On Portraying Rhett Butler by Clark Gable
My reaction to playing Rhett Butler is both frank and simple: 'The condemned man ate a hearty meal.' Now don't get me wrong. As an actor, I loved it. As a character, he was terrific. As material for the screen, he was that once in a lifetime opportunity. But as Clark Gable, who likes to pick his spots and found himself trapped by a series of circumstances over which he had no control, I was scared stiff. This is no alibi. I cannot but honestly admit that the actual making of the picture was one of the most thoroughly pleasant and satisfying experiences I have ever known. During the filming, I was on familiar ground. Once in the atmosphere of the settings, facing a camera in costume, playing scenes that were dramatically realistic, I felt for the first time that I had an understanding of Rhett. The long months that I had studied him and tried to know him as I know myself made me believe I was Rhett. These were things I could get my hands on. They were part of my job as an actor. It was those things I couldn't get my hands on that had me worried.
In way of explanation, let me go back to the beginning. I never asked to play Rhett. I was one of the last to read the book. I know, because out of curiosity I have inquired, that I definitely was not Miss Margaret Mitchell's inspiration for creating Rhett. When she was writing her book, Hollywood never had heard of me, and I am certain Miss Mitchell was not interested in an obscure Oklahoma oil field worker, which I was at the time. The first few times I heard the name, Rhett Butler, it was with growing irritation. Nobody likes to appear stupid. It was annoying to have people say breathlessly, "But, of course, you've read 'Gone With the Wind,'" and then look painfully surprised when I said I hadn't. It got to the point where anyone who hadn't read the book was considered illiterate, if not actually a social outcast. Besides, everything in Hollywood out of the ordinary is colossal. You get used to it. The greatest book ever written that will make the greatest picture of all time appears regularly every week. It is usually forgotten just as quickly. That's what got me about "The Wind." It kept right on blowing. As I have said before, every minute of the five months the picture was in production was enjoyable. It was the preceding 24 months of conversation that had me on my ear. When it got to the point where Spencer Tracy was greeting me with 'Hello, Rhett,' I read the book. Before that, I had held out even when my best friends told me, 'It's made to order for you.' I had heard that one before.
In the interest of truth, I became a fan of Miss Mitchell's with the rest of America after going half-way through the book. It was good, too good in fact. Rhett was everything a character should be, and rarely is, clear, concise and very real. He breathed in the pages of the book. He was flawless as a character study. He stood up under the most careful analysis without exhibiting a weakness. That was the trouble. I realized that whoever played Rhett would be up against a stumbling block in this respect. Miss Mitchell had etched Rhett into the minds of millions of people, each of whom knew exactly how Rhett would look and act. It would be impossible to satisfy them all. An actor would be lucky to please even the majority. It wasn't that I didn't want to play Rhett. I did. No actor could entirely resist such a challenge. But the more popular Rhett became, the more I agreed with the gentleman who wrote, 'Discretion is the better part of valour.'
My reading of the book enabled me to see clearly what I was in for if I played the part. I decided to say nothing. It became more apparent, anyhow, that it was out of my hands. The public interest in my doing Rhett puzzled me. Long before anyone had been cast for the picture, I was asked for interviews. When I refused comment, the columnists did it for me. My mail doubled and then tripled. I saw myself pictured as Rhett, with sideburns. I don't like sideburns. They itch. I was the only one, apparently, who didn't take it for granted that I was going to play Rhett. It was a funny feeling. I think I know how a fly must react after being caught in a spider web. It wasn't that I didn't appreciate the compliment the public was paying me. It was simply that Rhett was too big an order. I didn't want any part of him. To make sure that I hadn't erred in my first impression, I read "Gone" again. It convinced me more than ever that Rhett was too much for any actor to tackle in his right mind. But I couldn't escape him. I looked for every out. I even considered writing Miss Mitchell at one time. I thought it would be great if she would simply issue a statement saying, 'I think Clark Gable would be the worst possible selection for Rhett Butler.' Perhaps after Miss Mitchell sees my Rhett, or rather what I have done to her Rhett, she'll wish she had. It may be of interest as a sidelight that my own sincere choice for Rhett was Ronald Colman. I still think he would have done a fine job of it.
I found upon investigation that Miss Mitchell, and it was most intelligent of her, didn't care a hang what Hollywood was going to do with her book. All she wanted was peace and quiet. She wrote a book because it was the thing she liked to do, and having innocently caused more excitement than any author in memory, asked only to be left alone. On learning this bit of information, I immediately felt a sympathetic fellowship with Miss Mitchell, whom I never have had the pleasure of meeting. I am sure we would understand one another, for after all, Rhett has caused more than a little confusion in both our lives. During the months when the casting of "Gone" reached the proportion of a national election, and acrimonious debate was being conducted on every street corner, Rhett became more of a mental hazard than ever. I was still the only one who didn't have anything to say about him. I never did have. For when the time came to get down to business, I was still out on a limb.
I knew what was coming the day David O. Selznick telephoned me. His purchase of the book for a mere $50,000 had started the riot. Our talk was amicable. I did the sparring and he landed the hard punches. David's idea was to make a separate deal, providing my studio would release me to make the picture. I thought my contract was an ace in the hole. It specified that my services belonged exclusively to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. I told David that, adding on my own that I was not interested in playing Rhett. That didn't stop David. Being a friend of long standing and knowing him, I knew that it wouldn't. He pointed out that no actor ever had been offered such a chance. There had never been a more talked-of role than Rhett. That was exactly my reason for turning him down. He put his cards on the table. He was going to try to get me from MGM if he could. We shook hands on it.
I could have put up a fight. I didn't. I am glad now that I didn't. Hollywood always has treated me fairly. I have had no reason to complain about my roles and if the studio thought I should play Rhett, it was not up to me to duck out. I had nothing to do with the negotiations. I learned that I was to play Rhett in the newspapers. As a part of the deal, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was to release the picture. I was pleased with the choice of Miss Vivien Leigh as Scarlett. She made Scarlett so vividly lifelike that it made my playing Rhett much simpler than I had expected. I was equally pleased that Victor Fleming was to direct. He had directed me in "Test Pilot." I had complete confidence in him. One thing stands out in those months of preparation for the picture. There was never any divergence of opinion. No single individual, with the exception of Miss Mitchell, deserves credit more than another. It was teamwork that counted.
There was only one way to make "Gone" -- that was as Miss Mitchell wrote it. There was only one problem, but it was not an easy one to solve. Miss Leigh and I discussed it a hundred times. We reached the conclusion that Scarlett and Rhett, while definite and powerful characters and individualists, depended on one another for characterization. In this respect, I would like to pay tribute to Miss Leigh. She was Scarlett every minute and I am greatly indebted to her for her contributions to my performance. "Gone" was different from any picture I have ever made. I often have smiled in the past at actors who 'live' their roles. My attitude to making pictures is realistic. But I must admit that all of us, and I am speaking for everyone who had any connection with the picture, had a definite feeling of living it. Miss Mitchell wrote of a period that is typically American, that is inspirational, that is real. When electricians, grips, make-up men and carpenters, who are blasť to making movies, stood around and watched scenes being rehearsed, and even broke into spontaneous applause after Miss Leigh had played some of her highlight dramatic scenes, you know you have something. They are the world's severest film critics."