FROM the ashes of Atlanta, under a winter sky, arose the set of Tara, carefully romanticized from Margaret Mitchell's description. A graveled driveway, lined with arching cedars, led past a wide green lawn to the plantation house of whitewashed brick. Trucks arrived with loads of brick dust, mixed into the surrounding earth to make it look Southern red. "From the avenue of cedars to the row of white cabins in the slave quarters," the author had written, "there was an air of solidness, of stability and permanence about Tara.... " There was also an air of opulence about its reproduction and, when Selznick sent Margaret Mitchell photographs of it, she privately found it exaggerated. She commented to a friend that she'd always thought of Tara as "upcountry functional," and that she would like to found a society called the Association of Southerners Whose Grandpappies Did Not Live in Houses with White Columns. (Later, when Selznick sent her photographs of the designs for Twelve Oaks, the Wilkes house, she told the same friend, "I rolled on the floor screaming with laughter.") As for Tara's white columns, Susan Myrick proved her worth early on by pointing out to Selznick that at least they should not be rounded; and the design was corrected to make them square, in the authentic style of the old South rather than of the studio facade.
There was no question of any serious location work in the South; the tradition of Hollywood film-making in the thirties was that you could make everything look better by building a set, and the kind of vast, nostalgic, quintessential evocation of the South that Selznick wanted could only be achieved at the studio. For the fields surrounding Tara, locations were chosen in the San Fernando Valley, its earth again tinted red, and the gardens of a private estate in Pasadena.
At the same time, construction was under way on the sound stages of the interiors of Tara, Lyle Wheeler executing William Cameron Menzies' designs for the sets and Joseph Platt contacting dealers across the country for hundreds of pieces of authentic furniture. Selznick was particularly concerned with the "reality" of these, stressing the importance of aging them, to avoid the usual look of sets and props that had just arrived the night before. Wilbur G. Kurtz, an artist and historian of the South, was retained to check on every matter of detail, and various assistants were employed to verify such things as how horses' tails were cropped at the time and whether oral thermometers were used in hospitals. All the stars were summoned for extensive costume and makeup tests, and another specialist in Southern dialect, Will A. Price, joined Susan Myrick to coach them in accents. On another stage, the building of the set for the Atlanta Bazaar was under way, and Menzies was also preparing a second huge exterior set, the city of Atlanta, with more than fifty buildings and a total of two miles of streets.
With the largest army of studio workers ever assembled for a single movie at his command, specialists of every kind surrounding him, Selznick seemed to have only one major problem left: the script. It was still an unresolved mound: pink, yellow, and blue pages indicating rewrites of the original white; but less than a third of the scenes had been fully worked out and were ready to shoot. For a few days John Van Druten, already rewriting Intermezzo, was called in to work on separate scenes; he was followed by Scott Fitzgerald for a few weeks. Instructed like the others to use only Margaret Mitchell's dialogue, Fitzgerald seems to have been the first to caution Selznick that there was already too much of it. He reminded him that in movies "it's dull and false for one character to describe another," and recommended that long speeches, such as Ashley's account to Scarlett of the desperate state of the Confederate army, should be reduced to a minimum, because the audience had already been shown what he was talking about. Fitzgerald would indicate, too, how an image or the expression on an actor's face could frequently replace dialogue. One scene he was given to rework was the moment when Scarlett watches Melanie and Ashley, recently married, go upstairs to bed. By this time the audience knew that Scarlett was still obsessed with Ashley and jealous of Melanie, but the previous version of the scene again reminded them of it in dialogue. Fitzgerald's "rewrite" was a cutting of most of the lines, and he explained in a note to Selznick: "It seems to me stronger in silence."
Fitzgerald also discovered, rather to his surprise, that Margaret Mitchell's original dialogue was usually better than other writers' reworking of it. Again, there was often too much of it, but vital lines could be extracted to make the point better than any rephrasing. In a letter to his daughter he gave one of the fairest, most relevant estimates of the book as a whole: " ... not very original, in fact leaning heavily on The Old Wives' Tale, Vanity Fair, and all that has been written on the Civil War.... But on the other hand it is interesting, surprisingly honest, consistent and workmanlike throughout, and I felt no contempt for it, but only a certain pity for those who consider it the supreme achievement of the human mind."
