David Selznick's father, Lewis, was an adventurer who made and lost his pile in the early days of the film industry, and the son inherited many of his qualities—chutzpa, galvanic energy, a taste for gambling and self- display, a hard heart in business and a soft one in personal relations. The exuberant sharper also bequethed to his son a reverence for culture and good living. He collected Ming vases and vintage wines, and his favorite book was David Copperfield,which the boy began to read at the age of seven.
In one important respect, however, they differed. For the adventurer, movies were simply a game, an operation, another field in which to gamble. For David, they became a genuine passion, obsessive and strangely methodical.
Lewis J. Zeleznik, born in Kiev, Russia, in 1870, worked his way to the United States at the age of eighteen. He changed his name to Selznick and built up a successful jewelry retail business in Pittsburgh. In 1910 he overreached himself for the first time when he decided to open "the world's largest jewelry store" in New York. Its doors closed after a few months, and without this modestly grandiose failure there might never have been David's production of Gone With the Wind.
For this was the time when many businessmen, most of them Jewish emigres, were turning to a new business. Louis Burt Mayer from Minsk, having made some money dealing in scrap metal, used it to buy old theaters which he converted to nickelodeons, thus taking his first step toward becoming the Emperor of MGM. Adolph Zukor, a furrier from Ricse, Hungary, invested his savings in buying the rights to a French four-reeler, Queen Elizabeth,starring Sarah Bernhardt, thus taking hisfirst step toward the foundation of Paramount Pictures. Sammy Goldfish, a glove salesman from Warsaw, persuaded his brother-in-law, Jesse Lasky, who owned a chain of vaudeville houses, to risk a few thousands in film production. They went out to Hollywood, then only a village where no studios had yet been built, and joined forces with a young actor ambitious to direct. His name was Cecil B. De Mille. After the success of their film, The Squaw Man,shot in a converted barn and the first full-length feature to be made in California, the producer, Sammy Goldfish, decided to be known as Samuel Goldwyn.
Lewis J. Selznick entered the film business through a friend who owned stock in Universal Film Manufacturing and who commissioned Selznick to sell it for him to one of two men engaged in a struggle for control of the company. Selznick favored Carl Laemmle from Wurttemberg, Germany, formerly store manager of a clothing company in Wisconsin, and by selling Laemmle the stock and enabling him to gain the upper hand at Universal, Selznick maneuvered himself into a job with the company. Another struggle for power soon followed, since both men were too ambitious to remain colleagues for long. While Selznick had great enthusiasm for business intrigue, he was less experienced than Laemmle, who ousted him. He then met a mail-order agent named Arthur Spiegel and persuaded him to become a partner in a new company with the flaunty title of World Film Company. At that time it was the practice of both Laemmle and Zukor to entice "prestige" names from the theater to film their successes, and Selznick followed it, outbidding his rivals for the services of Clara Kimball Young, Nazimova, Lionel Barrymore, and Lillian Russell. He also employed a young director named Allan Dwan, who saw every D. W. Griffith film as it came out and who imitated the master's innovations with such speed that he became the second American director to use the close-up.
After quarreling with Spiegel, Selznick next induced Clara Kimball Young to become his partner. For the next few years, he and his rivals stole each other's stars, intriguing endlessly over the Talmadge sisters, tried to buy each other out, feuded in open letters to the trade press, and competed in flamboyant publicity stunts. The climax occurred in 1917, when Selznick cabled the deposed Czar Nicholas of Russia, offering him a position with his company. "When I was a boy in Russia your police treated my people very badly but no hard feelings ... " There was no reply from the last of the Romanovs. One empire fell, another expanded. A Rolls-Royce, a seventeen-room apartment on Park Avenue, and the collection of Ming vases became the symbols of Selznick's success. Yet even at its height the operation struck a wrong note, for in the arena of ambition and self- display Selznick was less sophisticated than Laemmle and Zukor, and he had the effect of uniting them against him. Compared to the furrier, the glove salesman and the scrap-metal merchant, the jewelry dealer seemed an upstart. They waited for him to overreach himself.
