1939 was the biggest year for quality movie-making that Hollywood had ever seen, with classics such as Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Ninotchka all nominees for the Best Picture Oscar. They all too were victim that night, and perhaps forever since, to the fevered success of another of 1939’s masterpieces: Gone with the Wind. The ultimate historical romantic movie epic, Gone with the Wind charted the rise and fall (and machinations) of willful Southern Belle Scarlett O’Hara, through the tempestuous times of both the Civil War and her relationship with blockade runner Rhett Butler. The film garnered a then-unprecedented tally of thirteen Academy Award nominations and a record eight wins, plus two further honorary awards.
Starting out as a book in 1936, written by first-time author Margaret Mitchell (who won the Pulitzer Prize for her efforts), the novel’s instantaneous acclaim pricked up Hollywood’s ears. In July 1936, only one month after the novel’s publication, producer David O. Selznick purchased the film rights for $50,000. He hired Sidney Howard as screenwriter, and so began the long and arduous process of birthing Gone with the Wind.
Casting for Gone with the Wind proved a monumental task – and headache – although its results were sublime. According to a studio poll the public’s overwhelming favourite for the role of dashing but dangerous Rhett (with 98% of the vote) was the resident ‘King of Hollywood’, Clark Gable. Gable himself wasn’t keen, worrying that his macho image would be damaged by a required crying scene and the fact that Scarlett doesn’t hanker after him for the entire film. Due to the studio-rules nature of the era though, Gable didn’t have much choice. The deal was sweetened by sufficient enough remuneration for the star that he could obtain a ‘quickie’ divorce from second wife Ria Langham and marry screwball star Carole Lombard.
Leslie Howard was also reluctant to be cast as weak-willed Ashley Wilkes. Aged 46, he felt that he was far too old to play a character that begins the film aged 21. His price was the promise of producing his next picture, Intermezzo. After signing his contract, Howard sent a telegram to Margaret Mitchell that included the immortal lines, “I feel it a great honour to have been selected to enact one of the roles of your book, the title of which escapes me at the moment.”
In stark contrast to the men, the role of Scarlett O’Hara was hotly contested, with many established actresses vying for consideration. Tallulah Bankhead, Norma Shearer and Paulette Goddard were all found wanting. As production was forced to begin on schedule, so the story goes, December 1938 saw the filming of the ‘Burning of Atlanta’ scene (Gone with the Wind remains the only Civil War film to have no battlefield scenes – this is as close as it got) with stand-ins and no lead actress cast. Selznick’s talent agent brother Myron approached the producer on set saying, “David, I want you to meet Scarlett O’Hara”, and presenting him with British actress Vivien Leigh. The rest is history. Leigh was fresh and without the ‘baggage’ of established stars. No one else could have had such a deliciously suited arching eyebrow for the part of the devious yet charming Scarlett.
With filming properly underway, the movie was still far from trouble-free. Original director George Cukor “withdrew” from the project, allegedly due to Gable’s dislike of his reputation as a “women’s director”. He was replaced by Victor Fleming, one of Gable’s hunting buddies (although the ladies kept receiving direction discreetly from Cukor). Now trouble began between Fleming and Leigh. He viewed Scarlett as a bitch deserving little sympathy. Leigh disagreed – so he threw his script at her and told her that she could “shove this up your royal British ass” before storming out and taking two weeks off (requiring the introduction of a THIRD director in the interim, Sam Wood).
It wasn’t, however, all doom and gloom on set. Hattie McDaniel as Mammy (a role which made her the first black person to win an Oscar – although she was forced to sit separately at the ceremony) shared a scene with Gable in which they drink to the health of Rhett and Scarlett’s new daughter. After multiple takes with coloured water, Gable switched their drinks to real scotch. She recalled that the next morning, “he had the audacity to whiz past me and holler, ‘Mammy, how’s the hangover?’”
Finally, the legacy of Rhett Butler’s crushing “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” must be examined. Due to Hollywood’s adoption of the strict Production Code, ‘damn’ had not been used in a film since 1933 – so Selznick filmed a second version of the scene with the line, “Frankly, my dear, I just don’t care”. The line was also originally written as, “My dear, I don’t give a damn” until on-set inspiration struck and the “frankly” was added to produce the crucial, magic lilt we enjoy today.
And frankly, my dear, that’s a wrap.