Scarlett O’Hara is in love with drippy Ashley Wilkes, and is devastated when he announces that he plans to marry her cousin Melanie. She pleads with Ashley to marry her instead, but then, on the first day of the Civil War, she meets mercurial Rhett Butler. A man to match her strength of character and romantic desires, Butler changes the course of her life. Despite hunger, and the burning of Atlanta, Scarlett survives the war and its aftermath, but ultimately loses the only man she really loved. (tcm)
Clark Gable … Rhett Butler
Vivien Leigh … Scarlett O’Hara
Leslie Howard … Ashley Wilkes
Olivia de Havilland … Melanie Hamilton
Hattie McDaniel … Mammy
Thomas Mitchell … Gerald O’Hara
Directed by: Victor Fleming
Written by: Sidney Howard
Produced by: David O. Selznick/Selznick International
Distributed by: MGM
Film location: Culver City, California, USA
Premiered: January 7, 1940 (UK) / April 29, 1940 (USA)
The Search for Scarlett
David O. Selznick’s highly publicized search for the perfect girl to portray the infamous Scarlett O’Hara in his 1939 film has become the stuff of Hollywood legend. It couldn’t be just any actress, although the majority of leading Hollywood ladies tested for the part. She had to be as Margaret Mitchell described: striking green eyes, slanted brows, black hair, magnolia white skin, and an arresting face. Surely there was someone who could fit that description, but the hunt for the right girl was not a decision to be made on a whim. With a budget nearing $4 million (backed by Selznick’s father-in-law, Louis B. Mayer of MGM, and Jock Whitney, the film was the costliest to date) he knew whoever they chose had to be perfect. “The public wanted Gable to play Rhett; they were torn about Scarlett,” said Evelyn Keyes, who was cast as Scarlett’s younger sister, Suellen. Even Clark Gable had his qualms about being cast as the scowling, roguish Rhett Butler. He didn’t want the part, thinking he could never live up to the public’s expectations of how Rhett was supposed to act and look. Any discrepancy from the novel, and they would know it, he said. Eventually he gave in when Selznick promised him a $50,000 bonus in his paycheck so he could divorce his current wife, Rhea Langham, and marry blonde bombshell, Carole Lombard. On August 24, 1938, Gable was loaned from MGM. Selznick had his Rhett, but was still looking for his leading lady. The list of actresses that had read for the part was a mile long; everyone who was anyone had been in a frenzy trying to get this, the most coveted role in film history. From Joan Crawford to Lana Turner, big names and unknowns showed up in hopes of walking away with it. Selznick even sent a team to the South to try and find an unknown, but was unsuccessful in this venture.
[DDET (read more about the search for Scarlett)]Thus far, the frontrunner was Paulette Goddard, David Selznick’s neighbor and Charlie Chaplin’s mistress. Perhaps Selznick held back on signing Paulette due to the fact that no one knew if she and Charlie were officially married or not, and he wanted his Scarlett to be a perfect “good girl” without scandal tarnishing the image of his film. This is somewhat contradictory to the situation of the woman eventually signed to the part.
While America was caught in the middle of Gone with the Wind frenzy (the novel having won the Pulitzer prize and book sales having exceeded 300,000 within the first six weeks of publication), there was a 24 year old unknown British beauty with magnolia white skin, dark hair, and blue-green eyes who had her heart set on the role of Scarlett.
Vivien Leigh had become enraptured with Margaret Mitchell’s novel since its release in England in 1937. While making the film 21 Days opposite then lover, Laurence Olivier, a co-star quipped that Larry would make a good Rhett Butler. Vivien, overhearing the statement declared, “Larry won’t play Rhett, but I shall play Scarlett O’Hara. Wait and see.” She was of course dismissed by her colleagues at the time, but as biographer Hugo Vickers said, “When Vivien wanted something, she was extremely determined to get it.” She had her portrait taken by photographer Angus McBean and sent to Hollywood for consideration, but prior to this she hadn’t played in any significant films, and when then director George Cukor viewed Vivien in Fire Over England, he failed to see the spark beneath the Elizabethan costumes.
Still, fate had something miraculous in store for the young ingenue. In 1938, director William Wyler had come to London to try and woo Laurence Olivier to Hollywood with the part of Heathcliff in Samuel Goldwyn’s adaptation of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Larry said he would not do it unless Vivien was cast as Cathy along side him. This, said Wyler, was impossible, as the part had already been promised to fellow Brit, Merle Oberon. He did, however, offer Vivien the part of Isabella, Edgar Linton’s sister in the story. Vivien refused saying she’d play Cathy o she’d play nothing. “I said to her, ‘Look, Vivien, you’re not yet known in America. maybe some day you will be but for a first part, you’ll never get anything better than Isabella’,” explained William Wyler in the 1980’s. “I made this deathless prediction. She sure showed me!”
Larry liked the part he was offered but was reluctant to leave Vivien behind. Eventually, Vivien reasoned with him and he set off for America on her 25th birthday. In the mean time, Vivien took the role of Titania in the West End production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. At the time, both she and famed ballerina, Margot Fonteyn, were playing the same part in different theatres, and they were both bestowed the unofficial title “prettiest girls in London”. It only took a month before Vivien and Larry could no longer bear to be apart. Long letters and phone calls every day were costing too much money, and Larry was miserable without her. Wiring him to tell him that she was on her way, she booked a passage on the Queen Mary and headed for America in December, 1938.
