Can anyone actually picture someone playing Rhett Butler other than Clark Gable? Or somebody else besides Humphrey Bogart playing Rick Blaine? In the case of many classic films their casting seems so perfect that it must have been inevitable. In our minds some actors were so perfect in their parts that it seems improbable to us looking back to think that anyone else might have been considered for those roles. As history shows, however, in Hollywood there is no such thing as a done deal. And in many instances of classic films, their casts could have been very different from what we know them today.
Indeed, perhaps no other film has had as many rumours surrounding its casting as the legendary Casablanca. The most persistent rumour to this day has been that Ronald Reagan was considered for the part of Rick Blaine even before Humphrey Bogart (the man who would ultimately play the role). Although often stated as fact, the rumour that Ronald Reagan was ever seriously considered for the role of Rick is just that, a rumour. This persistent urban legend has its roots in a fake publicity item released by Warner Brothers to The Hollywood Reporter and published on Janurary 5, 1942. The publicity release stated that Ann Sheridan and Ronald Regan would co-star for the third time in Casablanca, alongside Dennis Morgan. Despite the press release, Warner Brothers had no intention whatsoever in casting Ronald Reagan as Rick Blaine. What is more, they knew that they could not cast in him in the part even had they wanted to. At the time, Mr. Reagan was a second lieutenant in the U.S. Cavalry Reserve. The studio had written repeated deferments to keep him out of service, but with America at war they knew that he would not be deferred one more time.
While Ronald Reagan was not seriously considered for the role of Rick Blaine, Ann Sheridan was a different matter. In fact, on February 14, 1942 Hal Wallis asked casting director Steve Trilling to consider Humphrey Bogart and Ann Sheridan for the lead roles in Casablanca. Ann Sheridan might seem an odd choice today, but one must consider at this point in the development of Casablanca the lead female role in the film was still an American named Lois Meredith. It was only a few days later that Ann Sheridan would be entirely out of the running for the movie, as it was decided to change American Lois Meredith to the foreigner Ilsa Lund. Even then, Ingrid Bergman was not the first choice to play Ilsa. Instead Hal Wallis initially considered legendary beauty Hedy Lamarr. The casting of Miss Lamarr in the role was thwarted by Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM, who refused to loan the actress to any other studio. Mr. Wallis then turned to the much friendlier David O. Selznick, who agreed to loan another legendary, foreign beauty to the producer--Ingrid Bergman.
While Ann Sheridan was seriously considered for the lead female role in Casablanca for a very short time, it would appear that, like Ronald Reagan, Dennis Morgan was not seriously considered for the role of Victor Laszlo. In fact, Hal Wallis's first choice to play Laszlo was Philip Dorn. As it turned out, Philip Dorn was unavailable as he was busy making Random Harvest (1942. The part then went to Paul Henreid.
While Hal Wallis insisted on Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine very early in the pre-production of Casablanca, it was still possible that he might not have gotten the part. Jack Warner told Hal Wallis that George Raft was lobbying him for the role of Rick Blaine. That George Raft wanted the role of Rick very, very much is quite interesting, as for much of Bogie's career he was producers' second choice after Mr. Raft! The role of "Mad Dog" Roy Earle in High Sierra (1941) was first offered to George Raft. When Mr. Raft turned the role down, the part went to Mr. Bogart. The role of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941) was initially offered to George Raft. He turned it down because he thought director John Huston had too little experience. Once more Humphrey Bogart was cast in the role. With Casablanca, for the first time the roles of Humhprey Bogart and George Raft would be reversed. Mr. Raft wanted a role for which Humphrey Bogart was the first choice. Of course, Bogie would also get the part.
Today it is impossible to picture Casablanca with George Raft, Hedy Lamarr, and Philip Dorn in the lead roles. If things had gone differently, however, that could have been the movies lead cast. I rather suspect that Casablanca would not then be so highly regarded as it is today. While George Raft was a great actor, I think his talent was lesser than that of Humphrey Bogart in the end, who was perfect as the hard boiled cynic who is actually an incurable romantic, and in the end the greatest hero American cinema would ever produce.
