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."