Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Gone with the Wind Turns 70

It was seventy years ago tonight that the movie Gone with the Wind made its debut, fittingly enough in Atlanta, Georgia. In January 1940 alone, Gone with the Wind averaged around $1 million a week, even though it played at less than 500 of the 17,500 theatres then in the United States. By the end of May 1940, when it completed its  run as a roadshow release, Gone with the Wind had already grossed approximately $20 million before it had even received a wide release. It remained the highest grossing film ever until May 1966 when it was overtaken by The Sound of Music. This having been said, when adjusted for inflation, to this very day Gone with the Wind remains the highest grossing movie of all time.

Gone with the Wind was based on the novel of the same name by Margaret Mitchell. The novel had proven to be an unprecedented success in the same way that the movie would late be.Published in the summer of  1936, Gone with the Wind had already sold one million by that December. Curiously, Hollwyood took an interest in the novel before it was even published.  It was in May 1936 that producer David O. Selznick began the process of buying the rights to the novel. Eventually Mitchell sold the film rights to Gone with the Wind for $50,000, with 50,000 more dollars paid later.

Even as Selznick was in the process of buying the rights to the novel, he was considering actors for the various roles. In retrospect the actresses initially considered for the role of Scarlett do not seem suited to the part today: Miriam Hopkins, Margaret Sullavan, or Bette Davis. Initially either Franchot Tone or Ronald Colman were considered for the role of Ashley Wilkes and Janet Gaynor as his wife Melanie. The very first actor that David O. Selznick had in mind for Rhett Butler was Clark Gable. This having been said, others were considered .Gary Cooper was also considered for the role, but he turned it down because he thought the movie would be the biggest flop in history. Ronald Colman was also considered for the role of Rhett Butler, although ultimately Selznick decided he was wrong for the part. Errol Flynn nearly had the role of Rhett Butler. A contract was even drawn up for Warner Brothers to lend Flynn to Selznick, but in the end Flynn was not cast in the role.

Ultimately, it was Clark Gable who was cast as Rhett Butler. He signed the contract to play the part on August 25, 1938. It was the film's original director, George Cukor. who asked Olivia de Havilland to audition for the role of Melanie Hamilton Wilkes. She did a reading for Cukor and he cast her in the role. Unfortunately, there was one hurdle she had to overtake before she could play Melanie: her contract wtih Warner Brothers. Jack Warner initially refused to loan her to Selznick, even though she begged him to let her take the role. She finally had to talk to his wife, Irene, who intervened with Warner on her behalf. British actor Leslie Howard was cast as Ashley Wilkes, a part with which he was very uncomfortable. Howard felt that he was much too old for the role, and in the end Selznick had to give him an associate producer credit on Intermezzo: a Love Story before he would take the role.

While Selznick initially considered various actresses for the role of Scarlett, in the end he put out a national casting call for someone to play the role. Katherine Hepburn practically demanded Selznick give her the role to which the producer responded, "I can't imagine Rhett Butler chasing you for ten years (arguably, Hepburn was probably too much of a Yankee to be convincing as Scarlett, despite her considerable talent). Many famous and soon to be famous actresses did screen tests for the role, including Tallulah Bankhead (who Selznick decided was too old for the role),  Jean Arthur, Joan Bennett, Paulette Goddard, Susan Hayward, Linda Lee, Anita Louise, Alicia Rhett (who was ultimately cast as Ashley's sister India) , and Lana Turner. Colour screen tests were only made of two actresses: Paulette Goddard (who tested several different times for the role) and a British actress unknown in the United States named Vivien Leigh. Cast in the role of Scarlett, she signed her contract on January 16, 1939.

Even before Selznick bought the rights to the book, George Cukor was hired to direct Gone with the Wind. For two years he worked on the pre-production on the film, including overseeing the film tests in the search for Scarlett O' Hara. Cukor would not remain with the project to its end. Contrary to popular belief, Cukor does not appear to have been fired because Clark Gable was uncomfortable around him. Instead, it appears that Selznick dismissed Cukor apparently out of dissatisfaction with the director's slow pace of working. He was replaced by Victor Fleming. Curiously, Fleming also replaced Cukor on the second highest grossing film of 1939, The Wizard of Oz. Even after being dismissed from the film, Cukor continued to privately coach Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland.

