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Gone with the Wind

Time 12/25/1939

Last week the cinema event for which the U. S. has palpitated for three years took place in Atlanta, Ga.-the premiere of Gone With the Wind.
Governor Eurith D. Rivers proclaimed a Statewide holiday, prepared to call out the National Guard. Atlanta's Mayor William B. Hartsfield proclaimed a three-day festival. To Georgia it was like winning the battle of Atlanta 75 years late, with Yankee good will thrown in and the direct assistance of Selznick International (which made the picture).

Mayor Hartsfield urged every Atlanta woman and maid to put on hoop skirts and pantalets, appealed to every Atlanta male to don tight trousers and a beaver, sprout a goatee, sideburns and Kentucky colonel whiskers. He also requested citizens not to tear off the clothes of visiting movie stars, as happened in Kansas at the premiere of Dodge City.

While the Stars and Bars flapped from every building, some 300,000 Atlantans and visitors lined up for seven miles to watch the procession of limousines bring British Vivien Leigh (in tears as thousands welcomed her "back home"), Clark Gable, his wife Carole Lombard, Producer David O. Selznick, Laurence Olivier and others from the airport. Crowds larger than the combined armies that fought at Atlanta in July 1864 waved Confederate flags, tossed confetti till it seemed to be snowing, gave three different versions of the Rebel yell, whistled, cheered, goggled.

Highest point in the high jinks was a Gone With the Wind costume ball night before the premiere, attended by 6,000 celebrants, movie stars and executives galore, Governors of five former Confederate States.

Belle of the ball was Vivien Leigh, who nearly everybody agreed looked right like Scarlett O'Hara. Darkly grinning Clark Gable's head was in a whirl. Hundreds of the prettiest little girls he had ever seen had surrounded him earlier. One looked at him a little too long, gasped: "Lord, I can't stand this any longer," fainted. An eleven-year-old girl, given a choice of getting a Christmas present or meeting Clark Gable, chose Gable. When Gable kissed her, she asked, "Now am I a woman?"

Conspicuously absent from the ball was fun-loving, publicity-shy Novelist Margaret Mitchell, who stayed home with her husband, Adman John R. Marsh. Said friends "Her dad's ailin'."

Next night through the false front of tall white columns erected to make Atlanta's Grand Theatre look like Tara (the O'Hara plantation in Gone With the Wind) streamed a privileged 2,031 who were going to see the picture whose title Hollywood had been abbreviating for three years as G With the W. They were conscious of participating in a national event, of seeing a picture it had taken three years to make from a novel it had taken seven years to write. They knew it had taken two years and something akin to genius to find a girl to play Scarlett O'Hara. They knew it had cost more ($3,850,000) to produce the picture than any other in cinema history except Ben Hur ($4,500,000) and Hell's Angels ($4,000,000).

They knew it was one of the longest pictures ever filmed (three hours and three quarters of Technicolored action). Above all, most of them knew by heart the love story of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara, and they were there to protest if it had undergone a single serious film change. Putting it on film had been a job as fantastic as the ballyhoo.

Selznicks Headache

Seventy-five years after the defeated Confederates trudged out of Atlanta singing Maryland, My Maryland, Producer David O. Selznick received one of the most ecstatic business telegrams ever sent. It was sent by Kay (for Katherine) Brown, Eastern Story Editor of Selznick International Pictures. She said: "We have just air-mailed detailed synopsis of Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, also copy of book. . . . I beg, urge, coax and plead with you to read this at once. I know that after you read the book you will drop everything and buy it."

Selznick read the synopsis. With the sad fate of So Red the Rose in mind, he was in no hurry to pay $50,000 for another Civil War book, and a first novel to boot. But when Selznick International's Board Chairman John Jay ("Jock") Whitney offered to buy the novel on his own, Selznick, saying, "I'll be damned if you do," closed the deal. Then he took the book on an ocean voyage to Honolulu to see what he had bought.

He finished it a week later. That was Producer Selznicks first inkling that Gone With the Wind held almost as many headaches for him as it had pages. First thing he saw as clear as the Hawaiian sunshine was the hopelessness of trying to make a film of conventional length.


