Where to start with Gone with the Wind? I could write a book about this movie. But I decided (for now) to keep it to three blog posts. It’s a nearly four-hour long movie that is still to this day, nearly 80 years after its release, one of Hollywood’s biggest and most influential films.
Gone with the Wind started its life as a 1936 novel by Margaret Mitchell and is the epic tale about Scarlett O’Hara’s life during the American civil war, from her young days as a 16-year-old Southern Belle to a mature woman on the edge of starvation that included epic love stories with Rhett Butler and Ashley Wilkes.
Publishers wanted $100,000 for the movie rights but Hollywood wasn’t interested. Civil War movies were known to be box office poison. In an early scene in Sunset Boulevard (1950), screenwriter Joe Gillis, played by William Holden, is having an argument with a studio script reader who dismissed his script as “flat and trite.” “You’d have turned down Gone with the Wind!” angrily replies Joe. “No, that was me.” says a sullen Paramount Pictures producer who had been listening to the fight. “I said… who wants to see another Civil War picture?”
Because of this view throughout Hollywood, producer David O. Selznick of Selznick International Pictures was able to purchase the rights for just $50,000 in July 1936, just one month after the book’s publication.
Casting Gone with the Wind stretched for almost two years and was almost as epic of a tale as the film itself. Selznick wanted Clark Gable for the role of Rhett from the start. But Gable was under contract with MGM and they never loaned out their stars. To make the situation harder, Gable didn’t want the role. Selznick’s father-in-law was MGM founder Louis B. Mayer and he negotiated a deal with Selznick to provide Gable for the film as well as $1,250,000 (half the film’s budget). But in return, Selznick would have to pay Gable’s salary ($120,000 or $1.8 million in today’s dollars) and half of the films profits would go to MGM. At the time, Gable was trying to get a divorce from his wife Maria Langham and Langham was adamant that she wasn’t going to have it but Gable was desperately in love with actress Carole Lombard. The only way Gable would say yes to starring in the film was through the insistence of Louis B. Mayer who bargained with Langham by telling her that if she divorced Clark, Mayer and the production company would give her a substantial sum of money, provided she got Clark to sign on to the movie. She did and Gone with the Wind had its perfect leading man.
On the other hand, Selznick was determined to have an unknown actress play Scarlett O’Hara. For two years, he searched America. Girls came out in droves from behind lunch counters, finishing schools and beauty parlours. He spent over $50,000 interviewing about 1400 would be Scarlett’s. Many well-known actresses also vied for the role, with legends such as Lucille Ball, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer to name a few. The casting of British actress Vivien Leigh took most by surprise. Laurence Olivier, her soon to be husband, was in Los Angeles for his first Hollywood film Wuthering Heights (1939) and Leigh flew from London to visit him. While in Los Angeles, she was recommended to Selznick for Scarlett. On meeting her, Selznick was heard proclaiming “She’s perfect, but can she act?”
And judging by her screen tests, she could. Vivien Leigh was offered the role of Scarlett O’Hara and casting for Gone with the Wind was complete. In January 1939, production finally began on Hollywood’s most daring feature film to date.