An Epic Forever - GWTW
Author: Piroj Wadia
Published on: 03/16/2007
No other film in Hollywood has
generated the curiosity and speculation as did Gone With The Wind,
which represents Hollywood’s golden era. A film that remains
matchless in content and production, a film that celebrates the
legendary romantic pairing of Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh as the
indomitable Rhett Butler and the fiery Scarlett O’Hara.
‘Gone With The Wind (GWTW)’ is one of the most popular
films of all time, and the most enduring symbol of the golden age of
Hollywood. This 1939 film adapted from Margaret Mitchell's 1936 novel
of the same name went on to win 10 Academy Awards, and has been
ranked fourth by the American Film Institute in the top 100 American
films of the 20th Century. As of 2006, ‘GWTW’ is the
highest grossing film in box-office history. When producer David O.
Selznick was asked by the press in early September how he felt about
the film, he said: "At noon I think it's divine, at midnight I
think it's lousy. Sometimes I think it's the greatest picture ever
made. But if it's only a great picture, I'll still be satisfied."
David O. Selznick, head of Selznick International Pictures,
decided that he wanted to create a film based on the novel after his
story editor Kay Brown read a pre-publication copy in May 1936 and
urged him to buy the film rights. A month after the book's
publication in June 1936, Selznick bought the rights for $50,000, a
record amount at that time. Major financing for the film was provided
by Selznick’s business partner John Hay Whitney, a financier
who later went on to become a U.S. ambassador.
On September 9, 1939, Selznick, his wife Irene, investor Jock
Whitney and film editor Hal Kern drove out to Riverside, California
with the film reels to preview it before an audience. The film was
still unfinished at this stage, missing many optical effects and most
of Max Steiner's music score. They arrived at the Fox Theatre, which
was playing a double feature of ‘Hawaiian Nights’ and
‘Beau Geste’. Kern called for the manager and told him to
make an announcement of the preview, but not to divulge the name of
the film. People were permitted to leave, but the theatre was sealed
with no re-admissions and no phone calls out. Reluctant, he agreed,
his only request was to call his wife to come to the theatre
immediately. Kern stood by him as he made the call to make sure he
did not reveal the name of the film to her.
There was a buzz in the audience when Selznick's name appeared,
for they had been reading about the making of the film for over two
years. In an interview years later, Kern described the exact moment
the audience realized what was happening. When Margaret Mitchell's
name came on the screen, the audience stood up cheered. When the
titles came on the screen, it was thunderous! The film ended to a
thunderous ovation. For Selznick the audience's response "was
the greatest moment of his life, the greatest victory and redemption
of all his failings."
In the preview cards filled out after the screening, two-thirds of
the audience had rated it excellent, an unusually high rating. Most
of the audience begged that the film should not to be cut shorter and
many suggested that instead they eliminate the newsreels, shorts and
B-movie feature, which is eventually how ‘GWTW’ was
screened and would soon become the norm in movie theatres around the
world. Bombay’s old timers will recall that the Metro cinema
where it was released had two intervals – one before the film
started and one mid way! During a subsequent re-release this writer
has experienced it.
The film premiered in Atlanta, Georgia, on December 15, 1939 as
the climax of three days of festivities hosted by the mayor which
consisted of a parade of limousines featuring stars from the film,
receptions, thousands of Confederate flags, false antebellum fronts
on stores and homes, and a costume ball. The Governor of Georgia
declared December 15 a state holiday.
Racial politics spilled into the film's premiere in Atlanta,
Georgia. As Georgia was a segregated state, Hattie McDaniel could not
have attended the cinema without sitting in the "coloured"
section of the movie theatre; to avoid troubling Selznick, she thus
sent a letter saying that she would not be able to attend. When Clark
Gable heard that McDaniel did not want to attend because of the
racial issue, he threatened to boycott the premiere unless McDaniel
was able to attend; he later relented when McDaniel convinced him to
At the costume ball during the premiere, the local promoters
recruited blacks to dress up as slaves and sing in a "Negro
choir" on the steps of a white-columned plantation mansion built
for the event. Many black community leaders refused to participate.
But prominent Atlanta preacher, Martin Luther King, Sr. attended, and
he brought his 10-year-old son, future civil rights leader Martin
Luther King Jr., who sang that night in the choir. However, the film
was also an important moment in African-American history: Hattie
McDaniel who plays Mammy won an Academy Award for Best Supporting
Actress, the first time a black person won an Oscar.
From December 1939 to June 1940, the film played only
advance-ticket road show engagements at a limited number of theatres,
before it went into general release in 1941. It was a sensational hit
during the Blitz in London, opened in April 1940 and played
continuously for four years. It is still the most watched movie of
all-time in the UK. In February 1940, the movie was played in 156
theatres in 150 US cities.
The casting of the two lead roles became a complex, two-year
endeavour. Many famous or soon-to-be-famous actresses were either
screen-tested, auditioned, or considered for the role of Scarlett,
including Katharine Hepburn, Norma Shearer, Bette Davis, Barbara
Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Lana Turner, Susan Hayward, Carole Lombard,
Irene Dunne, Merle Oberon, Ida Lupino, Joan Fontaine, Loretta Young,
Miriam Hopkins, Tallulah Bankhead, Frances Dee, and Lucille Ball.
