The Making of Gone With The Wind, Part I

How the epic film came to be—and why Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Norma Shearer, Miriam Hopkins, Irene Dunne, Paulette Goddard, and Loretta Young didn't get the role

To the end of her life Margaret Mitchell remained aloof from the movies. She enjoyed going to them, but had no desire to become involved with their world. The reason she accepted Selznick's offer was entirely personal. She had seen David Copperfield,admired it, and felt that her work could not be in safer hands.

As a child, Margaret Mitchell loved to ride horseback, but a bad fall permanently weakened her left ankle. In 1926 she was still living in her birthplace, Atlanta, was four feet eleven inches tall and as old as the century, married for the second time to John Marsh, an advertising executive, and walking on crutches, after violently spraining her damaged ankle. She was living the life of a semi-cripple and depressed by her lack of success as a writer. (Two years on the Atlanta Journal;a handful of short stories that nobody would publish; an abandoned novel dealing with the Jazz Age.) It is probable that she would have given up writing altogether if Marsh had not believed in her talent and applied pressure at a telling moment.

There seemed no way out of trying again. As long as the ankle refused to heal, her social life was curtailed, she was unable to dance, which she loved, and the days were spent in reading and playing bridge. Most of all, it would please her husband. So one morning she limped to her typewriter and began writing a novel about the Civil War. Until she was ten years old, she hadn't even known that the South had lost it. Her mother took her on a buggy ride, showed her the surviving ruins of gutted plantation homes in the countryside beyond Atlanta, and broke the important news. Later she said that this tale of defeat haunted her and the war itself continued to cast a shadow across her life. She grew up in a city where memories of it, through people and places, were still vivid; and another journey that lingered in her mind was a visit to some relatives on a farm twenty miles south of Atlanta. It had belonged to her grandmother, who escaped there on the last train out of Atlanta before Sherman arrived.

When she began the novel, she knew only the beginning and end of the story, and wrote the last chapter first: Rhett Butler walking out on Scarlett. In fact, she hardly ever wrote in continuity, skipping between events that took place years apart and storing each chapter in a large manila envelope. As time passed, the envelopes faded and became blotched with coffee stains. On some of them she scribbled kitchen recipes and grocery lists. Lack of confidence made her secretive; she allowed only her husband to read the work in progress, but disclosed something about it to a close friend, Lois Cole, who later went to New York to work for the Macmillan publishing house. The rest of her friends knew that something was up, because a visitor would arrive unexpectedly from time to time and catch her hobbling to hide a bulky envelope underneath a cushion on the sofa. No questions were asked because they had always considered Peggy Marsh a mystery, and she had an aura of privacy that people instinctively respected. A Catholic, she'd divorced her first husband after a few months, and married his best man. Uncommunicative about herself, she was a lively conversationalist on many other topics. "If you want your dinner party to be a success," said a friend, "invite Peggy Marsh." After the novel came out, many people said that she looked like Melanie Hamilton but in person was really much closer to Scarlett. This displeased her. The tiny, soberly dressed lady always insisted that Scarlett was "a far from admirable character."

Her heroine began as Pansy O'Hara, a character from one of the author's unpublished stories, Melanie was at first called Permelia, then Melisande, and when she'd been writing for about a year Fontenoy Hall became Tara. This accidental, haphazard method continued for two more years, with alternate versions of several episodes adding to the pile of manila envelopes. (How to kill off Scarlett's second husband, Frank Kennedy, was not solved until a few months before publication.) It is clear she drew a few scenes from personal experience. In 1918, while she was away at Smith College in Massachusetts, her mother died during a flu epidemic in Atlanta; in the novel, Scarlett returns to Tara and learns that her mother died of typhoid. Later that same year she became engaged to a young lieutenant who went to France and was killed there, just as Scarlett's first husband goes off to war and loses his life (less heroically) right after their marriage. In 1919 she scandalized Atlanta society by performing an exotic Apache dance at a party organized for charity by local debutantes. No well-brought-up girl was expected to behave like this so soon after her mother's death, and Gone With the Windechoes the situation when Scarlett appalls everybody by dancing with Rhett in her widow's black at the Atlanta Bazaar. In 1920 a major fire broke out in her native city, and she worked all night at a panic-stricken emergency center. For Scarlett's escape from a burning, terrified Atlanta she no doubt consulted her memories as well as the history books.

By 1930 the novel was about two-thirds finished and the manila envelopes contained over a thousand typewritten pages. It still lacked an opening chapter, several connecting passages, and a title. She hesitated between Another Day, Bugles Sang True, Not in Our Stars,and Tote the Weary Load,not really satisfied with any of them. And by this time the weary load itself was beginning to get her down. Her ankle finally healed and she could escape back to the social life, country club luncheons, dinner parties, and dances.