As might be expected of a movie based on a 1037 page novel set in the American South before, during, and after the War Between the States, the shooting of Gone with the Wind was a major undertaking. Its production costs were estimated at $3.9 million. At the time only Ben Hur (1925) and Hell's Angels cost more to make. The first scene to be shot was the burning of Atlanta on December 10, 1938, arguably the most complex scene in the entire movie. The pieces of film history that were used as fuel for the fire in the scene would cause most modern film buffs dismay. Many old sets were actually burned in the sequence, including the great wall from RKO's King Kong (1933) and the sets from Selznick's own The Garden of Allah. Reportedly, film prints were even used to fuel the fire, the nitrocellulose film base being particularly flammable. As a result, many old films could well have been burned in the fire and hence forever lost. Since the film did not yet have a lead actress, doubles were used for both Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in the scene. The fire was so huge that Culver City's phone lines were jammed by people making calls on the assumption that MGM was actually burning down. Ultimately, the shooting of the burning of Atlanta cost $25,000, with 113 minutes of footage shot. It also utilised all ten of Hollywood's Technicolour cameras at the time. Should the fire have gotten out of hand, fifty studio firemen and 200 studio employees stood by, with ten pieces of fire fighting equipment borrowed from the Los Angeles Fire Department. To put out the flames it took no less than three 5,000 gallon water tanks.

Other scenes would also provide the production crew of Gone with the Wind with difficulties. The scene in which Scarlett looks for Dr. Meade called for her to make her way through 2,500 injured and dying Confederate soldiers. This presented the production team with a problem as the Screen Actors Guild only had 1,500 extras available at the time. To make the crowd of soldiers look even larger, 1,000 dummies were then scattered among the extras. Another problem the scene presented was that Selznick wanted a camera mounted on a crane a hundred feet in the air to track Scarlett. No studio, not even MGM, had a crane that large at the time. Fortunately, production manager Ray Klune came up with the novel solution of borrowing a crane from a construction company, and then utilising a ramp so that the camera would move smoothly.

The hard work necessary in making a movie the size and scope of Gone with the Wind took a toll on those who worked on it. Indeed, at one point David O. Selznick was faced with the possibility of finding another director. The day came when Victor Fleming, after a disagreement with Vivien Leigh during rehearsal, he threw down his script in a huff, walked out of the studio, and went home. The next day word came that the director had a nervous breakdown. Selznick contacted Fleming's doctor and found out the truth. While Fleming was certainly tired, frustrated, and angry, he did not have a nervous breakdown. Instead, Fleming was angry at what he saw as Selznick's constant interference with the picture. Fleming and Klune then met and decided that the best way they could get Fleming to return to the movie was to replace him with another director. As a result,  Sam Wood (who had directed the Marx Brothers' classic Night at the Opera) was brought in to direct Gone with the Wind.

It was after two weeks that Victor Fleming returned to Gone with the Wind. This did not mean that Sam Wood's work on the movie was over. Instead, Selznick kept him on the movie to direct many of its scenes. While only Victor Fleming directed Clark Gable, Sam Wood would direct many of the scenes with Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland. This took a bit of a toll on the two actresses, as they might shoot a scene with Fleming in the morning, and then another for Sam Wood in the afternoon. The actors often worked from early in the morning to late at night. Leslie Howard found himself in even more of a bind in that he was set to star in Intermezzo as well as act as an associate producer on the film. Even with Gone with the Wind still shooting, the starting date of Intermezzo could not be moved back. As a result, Leslie Howard found himself playing two parts at once--Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind and Holger Brandt in Intermezzo.

Shooting on Gone with the Wind ended July 1, 1939. The movie ultimately featured over 50 different speaking parts and used 2,400 extras. In making Gone with the Wind 500,000 feet of film was shot, which was edited down to 20,000 feet. As of July 1939, the initial rough cut of the film ran four and half hours, which is 48 minutes longer than the film as it was released.

Anxious to get an audience's reaction to his film, David O. Selznick arranged for sneak previews of Gone with the Wind in September 1939. At this point the film was not quite complete. Max Steiner's music score was missing, as well as some of the special effects. It also lacked a title sequence, so one was created especially for the sneak previews. The first of the previews was held at the Fox Theatre in Riverside, California on September 9, 1939. That night the Fox had scheduled a double feature of Hawaiian Nights and Beau Geste. After Hawaiian Nights had ended, however, it was not Beau Geste that the audience saw. Instead the audience was informed that they would see another movie, that no one would be permitted to leave after the movie had begun, and no phone calls could be made out of the cinema. The audience's reaction to the film was enthusiastic. The second and final sneak preview for Gone with the Wind was held at the Granada Theatre in Santa Barbara, California. The procedure was the same there, as was the audience's reaction. Even when the film was not fully completed, it received enthusiastic reactions from audiences.