Apart from extravagance, Selznick's greatest mistake was to remain in New York when the trend was westward. By the early 1920s, Laemmle had moved to Hollywood and taken charge of the growing, prosperous Universal lot. Mayer had started producing pictures in a downtown Los Angeles studio rented from a man who made documentaries about animals—the premises included a small zoo containing, symbolically, a lion. Zukor and Lasky had merged to form Paramount. Selznick's stars followed the trend to the West, and he found himself increasingly isolated. In 1923 the company went bankrupt. Since its owner had quarreled with or alienated almost everybody, his ruin was greeted with applause.
This time the overreaching was final. There was a last, pathetic attempt to recoup by cashing in on a land boom in Florida. After its failure, Lewis J. Selznick retired from the field. Rolls-Royce, apartment, Ming vases, and his wife's jewels were sold, a squadron of servants dismissed. The Jester, as his rivals nicknamed him, moved to a three-room walk-up where Mrs. Selznick did the housework and cooking.
The Jester's naivete and greed might not in themselves have proved self-destructive. His methods, and the enmity they aroused, had a less forgivable reason behind them. For he never cared about the movies themselves, was blind to the coin in which he dealt, and publicized his contempt for it. In 1917 he told a congressional committee investigating the financial structure of the industry, "Less brains are necessary in the motion picture business than in any other." The movies remained for him on the level of the poker games at which he could win or lose thousands of dollars in a single night. They could never be art, for art was Ming vases and David Copperfieldand Nazimova in the theater, way beyond the reach of his own canned versions of Trilbyand Wildfire.
The other merchants, the dealers in scrap metal and furs and gloves from Russia and central Europe, had certainly been attracted to the movies for the same reasons as Selznick. There was quick money to be made and the new entertainment form, being silent, offered no language barrier. But Mayer, Goldwyn, and the others developed a passion for the movies and saw their extraordinary potential. The passion and the vision might have been primitive and narrow, but it was also intense and lasting and, in a raw way, imaginative. Starting as wheeler-dealers, they realized that they had something unique on their hands and they turned into founding fathers. Lewis J. Selznick, however, remained a wheeler-dealer all his active life, a promoter for the sake of promotion, and so his downfall is not for mourning and his career is chiefly remarkable for its effect on his sons.
To Myron, the eldest, and David, born in 1902, their father was a martyr. They loved him deeply, and when his empire collapsed, they saw him as a victim of callous businessmen and a true friend of the artist. Movie-struck from their schooldays, both brothers left Columbia University in New York to work for their father; after the fall, they were suddenly penniless. Myron went out to Hollywood, and David followed after raising enough money to produce a couple of shorts, one about boxing and the other of Rudolph Valentino judging a beauty contest.
In Hollywood the brothers had the advantage of being brought up in the business, but the disadvantage of their father's personal unpopularity and failure. However, their determination to succeed was unbeatable. Within a few years, Myron had established himself as the most powerful agent in town. Starting with a few clients, mainly personal friends like Lewis Milestone and William Wellman, Myron built up a company that by the early 1930s handled at least 50 percent of Hollywood's most famous stars, directors, and writers, and set the pattern for the later power structures of MCA and its imitators. A driven, possessed man who drank heavily, he believed he had a mission to avenge artists on the producers who'd ruined his father. "His work of vengeance changed the Hollywood climate," Ben Hecht wrote in A Child of the Century. "It doubled and quadrupled the salaries of directors, writers and actors—myself among them.... Brooding in his tent after a sortie on a major studio, Myron would chortle, 'I'll break them all. I'll send all those thieves and fourflushers crawling to the poorhouse. Before I'm done the artists in this town will have all the money.' " Before he was done (he died in 1944 of an internal hemorrhage), they certainly had a great deal of it.
David's rise was no less spectacular, though ironically enough he became a producer, in Myron's eyes the enemy profession. Equally possessed of talent, David had the greater equilibrium. He seems to have combined his father's quicksilver arrogance with a staying power and love of organization. Shortly after his arrival in California he made a characteristic move. Because his own name coincided with that of an uncle he disliked, and because it struck him as insufficiently impressive, he decided it needed a middle initial—like his father, like Louis B. Mayer, Cecil B. De Mille—and settled on O as the most imposing. (He announced that it stood for Oliver; but O in itself represents Omega, the end, the climax, the last of its kind.) It certainly seems to have imposed: by 1931 he had brought off two major coups: he married Irene, the daughter of Louis B. Mayer (over her father's strong opposition—"Keep away from that schnook!" he warned her. "He'll end up a bum just like his old man!"), and became vice president in charge of production at RKO.