When the Marshes moved to a new apartment, she stored all the envelopes in a closet. Because her husband continued to apply pressure, she worked at trying to finish the book from time to time, but the original impetus seems to have been lost. "I hit the book a few more licks in 1930 and 1931.. ." She developed a curious, maddening indifference to the enormous amount of work she'd already done, and five years later the novel was still incomplete, the envelopes fading in the closet. In 1934 she hardly hit the book any licks at all, since her neck was in a brace after an automobile accident. In April, 1935, Harold Latham of Macmillan was visiting Atlanta, and he knew about the novel through Lois Cole, now an associate editor and his colleague. "If she can write the way she talks," said Lois Cole, "it should be a honey." Latham met her at a country club luncheon and asked to see the manuscript. "I have no novel," she told him, surprised and alarmed, but Marsh persuaded her to take it to Latham's hotel next day. Summoned to the lobby, he saw the tiny lady sitting on a divan beside the biggest manuscript he'd ever encountered in his life, the pile of envelopes reaching to her shoulders. "Take the thing before I change my mind," she said, and was gone again.

After buying a suitcase to carry the mass of envelopes, Latham began reading the novel on the train to New Orleans. Physically, it was one of the most discouraging manuscripts ever offered to him, the pages now yellowed and moldering, the typescript covered with pencil corrections. A cable awaited him at his hotel in New Orleans. "SEND THE MANUSCRIPT BACK HAVE CHANGED MY MIND." Ignoring it, he continued reading the work on the train back to New York; in spite of the gaps and the rough, unrevised quality of parts of the writing, he sniffed a best seller. He made an immediate offer to publish the book—if only she would finish it. Astonished, she said to her husband, "I don't see how they can make heads or tails of it." Then she worried about how the South would receive the book if she allowed it to be published. If Atlanta disapproved, wouldn't she be socially ostracized? Marsh cajoled her into accepting the offer; then both he and Latham pressured her to work for another six months, during which she checked all the historical details, rewrote the opening chapter several times, decided that Frank Kennedy should meet his death at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan, and finally found her title in a poem by Ernest Dowson, "Cynara."

Macmillan scheduled the publication of Gone With the Wind for April, 1936, deciding to print 10,000 copies priced at $3. Then the Book-of-the-Month Club wanted the novel for its July selection; publication date was delayed accordingly and 50,000 more copies were printed. By the end of July, it was clear that a phenomenon had occurred. The New York Timesgave the novel an enthusiastic front-page review in its book section, the New York Suncompared it to War and Peace,Stephen Vincent Benet, Robert Nathan, and a visiting H. G. Wells endorsed it, and the entire Southern press quieted its author's fears with a chorus of praise. Within six months, half a million copies had been sold, and the figure would be more than doubled when the book had been out a year. In 1937 it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Even the less amiable reviewers, the left-wing papers that accused it of glorifying slavery, the critics like Malcolm Cowley and Louis Kronenberger who found it indifferently written, had to admit its extraordinary impact and the appeal of its passionate escapism.

As a work of literature, Gone With the Windis no better and no worse than most best sellers, but with women it struck a deep emotional chord, rather as the immensely superior Jane Eyrehad done in England almost a hundred years earlier. Charlotte Bronte's heroine was the first emancipated young lady, determined to assert her independence in the face of social pressures, in Victorian fiction. Not beautiful, but sensual, not rich, but intelligent and strong-willed, her relationship with men was a duel. The emotional point she made to women readers was resistance to male domination. Scarlett O'Hara is a glamorized version of the same idea. Attractive, spoiled, selfish, she can still act like a man at moments of crisis, and even though Rhett Butler walks out on her at the end, it's not certain that she won't get him back. In any case, she's a survivor, and her unbroken spirit continued the revolution that Charlotte Bronte began. "I still feebly say," Margaret Mitchell wrote to a friend, "that it's just a simple story of some people who went up and some who went down, those who could take it and those who couldn't." Her Scarlett could take it, and for thousands of women she raised the basic question of exactly what "independence" involved and how high the stakes should be raised.

Her effect on her creator, Peggy Marsh of Atlanta, born Margaret Mitchell, remains ironic and a little sad. By writing Gone With the Wind,Margaret Mitchell struck her own blow for women's independence, but it was reluctant and painful and would never have been sustained without her husband's help. Fame and fortune, when they arrived, seemed more a threat than a liberation. She retreated even further into provincial married life and never wrote anything more. "I'm on the run," she wrote soon after the novel came out. "I'm sure Scarlett O'Hara never struggled to get out of Atlanta or suffered more during her siege of Atlanta than I have suffered during the siege that has been on since publication day." The limelight stunned her; she refused to go to Hollywood to meet Selznick and would have nothing to do with the production of the movie.

In 1945 her husband had a heart attack from which he never completely recovered, and Scarlett's creator became more Melanie-like than ever, patient nurse as well as devoted wife. In 1949, while crossing a street in Atlanta with John Marsh, she was hit by a speeding car and died five days later, a few months away from her forty-ninth birthday. Marsh survived until 1952, and was buried beside her in Oakland Cemetery, Atlanta.

His offer for the rights of Gone With the Windaccepted, Selznick went to Hawaii for a vacation with his wife, and started to read the novel he'd bought. He returned to find it a runaway best seller and already part of the national psyche.

