Released back in 1939, the epic romance, Gone with the Wind, captured the imaginations and hearts of viewers all over the world. After its first premiere, the movie received high accolades and is still enjoyed by many some 80 years later. One of the longest films made at up to that point, it’s also considered one of the greatest of all time, but all critics were happy with it. The movie sparked some debates due to its portrayal of racial stereotypes. From the writing to the directing to the premiere itself, we look at all the biggest facts behind one of the most iconic movies ever for the past 80 years.
Author Opted Out
Author of the novel that inspired the movie, Margaret Mitchell, was reluctant to get involved in the making of the film and when she was asked which actor she envisaged playing the part of Rhett Butler, jokingly suggested Groucho Marx.
Although producer David O. Selznick, did ask for her input during the making of the film, the input she gave was disregarded so she zipped her lips and stayed out of it. Apparently, Selznick paid Mitchell $50,000 for the rights to the movie which was a record at the time.
Blood, Sweat and Tears
Restructuring Mitchell’s novel for the screen proved quite a challenge. The first draft of the screenplay was put together by screenwriter Sidney Howard, along with director Victor Fleming and producer David O. Selznick and a team of writers.
In the end, three men locked themselves in a room with writer Ben Hecht and stayed there, depriving themselves of food, until it was finally ready. Although their hard work paid off, it took its toll on them and Fleming experienced an unpleasant setback when a blood vessel burst in his eye.
The Write Way
The story of how the Gone with the Wind script finally came to be inspired by a comedy called Moonlight and Magnolias. Inspired by Ben Hecht’s recollections about the arduous days locked in the office with his fellow creators and written by Ron Hutchinson, the play reveals the tensions and insults that flew as Selznick remained immovably particular about his final vision.
Some of the highlights include the collaborators acting out sections of the original novel for Hecht, who had yet to read the book at the time of writing.
Wizard in the Wind
While director Victor Fleming managed pull off both the epic Gone with the Wind and the musical fantasy Wizard of Oz, in the same year, it wasn’t so easy for actress Judy Garland. The absolute belle of Hollywood at the time, everyone wanted a piece of her and Selznick was no exception.
He had visualized Hepburn playing the part of Scarlett’s sister, Careen, but the actress was already involved in the production of The Wizard of Oz so was unavailable. Instead, the part went to Ann Rutherford.
A Scarlett Woman
While Selznick knew exactly who he wanted for the part of Careen, he was uncertain about the perfect actress for the lead role. As a means of promoting the movie, Selznick held open auditions for the part of Scarlett O’Hara.
Around 1,400 women ended up auditioning and the final decision wasn’t even made when the cameras started rolling. Aside from Vivien Leigh, Paulette Goddard looked like a strong potential option for the part of the Southern Belle, along with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Keep reading for more revelations.
Scene but Not Heard
Selznick’s decision to search the South for the perfect Scarlett cost him a lot of time and it was only after 18 months of searching that he finally found his leading lady. Initially looking for a new talent who he could introduce to Hollywood, in the end, he opted with a lesser known but experienced actress.
The filming had already started by the time Vivien Leigh signed up, but as the first scene was the famous “Burning of Atlanta”, the schedule could carry on without a leading lady in place.
Film on Fire
While Vivien Leigh isn’t in the infamous scene when the house burns down, her stunt double is just about visible through the flames. Although the movie now seems decidedly simplistic, at the time, it was using cutting-edge cinematography to capture the effects of the fire.
The scene cost over $25,000 to make and many old sets were burnt down in the process, including King Kong’s Great Wall set. The fire burnt so ferociously that concerned neighbors were worried the entire studio would be ravaged by the flames.
While Selznick had envisaged a true Southern belle taking on the lead role, Vivien Leigh had a rather different approach and gave her first read through with an English accent. This was obviously unacceptable and completely out of character but natural for the British-born actress.
Selznick was quick to inform Leigh that she needed to perfect the Southern American accent if she wanted to keep the role. According to film historian Rudy Behlmer, Selznick made the right decision, saying, “she brilliantly captures all of the different aspects of Scarlett’s personality”.
Chorus of Disapproval
Even before the furor about the racial stereotyping in both the book and the movie, the casting of an English actress in the leading role caused a considerable uproar, especially amongst The United Daughters of the Confederacy.
As the novel had created a character who, for many, personified Southern romanticism, some felt there was no way Vivien Leigh could do justice to the role, given her lack of “inborn instincts of the South” as one reader wrote to the Los Angeles Times. It seems she pulled it off in the end.