When Selznick took over, RKO was short of prestige and profits, but he revitalized it in both areas within a year. His first step was to approve Merian C. Cooper's King Kong,a project that had been hanging fire; his second was to pick a subject that he would produce himself. To direct What Price Hollywood?he chose George Cukor, whom he'd met when both were new to California, and had introduced to a Russian friend, Lewis Milestone. Cukor worked as dialogue director on All Quiet on the Western Front,then was signed to make films for Paramount. The Hollywood story, originally conceived as a vehicle for the fading Clara Bow, then retailored for the rising Constance Bennett, was, as Cukor said later, "dear to David's heart. He later used it in a different way for the first version of A Star Is Born.Like the audience at that time, Selznick had a very romantic view of Hollywood, a real love of it.... Most of the other Hollywood pictures make it a kind of crazy, kooky place, but to David it was absolutely real, he believed in it." At that time, of course, it was a heady place in which to believe. The rise of Selznick coincided with the rise of the great studios; he stood at the entrance to an age of triumphant prosperity, unrivaled arsenals of technical resources and international talent that entertained the world. And yet, curiously enough, David's two films about Hollywood were preoccupied with failure. In the story dear to his heart, although the movie queen survives, the male figure—in What Price Hollywood?a director, inA Star Is Bornan actor—becomes a drunken failure and commits suicide. While Myron's heavy drinking may or may not have had a bearing on this, it seems certain that for all his romantic love of the place, David Selznick was not blind to the insecurities beneath its alluring surface.
On one level, the thirties were the great "halcyon period," as S. N. Behrman (who worked on several scripts in Hollywood, including Anna Kareninafor Selznick) writes in his memoir, People in a Diary."There were few places in America where you could go out to dinner with Harpo and Groucho Marx, the Franz Werfels, Leopold Stokowski, Aldous Huxley, Somerset Maugham, and George and Ira Gershwin." On another and less obvious level, there was a ruthless attitude toward failure and constant secret intrigue within the higher echelons of power. Falls from grace could be as drastic as rises to favor. Behrman tells the story of how Lubitsch learned one morning that he'd been dismissed as head of Paramount from his gym instructor, who had massaged a studio executive the night before and heard the gossip. Selznick's energy and ambition were outstanding even in a place bursting with both qualities; but perhaps, like others, he was propelled by fear as well as enthusiasm. The world in which he'd chosen to succeed also gave back echoes of his father's failure.
The film What Price Hollywood?was well received and led to further collaborations between Selznick and Cukor. A Bill of Divorcementintroduced Katharine Hepburn to the screen and began a director-star partnership that became famous. For all three the pinnacle of this period was Little Women,a piece of classic Americana unequaled for intimate, charming exactness.
Selznick's success at RKO reconciled him, on the business level at least, with his father-in-law. Mayer had been quarreling repeatedly with the second vice president of MGM, the fragile but determined Irving Thalberg. After Thalberg recovered from a heart attack and left for a long European vacation with his wife, Norma Shearer, the Emperor made overtures to Selznick, offering him carte blanche as producer at the studio and implying he might soon take Thalberg's place. Selznick accepted, not out of affection for Mayer, nor because he wanted to succeed Thalberg; but the resources of Hollywood's most glamorous and celebrated studio were irresistible. He left RKO in 1933, Cukor went with him, and they made the all-star Dinner at Eight.Based on a Broadway hit, with a cast including Marie Dressler, John and Lionel Barrymore, Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery, and Billie Burke, it had the same formula as Thalberg's coup of the previous year, Grand Hotel.Cukor handled the lineup of sacred monsters with ease and skill, shot the whole blockbuster in twenty-seven days, and made of it one of the most hardedged of Depression comedies.