With Sidney Howard having already pointed out to him the repetitions in the structure, and Fitzgerald now criticizing the dialogue for the same reason, Selznick actually held the key to a reexamination of his troubled script. He himself did not see it that way, however, and used hardly any of Fitzgerald's suggestions; then, disappointed by the writer's failure to come up with some "funny" lines for Aunt Pittypat, he fired him. Being taken off the script was a disastrous blow to Fitzgerald's already shaky confidence. He began the long on-again-off-again drinking bout that led to his final decline and death eighteen months later. Another letter to his daughter, shortly after Selznick fired him, is an ironic valedictory to his unrequited love affair with the movies: "So farewell, Miriam Hopkins, who leans so close when she talks, so long, Claudette Colbert, as yet unencountered, mysterious Garbo, glamorous Dietrich, exotic Shirley Temple -- you will never know me.... " However, between the drinking bouts and brief assignments on B pictures, he began The Last Tycoon. Although unfinished, it remains the most fascinating novel about Hollywood ever written, and sums up his feelings about the Thalbergs and the Selznicks, those enigmatic, power-driven figures whom in spite of everything he wanted to please.
So Fitzgerald's pages joined the mass of others on the shelf, and Selznick showed little concern. He seemed infatuated with the physical creation of a world. Every other element came under painstaking supervision at this time, and he even sent an SOS to Margaret Mitchell: "How should we tie Mammy's bandana?" (Her answer: "I don't know and I'm not going out on a limb over a headrag.") Meanwhile, the basic material remained in a state of relative disorganization.
There were other reasons for this, beyond the mania for physical detail, wallpapers, fabrics for petticoats, bandanas. First, Selznick had begun to delude himself that he was a writer, a delusion that was to grow stronger in later years. From the succession of writers after Sidney Howard [see endnote: Other writers called in for a few days on the script, apart from those already mentioned, were John Balderston, who adapted The Prisoner of Zenda; the playwright Edwin Justus Mayer; and Charles MacArthur, the frequent collaborator of Ben Hecht's. The results of their work, if any, remain unknown.] he had gained a few satisfactory scenes and a few ideas, but in spite of all the other pressures, he found time to rewrite practically all the scenes himself. By now, of course, he regarded the film of Gone With the Wind as entirely his own conception, and perhaps it seemed logical to him that he should personally solve every problem. From time to time Cukor would complain about a scene not being ready, and Selznick's response was always the same. He would promise to work all night with one of the writers currently and momentarily on his payroll, and the scene would be perfect in the morning. Not surprisingly, the results failed to justify his promise.
For under the surface the strain was beginning to tell. In an article called "The Great Dictater," Alva Johnston has described Selznick's condition at this time. Not only would he work without sleeping for seventy-two hours at a stretch but, under his doctor's supervision, he had been put on "a daily ration of benzedrine and six or eight grains of thyroid extract -- enough to send many a man to heaven. Rather than yield to fatigue, he occasionally left his office at two or three a.m. and went to a gambling house. This was an expensive cure for drowsiness, but after a few hours of roulette he would return to his office refreshed and wide awake, with all the fatigue toxins cleared out of his brain." Johnston also put forward the interesting theory that Selznick developed the habit of dictating memos because he hated to be interrupted while he was talking, and nobody can interrupt a memo. Selznick himself said that he learned the habit from his father, who found dictation the best way of clarifying his thoughts. I think there was by now another reason. At a time when he was undertaking the most ambitious and strenuous work of his career, his expanding ego demanded a consciousness of posterity. He was documenting himself, and taking care that the documents should be preserved. In the same way, after the success of Gone With the Wind he ordered his publicity staff to write letters to the editors of all the major encyclopedias and reference books that did not yet include his name.