Katherine of Arrogance
The part of Scarlett O’Hara was such that it gained a lot of attention from the top Hollywood actresses of the era, most notably Katherine Hepburn. According to legend, Hepburn felt she would be perfect for the part, but Selznick felt differently, reportedly telling her she didn’t have enough sex appeal, saying, “I can’t see Rhett Butler chasing you for twelve years”.
Hepburn’s poor relationship with the media earned her the nickname, Katherine of Arrogance but her reputation improved after she appeared onstage in The Philadelphia Story. Wait, there’s more
A Clark or a Butler?
Although there were a lot fewer candidates for the part of Rhett Butler, it still wasn’t straightforward. Selznick wanted Clark Gable from the start, but he was under an exclusive contract to MGM, making it very expensive to procure his services. Furthermore, Gable wasn’t keen to take on the role.
He was concerned about the popularity of Mitchell’s novel, saying that those who had read it already, “… had a preconceived idea of the kind of Rhett Butler they were going to see, and suppose I came up empty?”
An Uncooperative Cooper
Despite Gable being Selznick’s first choice, Gary Cooper has always maintained that he was also offered the role. Maybe because he knew he was already playing second fiddle to Gable, Cooper turned the role down and was pretty scathing about the movie, saying, “Gone with the Wind is going to be the biggest flop in Hollywood history.
I’m glad it’ll be Clark Gable who’s falling flat on his nose, not me.” Years later, Cooper retracted his previous statement, saying, “It was one of the best roles ever offered in Hollywood…”.
Selznick Sells Out
For Clark Gable, the only way he could take on the role of Rhett Butler was by re-negotiating his contract with MGM. Notorious for never lending the star out, Selznick, who was producing the film through his own company, Selznick International Pictures, had to sell out a fortune for Gable’s time.
Not only did the actor secure a contract that saw him earning $7,000 a week, Selznick also had to agree to hand over half the movie’s profits to their rival, MGM. Probably not Selznick’s happiest memory of the movie.
The actor who took on the role of one of Scarlett’s love interests, Ashley Wilkes, was reluctant to accept the part. Leslie Howard didn’t see himself as being “beautiful or young enough for Ashley” but relented after Selznick promised him the position of associate producer on his upcoming movie, Intermezzo: A Love Story.
Nevertheless, Howard maintained that he hated his Gone with the Wind character, saying, “it makes me sick being fixed up to look attractive”. Despite his comments, it seems Howard was quite a ladies’ man in his time.
Dance With the Double
Despite her exceptional acting abilities, poise and beauty, there was one thing that Vivien Leigh just couldn’t do and that was dance! While the director obviously had to include Leigh in the close-ups, all the other dancing scenes feature stunt double, Sally De Marco, rather than the leading lady herself.
In addition to being accomplished dancer, De Marco was also an established actress, having starred in the 1935 musical romance, In Caliente so apparently Leigh wasn’t too offended to have her take her place in Rhett’s arms. More to come.
A Breath of Wind
There were probably a couple of other scenes that Leigh wished De Marco could have taken her place for, and those were the kissing scenes. While it looked great on screen, apparently Clark Gable had a gum infection that meant he wore dentures.
Unfortunately, these two things combined resulted in some serious halitosis which, Leigh later revealed meant, “Kissing Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind was not that exciting. His dentures smelled something awful”. Keep clicking for the next big revelation.
Cry Me a River
A typically old-school kind of guy, Gable was very reluctant to cry on camera was really not in to crying for the camera. The actor was so adamant about the fact that he wouldn’t cry when Scarlett had her miscarriage that he almost quit the film altogether.
In the end, costar Olivia de Havilland managed to persuade him to stay and the directors agreed to shoot two alternative scenes, one with tears and one without. Unsurprisingly, they went for the tearful one in the end.
Three’s A Crowd
In addition to the problems with the performers, things didn’t go so smoothly for the directors either. The original director, George Cukor was fired after just 18 days despite some of the cast, namely Leigh and de Havilland, pleading with Selznick to keep him on, although rumors suggest that Clark Gable was only too happy to see him go.
Victor Fleming came in as the replacement, much to Leigh’s irritation but, after ill-health prevented him from continuing, Sam Wood took over while Fleming recovered from a mental breakdown.
Although de Havilland admitted she missed Cukor onset, Leigh reacted much more strongly, relentlessly rereading the novel and insisting on watching her screen test over again to see how Cukor would have handled each scene. Not only did Leigh continue to consult with Cukor on the film, she also admits, “I was an awful bitch on the set”.
Although Cukor and producer Selznick remained friends, the director never really forgave him for his behavior on set, saying, ” Some producers want to direct, believing they can do it better, but they don’t…”.