First trouble was to reduce the 1,037-page novel to a workable Hollywood script.

The late leggy, lantern-jawed Sidney Howard was one of the ablest, most dependable scripters who ever turned his successful plays into equally successful movies (The Silver Cord, Yellow Jack, Dodsworth). Selznick considered Playwright Howard "a great constructionist" and turned to him in his hour of need.  After a brief total, immersion in Gone With the Wind, Sidney Howard arrived in Hollywood in the spring of 1937. . With Selznick's famed. marked of Gone With the Wind as a starter, Selznick, Howard and George Cukor (to supply the director's angle) spent twelve hours of a series of hot summer days, hammering out G With the W Script No. 1. When finished, it contained 30,000 words, would have required five and a half hours to run if it ever had been shot. It never was. They made another. Then Selznick made another. In the next year Jo Swerling, Oliver H. P. Garrett, Ben Hecht, John Van Druten, Michael Foster, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Winston Miller, John Balderston, Edwin Justus Mayer all had at least a little finger in the scenario. But next to Sidney Howard's work, the bulk of the scripting, as David Selznick admits, was done by David Selznick. He is still very touchy because a shooting script was not ready even by the time that the final scenes were filmed. When the filming was practically complete the last day's call sheet read: Script to come.


Midway in producing GWTW, Producer Selznick decided he was in no hurry to get going. The novel was too fresh in people's minds, which meant that they would be critical of any picturization no matter how good. Selznick still had nobody to play Scarlett O'Hara. and for more than two years he maintained himself in this useful and exciting dilemma with tenacity and an astute sense of showmanship. Polls were taken, scouts were dispatched, a play about the search was written, had been running two months- and still no Scarlett.

Racked though they were with Scarlett fever, the U. S. cine-millions on one point were constant-the people's choice to play Rhett Butler was Clark Gable.

Selznick therefore had to drive as shrewd a bargain as possible with Loew Inc., the parent organization of M.G.M., to whom Clark Gable was under contract. The terms were hard: a) M.G.M. to have exclusive distribution rights for Gone With the Wind and a sizable interest in the profits; 2) M.G.M. to finance the picture to the tune of $1,250,000; 3) Gable to begin work for Selznick by Feb. as, 1939. He was not to be kept beyond a reasonable time.

Clearly the time had come to find Scarlett O'Hara. The historic discovery happened (by great good luck) to coincide with the first takes of Gone With the Wind -the burning of Atlanta.

Forty Acres is the back lot of Selznick Studios in Culver City. Until the night of Dec. 11, 1938 it was cluttered with old sets accumulated during 20 years of movie making. These sets were laboriously filled with waste and other inflammable materials, well soaked with kerosene. As darkness fell, the $26,000 bonfire roared sky-high while seven Technicolor cameras ground away. The first scenes of Gone With the Wind had been shot. A flat representing the Atlanta warehouse district was c6nstructed in front of the old sets. In the light of the dying flames Myron Selznick, Hollywood's No. a agent, stepped over to his brother. With him was his British client, wasp-waisted, tilt-browed hazel-eyed Cinema-actress Vivien Leigh (pronounced Lee), who bad slipped into Hollywood allegedly to see Laurence Olivier. Said Myron Selznick to David Selznick : "Dave, I want you to meet Scarlett .O'Hara."

So after two years, four months of nationwide search and tension, dashing Georgia Belle Scarlett O'Hara was a wispish little English girl with a neatly clipped British accent. Born in Darjeeling, India, in the Himalaya Mountains, Nov. 5, 1913, she spent the first five years of her life in Calcutta, about which she remembers nothing. Later she attended convent school near London with Cinemactress Maureen O'Sullivan. Still later Vivien Leigh studied dramatics. Married in 1932 to Barrister Leigh Holman (whose first name plus her own first name she uses for a stage name), she has a little girl. After The Mask of Virtue, in which, says Cinemactress Leigh, "I played a tart," she had small parts in Fire Over England, Dark Journey, A Yank At Oxford.. While playing in The First Time-The Last, she met Laurence Olivier, to whom, when both receive their divorces, she will be married.