Pushing himself to the edge, propped up by drugs, sleeping irregularly, gambling compulsively, his marriage to Irene Mayer beginning to show signs of crisis (a tricky problem while he was in business with her father), Selznick's control was not as completely secure as it appeared to the world. These tensions account to a considerable extent for his failure to come to terms with the script, and for the other quarrels and emergencies that were to explode throughout much of the shooting.
ON January 26, 1939, principal shooting began. The opening studio sequences -- Scarlett on the porch at Tara, flirting with the Tarleton twins and complaining about their talk of war, then getting ready for the Wilkes barbecue -- were actually the first to be done. (The porch scene was then reshot on Selznick's orders, because he wanted Scarlett to wear a white dress instead of the flowered muslin that she would also wear to the barbecue.) Then, because of the script situation, scenes were scheduled according to whether they already existed in practical form on paper, and according to which sets were ready. Cukor followed the opening with two other episodes taken very literally from the book: the birth of Melanie's child, with Scarlett forcing the hysterical Prissy (Butterfly McQueen) to help her deliver it, and the incident of the Union deserter who appears at Tara at the end of the war and is shot by Scarlett. After this, he completed the first scene with Gable, when Rhett brings Scarlett the present of a Paris hat. Then he moved to the set of the Atlanta Bazaar, and began the first day's shooting of the ball. At the end of it, when he'd been working on the picture for two and a half weeks, Selznick fired him.
To this day Cukor says he is still uncertain of the reason. He had been Selznick's choice from the first; they had worked together for two years, between other films, making tests and conferring on the script, the design, and all the casting. At the time, it was widely believed that Gable had never wanted Cukor, that he was afraid of his reputation as a "woman's director," and felt the picture would be thrown to Vivien Leigh. Cukor does not accept this. "If that's so, it was very naive of him and not the thinking of a very good or professional actor.... I don't throw anything anywhere at all. There's the truth of the scene and it states itself." The one scene with Gable that he directed, which remains in the picture, certainly shows no favoritism toward Vivien Leigh; on the other hand, both Lee Garmes and Ray Klune have confirmed to me their impression that Gable -- who was extremely nervous and tense throughout much of the shooting -- was never happy with the choice of Cukor. Their only overt disagreement, in the brief time they worked together, was over the question of a Southern accent, Cukor wanting the actor to attempt a more distinct one; but Selznick interfered, coming down on Gable's side.
Cukor has also said that for the first time in their relationship, even before shooting started, Selznick seemed to trust him less. "He wanted to attend the rehearsals, which I thought unwise. I was the director, after all, and a director should shoot the scene before the producer sees it.... And then David started coming down on the set, giving hot tips which weren't really very helpful. He'd never done that before. He changed our methods of working...." In fact, their relationship had changed in other ways since they first worked together. No longer the protégé, Cukor had become a highly successful director without Selznick by the time of Gone With the Wind; he had turned down A Star Is Born, not wanting to do another Hollywood movie so soon and preferring to direct Camille instead, and he had also declined to replace H. C. Potter on Tom Sawyer. Selznick had not failed to comment privately, in a memo to one of his company associates, on the problems of "the Cukor situation."
Another clue is provided by Lee Garmes. In an interview with Charles Higham, he remarked, "It wasn't his fault that George was fired. It was David's.... All the preparatory work was based on Sidney Howard's script, but when we started shooting, we were using Selznick's. His own material didn't play the same. Cukor was too much of a gentleman to go to David and say, 'Look, you silly son of a bitch, your writing isn't as good....' " Instead, Cukor directed some basically unplayable scenes to the best of his ability, "and no one else wanted to tell the Czar he was wrong." This point is borne out in another letter that Vivien Leigh wrote to her husband.