Four actresses, including Jean Arthur and Joan Bennett, were still
under consideration by December 1938. But only two finalists,
Paulette Goddard and Vivien Leigh, were tested in Technicolor, both
on December 20.
Selznick had been quietly considering Vivien Leigh, a young
English actress little known in America, for the role of Scarlett
since February 1938, when Selznick saw her in ‘Fire Over
England’ and ‘A Yank at Oxford’. By summer of 1938,
the Selznicks were negotiating with Alexander Korda, to whom Leigh
was under contract. But for publicity reasons David arranged to meet
her for the first time on the night of December 10, 1938, when the
‘Burning of the Atlanta Depot’ was filmed. The story was
invented for the press that Leigh and Laurence Olivier were just
visiting the studio as guests of Myron Selznick, who was also
Olivier's agent, and that Leigh was in Hollywood hoping for a part in
Olivier's current movie, ‘Wuthering Heights’. After a
series of screen tests, her casting was announced on January 13,
1939. While approximately 1,400 actresses auditioned for the part of
Scarlett O'Hara, the story goes that David O. Selznick only
considered Clark Gable for the part of Rhett Butler. In the end,
Leigh received about $25,000 for her services while Gable took home
over $120,000. Clark Gable was an almost immediate favourite for both
the public and Selznick. But as Selznick had no male stars under
long-term contract, he needed to go through the process of
negotiating to borrow an actor from another studio.
Gary Cooper was Selznick's first choice, because Cooper's contract
with Samuel Goldwyn involved a common distribution company, United
Artists, with which Selznick had an eight-picture deal. However,
Goldwyn remained non-committal in negotiations. Selznick found a way
to borrow Clark Gable, from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer with help from his
father-in-law, MGM Chief Louis B. Mayer. Principal photography began
January 26, 1939 and ended on June 27, 1939, with post-production
work (including a fifth version of the opening scene) going to
November 11, 1939.
Director George Cukor, with whom Selznick had a long working
relationship, and who spent almost two years in pre-production on
‘Gone with the Wind’, was replaced after less than three
weeks of shooting. Victor Fleming, who had just directed ‘The
Wizard of Oz’, was called in from MGM to complete the picture,
although Cukor continued privately to coach Leigh's and De
Havilland's performances. Another MGM director, Sam Wood, worked for
two weeks in May when Fleming temporarily left the production due to
exhaustion. Estimated production costs were $3.9 million; only
Ben-Hur (1925) and Hell's Angels (1930) had cost more.
Even before casting had been completed, filming began with the
famous "Burning of Atlanta" scene. But rather than set fire
to Atlanta itself, producer David O. Selznick and the crew of the
film actually burned down a bunch of old sets on the studio backlot.
The fire was so intense that Culver City residents called the fire
department reporting that MGM was burning down. The cost of producing
this blaze, shot on December 10, 1938, was estimated at $25,000.
‘GWTW’'s two lead stars, Vivien Leigh as Scarlett
O'Hara and Clark Gable as Rhett Butler, both received nominations for
their performances. But while Leigh took home the Best Actress
statuette, Gable lost to Robert Donat's performance in ‘Goodbye,
Mr. Chips’ at the 1939 Academy Awards. The film earned five
more Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Actress in a Leading
Role - Vivien Leigh, Best Actress in a Supporting Role - Hattie
McDaniel, Best Cinematography, Colour, Best Director, Best Film
Editing , Best Writing, Screenplay, an Honorary Award - William
Cameron Menzies - "For outstanding achievement in the use of
colour for the enhancement of dramatic mood in the production of
‘GWTW’”, and Technical Achievement Award - Don
Musgrave - "For pioneering in the use of coordinated equipment
in the production ‘GWTW’."
‘GWTW’ was given theatrical re-releases in 1947, 1954,
1961, 1967 (in a widescreen version), 1971, 1989, and 1998. It made
its television debut on the HBO cable network in June 1976, and its
broadcast debut the following November on the NBC network, where it
became at that time the highest-rated television programme ever
presented on a single network, watched by 47.5 per cent of the
households in America, and 65 per cent of television viewers. The
film has been selected for preservation in the United States National
Film Registry and has undergone a complete digital restoration.
Rhett Butler's infamous farewell line to Scarlett O'Hara,
"Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn", was voted in a
poll by the American Film Institute in 2005 as the most memorable
line in cinema history. In 2005, the AFI ranked Max Steiner's score
for the film the second greatest of all time. More than sixty years
later, it remains the most widely watched film and the impact its
lines have had on every day speak is simply unimaginable. A random
sample: "Quittin Time!", "Fiddle-dee-dee!", "Lawd
have mercy!", "I'll smash your skull between them like a
walnut." And the line of the century Rhett Butler’s
signature -- "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn."
Matched by Scarlett’s sign off for the film "After all ...
tomorrow is another day."