While many rumours surrounding the casting of Casablanca are unwarranted, many of the rumours surrounding the casting of Gone with the Wind are very much warranted. Particularly when it came to the lead role of Scarlett O'Hara, almost anyone could have gotten the part. That is not to say that there were not a few actresses initially considered for the role of the spoiled, temperamental Southern belle. In the beginning three actresses were considered for the pivotal role of Scarlett: Miriam Hopkins, Margaret Sullavan, and Bette Davis. Miriam Hopkins was the only native of Georgia ever seriously considered for the role of Scarlett, having been born in Savannah. Despite this obvious advantage, she would not get the part in the end. For myself, I think Miriam, although pretty, was not dangerously beautiful enough to be Scarlett, not to mention too fair haired.Having read Gone with the Wind, I always pictured Scarlett as she is in the movie--a dark haired, Black Irish beauty. As to Bette Davis, she could certainly play a Southern Belle despite being born in Massachusetts (the only way she could have been more of a Yankee is to have been born in Connecticut). She was quite convincing in Jezebel (1938). That having been said, although charming, I do not think Miss Davis was physically attractive enough to play the preternaturally beautiful Scarlett. As to Margaret, I do not see how she could have ever been considered for the role of Scarlett O'Hara, even as a joke. She was not even pretty, let alone beautiful, and lacked any charm whatsoever. Indeed, the only film in which she showed any charm was The Shop Around the Corner (1940), and I give credit in that film more to director Ernst Lubitsch and screenwriters Samson Raphaelson and Ben Hecht than I do her!
When none of these actresses proved suitable to play Scarlett, David O. Selznick put out a nation wide casting call for the role. Many famous and unknown actresses vied for the role. Among these actresses was Katharine Hepburn, who actually thought she was doing Mr. Selznick a favour when she marched into his office and said, "I am Scarlett O'Hara! The role is practically written for me!" To this David O. Selznick flatly replied, "I can't imagine Rhett Butler chasing you for ten years." While Miss Hepburn had considerable talent and she could be very charming, I cannot see how she could believe the role of Scarlett O'Hara was practically written for her. Although mildly attractive, she was not so beautiful that dozens of men would court her, let alone chase her for ten years. More importantly, I think Miss Hepburn was simply incapable of playing Scarlett. There was no more archetypal Yankee in Hollywood than Katharine Hepburn. Her New England lockjaw accent appeared in every film she ever made, to the point that I believe she was incapable of producing any other accent, let alone something so dramatically different as a Southern drawl!
Tallulah Bankhead was a front runner for the role of Scarlett for a time. She certainly had the advantage of being the genuine article, a real Southern belle, having been born to gentry in Alabama. In the end, however, David O. Selznick decided she was too old for the part (as of 1938 she was 36 years old). Joan Bennett was also in serious contention, but, while she impressed David O. Selznick, in the end she would be out of the running. Among other actresses considered for the were Jean Arthur, Susan Hayward (who proved too inexperienced), and Anita Louise. Ultimately two fantastically beautiful brunettes would vie for the role of Scarlett O'Hara, and they were the only actresses given colour screen tests. As we all know, one was English rose Vivien Leigh. The other was Paulette Goddard.
While I have serious doubts that Katharine Hepburn could ever play a Southern belle, I do not harbour those same doubts about Paulette Goddard. Although born in Queens, Miss Goddard could play a Southern belle, as she did in Reap the Wild Wind (1942). And she had a good deal in common with Scarlett O'Hara. She had a mischievous streak that showed in many of her roles (especially her comedies), and she could be temperamental in the same way Scarlett was. Furthermore, Miss Goddard was incredibly, unbelievably, dangerously beautiful just as Scarlett was. Indeed, to me she was ideal insofar as she was dark haired, just the way I pictured Scarlett. So why did Paulette Goddard lose the role to Viiven? After her colour screen test David O. Selznick and then director George Cuckor decided she would need coaching if she was to play Scarlett O'Hara, whereas Vivien Leigh would not.
