After an exhausting two year search, the casting was finally complete for Gone with the Wind. Pre-production was well underway for the most talked about film in Hollywood.
The next challenge that producer David O. Selznick faced was finding someone who could adapt the 1000-page book into a workable screenplay. The man assigned to do it? Pulitzer Prize winner Sidney Howard. His initial submission, while faithful to the novel, was far too long and would have needed over six hours of film. When Howard refused to leave his home and be on set for script revisions, Selznick replaced him with a host of writers. GWTW was Howard’s last screenplay before his unexpected death and was an exceptional accomplishment. He was the only writer honoured with the credit for the writing of GWTW, even though the script was revised again and again by several other writers. Some wonder whether it was in memoriam to Howard or for the fact that while going through many hands, the final script stayed faithful to Howard’s vision.
RKO director George Cukor was assigned to direct and spent two years in pre-production including many hours coaching the two leading ladies, Vivien Leigh and Olivia De Havilland. Cukor was known around Hollywood to be a ladies director, being able to get the most wonderful performance out of any actress and it reportedly made Clark Gable feel uncomfortable, fearing he would lose his spotlight in a role that already made him uneasy. Selznick was very demanding from the very first day of shooting, insisting to see each block rehearsal of every scene before it was shot. This was to avoid what he called “projection room surprises.” He demanded that Cukor inform him before making any changes. Selznick began to resent that filming moved too slowly and that after only two weeks, production was already seven days behind. Three weeks into production, the inevitable happened, Cukor was fired and production was suspended. De Havilland recalled the day that Cukor was fired “I at once spoke to Vivien, commiserating with her in this calamity and Vivien and I went together to call on Selznick in his office. We remained there for three and a half hours, pleading with him not to let George go, but our efforts were not successful.”
Selznick next appointed MGM director Victor Fleming, who was directing The Wizard of Oz at the time. Fleming was credited as the director of GWTW and stayed for the rest of the production, except for a two week interlude when another MGM director Sam Wood replaced Fleming after he collapsed from exhaustion. All in all, Cukor directed for 18 days, Fleming for 93 days and Wood for 24 days.
Despite their electric on-screen chemistry, the relationship between Gable and Leigh was polite but not friendly. Gable wore false teeth and Leigh hated kissing him. She later was quoted as saying “Kissing Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind was not that exciting. His dentures smelled something awful.” Gable felt that it was a woman’s picture and was heard saying “I’m a big star, I don’t want to play second fiddle to some dame.” He was also not happy about the scene where Rhett Butler has to cry after Scarlett loses their unborn baby. When the director insisted that he had to do it, Gable threatened to quit. De Havilland, whose own character Melanie shared the scene with Rhett, convinced him to stay. Leslie Howard who played Ashley Wilkes, was completely indifferent to the film. He was paid over $75,000 and never read the book. He never learned his lines past the ones he was directly involved with the next day.
Filming lasted for seven months and cost over $3 million dollars. It survived three directors, numerous script rewrites, an obsessive producer and a cast of tempestuous actors. But what emerged was one of the greatest films to ever grace the Hollywood screens. And the mark it has left has lasted for generations.