On December 15, 1939, Gone with the Wind made its premiere in Atlanta, Georgia. Atlanta's Mayor William B. Hartsfield arranged for three days of festivities in the city leading up to the film's debut. Governor Eurith D. Rivers declared December 15, 1939 a state holiday. Nearly a million people attended the festivities in Atlanta leading up to the premiere. The front of the Grand Theatre, where the film premiered, was given decorative pillars so that it resembled Twelve Oaks, the Wilkes family plantation house. The Grand Theatre only seated 2,500 people, which meant that not everyone who wanted to attend the premiere could. Indeed, in the last few hours before the film's premiere, scalpers were selling tickets for as high as $200.

While the premiere of Gone with the Wind was a huge event for Georgia and much of the South, it was not without controversy. Segregation still existed in Georgia at that time, so that Hattie McDaniel nor any of the other African American actors could attend the premiere. This so incensed Clark Gable that he very nearly insisted on not attending the premiere. It was Miss McDaniel herself that convinced him to attend.

From its premiere in Atlanta, Gone with the Wind went onto become the most phenomenally successful film of all time in terms of box office gross. It also did very well at the Academy Awards in 1940. The film was nominated for a then unheard of 13 Oscars, of which it won eight. It became the first all colour motion picture to ever win the Oscar for Best Picture. It also remains the longest movie to ever win the Oscar for Best Picture, at 224 minutes. Hattie McDaniel became the first African American not only to win an Academy Award, but to even be nominated for one. Gone with the Wind would also see the first posthumous awarding of an Oscar. Screenwriter Sidney Howard, who had died in an accident in August 1939, won the Oscar for Best Writing, Screenplay.

Gone with the Wind was of such size and scope that it literally changed the careers of people. This was most obvious in the case of young English actress Vivien Leigh. Prior to Gone with the Wind, Leigh was primarily known in the United Kingdom. The only film in which she appeared which received very much attention in the United States was A Yank at Oxford, With Gone with the Wind she achieved international stardom. She not only won the Oscar for Best Actress, but also the New York Film Critics Circle award as well. She would go onto appear in such films as Waterloo Bridge, Anna Karenina, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Ship of Fools.  

Gone with the Wind did not simply change the career of the actress who won the role of Scarlett O'Hara, but even those who had tested for the part. Paulette Goddard was Leigh's chief contender for the role. She did achieve stardom  in 1938 and 1939 with supporting roles in The Young at Heart, Dramatic School, and The Women, but it seems likely that it was the fact that she nearly won the role of Scarlet O'Hara in Gone with the Wind that led to a contract with Paramount Pictures. For much of the Forties Goddard would be a major star. Testing for the role of Scarlett O'Hara may have also helped the career of Lana Turner. Prior to Gone with the Wind, the young starlet had appeared in roles in such films as They Won't Forget and Dramatic School. It seems significant that after Gone with the Wind she was appearing in lead roles, often in prestige pictures such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Perhaps no other actress's career was changed as greatly by Gone with the Wind as that of Susan Hayward. In 1937 she went from New York to Hollywood in hopes of being cast as Scarlett O'Hara. While she did not win the role, she did receive a contract with Warner Brothers. Gone with the Wind would also be significant in the career of George Reeves, one day to play Superman. Cast as Stuart Tarleton (although erroneously credited as Brent Tarleton on screen), it was George Reeves' first credit on screen.

It was not simply actors whose careers were impacted by Gone with the Wind. Sam Wood had been a director since 1920, having directed such films as the Marx Brothers' classics A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, as well as the classic Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Following his stint on Gone with the Wind, however, Wood's career shifted towards visually stunning period pieces, including Our Town, King's Row, Ivy, and Pride of the Yankees. Gone with the Wind would have even more of an impact on Val Lewton, who served as story editor on the film and even had a great deal of input on the burning of Atlanta scene. It was Lewton's experience working on such films as A Tale of Two Cities, Gone with the Wind, and Rebecca that led RKO to sign him as a producer in charge of unit to make B-horror movies. Quite simply, without Gone with the Wind, we might not have Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, or Bedlam.