The film earned a lot of money, gained Selznick more prestige in the industry than he'd ever enjoyed before, and killed the joke—"the son-in-law also rises"—that could be heard everywhere when he joined MGM. Other successes quickly followed—Dancing Lady,with Clark Gable and Joan Crawford, which introduced Astaire to the screen; Manhattan Melodrama,again with Gable; and Viva Villa!—and Selznick found himself in a position to achieve something he'd wanted for a long time: a real cultural splash. As a work of literature, Little Womenhad been at best a minor classic, and the film itself, for all its virtues, had been on a small scale. Selznick was now, as they say, thinking big. He had already prepared for the occasion by compiling a methodical, obsessive list of all the classics he might one day wish to film. At the head of it was David Copperfield,his father's favorite novel. He chose Cukor to direct. Mayer opposed the project, fearful that classics were bad box-office (and the record showed that most of them were); when his son-in-law insisted, he tried to impose the MGM child star, Jackie Cooper, for the young David. Selznick and Cukor held out for an unknown and discovered Freddie Bartholomew in England.
Producer and director agreed that the way to film Dickens was not to restructure him, not to add new and more "commercial" elements to the story, but to respect his episodic style and concentrate on the gallery of characters. For the time this was an almost revolutionary approach, and unnerved the studio even further, especially since it would involve a movie about two and a half hours long. Box-office insurance was taken out by assembling an all-star cast for the other major roles—W. C. Fields, Maureen O'Sullivan, Lionel Barrymore, Basil Rathbone, Edna May Oliver, and all—but the audience reaction at a sneak preview in Bakersfield was discouraging. Selznick toyed with the idea of eliminating Barrymore as Peggotty (in fact the only weak performance), then shrewdly decided to avoid the wrath of Dickens lovers and to trim the running time by a few minutes instead. When David Copperfieldwas released, both critics and public liked it very much—rightly so, for in spite of some uncertain art direction it has great vitality and conviction, and remains the most authentically flavored Dickens movie ever made. Later, David confessed that with a mixture of sentiment and superstition, during the preparation and shooting of the film, "I lugged with me every place we went the old-fashioned red leather copy of Copperfieldwhich my father had given me."
This success was a turning point in Selznick's career, for it proved not only that a film of a classic novel could make money but that respect for the original paid off. He repeated the formula with Anna Karenina,for Garbo, and A Tale of Two Cities. By this time Thalberg had recovered and returned to the studio. Having no wish to be entangled in Mayer's intrigues, Selznick declared that he was leaving to form his own company. In a memo to Nicholas Schenck, the president of MGM, he explained with that characteristic touch of portentousness: "I am at a crossroads where a sign hangs high: 'To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.'"
Assembling a formidable list of stockholders, he announced the formation of Selznick International Pictures at the end of 1935. Capitalized at over $3,000,000, it had the multimillionaire John Hay ("Jock") Whitney, whom he'd originally met through Merian C. Cooper of King Kong,as chairman of the board. The directors included Cornelius Whitney and three Whitney sisters, representing an investment of $2,400,000; three New York financiers, Robert Lehman, and Arthur and John Herts ($150,000 each); Myron Selznick ($200,000); and as a gesture of private sympathy, a silent investment of $200,000 from Irving and Norma Shearer Thalberg. Mayer felt deeply rejected, and the event was to have repercussions when David came to produce Gone With the Wind.
The old Pathe studio in Culver City was the new headquarters. A portrait of Lewis J. Selznick hung on the wall of his son's office. From the beginning, "class" was the watchword, and both the Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory were considered for company trademarks. Then Selznick was struck one day by the facade of the studio building. Colonial in style, with white pillars, it seems now to carry an unconscious premonition of Margaret Mitchell's Tara, as prophetic as the adopted O. Superimposed on this emblem was the proud slogan, "In a Tradition of Quality."
The tradition began with adaptations of Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Garden of Allah (Selznick's one failure, but interestingly bizarre), and The Prisoner of Zenda. This list of "classics" suggests that his literary taste was basically nineteenth century-romantic, and erratic at that, but for Dickens and Robert Hichens alike he advertised the same unwavering, serious respect. A compiler of lists is also a natural composer of notes and memos. In a series of them, written while he was making Anna Karenina,he outlined his procedure for adapting a classic:
Having just gone through the difficulties of adapting David Copperfield,the prospect of compressing Tolstoi's work without too great a loss of values did not faze us.... Our first blow was a flat refusal by the Hays office to permit the entire section of the story dealing with Anna's illegitimate child ... but even what remained of the personal story of Anna seemed so far superior to such inventions of writers today as could be considered possibilities for Miss Garbo, that we went on with the job.... We had to eliminate everything that could even remotely be classified as a passionate love scene: and we had to make it perfectly clear that not merely did Anna suffer but that Vronsky suffered.... Our next step in the adaptation was to decide which of the several stories that are told in the book we could tell on the screen without diverting the audience's interest from one line to another. This meant the minimizing of the story of Levin, including that magnificent scene, the death of Levin's brother.... From this point on, it became a matter of the careful selection and editing of Tolstoi's scenes, with a surprising little amount of original writing necessary ... I like to think that we retained the literary quality and the greater part of the poignant story of a woman torn between two equal loves and doomed to tragedy whichever one she chose....
