quality. Nevertheless, in its magnificent production, its superb Technicolor, and in the power and integrity of a story that combines a vivid personal narratives with such
superlatives screen spectacle as the burning of Atlanta by the Yankee troops and its evacuation, "Gone 'With the Wind" is a triumph for Selznick and everyone concerned.
Perhaps of first interest to the book's admirers is the fact that Vivien Leigh, bringing to life with thorough conviction the mercurial and unpredictable character Scarlett O'Hara, gives a flawless performance in the screen's most sought after role. The choice of Clark Gable as Rhett Butler-the realist who mocked his class and turned the war to his own profit by blockade running-is perfect type casting, as is Leslie Howard's assignment as the weak, gentlemanly Ashley Wilkes. Proably the most impressive member of the cast, aside from Miss Leigh, is Olivia de Havilland, who reveals histrionic finesse with her sensitive interpretation of the gentle Melanie. As the bossy Negro Mammy, Hattie McDaniels turns in a first rate job that frequently amounts to scene stealing; and Laura Hope Crews (Aunt Pittypat), Ona Munson (Belle Wathing),. Thomas Mitchell (Gerald O'Hara), Rand Brooks (Charles Hamilton), Carroll Nit (Frank Kennedy), and Harry Davenport (Doctor Meade) are outstanding in a splendid cast.
Although "Gone With the Wind" opens this week simultaneously in two New York theaters-the Astor and the Capitol-Atlanta saw the film's world premiere on Dec. 15 amid enthusiasm unequaled since the opening of the Cotton States Exposition, there in, 1895. Gov. E. D. Rivers of Georgia proclaimed Friday, Tuesday of the premiere, a public holiday throughout the state; all state buildings were closed and the Confederate banner flew from the Capitol masthead beside the flag of the United States. Atlanta went the Governor two better; Mayor Hartsfield declared a three-day festival. Furthermore, for more than a month the city's butchers and bakers, businessmen, Junior Leaguers, housewives, and children had been dressing up the city for the big event.
And a big event it was, for if "Gone With The Wind" is a new high for film making, Atlanta's premiere out-Hollywooded Hollywood and all points east. When the film's stars and feature players, accompanied by Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, and studio executives, arrived last Thursday, they found a city facaded in the architecture and finery of the '60s, its citizens dressed in the hoop skirts and claw-hammer coats of a more colorful and prosperous era. Half of Atlanta's 300,000 population turned out to greet the motorcade that carried the film folk from the airport, down Peachtree Street, to the Georgian Terrace Hotel; but Thursday
highlight was the charity ball at the City Auditorium.
For the ball Gable and the other Georgians-by-Proxy donned the most colorful costumes they had worn in the film; five Governors - Rivers of Georgia, Prentice Cooper of Tennessee, Frank M. Dixon of Alabama, Burnet Rhett Maybank of South Carolina, and Fred Cone of Florida-and the Atlanta elect who were fortunate enough to snap up the 5,200 $10 tickets to the affair matched the stars attire with their own colorful costumes. Gable escorted Miss Mildred Hartsfield, the Mayor's daughter; the Mayor returned the compliment by escorting the star's wife, Carole Lombard. In the auditorium the grand march was led by Miss Margaret Palmer, chosen by The Atlanta Constitution from the unmarried Junior Leaguers as "Atlanta's Scarlett."
Friday's luncheons, tea, and cocktail parties were climaxed by the pièce de resistance--the unreeling of "Gone With the Wind" at Loew's Grand Theater while 400 Guardsmen, details of State Troopers, and police held back the thousands of curious who milled around the theater's rebuilt entrance, a reproduction of Twelve Oaks, the Greek-pillared mansion in which Ashley lived. The studio had reserved 700 seats for guests and the press; an estimated 25,000 people scrambled for the remaining
1,300 tickets-again priced at $10 and donated to the city's Community Chest.
Because of illness, the Atlantan responsible for the fireworks-Margaret Mitchell (Mrs. John Marsh) -Was unable to attend the ball. But Friday night, in one of her rare public appearances, she watched the screen re-create the glory and sorrow that was Georgia's while the select audience, weeping, cheering, alternately applauding "Dixie" and hissing Sherman's celluloid army, took the Selznick drama to their hearts. In a shaking voice Mayor Hartsfield called the actors to the stage at the chose of the film. Finally he called Margaret Mitchell. She, too, seemed overcome with emotion.
Although the author of the book that has passed 2,000,000 copies firmly refused to take any part in the furor that attended its filming, she could not escape repercussions of the excitement she had created: Long before the frenzy of fiesta that rockedAtlanta last week, a Selznick. Representative had telephoned Miss Mitchell on business. In-passing he asked the author if she were writing another book. Miss Mitchell's reply, though soft in Southern intonation, was unequivocal. "Law-zee! Look what this one's done to me!"