Pressure from MGM seems to have been another factor. First of all, had Gable been unhappy, the studio would have wanted to placate him; and while it was clear from the start that the film would go some way over its original budget of $2,500,000, Cukor refused to sacrifice the nuances of detail and atmosphere so characteristic of his work. "Look at the scene where Mammy's lacing up Scarlett," Olivia de Havilland said later, "and then at the next one, where Scarlett sits on the stairs eating a chicken leg. There's no other scene in the film with so much detail, such richness -- all these were Cukor touches." Yet when Mayer saw the rushes, he expressed doubts. If Cukor paid so much attention to intimate moments, wouldn't he neglect the spectacle, the more commercial aspects of the story? It seems possible that Mayer's reaction revived an ancient doubt in Selznick's mind. Originally he had thought of employing another director for the war sequences, and considered the idea of approaching D. W. Griffith; then, reluctantly, he decided that the old master was not up to it. Also, as Leslie Howard complained in a letter to his daughter, "after seven days' shooting they are five days behind schedule." Much of the delay, however, was caused by Selznick, who not only ordered the porch scene to be reshot but sent down his own revised scenes almost every day.
Just as Cukor never really knew, neither perhaps did Selznick. A joint statement issued to the press on February 13 began as follows: "As a result of a series of disagreements between us over many of the individual scenes of Gone With the Wind, we have mutually decided that the only solution is for a new director to be selected at as early a date as is practicable."
COSTUMED in black, Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland had been rehearsing a scene at the Atlanta Bazaar when the news was brought. They burst into tears and ran over to Selznick's office, where for almost an hour they pleaded with him to change his mind. They said that Cukor had done all the groundwork on their roles, that he had laid them out in detail; but Selznick remained unyielding.
In fact, although Cukor shot so little of the picture, his imprint continued. After he'd left, de Havilland called him up to ask if she could come over to his house for a few hours on Sundays (there was a six-day week at the time) and, as Cukor puts it, "do some moonlighting." They would run scenes together, and one day the actress asked Cukor if he thought she was wrong to be doing this behind Vivien's back. He told her that he couldn't see why, since Vivien was doing exactly the same thing. Until the end of shooting, in fact, Cukor "ghosted" their performances in this way.
Naturally, production had to close down after Cukor's dismissal, and the episode seemed to confirm a general doubt in Hollywood about the whole project. "The whole town was against us," de Havilland remembers, "and there wasn't a soul in Hollywood who wished us well." And Vivien wrote in another letter to her husband: "He [Cukor] was my last hope of ever enjoying the picture. He was quite right, as the head office suddenly decided that the script (written by one of America's best dramatists) which they had for two years wasn't good enough, and started writing one themselves. So you can imagine what the dialogue is like.... "
The only member of the cast who appeared unaffected was Leslie Howard. Before shooting started, when he made his costume tests, he realized how much he disliked the prospect of playing Ashley. "I hate the damn part," he wrote to his daughter. "I'm not nearly beautiful or young enough for Ashley, and it makes me sick being fixed up to look attractive." As for the film itself: "Terrible lot of nonsense -- heaven help me if I ever read the book.'' When Cukor left, he evidently agreed with most of Hollywood: "David says he is going to sue me for spreading alarm and despondency."
Gable, naturally, involved himself in the question of Cukor's replacement. MGM wanted his sucessor to be one of their own contract directors, and gave Selznick a list of those available: King Vidor, Robert Z. Leonard, Jack Conway, and Victor Fleming. Selznick asked Gable which of these he would prefer, and the actor immediately chose Fleming.
As well as being a "man's director," Fleming had proved himself a highly competent manager of action and spectacle in a variety of films; but he accepted the job with reluctance, and only after pressure from MGM and Gable. Raymond Klune remembers him as a dour man, notably foulmouthed and anti-Semitic. ("How can you keep on working for all these Jews?" he used to ask him.) Lee Garmes also told me that Fleming had been forewarned of Selznick's habit of rewriting the script, and when he was shown the existing footage, the producer was shocked by his reaction. "David," he said, "your fucking script is no fucking good."
Since nobody had said this before, Selznick felt obliged to make a gesture and agreed to call in a new writer. He turned to his old friend Ben Hecht, a man of occasional though cynical brilliance, famous as a "fixer" of scripts and self-described as "a man of letters with a Hollywood address."
