Not surprisingly, the possibility that an unknown might be chosen to play Scarlett also had its effect on the stars and their fan clubs. As in the case of Gable and Rhett Butler, letters poured in from all over the country—from Europe, too, since the novel was repeating its triumph there—suggesting almost every leading lady of the moment. Many of the ladies suggested themselves. Of the write-ins, Bette Davis was easily the most popular candidate, with 40 percent of the vote, but her refusal to play opposite Flynn had taken her out of the running. The loss of the role haunted her for years. In the 1920s, when Cukor ran a stock company in Rochester, New York, he had employed her for one season, then let her go because there were no more parts he considered suitable for her. In Davis' mind the idea became fixed that he never liked her and always favored Katharine Hepburn for the role. As late as the 1960s she gave out interviews saying that if Cukor had really wanted her, a deal could have been made with Warners' excluding Flynn, and in her autobiography, The Lonely Life(1962), insisted, "His thumbs were down. By such intangibles are careers affected." Cukor has never been able to understand this. "Imagine," he commented to me, "since she became this great tragedienne and important person, I've been constantly reading that she was fired by George Cukor! And I'd really been awfully kind to her.... "
The long obsession reveals Davis' inconsolable desire for the part—which was indirectly rewarded. Discovering a story whose Southern heroine had obvious affinities with Scarlett, she persuaded Jack Warner to let her make it in 1938. The year before Gone With the Windwas a candidate for awards, she won her second Oscar for Jezebel,to Selznick's considerable annoyance.
Katharine Hepburn, the imagined cause of her downfall, was in fact a self-announced contender, one of several stars who either suggested themselves to Selznick or put their agents to work. Because of her association with both Cukor and Selznick, she was thought for a while to have the inside track; but although Cukor was receptive, Selznick doubted whether she had the sex appeal to enthral Rhett Butler for so many years, and was worried because at the time motion picture exhibitors were labeling her "box-office poison." He offered to test her, however; but she refused. Then, for a heady day or two, it seemed as if Hepburn had been endorsed by Margaret Mitchell herself. The author had declined to state any preference for an actress to play her heroine, but one day a friend asked her opinion of Hepburn. "I enjoyed her in Little Women," she said, "and thought she looked very pretty in hoop skirts." The remark somehow reached a reporter on the Atlanta Journal,which printed a story that Hepburn was Margaret Mitchell's personal choice for the role. When other newspapers picked it up, the author issued a public retraction, apologizing to the star for any misunderstanding that might have arisen, and repeating, "I have never expressed a preference and never will."
Another widely publicized candidate was Norma Shearer, with whom Selznick had discussions concerning the part, but her fans created an outcry at the thought of an actress renowned for her sweet and ladylike qualities playing a Southern minx. Ed Sullivan joined the protest in his column, and in spite of encouragement from an editorial in the New York Times,Shearer graciously withdrew from the race. It became another example of a star's career being deeply affected by not playing Scarlett. Long impatient with her refined image, Shearer now pressured MGM for the femme fatalepart in Idiot's Delight,in which she played opposite Gable immediately before he started Gone With the Wind.
The list of actresses who wanted to play Scarlett, or were touted for it by the fan magazines, press and radio commentators, and their agents, is amazing not only for variety but incongruity. The story begins with Scarlett at the age of sixteen, and yet among the serious contenders were Shearer (thirty-seven), Miriam Hopkins (thirty-five), Tallulah Bankhead (thirty-four), Joan Crawford, Jean Arthur, and Irene Dunne (all thirty-three). Some of these were actually tested. This is a comment, of course, from a society that is much more conscious of age (or youth) than were the 1930s. The most popular figures of that time were women rather than girls. In Jean Arthur's case, one suspects the test to have been partly a sentimental gesture, since Selznick was in love with her before he married Mayer's daughter. An original and charming actress, she was clearly too old for the part, with no hint of the Southern belle in her temperament, and the test looks strained and embarrassing. So does Bankhead's, for mainly the same reasons; demureness was never her stock-in-trade. Miriam Hopkins, who read for the part but didn't make a test, came from the South and had recently starred in the movie Becky Sharp;the similarities between Thackeray's heroine and Margaret Mitchell's had been pointed out in several reviews. She had a strange, powerful intensity and, like Shearer, could create the illusion of physical glamour. You feel she might have got away with Scarlett on the stage.
Other actresses tested were Joan Bennett (from Little Women), Paulette Goddard, the young Lana Turner, who had just attracted attention in her first, small movie role in They Won't Forget,and a New York model called Edythe Marriner whom Irene Selznick spotted at a fashion show. Loretta Young was also a favorite possibility with Selznick for a while. To see the film on the contenders is to see why Cukor and Selznick continued to hold out. Some are instantly out of the question: Lana Turner at sea, dazed and ringleted. Edythe Marriner—who changed her name to Susan Hayward after the test—looks right; she was nineteen then, with a slight resemblance to Vivien Leigh, but there's already a career-girl toughness in her screen presence. Paulette Goddard, recently launched by Chaplin in Modern Times,is the only one who comes close. Chaplin had sensed her gaminequality and brought it out very effectively in his film; in the test it is still there, appealing but somehow too city-ish for the daughter of Tara. Still, for a while she was under the strongest consideration, and then almost signed.