Despite the difficult negotiations with MGM over Clark Gable’s casting in the lead role, it was actually Selznick’s father-in-law, Louis B. Mayer, the co-founder of MGM, who helped finance Gone with the Wind. While most movies being filmed at the time coast little over $1m, Selznick found himself scratching around for financiers to fund the staggering $3.5m budget.
MGM put up $1.2m while Selznick’s partner, John “Jock” Whitney, also threw in a cool million. Fortunately, it turned into one of the biggest box office hits in history.
Box Office Bonanza
Although Gone with the Wind wasn’t the most expensive movie made at the time, with the 1930 action movie, Hell’s Angels, costing nearly $4m to produce, it certainly wasn’t too far behind. However, while Hell’s Angels failed to recoup the amount forked out for its production, Gone with the Wind was a box office hit, earning those involved a pleasant $32m.
Even now, the epic film tops the list of highest grossing movies ever, knocking Star Wars into second place with its total gross of $3.44 bn.
Some three months prior to its official debut on 15th December 1939 in Atlanta, Selznick presented his incomplete epic to a movie theater owner, telling him to show it when the current film finished playing.
Selznick had the theater staff lock all the doors so none of the audience could leave or reveal anything about the movie until the reel stopped running. Selznick sat and watched their reactions and the majority loved it and told him to leave it at its current run time of three and a half hours.
Leslie Loses Out
Not only was Leslie Howard unable to attend the premiere of Gone with the Wind, he was also forced to give up his share of the box office profits. This unfortunate turn of events occurred when Leslie Howard, who had been living in America at the time, decided to return to his home country and offer his services to the British government as the Second World War broke out.
At the time, British citizens couldn’t return home if they had foreign interests. Sadly, Howard was killed four years later.
During the filming of Gone with the Wind, conflicts over racial segregation had already arisen, with Clark Gable threatening to leave the set unless the toilets were desegregated, and all cast members treated equally. But even Gable couldn’t change the laws in Atlanta to allow Harriet McDaniel, who played Mammy, or Butterfly McQueen, who played Prissy, attend the premiere.
Although Selznick fought for their rights, in the end, he had to concede and leave two of his stars behind. McDaniel went on to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
Once again, Gable was outraged and threatened to boycott the premiere. A close friend of McDaniel, Gable couldn’t imagine attending without all the stars present. According to his co-star, Olivia De Havilland, “In Georgia those days, blacks and whites were supposed to sit in separate sections; so, Hattie decided not to attend. When Clark heard this, he was annoyed.
He refused to go. Finally, Hattie convinced him to be there”. Other reports indicate that, as a whites-only cinema, the Grand, where the movie premiered, had no facilities for “black ‘guests”.
Protests and Politics
In the novel, Margaret Mitchell depicted many of the African-American characters as being content with their life of slavery, something that jarred with many people and especially members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. While Selznick was keen to remain loyal to Mitchell’s writing, he also stated that “I, for one, have no desire to produce any anti-Negro film”.
In the end, certain scenes were changed and dialogue omitted, particularly the use of the word, “nigger”, but that didn’t stop the protests. But wait, there’s more.
The Power of Speech
Although Clark Gable’s delivery of the line, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” has become one of the most famous moments in cinematic history, it nearly didn’t happen. Various alternative lines that omitted the word ‘damn’ were tried and tested, including “… my indifference is boundless”.
In the end, Selznick decided to bite the bullet, but drew the line at using the word, “miscarriage”, replacing it with the phrase, “Maybe you’ll have an accident”. Apparently, the controversy over such language just didn’t make it worth the fight.
Damn and Blast
Despite giving in over the miscarriage issue, Selznick stood firm on the use of the word ‘damn’, and, in the end, the censors relented. The Hays Office had insisted on the softening of the story’s racist overtones and violence but Selznick argued the censors should allow the use of a “dramatic word in its rightfully dramatic place”.
The censors agreed to give the movie special dispensation to use the word and, in retrospect, it was worth it as the line has since become one of the most iconic ever delivered.
In the opening scene of the movie, Scarlett escaped the fire on an old horse named Woebegone. The horse was meant to be elderly, malnourished and on the brink of death but, thankfully, the equine performer chosen for the role was in very good health which made it tricky for the director.
In the end, the makeup department came to the rescue and painted shadows onto the animal’s ribcage to give the impression of malnutrition. The same animal went on to star as Silver in the movie, The Lone Ranger.
Sums at Sunset
One of the most unforgettable scenes from Gone with the Wind is when Scarlett and her father stand together watching the sunset over the mountains. At the time, few special effects were available to the movie industry, so the crew turned to the math whizzes at UCLA to work out a solution to combine the images of the actors with the paintings providing the backdrop.
