One-Man Show

gone_with_wind

Seventy-five years ago today, the film version of Gone with the Wind premiered in Atlanta. It remains one of the most beloved classics in American cinema and holds the number six spot on the American Film Institute (AFI) list of 100 Greatest American Films. Cast, crew and history concur that the daunting task of transforming book-to-film would have been impossible without the passion and drive of one man, producer David O. Selznick. Flying in the face of naysayers insisting costume epics were passé and that civil war movies always lost money, Selznick Studios paid $50,000 for the screen rights to Margaret Mitchell’s phenomenally successful bestseller only a month after publication. The book, not incidentally, was first entitled Tomorrow Is Another Day and had a heroine named Pansy O’Hara. Fortunately, Mitchell changed both.

It was King Kong that got burned, not Atlanta.

It was King Kong that got burned, not Atlanta.

To honor GWTW‘s diamond jubilee, I’m citing a few of my favorites stories about the filming. Some are famous, others less so. Casting Rhett Butler was a no-brainer because the public wouldn’t accept anyone other than Clark Gable. Finding his Scarlett O’Hara was an altogether different matter, with every actress in America and over a thousand amateurs going after the role of a lifetime. Told there was a great part for her, Bette Davis, Queen of the Warner Brothers lot, snarled, “I’ll bet it’s a pip!” and flew off to England. (She later said Scarlett was the role she most regretted losing.) The much-publicized search for the right actress became a conversational topic equal to Edward VIII’s abdication, Adolf Hitler’s rise, and the Spanish Civil War. Still empty-handed after two years, Selznick was ordered by studio head Jock Whitney to start shooting without his star. He began the monumental undertaking by torching the gigantic sets for King Kong to clear the lot for the even bigger sets for GWTW, and cleverly transformed footage of the fire into the burning of Atlanta. As Selznick (and the Los Angeles Fire Department) monitored the towering flames, his talent scout brother Myron showed up with an English beauty in tow and, according to film lore, said, “Meet your Scarlett O’Hara.” She was, of course, Vivien Leigh. By the way, the famous scene used male stunt doubles for Rhett and Scarlett and depicted fires set by Confederate forces to keep ammunition stores and supplies from falling into Yankee hands. The real burning of Atlanta came after Union General Sherman occupied the city weeks later. Despite being the most famous “civil war film,” there’s not a single battle scene in GWTW.

Every actress in America wanted to play Scarlett O’Hara, but a Brit got the part.

Selznick was a notorious stickler for detail and kept historians on the payroll to ensure costumes, manners, exteriors and interiors, and Southern accents were authentic. (Mitchell steadfastly refused to have anything to do with the production, insisting she knew nothing about film-making.) He was especially concerned with clothes and spent lavishly. Ann Rutherford, who played Scarlett’s youngest sister Careen, was thrilled with her outfit but told Selznick no one would know about the richly embroidered pantalettes under her skirts. Selznick gave her an avuncular smile and said, “But you’ll know, my dear.” Contrary to popular belief, nothing was filmed in the South except the Mississippi riverboat used for Rhett and Scarlett’s honeymoon. Even the famous “red clay of Tara” was created by scattering imported dirt on Hollywood back lots. The one area where Selznick skewed was recreating Tara and Twelve Oaks plantations. Mitchell’s book described Tara as “an ugly, sprawling habitation built with no architectural plan and growing as the need for growth arose.” Disappointed that Tara wasn’t the gracious, pillared Greek Revival home associated with the romantic Old South, Selznick told art director William Menzies to forget facts and give him columns. Both Mitchell and Georgia historians were appalled, but the sets for Twelve Oaks, Ashley Wilkes’s home, with its elegant Corinthian pillars, sweeping grand staircases and multiple chandeliers, left them apoplectic. Such grandeur existed elsewhere in Dixie, but not in mid-nineteenth century, upcountry Georgia.

Selznick's imagination went into overdrive when it came to Tara, the O'Hara plantation in Georgia.

Selznick’s imagination went into overdrive when it came to Tara, the O’Hara plantation in Georgia.

Most everyone who’s seen GWTW has a favorite scene or line. Who can forget Scarlett saying, “Fiddle-dee-dee!” or “Tomorrow is another day.” or “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!”? At number one on AFI’s list of Top 100 Film Quotes is Rhett’s immortal sign-off to a tearful Scarlett: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Today, it’s hard to believe the machinations Selznick employed to get the forbidden “d-word” onto the silver screen. It took over three years, three directors and literally thousands of Selznick’s trademark memos to shoot what many considered an un-filmable tome. Instantly popular at home and abroad, GWTW swept an unprecedented ten Oscars including Best Film, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American so honored. Accused of being an Uncle Tom, McDaniel replied that she would “rather play a maid for $700 a week than be one for seven dollars a week.” GWTW holds the record for most profitable film ever made, earning well over $3 billion after adjustments for inflation. After the Atlanta and New York premieres proved the film an unquestioned critical and commercial smash, everyone involved sighed with relief. To celebrate the long-awaited moment, Whitney sent Selznick a gold watch with the inscription, “David. Xmas 1939. Praise de Lawd. Jock.”

Neither Miss McDaniel nor Mammy were to be trifled with.

Neither Miss McDaniel nor Mammy were to be trifled with.

 Happy birthday, GWTW!

3 Comments

  1. Liz
    Dec 16, 2014

    Well, Michael, just when I think you can’t do any better, you prove me wrong. This is fantastic! Thanks for sharing all these stories and great inside info on the making of GWTW. They just don’t make ’em like this anymore…
    XOXO

  2. Linda
    Dec 20, 2014

    Another good one, Michael. I always look forward to seeing your posts.

  3. Ciji Ware
    Feb 26, 2015

    I guess I missed this post when we were traveling in December…but this one beats all! You reminded me of some of the stories I’d heard about this amazing movie and offered ones I knew nothing about–and this is one of my all-time favorite films! GWTW was one of the first historical novels I ever read and, along with those of Daphne du Maurier, accounts for my own decision to become a novelist. Thanks so much for a terrific blog post–even if I’m a little late to the party!

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