Of all these, Hopkins was the most hotly tipped by the press, and coincidentally she had also worked in Cukor's stock company. He admires her talent but says he never felt she was right for Scarlett. Other names tossed into the arena were Carole Lombard, Margaret Sullavan (both represented by Myron Selznick), Claudette Colbert, Ann Sheridan, and Jean Harlow, but here we seem to enter the land of delusion and publicity gimmicks. And when Selznick asked the other studios to suggest any actresses they might have under contract, RKO came up with a twenty-seven-year-old unknown called Lucille Ball. "Are you kidding?" was her forthright reaction, but the casting agent pressed a vocal coach on her and arranged a reading with Selznick. He was polite but noncommittal. A few years later, she was sent for an equally unsuitable audition to Orson Welles, for the part of the girl whom Citizen Kane tries to turn into an opera singer.
Publicity made it appear that Selznick spent most of his time from the end of 1936 to the fall of 1938 supervising the search for Scarlett, auditioning and looking at tests. In fact, the search for a script was to prove equally exhaustive. He first engaged the Broadway playwright, Sidney Howard (They Knew What They Wanted, The Silver Cord, Dodsworth), to write a basic draft. The winner of a Pulitzer Prize. Howard had all the prestige credentials and some familiarity with movie technique, since he had previously worked with Goldwyn. Selznick's only doubt—which was to prove justified—was whether the distinguished Easterner would be amenable to the producer's exacting methods of work. "I have never had much success with leaving a writer alone to do a script without almost daily collaboration with myself and usually also the director," he wrote in a cabled memo to Kay Brown, who was negotiating the deal with Howard in New York. "Anything you can do to make Howard available for conference with us during the actual writing of the script will, I think, be safeguard.... " However, like many New York playwrights, Howard was not fundamentally interested in writing for films, and didn't care for California. He agreed only to come out to Hollywood for meetings with Selznick and Cukor, then went back East to work. He wrote to Margaret Mitchell, expressing delight with his assignment and asking for help on the Negro dialogue. Once again she refused to be involved. Howard embarked on what he considered a well-paid craftsman's job, and performed it with skill and considerable speed, structuring a series of master-scenes from the half-million words of the novel in two months. While basically sound, clearing away many repetitions and disposable minor characters, it still presented a problem; it was over four hundred pages long, almost six hours' running time on the screen.
Selznick's first reaction was to consider making the film as two pictures. Faced with his principle of adhering faithfully to a classic, he was alarmed that further cuts might betray it. He had been thinking in terms of a picture that would run about two and a half hours, but Howard's first draft, with all its omissions from the book, made it clear that Gone With the Windcould never be contained within this length. The idea of two separate pictures was dropped when Selznick learned that theater owners reacted unfavorably to it, instead, he asked Howard to come back to California and discuss with Cukor and himself more drastic ways of cutting the material down to size. At these talks, several new and deep incisions were made. They agreed to exclude from the film all members of the O'Hara family not living at Tara (in the book, neighboring plantations are thick with them); Selznick wanted to lose Scarlett's second marriage, to Frank Kennedy, but both Cukor and Howard were against this, so they dropped only the child of that marriage and, at Cukor's insistence, Scarlett's child by her first marriage as well; all the Ku Klux Klan episodes were thrown out, and Howard was reproached for having added some scenes showing Rhett as a blockade runner. In this way the script was cut by another seventy pages or so, and Howard went home again.
Selznick then laid the script, such as it was, aside. Sporadically, over the next few months, he checked all the favorite scenes and lines that he'd noted in his own copy of the novel, to see if Howard's structure allowed for them all; but he made no move to engage Howard or anyone else to proceed with further writing. When Cukor inquired about this, the reply was somewhat evasive: "I am weighing every line and every word most carefully.... We are also double checking against our Story Department's notes on things that they missed from the book." Struck by Howard's comment at their last meeting that Margaret Mitchell "did everything at least twice," he ordered an assistant to make a complete index of the book, listing the main characters and what happened to them, how many times Rhett talked about the war and Ashley about the dissolution of the South, and so on, with the idea of eliminating repetitions and choosing the best passages of dialogue to combine from related scenes.
So by the end of January, 1938, Howard's original draft was effectively on the shelf, along with piles of suggested cuts and revisions. Part of the reason for this was that although Selznick was on the whole pleased with Howard's progress so far, he was displeased by the writer's refusal to stay out in California indefinitely and continue to work under his supervision. Already, in the back of his mind, Selznick was casting about for a more amenable successor, but in the front of his mind were several pictures he was committed to produce, and he had no intention of relaxing his detailed personal control over any of them. Justifying his methods of total control, Selznick declared that a film, to be a work of art, had to bear a personal signature, like a painting. In this way he expounded the auteurtheory years ahead of his time, with the difference that to him the auteurwas the producer and not the director.