The tone of this, and the memo habit that was to grow over the years, stretching into hundreds of thousands of words, provides a clue to something that happened within Selznick at the time. The stilted style, rather like an old-fashioned politician's and rich with doublethink, is both curiously old for a man still in his early thirties and masterly in its techniques of self-justification—the glossing over of the difference between fidelity and distortion with "I like to think ... " These are statements in the form of an order, and the order comes from the top. He has found the secret of authority, which is belief in oneself at all times. A parallel can be seen in the increasing size and grandeur of the films themselves, which also cost more to produce—starting with Fauntleroyat about $550,000 and rising to Zendaat about $900,000.
Another habit on the increase was gambling. Selznick liked to play mainly at a club on the Sunset Strip, and was dedicated but unlucky at roulette. He had a system, of course, devised as elaborately as the card index and the lists and the memos, but it seldom seemed to work. One night he lost more than $100,000 to Joseph Schenck, chairman of the board of Twentieth Century-Fox. He also built a house in Beverly Hills for himself and Irene, furnished with expensive antiques, a dining table that seated thirty, and a projection room. Servants were employed around the clock, as were secretaries, in case he wished to eat or dictate in the small hours. Dinner parties for the Hollywood elite, and occasional weekend yachting excursions, were planned like productions. The after-dinner movie started promptly at the scheduled time, and invitations to the yacht arrived in the form of sailing orders.
From poker to life-style to movies, the stakes were growing higher.
Early in 1936, Selznick's story editor on the East Coast, Kay Brown, sent him a long synopsis of a long forthcoming novel. It was called Gone With the Wind,and nobody had ever heard of the author. Kay Brown felt strongly enough about its possibilities to end her note of recommendation: "I know that after you read the book you will drop everything and buy it."
He didn't. Although he read the digest at once, and on the face of it the project should have seemed irresistible—a twentieth-century work with all the nineteenth-century romantic ingredients that he adored—Selznick resisted. While the nostalgia and sweep of the material intrigued him, his business sense made signals of alarm. Pictures about the Civil War, with the exception of The Birth of a Nation—and that was a long time ago—had never been successful at the box office. Only the previous year, So Red the Rose,directed by his friend King Vidor with the popular stars Margaret Sullavan and Randolph Scott, had confirmed the jinx all over again. A cabled memo to Kay Brown ended, "Most sorry to have to say No in face of your enthusiasm for this story."
A few days later, second thoughts began. Another cabled memo to Kay Brown agreed that the novel had great possibilities, especially if filmed in color; but he was worried about the difficulty of casting the leads, and the high asking price for the rights, $65,000. Torn between enthusiasm and doubt for six weeks, he made no final move. In the Hollywood phrase, he sat on it—"it" being the symbolic toilet seat which one cannot decide either to use or to leave. But Kay Brown was sure of her instinct. She sent the synopsis of Gone With the Windto the company chairman, Jock Whitney. His response was immediate, and he told her that if Selznick didn't buy the rights, he would go after them himself. This had its effect. Selznick made an offer of $50,000. A day or so later the director Mervyn Le Roy, who had by now got hold of an advance copy, offered $55,000.
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!"
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.