At this point he'd made only one definite decision, that George Cukor should direct the picture. Circumstances propelled him quickly into making another. Thousands of letters from readers and movie fans were arriving at the company's office, and 99 percent of them demanded that Clark Gable play the part of Rhett Butler. Gable was also Selznick's first choice, but the star was under exclusive contract to MGM and Selznick's relations with his father-in-law, Louis Mayer, were approaching another crisis.

Early in September, 1936, Irving Thalberg caught pneumonia. He died two weeks later, and the Emperor at once made a firm offer to Selznick to become second vice president of MGM. He wanted to play vice president in charge of production to his young rival's second vice president, and he wanted Gone With the Wind for MGM.

Selznick turned down Mayer's offer, explaining that he wanted to continue running his own company. Mayer then suggested that MGM would be interested in buying Gone With the Wind,with David as producer. The Gable situation was not mentioned; cunningly, the Emperor talked only of his casting ideas for the other leading parts—Joan Crawford as Scarlett, Maureen O'Sullivan as Melanie, and Melvyn Douglas as Ashley. Selznick said he'd have to think about it. Meanwhile, he began exploring other possibilities for Rhett. Gary Cooper had already occurred to him, and he approached Sam Goldwyn, to whom Cooper was under contract. Goldwyn unequivocally refused to loan him out. Selznick next thought of Errol Flynn, the movies' top swashbuckler since Captain Blood and The Charge of the Light Brigade,and under contract to Warner Brothers. This time he was offered a package instead of a refusal. Bette Davis, also the property of Warners', had begun an ardent campaign for the role of Scarlett, but she wouldn't play Scarlett to Flynn's Rhett.

Going through the other names most frequently mentioned in the letters, Selznick found that Warner Baxter had strong support from his native South; but he was too old, and lacking in sex appeal. Incredibly, Basil Rathbone had a sizable percentage of the remaining 1 percent, but Selznick dismissed this idea as well. Ronald Colman, under contract to the company, he had previously discussed with Kay Brown. In her first excitement over the book, she had called Colman long- distance and read him a few passages. "Ripping!" said the actor. "Oh, it's topping, absolutely topping!" Implacably British, he was really out of the question, but the fan magazines for a while took up his cause. Interviewed, he always replied that he thought Gable would be a better choice. (There is no record that Colman was ever considered for Ashley—perhaps the physical contrast with Gable would not have been strong enough—but he could certainly have mastered a Southern accent as well as Leslie Howard, and might have been a more interesting choice.) Reluctantly, Selznick had to admit that Gable was a necessity and he went back to MGM.

Not unexpectedly, the terms were stiff. MGM would lend Gable at a figure considerably above his usual salary, and provide half the financing (estimated then at $2,500,000), in return for the world distribution rights through its parent company, Loew's, Inc., and half of the total profits.

Mayer knew, of course, that he had the power for a shakedown. His son-in-law needed not only Gable, but money. In fact, with three pictures in various stages of production at the time he went back to MGM, Selznick did not have enough capital to make Gone With the Windon his own.

"My son-in-law is one smart fellow," said Mayer when he heard that Selznick had accepted the terms. The only problem was that Gable at first refused the part. Always lacking confidence, and with a habit of initially turning down roles that proved to be among his most successful (in Mutiny On the Bountyand It Happened One Night),he was frankly terrified at the prospect of Rhett Butler. The fact that he had been cast by popular vote only increased his alarm. "Too big an order," he told Selznick, "I don't want any part of him," and suggested Ronald Colman. But by the terms of his contract with MGM, he was in no position to turn down the role unless he went on suspension, and for private reasons this was no time to risk unemployment. Gable was still married to, though separated from, a Texas matron seventeen years older than himself; he had just fallen in love with Carole Lombard and they wanted to marry. Rhea Langham Gable was determined to exact vengeance by demanding an enormous divorce settlement, and, like Mayer with Selznick, she knew that she had the power for a shakedown. Her lawyers were already mentioning a figure of almost $300,000, a heartache for anyone to part with and a tragedy for a naturally frugal man. On salary to MGM at $4000 a week (the additional money demanded by Mayer for his services in Gone With the Windwould all go to the studio), he needed financial assistance from his employers. So, after protracted negotiations that were really a series of legal blackmails, with MGM and Mrs. Gable as the winners, he signed for the part.

The deal with MGM meant that Selznick would have to hold up production of the picture for at least two years. Since his company had a contract with United Artists to distribute all his pictures until the end of 1938, Gone With the Windcould not be released by MGM until after that time. The real problem was how to keep the public's interest in the project alive.

Out of this dilemma came the idea of a nationwide talent search to find an unknown to play Scarlett O'Hara. When he thought of it, Selznick was certainly not convinced that he wantedan unknown—even after shooting began he was still considering stars for the lead—and the search in the end yielded nothing except a girl in Charleston, Alicia Rhett, to play the part of India Wilkes, Ashley's unpleasant sister; but as an attention-getting device it was brilliant.

The most publicized and richly absurd moment of the search occurred on Christmas Day, 1937. What appeared to be an outsize package was delivered to Selznick's home by liveried messengers. Ribbons and paper were ripped away to disclose a replica of the novel in its dust jacket, out of which stepped a young girl in crinolines. "Merry Christmas, Mr. Selznick! I am your Scarlett O'Hara!"

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