Unlike Scarlett O'Hara, Clark Gable was David O. Selznick's choice for Rhett Butler from the beginning. That having been said, a few other actors were also considered for the role. Gary Cooper was approached for the role, but he refused it because he thought Gone with the Wind would be the biggest flop in the history of cinema. Personally, it is hard for me to see the laid back Gary Cooper as Rhett Butler. Mr. Cooper was the epitome of quiet strength, and Rhett was never quiet. Errol Flynn was actually in serious contention for the role, to the point that papers were drawn up for Warner to lend Mr. Flynn to David O. Selznick. It seems today impossible that Errol Flynn could have played the role of Rhett Butler, but then in real life as on film Errol Flynn was something of a gentleman and a rouge much the way Rhett was. I don't know about Mr. Selznick, but my objection is that Mr. Flynn was perhaps too much of a rouge to play Rhett. Rhett could be a rouge, but he was always first and foremost the epitome of the Southern gentleman.
While historically Leslie Howard played Ashley Wilkes, he was not the only actor in contention for the role. Both Ronald Colman and Franchot Tone were in consideration for the part. I rather think Ronald Colman was much too powerful a performer to play the weak willed, somewhat non-committal Ashley. After all, he had played such legendary characters as Bulldog Drummond, Rafffles, and Major Rudolf Rassendyll (the hero of The Prisoner of Zenda). I am not sure he could have played an indecisive character like Ashley! Franchot Tone was a much better choice. He could play strong roles, but he most often played the idle playboy. I could seem him playing the emotionally torn Ashley Wilkes, who was too weak willed to let himself or Scarlett be happy. In fact, I think he may have been a better choice to play Ashley than Leslie Howard. As a fan of Mr. Howard, I think he, like Mr. Colman, was too powerful presence to play Ashley. After all, he was the Scarlet Pimpernel and the original film version of Professor Henry Higgins. Leslie Howard himself believed he was miscast as Ashley, maintaining he was much too old for the part. Indeed, David O. Selznick had to bribe Leslie Hoard with an associate producer credit on Intermezzo: A Love Story (1939) before he would take the role!
Janet Gaynor was initially considered as Melanie Wilkes, something I find unbelievable today. Like Tallulah Bankhead, I submit she was too old for the part of Melanie. As it was, Olivia de Havilland very nearly did not get the part. It was friend and the original director of the film George Cuckor who asked Miss de Havilland to read for the part. While she proved wonderful in the role, there was one fly in the ointment: her contract with Warner Brothers. As one of their top stars, Jack Warner was determined not to loan Miss de Havilland to David O. Selznick. Utlimately, Miss de Havilland had to appeal to a higher power: Jack Warner's wife Irene. Mrs. Warner intervened and Olivia de Havilland got the part.
In my worst nightmares Gone with the Wind would star Katharine Hepburn, Gary Cooper, Janet Gaynor, and Leslie Howard. I can even hear in my mind Miss Hepburn's New England lockjaw as she utters "Tomorrow is another day," while hearing Gary Cooper take a full minute simply to say "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." Fortunately, history unfolded differently.
Not only could Gone with the Wind have had a different cast, but so could that other mega-classic from 1939, The Wizard of Oz. As hard as it is to believe today, Judy Garland might not have played Dorothy Gale. While Mervyn Leroy always insisted he wanted Miss Garland to play Dorothy, evidence suggests that MGM was pressuring him to cast popular star Shirley Temple in the role, even though they would have had to have gotten her on loan from Fox. Fortunately, several factors would keep Shirley Temple out of Oz. First, while Mervyn Leroy championed Judy Garland, so too did powerful associate producer Arthur Freed. Second, Roger Edens, musical supervisor at MGM, listened to Shirley Temple's singing and determined her style was unsuited to the movie. Third, 20th Century Fox was very reticent about loaning out their top star. I believe that this was very fortunate, as I think MGM's top brass was dead wrong to think Miss Temple was right for the role of Dorothy. While I think Shirley Temple became a very charming adult, as a child I always found her annoying. Even as a child myself, I could never sit through a Shirley Temple movie.