"Their love," says a friend, "is the most beautiful thing I have ever known." Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier spend most of their time together, are seldom seen at Hollywood night clubs, both like reading (she prefers biographies, thought David Cecil's The Young Melbourne "wonderfully good"). Olivier sings a few songs that Vivien Leigh knows how to pick out on the piano. In their repertory: The Melody in F, Banjo on My Knee, My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.

Though professional Anglophobes squawked at the choice of an English girl to play Scarlett O'Hara and a chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy at Ocala, Fla. protested, most Southerners were relieved. Their real fear was that a damyankee girl might be given the part.

The choice of Vivien Leigh was not altogether a surprise to Vivien Leigh. British Director Victor Saville, now in Hollywood, read one of the first. copies of Gone With the Wind to reach England. As soon as he had finished it, he rushed to the telephone and mischievously called Vivien Leigh. Said he: "Vivien, I've just read a great story for the movies about the bitchiest of all bitches, and you're just the person to play the part."

The Women

On Jan. 26, 1939, Cukor began directing with a very incomplete script. Trouble started at once. Selznick was not satisfied with the results which Cukor, a specialist in intimate scenes, especially with women, was getting. Selznick felt that Cukor did not get the "big feel" of Gone With the Wind and worked too slowly.

When Cukor "resigned," Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland charged into Selznick's office and in an emotional, sometimes tearful scene, pleaded with him to keep Cukor. Being smart women as well as capable actresses, they realized that the chances of getting another director with the same peculiar interest in women's roles were very slim. But they were fighting a lost cause.

Selznick called in Clark Gable, showed him a list of possible new directors. On Selznick's list were Robert Z. Leonard, Jack Conway, King Vidor, Victor Fleming. Asked to choose, Gable promptly named his great & good friend Victor Fleming, a big, grey, handsome, nervous, highly efficient Hollywood veteran, who has pulled through such problem pictures as The Crowd Roars, The Great Waltz, The Wizard of Oz, recently directed two of M.G.M.'s greatest money-makers, Captains Courageous, Test Pilot. On Feb. 27, Fleming started the cameras rolling. Conscientious Craftsman Fleming drove his company hard.

Though Clark Gable taught Vivien Leigh to play backgammon, and never won a game from her, they were not the best of friends. Director Fleming and Cinemactress Leigh differed over the interpretation of Scarlett, to which Fleming wanted to restore the "guts" he thought George Cukor had taken out of it. 

On the set quarrels between Fleming and Leigh popped up over trifles, often ended with Leigh in tears, Fleming in rage.

Meantime there was. interminable dissatisfaction with the script. Hours were wasted while it was written on the set. Fleming confessed to a friend in the cast that at one point he thought of driving his car off a cliff he was passing, and finally went to bed for a week while M.G.M. Director Sam Wood (Good-Bye, Mr. Chips) carried on.

Last day of shooting was July 1. 1939. With shooting completed, cutting began. The feet of film (printed from 475,000 feet of film exposed) had to be cut and spliced into a moving picture short enough to exhibit.

In more all-day all-night sessions, Fleming and Selznick worked with cutters, taking out, putting in, putting in, taking out, until they had a picture that ran just under four hours. They took this to Riverside, in the orange country, surprised fans there with a sneak preview. With them was Jock Whitney, who had not seen the film before. When the picture ended, tears were streaming down his face.

The Picture

No great shakes as literature, the novel had been dropped on the floor by most literary critics as soon as it dropped in their laps. They thought its love story a bore, its history sectional, its length pretentious, its writing as drab as a bolt of butternut shoddy. The destruction of the South's civilization in the War between the States, told as the case history of two plantation families, the red-blooded O'Haras and the blue-blooded Wilkeses, had been better told before. The overlapping loves of Scarlett O'Hara for Ashley Wilkes, Rhett Butler for Scarlett O'Hara, could be read in any confession magazine.