Almost from its debut, Gone with the Wind has been hailed as a classic. And I must confess that it is one of my favourite films of all time. That having been said, I also recognise that it is a flawed classic. Indeed, perhaps the worst sin committed by Gone with the Wind is its portrayal of race relations in the South before, during, and after the War Between the States. The movie presents an overly simplistic and entirely unrealistic view of the relationship between African Americans and European Americans in the antebellum South, presenting loyal, happy slaves serving largely benevolent masters. We know from history this was not the case. Worse yet, Hattie McDaniel's Oscar notwithstanding, every African American in the film is a stereotype. In Gone with the Wind African Americans fall into two types:  intelligent but loyal to a fault (Mammy and Big Sam) or childlike and none too bright (Prissy and Pork). While Selznick did consult with the NAACP, it would seem that he presented what was a highly traditional and unrealistic view of African Americans in the antebellum South, one that is offensive today. Of course, here  I suppose we must consider that Gone with the Wind merely reflects the times in which it was made. The 1938 Bette Davis Jezebel offers the same overly simplistic and unrealistic view of race relations in the Old South, as well as the same stereotypes. It must also be pointed out that in comparison to other portrayals of African Americans at the time, in many respects Gone with the Wind was fairly mild. After all, this was the era of Stepin Fetchit, Willie Best, Mantan Moreland, and Amos and Andy.

While many have noted the offensive portrayal of race relations in the antebellum South as presented by Gone with the Wind, I have not known many people to raise an objection to what I consider a case of miscasting in the film. Leslie Howard did not feel that he was right for the part of Ashley Wilkes, believing that he was neither young enough or beautiful enough for the role. Here I must disagree with Howard to a degree. He was a truly great actor, one of such calibre that he could play almost any age and be convincing. I also have to disagree with Howard that he was not beautiful enough to play Ashley. He always seemed like a decent looking chap to me, and I know women who think he was downright handsome. I do have to agree with him that he was miscast as Ashley, but for an entirely different reason. Quite simply, Leslie Howard was much too powerful a personage to play Ashley Wilkes, and not nearly  bland enough to do so. Ashley is a man who simply could not make up his mind. He loves Melanie and yet he is obsessed with Scarlett. He does not sympathise with the cause of the North, and yet he is not particularly fond of the cause of the South either. It is perhaps because of this that Ashley does not seem to have much of a personality, or at least not a very interesting one. It seems to me that the choice of the man who played such iron willed characters as Sir Percy in The Scarlet Pimpernel, Captain Fred Allison in Captured, and even Professor Henry Higgins in Pygmalion to play a milquetoast such as Ashley Wilkes is a strange one. Perhaps I am too much of a Leslie Howard fan, but I do not find him convincing as Ashley.

Despite its flaws, some of which are very serious flaws, I must confess that I still love Gone with the Wind. Much of this is due to the same reason many people love Gone with the Wind. It is an epic love story set during what may well be the most turbulent period in American history. That having been said, Gone with the Wind also resonates with me in a way that I suspect it does not for those born in the North. As a Southerner I can say that there is much that I find in Gone with the Wind that is familiar to me, someone born over 100 hundred years after the movie takes place. Thankfully, the South has changed a good deal since the times of Gone with the Wind. Slavery is a distant memory and, while racism still exists, African Americans are not nearly as oppressed in the South in 2009 as they would have been in 1873 (when the movie ends).

That having been said, there is much in Gone with the Wind that still rings true today. To a degree there are aspects of Southern society that have changed little since the time in which the movie was set. Those watching the movie for the first time might be surprised that Scarlett's mother, Eileen O'Hara, wields a great deal of authority on Tara. It is to her that the plantation's overseer, Jonas Wilkerson, reports, not Scarlett's father. She is not only responsible for running the household, but the plantation itself. To a large degree this reflects the division of responsibilities in my own family and that of many people I know. It is the women, not the men, who do much of the business, who effectively run the household. I can only guess that this is how Southern families have always operated, women holding the reins of power even before the days of Women's Liberation.

Another aspect of Southern society in Gone with the Wind which still seems to hold true today is the extreme politeness. It is not simply that individuals are addressed as "ma'am" and "sir" in the film, women are addressed by the title "Miss" and men by the title "Mister."  Scarlett is not simply called "Scarlett," she is called "Miss Scarlett." Rhett is not called "Rhett," he is "Mister Rhett." To a large degree this holds true even today. At my workplace, with its high tech computers, printers, and fax machines, my best friend at work is often referred to as "Miss Georgia." It is not unusual for co-workers to address me as "Mr. Terry."  To some degree the politeness that existed at the time of Gone with the Wind still exists in the South.