The casting of Melanie and Ashley was only slightly less problematical. Anne Shirley, who suffered sweetly in Anne of Green GablesandStella Dallas,Andrea Leeds, who attracted attention as the suicidal young actress in Stage Door,and Elizabeth Allan, the gentle mother in David Copperfield,were tested first. None quite hit the mark. Geraldine Fitzgerald and Priscilla Lane were considered, then dismissed. Selznick then approached Janet Gaynor, but the actress had decided to give up her screen career. One day Joan Fontaine, only twenty years old and under contract to RKO, where she'd had little success, came to see Cukor under the impression he wanted her to read for Scarlett. When she found he was considering her for Melanie, she told him the part didn't interest her—but suggested it might interest her more famous sister, Olivia de Havilland. The idea interested Selznick and Cukor as well, and she came to the producer's home for a reading. De Havilland has described the experience: "George read Scarlett's lines while I read Melanie's. For some reason, George had to stand clutching some velvet curtains. He was absolutely marvelous—I'm sure it was his performance that got me the part." Both Selznick and Cukor agreed that she was the Melanie they wanted, but Warners' had to be approached again, since the actress was under contract there. At first Jack Warner refused a loan-out on any terms; like others in the industry, he felt that Gone With the Windwas a foolhardy project and predicted, "It's going to be the biggest bust of all time."
In spite of the demure parts in which she'd been cast so far, nice virginal girls in love with the dashing Errol Flynn, de Havilland was spirited and shrewd. She went to work on Warner's wife, knowing her influence, and played a very effective tea-and-sympathy scene with her one afternoon at the Brown Derby. Mrs. Warner's influence was brought to bear on her husband, negotiations were opened, and a deal signed.
For Ashley, Selznick's first choice had always been Leslie Howard, then at the peak of his reputation as a "sensitive" leading man in movies and the theater. After The Petrified ForestandOf Human Bondage,he played Hamleton the New York stage, then went back to England to give his best performance in the film of Pygmalion.Howard at this time was writing a play (which he never finished), and wanted to produce and direct. Approached by Selznick on his return to Hollywood, the actor's response was lukewarm. He was not interested in reading Margaret Mitchell's novel, and in fact never did so; when Selznick showed him a few scenes from the script, he remained unimpressed. Knowing the actor's other ambitions, Selznick offered him a package deal, with a job to follow as associate producer on a forthcoming picture. Howard finally took the bait, giving the usual reason in a letter to his daughter in England: "Money is the mission here and who am I to refuse it?"
The forthcoming picture was to be Intermezzo.During the fall of 1938, Selznick also found time to follow up another tip from Kay Brown, who had seen Ingrid Bergman in the Swedish version, and to sign the actress to a contract. His schedule, it seemed, could never be full enough, and he embarked on plans for an American remake.
By November, 1938, ten months after the final meetings with Sidney Howard, there had still been no progress on the script, and there was still no Scarlett; but a date had been fixed for the start of shooting. The deal with MGM specified that Gable had to begin work during the second week of February, 1939, and there was no guarantee that he would be available for more than twenty weeks, which was less than the established shooting schedule. (In case it is wondered how a schedule could be established without a script, Selznick had given his production department a list of all the principal scenes and sets that would definitely be included in the picture, and on this basis the department worked out a shooting period of approximately twenty-two weeks. Simultaneously, the many background and incidental shots not requiring direction of actors would be done by second units.) Now pressed for time, Selznick announced that a single sequence, the burning of Atlanta, would be shot on December 10, 1938. He planned to use the following two months' until Gable was available, on further preparation and on scenes without Rhett.
During November, too, he came to a decision. Paulette Goddard would be his Scarlett O'Hara, and her agent was contacted. However, at this time Chaplin and his star were openly living together, and no one was certain whether they were married. In more paranoid circles of the movie industry and the middle classes, Chaplin's alleged left-wing views in Modern Timeshad caused the first stirrings of the unpopularity that led to his eventual exclusion from the United States. Now the cry of an "immoral" private life was raised. When it became known that Goddard was on the verge of being signed, women's clubs all over the United States fired salvos of protest, and Selznick felt obliged to ask his Scarlett whether or not she was Chaplin's wife. Goddard insisted that a ceremony had occurred at sea, in the harbor of Singapore, while they were on a cruise to the Orient. (In My Autobiography,published in 1964, Chaplin states briefly, "During this trip Paulette and I were married.") Unfortunately, Goddard couldn't produce a marriage certificate or any official evidence that the wedding had taken place. Deciding not to risk a scandal, Selznick reluctantly ordered the search to continue.