In the end, they worked it out using calculus and the shot came together in technicolor glory. More surprises to come.
Bodies of War
As the Yankee army drew ever closer to Atlanta, so increasing numbers of dead and injured Confederate soldiers flood into the area. Initially, Selznick had planned to employ around 2,500 extras to create the scene.
Unfortunately, not enough extras were available so, in the end, the producer had to settle with 1,500 real people and substitute the rest with dummies. If only people had known, then that they would have been performing in one of the most famous movies ever made – even if was only as a dead body!
Technicolor was the second major color process introduced to the art the of movie-making and caught on quickly, with its over-saturated hues proving perfect for musicals and costume pictures. Alongside another Selznick movie, The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind was one of the first films produced in Technicolor.
The wartime epic also won an Academy Award for Best Picture, making it the first color picture in history to receive the accolade. Including that award, the movie received a total of eight Oscars, making movie history.
Clark Gable was something of a practical joker and he simply couldn’t resist playing a few tricks during the filming of Gone with the Wind. One of the targets of his pranks was his friend Hattie McDaniel.
In one scene, where Mammy assists with the birth of Bonnie, Rhett Butler is seen pouring her a cup of tea. However, unbeknownst to McDaniel, he swapped the tea for alcohol, resulting in McDaniel spluttering and coughing and spitting out the offensive liquor. Stay tuned for more revelations
Hitchcock Goes Unheeded
Selznick was humble enough to ask the advice of others while producing his epic film. Not only did he confer with the novel’s author, he also sought the advice of producer, Alfred Hitchcock.
Although Hitchcock gave him intricate instructions including the specific shots and camera angles he should use, Selznick disregarded them all, sticking to his own vision of how the end product would look. Although the two men collaborated on later movies, it’s clear that Selznick owned Gone with the Wind and wanted his own imprint on it.
Although Leigh wasn’t married to her lover, Laurence Olivier, the couple lived together openly together. Selznick was concerned that their situation might prove scandalous and potentially damage movie’s success.
As a result, Olivier moved to New York, leaving Leigh alone in a rented house in Beverley Hills. Leigh hated the situation and missed Olivier desperately so rushed to finish the filming, often asking the director to shoot just one more scene each day. The actress was highly emotional as a result and her temperamental mood swings made filming more difficult.
In Mitchell’s novel, a major aspect of Scarlett O’Hara’s appearance is her striking green eyes. Unfortunately, Vivien Leigh had blue eyes and colored contact lenses had yet to be invented. Instead, the wardrobe department dressed her in green and special lighting effects were used when her face was in close up to create a green tinge to her eyes.
Nevertheless, Selznick recalled that when viewing the rushes of the film, Leigh’s eyes looked “violet, gray, blue, tan, and nearly every other color in the spectrum”.
After Selznick had negotiated his expensive deal to secure Clark Gable in the role of his leading man, his budget took a serious hit. With Leigh being less well known and, let’s face it, a mere woman, he could afford to offer her a lot less.
As was typical in those days, gender inequality was clearly evident in how much the performers were paid, with Gable earning over $125,000 for his 70-odd days of work and Leigh receiving just $25,000 for her 125 days of hard work, sweat and tears.
It is now nearly 80 years since the epic movie was filmed so it’s unsurprising that most of the cast have now passed on. The cast member still alive is the Hollywood legend, Olivia De Havilland, who was so instrumental in helping Gable overcome his reticence about crying on camera.
The actress recalled saying to him, “Tears denote strength of character, not weakness. Crying makes you intensely human”. The Oscar-winning actress is 101 this year and still going strong, having said, “I would prefer to live forever in perfect health”.
This is probably the best-kept secrets of all! While making this unforgettable movie, Clark Gable took a brief two-day break from the set. Although very few people knew this at the time, over those two days, he eloped with his lover and fellow actress Carole Lombard, having divorced his former wife, Ria Franklin Prentiss Lucas Langham.
After marrying in a secret ceremony, the couple celebrated with coffee and sandwiches in Gable’s car. Hardly the kind of wedding you’d expect from two of the greatest movie stars of the time.
The Sound of Music
1939 was a busy year for the composer, Max Steiner. At the peak of his career, Steiner was in great demand and, over the course of the year, composed the music for no less than 13 different movies, including Gone with the Wind.
A strict three-month deadline saw Steiner working for 20 hours straight, taking Benzedrine tablets to keep him awake as he composed the three hours of music required. The film’s score ended up containing 99 different pieces of music and took just 12 weeks to produce.