In A Child of the Century he tells how Selznick and Fleming arrived at his house on a Sunday morning at dawn. By sunrise, the three of them had reached the studio in Selznick's car, having settled terms on the way. Hecht would be paid $15,000, and all the work had to be done in a week. Then "four Selznick secretaries who had not yet been to sleep that night staggered in with typewriters, paper and a gross of pencils." Appalled to discover that Hecht had never read Gone With the Wind, Selznick decided there was no time to remedy that now. Since Fleming hadn't read it either, the producer himself gave Hecht a verbal summary that lasted an hour. "I had seldom heard a more involved plot. My verdict was that nobody could make a sensible movie out of it. Fleming, who was reputed to be part Indian, sat brooding at his own council fires. I asked him if he had been able to follow the story David had told. He said no."
Hecht then asked Selznick if at any time since he bought the novel a writer had turned this "Ouidalike flight into the Civil War" into a workable screen narrative. Selznick at first seemed doubtful; then, remembering Sidney Howard's first draft, long since buried in revisions, he wondered if it might be worth looking at again. A secretary finally located the original and Selznick read it aloud. "Precise and telling" was Hecht's verdict, and he saw no problem other than reducing its length. For the rest of the week he worked in eighteen- and twenty-four-hour stretches doing exactly that. Believing that food slowed up the creative process, the producer limited their lunches to a snack of bananas and salted peanuts. On the fifth day, in the act of eating a banana, Selznick collapsed and had to be revived by a doctor. On the sixth, a blood vessel burst in Fleming's eye. Hecht conserved his strength by dozing on a couch while Selznick and Fleming acted out the scenes, and at the end of the week he had completed a revised version of the first half. It was a performance of sheer technique, not invention, and he wanted no credit and took none.
Later, Selznick was to play down Hecht's contribution. (He also rewrote it.) He claimed that while Sidney Howard was the only writer who did substantial work on the script, the final structure was 80 percent his own, with the rest conceived by Howard and Jo Swerling.
Once again, this is a matter which cannot be finally settled. However, on the evidence of the finished film, I would say that 50 percent of its structure is due to none of these writers, but to Margaret Mitchell.
SHOOTING resumed on March 1, two weeks after Cukor's dismissal. It was quickly apparent that Vivien Leigh's relationship with the new director, like Scarlett's with Rhett, would be contentious. Any successor to Cukor would have had a difficult time endearing himself to her, but with Fleming's open declaration of intentions, "I'm going to make this picture a melodrama," she prepared for battle. Nor was she pleased when he immediately nicknamed her "Fiddle-de-Dee." There were to be few moments, in fact, when she wasn't complaining about Selznick's dialogue and the way Fleming expected her to play it. Selznick described later how she would mutter under her breath before a take and make "small moans." Nevertheless she was always polite and professional; they arrived at a workable truce and a grudging respect for each other.
At first Vivien Leigh had felt deeply discouraged, faced on the one hand with Fleming, a man she considered an expert but simpleminded technician replacing an artist, a "poor wretch" who never had time even to read the book, and on the other with the leviathan of Selznick; but in spite of being so young and unknown, she tackled both with a coolly virulent determination. In her loyalty to Cukor's conception of the role, and in her arguments with Selznick about the script, she became a creative influence on the picture far beyond the usual limits of an actress. On the surface, de Havilland was pliant, while secretly conferring with Cukor; Gable and Fleming were old friends; Leslie Howard was bored and given to flubbing his lines; it was left to Vivien to speak her mind, which she began to do with a courage and passion that must have astonished Selznick. ("No Pollyanna," he would sigh when describing her.) Every day she would arrive on the set with a copy of the novel in her hand, as evidence that the original was superior to the rewrites, and also "to look up each scene as we filmed it, to remind myself where I was supposed to be, and how I should be feeling -- until Selznick shouted at me to throw the damned thing away." Without the book and without Cukor, she said, she would never have been able to get through. But there was also her own strength, and the self-discipline that de Havilland called "not harsh, but of an exquisite order." She had wanted the part, she had started with great hopes, and was determined not to lose out now. "She gave something to that film," de Havilland has commented, "which I don't think she ever got back."
The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one. Click here to go to part three.
Copyright © 1973 by Gavin Lambert. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 1973; The Making of Gone With The Wind, Part II; Volume 265, No. 6; pages 56 - 72.