In the meantime, he turned his attention again briefly to the script. After Margaret Mitchell refused his offer to inspect the existing material and give her opinion of it, he engaged Oliver H. P. Garrett, a screenwriter with whom he'd previously worked at MGM, to collaborate with him on further revisions to the structure and continuity. This job began on the train to New York, where Selznick had to go for a week of business meetings. Together they made some more cuts and reworked several major scenes—the barbecue at Twelve Oaks, the meeting of Rhett and Scarlett at the Atlanta Bazaar, the escape from Atlanta, Ashley's return from the war, and the new events leading up to the death of Frank Kennedy. Like other writers who followed him, Garrett was limited by being allowed to work only on isolated sequences, by the fact that Selznick was still uncertain about how long a film he wanted, and by the warnings not to tamper with a classic: "The ideal script, as far as I am concerned, would be one that did not contain a single word of original dialogue, and that was one hundred per cent Margaret Mitchell, however much we juxtaposed it." A difficult order when Selznick also demanded the invention of an occasional scene not in the book.
Like his successors, Garrett was employed only for a week or two, and never knew which of his ideas had been accepted until he saw the finished picture. Until the middle of January, 1939, other writers—including John van Druten, Scott Fitzgerald, and the scenarist Jo Swerling—were brought in to work in the same piecemeal way. In spite of his demands for close collaboration, Selznick seems to have been unwilling to work with his writers for more than a few days (or nights) at a time, and to have remained curiously indifferent to the confusion his methods created. As late as a day before the start of principal photography, a note to Whitney tells him not to worry about "the seemingly small amount of final revised script.... It is so clearly in my mind that I can tell you the picture from beginning to end, almost shot for shot."
While the mounds of unrevised pages continued to grow, he began conferring with Cukor on the casting of supporting parts. Lionel Barrymore was their first idea for Dr. Meade, but the actor was by now confined to a wheelchair, and they chose Harry Davenport instead. Selznick asked Kay Brown to sound out Tallulah Bankhead (now officially rejected as a candidate for Scarlett) on whether she would play Belle Watling, the Atlanta madam; Bankhead's reply, though not recorded, can be imagined, and the role went to Ona Munson. Hattie McDaniel was tested and cast as Mammy, Thomas Mitchell signed for Scarlett's father, and Barbara O'Neil (after Lillian Gish turned the part down) for her mother. Laura Hope Crews, a specialist in silly old women, landed Aunt Pittypat after Billie Burke was rejected as silly but not old enough.
The production team was already at work. For his designer, Selznick chose William Cameron Menzies, with whom he'd already been associated on Tom Sawyer,and who had other notable achievements to his credit, from the silentThief of Bagdadwith Fairbanks to Things to Comein England, which he also co-directed. According to Cukor, Hobe Erwin (who made the charming sets for Little Women) was also importantly involved in early conferences on the visual aspects, and influenced the general approach. Since both Menzies and Erwin are dead, this is one of several production matters that cannot be totally cleared up. Erwin has no credit on the film, and only worked on it for a few weeks before being replaced as art director by Lyle Wheeler; but this in itself is no reason to doubt Cukor's claim that he contributed vital ideas. On the other hand, there is the evidence of Menzies' involvement with the film throughout, his direction of several sequences, the color sketches for all the major camera setups in every scene that his assistant, McMillan Johnson, made under his supervision, and the sets he designed that were executed by Lyle Wheeler.
Lee Garmes, the cameraman assigned to the picture, had done brilliant innovative work throughout the 1930s, a pioneer in the development of low- key lighting, rich and muted halftones, seen at their most spectacular in the Von Sternberg- Dietrich films Morocco, Shanghai Express,andDishonored.A cable from Selznick reached him in London, where he'd been working for several months with Alexander Korda on a project now in a state of collapse. This was Cyrano de Bergerac,to star Charles Laughton; by coincidence, Garmes (who was going to direct it) had just tested Vivien Leigh for Roxanne. Disagreements between Korda and Laughton caused the film to be abandoned Garmes remembers that Selznick's cable astonished him, since he was convinced that Gone With the Windmust at least have started shooting. After his agent checked that it was not so, Garmes returned to Hollywood a day too late to film the burning of Atlanta, with which production began. He then worked on the picture for seven weeks, after which he had differences of opinion with Selznick and was replaced. Although he shot almost a third of the picture, and Vivien Leigh's tests, he received no credit.
