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Vivien Leigh wins most coveted role in screen history, Scarlett O'Hara

By Kirk Crivello

Hollywood Studio Magazine 

In town full of superstitions, David 0. Selznick wasn't superstitious. He ended his long search for Scarlett O'Hara on a Friday, the 13th.
According to Margaret Mitchell, who created the character, Scarlett, she was "not beautiful," but had "an arresting face." A face that suggested sweetness, only to be betrayed by pale green eyes that were turbulent, lusty with life." Her mother was French, her father Irish. Her dark hair had glints of auburn. Her chin was pointed, and her jaw was square. She was small, but physically well-matured. She had a 17-inch waist. Vivien Leigh was beautiful, but otherwise she fit the description-even to the "turbulent" eyes and the 17-inch waist. Scarlett was 16 at the beginning of "Gone With The Wind," barely 21 at its close. But, though she was a girl in years, she was a woman emotionally. No teen-age actress could possibly portray her. She wouldn't have either the emotional or the dramatic background. At 25, Vivien was considerably younger than most of the other actresses considered.

There was a good deal of Scarlett in Vivien Leigh besides the "arresting face" and devilish eyes. She was emotional, willful, unpredictable. She had the same fierce, fateful intention of living her own life.

Vivien was born in a quiet, out-of-the-way place. among the hills-Darjeeling, India. A resort town in the foothills of the Himalayas. Her parents had gone there to escape the heavy November heat of the lowlands around Calcutta, where her father was then a stock-broker. The event took place November 5, 1913.

She was born Vivien Mary Hartley, the daughter of Ernest Richard and Gladys Robinson Hartley. With Scarlett, it was her father who was Irish, her mother French. With Vivien, the strains were reversed. Scarlett's nurse was a black mammy, Vivien's nurse was, also dark-skinned-a hindu amah. Except for her amah, she remembered very little of India. She was 5 when her mother took her to England to begin school. The first school was the Sacred Heart Convent in London. There at the same time was Maureen O'Sullivan. And there, at the age of 8, they both did their first bit of acting in a convent production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

At 14, she was sent to a French convent in Italy. When she knew enough French, she was then sent for a year, to Mile. Manileve's School for Young Ladies in Paris. There, her acting ambitions crystallized. Her favorite teacher of dramatics was an actress at the Comedie Francaise. Vivien made the discovery that she had an aptitude for dramatics.

After the year in Paris, she went to a Bavarian finishing school. By the time she escaped via graduation her parents gave permission to enter the Academy of Dramatic Art of London. At 19, she became Mrs. Leigh Holman, wife of a prominent young London barrister. In 1934, her only child, Suzanne was born. But, with Scarlett-like willfulness, she wasn't going to let either marriage or motherhood keep her from being what she had determined to be.

Contrary to popular impression, she didn't start on the stage. Her roles in "Things Are Looking Up," The Village Squire," "Gentleman's Agreement" and "Look up and Laugh" led, in turn, to a stage offer of a role in "The Green Sash " which acclaimed her a "find." She had already intrigued American filmgoers in "A Yank at Oxford," in which her onetime schoolmate, Maureen O'Sullivan won Robert Taylor's heart.

Early in her self-expression quest, Vivien's determination to have a career of her own led to the break-up of her marriage and a romantic entanglement with Laurence Oliver.

She was about to start "The Thief of Bagdad" when on a whim she arrived in Hollywood on December 6 to visit Olivier, filming "Wuthering Heights." Press photographers who recorded her incoming smile also recorded that she was here "to spend the holidays with Mrs. Harry B. Ham of Beverly Hills and pay her first visit to the film capital." They added that she denied any interest in a Hollywood career. No one thought of asking her if she was a candidate for Scarlett, as countless other new arrivals had been asked. For one thing, she was English, not American.

Yet, just 15 days later, Louella Parsons, Hollywood columnist, broke the incredible news that Vivien Leigh was also in the race.

Her entry was purely accidental. A quirk of fate. She met Myron Selznick, David's agent brother, and he asked her if she would like to see the night shots of the burning of Atlanta, the first scenes to be filmed for GWTW. David Selznick would be there, and Myron wanted her to meet him. She might do a picture for Selznick sometime. She went. She met Selznick in the bright glow of a burning set. He stared at the girl, practically goggle-eyed. He couldn't see her by different light fast enough. And when he did see her by ordinary light, he said, "I want you to make some tests as Scarlett-very secretly."

He had to be secretive. If she didn't turn out to be as much like Scarlett as she looked, why antagonize the local talent by letting anyone know that he had at the last minute, considered an English girl? The tests had to be not only super-secret. They had to be super-exhaustive. He couldn't afford even to consider an English girl for the part, unless, in a whole series of tests, she was more like Scarlett than anyone else had been.

And so the rest is movie history. When "Gone With The Wind" opened, Vivien Leigh was critically acclaimed as an instant popular success, named by the Academy as best actress in 1939. It is most incredible, in view of the anticipation that preceded her selection, that she didn't disappoint the public, but her Scarlett O'Hara remains one of the best-liked pieces of work committed to film.

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