But Gone With the Wind was a U. S. Legend. In fact, it was two of them. Legend No. 1 was the only great U. S. war epic-the War between the States-told from the Southern side. Legend No. 2 alistic, American enough to survive Legend No. 1. Like all good legends, these were told without subtlety, subjective shadings, probings or questionings, its characters were 'instantly recognizable types. Scarlett's "I won't think of it now, I'll think of it tomorrow" was a catch liner. Whatever it was not, Gone With the Wind was a first-rate piece of Americana, and Americans in the mass knew what they wanted before the critics had got through telling them they should not want it.

Better than almost anybody who worked with him, Producer David Selznick sensed that the first rule in retelling a legend is exactly the same as retelling a fairy tale to children-no essential part of the story must ever be changed. In the film, none is.

Next was a casting problem. The characters must appear in the movie exactly as they were in the book. They do.

The U. S. cinemillions had already unanimously voted that Clark Gable must play Rhett Butler. Selznick also bowed to them when he cast Olivia de Havilland as sweetish, big-eyed. thrushlike Melanie Hamilton, Leslie Howard as smooth, anemic, intellectual Ashley Wilkes, Laura Hope Crews as futile, flustered foolish Aunt Pittypat. Two of Selznick's minor castings were inspired: a) Thomas Mitchell as old hard-riding Gerald O'Hara, who (after his mind is gone) by sheer power of pantomime dominates the scenes in which he has almost nothing to say or do; 2) colored Cinemactress Hattie McDaniel, who comes from Kansas, had to be taught to speak thick Georgian, turns in the most finished acting job of the picture as Mammy, the sly, leather-lunged, devoted Emily Post of the O'Haras. And Vivien Leigh had not petted and pouted on the screen for five minutes before the fussy Atlanta audience was ready to underwrite Selznick's choice of the little-known English actress to be the Southern belle. Whether she spoke letter-perfect middle high Georgian.

So long as they swore by the book, producers of Gone With the Wind were free to make as great a picture as they could, and the film has almost everything the book has in the way of spectacle, drama, practically endless story and the means to make them bigger and better. The burning of Atlanta, the great "boom" shots of the Confederate wounded lying in the streets and the hospital after the Battle of Atlanta are spectacle enough for any picture, and unequaled.

For almost four hours the drama keeps audiences on the edge of their seats with few let-downs. There are unforgettable climaxes: a) Scarlett shooting the Yankee "deserter" ("deserter" is a concession to Northern protest: in the book he is one of Sherman's raiders); 2) the scene of mass desolation as the quietly weeping people of Atlanta read the casualty lists after Gettysburg. Audiences are jerked out of their seats when the mood of defeat is smashed triumphantly as a band bursts into Dixie. By great cinema craft, it is the first time the whole of Dixie is heard in the picture.
There are few comic concessions, but there is sly humor in Prissy's (Butterfly McQueen) singing of Jes' a Few Mo' Days, Ter Tote de Wee-ry Load. There is sumptuous satire in the sets of the barbaric mansion, the realization of all Scarlett's ideals, in which Rhett and Scarlett enshrine their garish passion. In contrast, sudden lyrical shots lighten the cinemagnificence. Technicolor (using a new process) has never been used with more effective restraint than in Gone With the Wind. Exquisite shot: Gerald O'Hara silhouetted beside Scarlett against the evening sky at Tara while he propounds to her the meaning of the one thing she has left when everything else is wrecked-the red earth of Tara.

Though delighted Georgians clapped, cheered, whistled and wept at the historical sequences, Northerners might not. There had been protests from daughters of G. A. R. veterans. But David Selznick was not worried. The advantage of filming two great legends in one picture was that he had two great pictures-a sure-fire Rebel-rouser for the South, a sure-fire love story for the rest of the country.

After the Hollywood press preview, Producer Selznick stood in the lobby, scanning the faces of the "toughest audience in the world" with as much eagerness as any tyro at his own first play. Most of them were dabbing their eyes. and for those who were not the impact of the picture was too powerful to talk about. Selznick got few comments. Perhaps he was unduly worried about the $5,000,000 the picture has to make before it begins to earn any profits at all. Perhaps he was worrying about something else. Night before, Producer Selznick made a confession that had the ring of truth. Said he of Gone With the Wind: "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."

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