For the costumes Selznick turned to Walter Plunkett, with whom he'd already worked on Little Women,and who had the eerie task of creating petticoats and crinolines for a nonexistent Scarlett. For the interiors, Joseph B. Platt, head of a large designing firm, was brought out from New York. He created special wallpapers and carpets, and supervised the choice of antique furniture. Both he and Plunkett worked in close collaboration with Menzies, evolving color effects and motifs for different scenes. Naturally, Selznick attended all their conferences and gave his seal of approval to the sketches.
Tara was to be built on the studio back lot, where various sets from The Last of the Mohicans, King Kong, The Garden of Allah,andLittle Lord Fauntleroywere still standing. Selznick's production manager, Raymond Klune, suggested that instead of clearing them away, they should be reassembled, repainted, and then burned as Atlanta. Since this was to be a night scene, and much of the detail would be obscured by raging flames, it took only a few false fronts to prepare them for destruction.
While the old sets were being readied for buming, Selznick had another brief attack of interest in the script. With another Russian friend, Jo Swerling, who had written the screenplay of the studio's recently completedMade for Each Other,he went to Bermuda for a week. Notes were taken but no writing was accomplished. Returning to Hollywood, he was momentarily alarmed by Eddie Mannix, a vice president of MGM, who told him that the buming of Atlanta could be carried out much more effectively by the use of model shots. Menzies and Raymond Klune emphatically disagreed, and after some hesitation Selznick allowed the original plan to proceed.
The night of December 10, the night of the fire, was cold. Seven Technicolor cameras— all that were available in Hollywood at that time—had been positioned to cover the burning, of which there could obviously be no retakes, and the setups and lighting were worked out by Ray Rennahan, the cameraman-adviser supplied by Technicolor. Pipes carrying gasoline had been run through the old sets; 25 members of the Los Angeles police department, 50 studio firemen, and 200 studio helpers were standing by with equipment and 500-gallon water tanks in case the flames should get out of hand. Sets of doubles were engaged for Scarlett and Rhett, who would be seen in various long and medium shots as they escaped from the city with Melanie, her newbom baby and Prissy the maid hidden in the back of the wagon. A special lookout platform had been built for Selznick, his mother (Lewis J. Selznick had moved to California in the early thirties and died soon afterward), and friends. Myron was expected, but had warned he might be late since he was entertaining some clients at dinner.
There was something Napoleonic in the image of the thirty-seven-year-old producer elevated on his platform, surrounded by a court, waiting to give the order that would set a world on fire. However, since Myron was late, the signal was delayed—like almost everything else connected with the picture. After an hour, Ray Klune told Selznick that it was impossible to keep the police and fire departments waiting any longer. Intensely nervous—what if Mannix should prove right, and the highly publicized funeral pyre should fail to make its impact on the screen?—the producer gave his signal. The famous old sets of dried wood blazed willingly. Cukor called the first "Action!" on Gone With the Wind,and the doubles of Scarlett and Rhett made their escape past the burning structures of King KongandThe Garden of Allah.
As the sparks flew upward and the buildings began to tremble, Selznick knew that Mannix had been wrong. He turned to Raymond Klune and apologized for having doubted him. And to some Los Angeles residents, always fearful of natural disasters such as earthquakes and holocausts, the overpowering glow in the sky announced that the city itself was on fire. A few dozen people hastily packed suitcases, got out their cars, and started driving toward the desert.
As the fire began to wane and the shooting ended, Myron arrived, slightly drunk, with his dinner guests. He led them up to the platform, ignoring David's reproaches and excitedly seizing his arm."I want you to meet your Scarlett O'Hara!" he said in a loud voice, causing everybody to turn around.
Selznick looked from the acres of burning rubble to a young actress standing beside Laurence Olivier. Firelight seemed to accentuate the hint of pale green in the light blue of her eyes, the green that Margaret Mitchell has ascribed to the eyes of her heroine. He knew that she was Vivien Leigh, an English actress, and that she and Olivier were in love. He also knew that several months ago her name had been mentioned to him by one of his talent executives, and he'd screened two pictures she made in Britain,Fire Over Englandand A Yank at Oxford,and thought her excellent but in no way a possible Scarlett. Seeing her now, the moment turned into a scene from his own A Star Is Born. "I took one look and knew that she was right—at least right as far as her appearance went," he said later. "If you have a picture of someone in mind and then suddenly you see that person, no more evidence is necessary ... I'll never recover from that first look."