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An Epic Forever - GWTW

Author: Piroj Wadia
Source: 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 go.

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."

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