Ultimately, however, I must say that Gone with the Wind resonates with me because to a large degree it portrays a  part of my history, much in the same way that the English Civil War and the American Revolution are part of my history. Missouri endured many of the same hardships that Georgia did during the War Between the States. The town of Osceola was burned in much the same way as Atlanta historically and in the film. The death toll of the war as portrayed in Gone with the Wind held true for Missouri during the War Between the States. The war cost the lives of around 27,000 Missourians, both soldiers and civillians. This is more than World War I (in which 11,172 Missourians died) . And just as the O'Haras went through economic hardship both during and after the war, so too did many Missourians. Although Gone with the Wind is very historically inaccurate in its portrayal of race relations in the antebellum South (so much so as to be offensive), its portrayal of the War Between the States and its impact on the South rings fairly true.

While Gone with the Wind has its flaws, the film has been considered a classic to this day. Much of this is perhaps due to what lies at the centre of the movie--the torrid romance between the roguish Rhett Butler and the fiery Scarlett O'Hara. Indeed, it seems quite likely that Rhett and Scarlett are the most famous screen couple of all time, even more so than Rick and Ilsa of Casablanca. Anyone who has been in love can sympathise with Rhett as he finds himself desperately in love with Scarlett O'Hara, but never quite able to have her, even after they marry. Beyond the sheer size and scope of the movie, beyond its setting in the South before, during, and after the War Between the States, at its heart Gone with the Wind is a love story, one that is well acted, well written, and well directed. It is perhaps for this reason it remains a classic to this day.


Millie said...

WOW! Now, this was an epic post! Very interesting!

Kate Gabrielle said...

Wow, I can see how this took you three days!! Exceptional post!

I always learn so much reading your posts -- I never knew that about Susan Hayward (one of my favorite actresses!) and they burnt film reels in the burning of Atlanta?!?! I wish I could go back in time and tell them what a stupid idea that was! ;-D

I completely agree with you about Leslie Howard being too powerful of a character, but I guess he had to be at least sort of interesting to hold Scarlett's interest her whole life, even when she had CLARK GABLE after her! lol!


Holte Ender said...

WOW I'm nearly as old as Gone With The Wind, hope I look that good when I am 70, not going to happen.

What a great year 1939 was for movies, I remember my mother telling me about how she was blown away when she saw it. Her generation had never seen anything like it before.

You are right about Missouri and its role in the civil war, it did not have large battles, but there were more confrontations between north and south armed militias than in any other State, the death of Missourians in the conflict proves that there were constant actions taking place.

The Ang Lee movie Ride With The Devil is a terrific study of the Missouri/Kansas Border Wars.

noir said...

Great post and I'm glad you brought up the complicated racial questions the film brings up.

"Amos and Andy" is often shaken about as a particularly racist show of the period, but very few people have actually studied or heard an episode from its 1920s-1930s heyday on radio (not the TV series that came later in the '50s).

I really recommend checking out historian Elizabeth (Liz) McLeod's work about the show (some comments are here: http://web.archive.org/web/20051023012409/http://members.aol.com/jeff1070/amos.html); for all its flaws, it needs to be reconsidered as a document of its times, times in which both black and white listeners were very fond of the show; it really helped create serial entertainment as we know it.

mirna said...

Hi Mercurie,
I contact you by comment because I didn’t find any other way to do it.
I would like to introduce to you Mperience (www. mperience.com), a web platform on which you can share in a brand new way movies, tv-series, music, art, and books. It also allows you to blend videos of artistic content with your own words, simply creating short stories called Memes that you can spread to a wide audience by a simple click.
As you can see, we have many themes in common with your blog and we would like to publish on Mperience some of your articles.
Actually we already inserted some your posts on our corrispondent pages, including this one(http://www.mperience.com/view/Gone_with_the_Wind_%28film%29), "Horror by the Decade: Q
"(http://www.mperience.com/view/Q_%28film%29),"Beowulf and Grendel" (http://www.mperience.com/view/Beowulf_&_Grendel, and "The Anime Wave on American Television in the Sixties Part One
" (http://www.mperience.com/view/American_Pop), among others.
I hope that we could keep in touch and collaborate also in the future. So, if you are interested, please don’t hesitate to contact me for further information, questions or suggestions.

Mirna Gvozdenovic
Communication Manager