Scarlett O’Hara is 16-years-old when the story opens. I was 16 years old when I first read Margaret Mitchell’s saga Gone With the Wind. And I saw the movie for the second time when it was re-released in 1968–9 to commemorate its 30th anniversary.
The first time, my mother had taken me with her when I was 4-years-old. All I remember is falling asleep. But the fact that this movie differed from other movies was not lost on me. It was long; it had an intermission; it was in Technicolor; it had soaring music and the larger than life characters reached beyond the screen to captivate viewers.
Back when great films only reappeared in limited release in select theaters, I saw the movie GWTW for a second time during my high school senior year, inside a lavish BIG-screen theater at Northpark, in Dallas, TX. Instead of falling asleep, I left the theater in tears.
I actually cared: Did she get Rhett back? Or is land the only thing that matters?
Like millions before me and since, readers and watchers wonder about the rest of the story. Good stories extend beyond the pages of books and movies, living on in our collective imagination.
Instead of finishing the story though, for me a new chapter was written when I read about the restoration of some of the costumes and the planned GWTW exhibit At the Harry Ransom Center on the campus of the University of Texas, September 5, 2014. As soon as tickets became available, I looked forward to this trip to Austin as if waiting to unwrap a Christmas present. My husband and I joined a few hundred invited guests to a preview event to commemorate 75 years since the release of the movie, Gone With the Wind.
Items selected from David O. Selznick’s private collection, including the green curtain dress, display in chronological order the saga of making this epic film.
Today, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) offers regular showings on television, and copies of restored versions on VHS and DVD’s make the film readily available. Still, for me, the thrill of watching, and talking about, GWTW has not gone away.
“My own true love”
This past week, I gave a program on “The Making of Gone With the Wind” based on the Ransom Center exhibit. Information from several books about the movie and about Margaret Mitchell’s novel and some notes from DVD extras that were included in the 70th Anniversary edition of the film supplement what I saw at the Austin exhibit.
Seizing this opportunity, I also paid tribute to the parody, “Went With the Wind,” performed on the Carol Burnett Show in 1976 by wearing my own green curtain dress. Watch the YouTube video of the other Carol, not me.
How can a 75-year-old movie still captivate audiences?
David Selznick himself added the O to his name. A flourish, he liked the way the O made his name sound. O could represent the producer’s magnificent obsession to make a movie masterpiece. But along the way, DOS (how Selznick often signed telegrams and memos) endured setbacks, criticism and jealousy as his enterprise earned the name “Selznick’s Folly.”
Days after the novel’s release in June, 34-year-old David O. Selznick purchased the movie rights for $50,000. Yet more than 2 years would pass before filming began.
The original Macmillan published release of Gone With the Wind sold more than 176,000 copies, continuing to sell “at a furious rate,” 1.7 million copies in a year, selling 50,000 copies in one day. Margaret Mitchell had hoped that the book would sell 5,000 copies “so they won’t lose money.”
In 1937, Margaret Mitchell won the Pulitzer for her novel, further compounding Selznick’s anxiety and a sense of urgency that his film version capitalize on the novel’s success. He had more than a few days yet to tote the weary load of this monumental task.
|A first edition of Margaret Mitchell’s
A surprising best-seller
To maintain public interest and secure free publicity for the film, Selznick’s studio embarked on a nationwide search for the woman to play Scarlett O’Hara, a search that played out in newspapers across the country. For possibly the most coveted film role in history, stars and wanna-be-stars auditioned, wrote letters and launched campaigns to attract attention. In all, Selznick conducted 1,600 screen tests before selecting his Scarlett.
Vivien Leigh was there. On the back-lot of the old RKO studio, known by then as Selznick International Pictures, December 10, 1938, the first scene filmed showed the burning of Atlanta.
|Production Designer William Cameron Menzies’ designs for the burning of Atlanta|
In a dramatic scene that recreates Sherman’s army’s march through the South, Selznick captured on film the inferno that signaled all but the official end of America’s Civil War. No re-takes for this spectacular, stunt-filled scene.
Delapidated backlot sets burned as 7 Technicolor cameras rolled, making way for the 90 sets that would be built for GWTW, using more than a million feet of lumber. A virtual fireworks display with Los Angeles area fire departments standing by, filming had begun.
David O. had lit the match.
Rather than alert news outlets, calls from residents to police and fire departments brought media attention as people reported seeing an enormous blaze light the night sky.