Vivien’s reason for coming to Hollywood was twofold. She desired to be near Larry, and it also presented her with the opportunity to test for the role in GWTW, which had not officially been cast as of yet. It was good luck that Larry’s American agent, Myron Selznick, was David Selznick’s brother. Larry arranged a meeting between he and Vivien, and all three drove over to the Selznick lot where the famous “Burning of Atlanta” scene was being filmed (with stand-ins for Scarlett and Rhett). Legend has it that Myron, tapping David on the shoulder, said, “Hey genius, meet your Scarlett O’Hara.” Whether this was said or not, David was enraptured with Vivien from the first glance. he later wrote that he would never recover from that first look. She had, physically, just what he was looking for in his heroine. The only other question was, could she act?
The first test Vivien gave was for George Cukor, in a dress fresh off the previous actress’ body, and with her natural English accent. “I don’t think she’d ever heard a Southern accent before,” said George Cukor, who would remain a life-long friend of Vivien’s. But he loved the fire she showed when going through the lines. She was then tested opposite Melvyn Douglas, a contender for the role of Ashley Wilkes. The neurotic desperation she brought to the reading of the paddock scene when Scarlett is out in the orchard with Ashley clearly stands out when compared with tests from other actresses such as Lana Turner and Tallulah Bankhead. It is interesting to note that the screen test, under Cukor’s direction is much more intense than the one filmed by Victor Fleming for the final version of the film.
Vivien soon became the front-runner for the role, and even author Margaret Mitchell agreed. She said that she was astounded by all of the different facial expressions Vivien gave at different moments, and that as far as she was concerned, Vivien was their gal. Thus, on Christmas day, 1938, Cukor jokingly informed Vivien, “Well, I guess were stuck with you,” and the unknown British beauty walked away with what would become the most famous female role in cinema history. The tabloids, particularly Hedda Hopper and other gossip columnists, seethed at the idea of a foreigner playing their American heroine, but audiences paid no heed and praised Vivien for her brilliance in the film.
She was only paid 1/4 of Clark Gable’s salary for the film, and signed a seven year contract with Selznick International (both to hers and Larry’s dismay), but Vivien’s performance was worth its weight in gold. Over time she has become synonymous with the character of Scarlett; a perfect example of the actress fitting the part. Had Vivien not been cast, it is safe to say that not only would the film have been vastly different, but it may not have reached the level of pop-culture phenomenon that is still holds today.[/DDET]
New York Times | by Frank Nugent | December 20, 1939
…Miss Leigh’s Scarlett has vindicated the absurd talent quest that indirectly turned her up. She is so perfectly designed for the part by art and nature that any other actress in the role would be inconceivable. Technicolor finds her beautiful, but Sidney Howard, who wrote the script, and Victor Fleming, who directed it, have found in her something more: the very embodiment of the selfish, hoydenish, slant-eyed miss who tackled life with both claws and a creamy complexion, asked no odds of any one or anything—least of all her conscience—and faced at last a defeat which, by her very unconquer-ability, neither she nor we can recognize as final.
Miss Leigh’s Scarlett is the pivot of the picture, as she was of the novel, and it is a column of strength in a film that is part history, part spectacle and all biography. Yet there are performances around her fully as valid, for all their lesser prominence. Olivia de Havilland’s Melanie is a gracious, dignified, tender gem of characterization. Mr. Gable’s Rhett Butler (although there is the fine flavor of the smokehouse in a scene or two) is almost as perfect as the grandstand quarterbacks thought he would be. Leslie Howard’s Ashley Wilkes is anything but a pallid characterization of a pallid character. Best of all, perhaps, next to Miss Leigh, is Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy, who must be personally absolved of responsibility for that most “unfittin'” scene in which she scolds Scarlett from an upstairs window. She played even that one right, however wrong it was.
We haven’t time or space for the others, beyond to wave an approving hand at Butterfly McQueen as Prissy, Thomas Mitchell as Gerald, Ona Munson as Belle Watling, Alicia Rhett as India Wilkes, Rand Brooks as Charles Hamilton, Harry Davenport as Doctor Meade, Carroll Nye as Frank Kennedy. And not so approvingly at Laura Hope Crews’s Aunt Pitty, Oscar Polk’s Pork (bad casting) and Eddie Anderson’s Uncle Peter (oversight). Had we space we’d talk about the tragic scene at the Atlanta terminal, where the wounded are lying, about the dramatic use to which Mr. Fleming has placed his Technicolor—although we still feel that color is hard on the eyes for so long a picture—and about pictures of this length in general. Anyway, “it” has arrived at last, and we cannot get over the shock of not being disappointed; we had almost been looking forward to that.
TIME magazine | December 25, 1939
…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 film ing 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 eager ness 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 be fore, 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.”
New York Film Critics Circle: Vivien Leigh … Best Actress
Academy Awards: Best Picture
Academy Awards: Vivien Leigh … Best Actress
Academy Awards: Hattie McDaniel … Best Supporting Actress
Academy Awards: David O. Selznick … Irving Thalberg Award
Academy Awards: William Cameron Menzies … Honorary award, Set Design
Academy Awards: Lyle Wheeler … Art Direction
Academy Awards: Ernest haller and Ray Rennehan … Color Cinematography
Academy Awards: Victor Fleming … Best Director
Academy Awards: Hal C. Kern and James E. Newcome … Best Editing
Academy Awards: Sydney Howard … Best Screenplay