After filming that pivotal scene, DOS had burned his first bridge. No turning back. Now he had to choose his Scarlett.
Another publicity stunt, concocted for the press, Vivien Leigh with her newly signed agent, Myron Selznick––David’s brother––and Lawrence Olivier, whom Leigh would later marry, arrived just in time to watch sets from King Kong and Garden of Allah collapse.
Vivien Leigh’s face that evening––a warm glow cast from the flames that burned––may have given her the distinct advantage she needed to win the role of Scarlett. But contrary to the myth that this night was the first time Selznick had laid eyes on her, DOS had already met Miss Leigh, hidden her at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and planned her dramatic arrival to stage his so-called discovery of new-to-America talent.
The search for Scarlett narrowed to 4 actresses: Vivien Leigh, Paulette Goddard, Joan Bennett, and Jean Arthur, who each made screen tests of the same 3 scenes. Goddard who had been favored early on to play Scarlett lost to the latecomer, British actress Vivien Leigh.
As a senior in high school, I lifted a scene from GWTW and competed in a UIL Speech Tournament at Richardson high school in Dallas. During the award ceremony when the results of all areas of the competition were announced, I thought I would faint before making it to the stage to accept my 1st place trophy.
For DI, a person must play 2 characters and I portrayed Mammy and Scarlett in the scene where Mammy helps Scarlett dress for the barbecue at Twelve Oaks. Mammy insists Scarlett eat something before she leaves the house.
“Ef you doan car ‘bout how folks talks ‘bout dis fambly, Ah does. Ah ain’ gwine stand by an’ have eve’body at de pahty sayin’ how you ain’ fotched up right. Ah has tole you an’ tole you dat you kin allus tell a lady by dat she eat lak a bird. An’ Ah ain’ aimein’ ter have you go ter Mist’ Wilkes’ am’ eat lak a fe’el han’ an gobble lak a hawg.”
When I watched the DVD extra, “The Making of a Legend,” I was surprised to see a screen test of Paulette Goddard saying both parts, just as I had done.
Friday, January 13, 1939, Selznick announced his selection of Vivien Leigh, along with the rest of his cast, Clark Gable as Rhett, Olivia de Havilland as Melanie and Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes. Official filming began January 26,1939.
Noting dates emphasizes the speed of production for what in hindsight became a miraculous film achievement.
Script? What Script?
Screenwriter Sidney Howard had managed to distill Margaret Mitchell’s story to a 6-hour script. Had the novel been filmed as it was written, it would make a movie 168 hours long. That translates to a week of 24/7 viewing time.
|Colored pages reflect script changes|
Multiple screenwriters, 2 Directors, daily script revisions, as well as scenes filmed out of sequence, produced an unwieldy mess. Chaos and fatigue beset nearly everyone involved with filming.
Selznick oversaw everything from production design, to costumes, to issues of censorship and racial controversy, to hovering over director George Cukor who was fired (or did he resign?) after 2 weeks, and then second-guessing replacement director Victor Fleming. Fleming, who received screen credit for direction, also directed The Wizard of Oz that same year.
How did one man, DOS, keep up with so many moving parts?
The higgledy-piggledy filming of the movie would eventually consume 449,512 feet of film––160,00 feet of film printed–– and 20,300 feet of film in the final film with a running time of nearly 4 hours.
“Accurate continuity didn’t exist except in [Selznick’s] head,” remarked someone close to filming and post-production. David O. Selznick spent 4 intense months editing, “a demented process,” this same source said, yet Selznick’s editing ability shone in the finished film.
A “No Press preview” in Riverside, CA, a 2-hour drive from Hollywood, stunned the audience who thought they had come to the Fox Theater to see the movie Beau Geste.
When told this audience could not leave once the movie began, their thunderous applause erupted as curtains opened to a framed still:
“David O. Selznick’s Gone With the Wind.”
The movie had no titles or its own yet-to-be written by Max Steiner score for the soundtrack (The Prisoner of Zenda soundtrack played instead), yet this one and only preview audience saw the long-awaited movie Selznick managed to film in 125 days, and complete in time for the 1939 Academy Awards.
End of part 1
In part 2, read about Clark Gable and the line that could have caused the end of the movie to fizzle.
[Note: Photography at the exhibit was permitted and the photos posted here were taken with my Canon G15 camera, without flash.]