Another starlet was also considered for the role of Dorothy, none other than Judy Garland's rival form Universal Deanna Durbin. In fact, Deanna Durbin had been signed to MGM in 1935, but the studio unwisely let her contract option expire, giving Universal the chance to sign the starlet. While in 1938 Judy Garland was not yet a major star, Universal had already given Miss Durbin a good deal of film experience and she even had a loyal following. It is hard to say why Deanna Durbin would not be cast as Dorothy. Perhaps MGM believed Universal would not loan one of their top stars (and who could blame them if they wouldn't), or perhaps MGM felt Judy Garland's more jazz oriented singing style was more suited to the film than Deanna Durbin's operatic style. Whatever the reason, Judy would play Dorothy and ultimately outshine Deanna Durbin in terms of star power.
It is well known that Buddy Ebsen was set to play the Tin Man until he had a reaction to the aluminium powder used in his make up. What is not so well known is that Buddy Ebsen was not originally slated to play the Tin Man. In the beginning Ray Bolger was cast as the Tin Man and Buddy Ebsen as the Scarecrow. Mr. Bolger was rather unhappy in his part as the Tin Man. His childhood idol, song and dance man Fred Stone, had played the Scarecrow on stage in 1902. Mr.Bolger then wanted to play the Scarecrow. Buddy Ebsen had no objections, so Mr. Bolger convinced Mervyn Leroy to switch them in their roles. Unfortunately, after ten days of shooting Mr. Ebsen had a reaction to the aluminium powder in the Tin Man make up, resulting in a lengthy stay in hospital. Jack Haley was then cast as the Tin Man. Personally, given all three men were legendary song and dance men, I think all three were capable of playing either role. Indeed, I think Ray Bolger would have been a fine Tin Man, although given his love of the Scarecrow, I can see how he would be better in that role!
W. C. Fields, under contract to MGM, was the studio's original choice for the Great and Powerful Oz. It is not exactly clear why Mr. Fields did not take the role. One rumour has it that Mr. Fields, then one of the most popular comic actors of the time, thought the role was too small. Another rumour is that he simply asked for too much money. Both rumours could be true. Regardless, the part would go to Frank Morgan instead. Given that W. C. Fields and Frank Morgan were both adept at playing bumblers and con men (and the Wizard of Oz was both), I think Mr. Fields would have been a good Wizard, much as Mr. Morgan was.
Much of the reason MGM decided to make The Wizard of Oz was the phenomenal success of Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), at that time the highest grossing motion picture of all time. For that reason, as hard as it is to believe now, MGM originally wanted the Wicked Witch of the West to be glamourous and beautiful much as the Wicked Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. MGM initially considered Edna May Oliver, but ultimately the part went to the decidedly glamourous Gale Sondergaard. MGM would have a change of heart, however, so that the Wicked Witch of the West would become the archetypal, old hag. This did not make Gale Sondergaard at all happy, so she was replaced as the Wicked Witch of the West by Margaret Hamilton. Ironically, Margaret Hamilton was nothing like her most famous role. A one time a school teacher, she genuinely loved children and devoted her life to them, even after becoming famous as an actress. Today it is hard to picture the Wicked Witch of the West as glamourous, and quite honestly I think MGM was right to change their minds. While I think Gale Sondergaard was a great actress, I think most of us who have read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz see the Wicked Witch as the archetypal witch, warts and all. While it was nothing like the warm hearted Margaret Hamilton in real life, she was fantastic in the role.
Glinda the Good Witch of the North, could also have had a different actress in the role. Some sources report that the legendary Fanny Brice was considered for the role. In the end the role would go to another comedienne, Billie Burke. I think Fanny Brice would have made a good Glinda the Good Witch, even if we today can only picture Billie Burke in the role.
Ultimately, I think MGM made very good choices with regards to The Wizard of Oz. Buddy Ebsen would have made a good Scarecrow. W. C. Fields would have made a good Wizard. Deanna Durbin would have made a good Dorothy. That having been said, to me Shirley Temple as Dorothy is the stuff from which nightmares are made, and I cannot see Gale Sondergaard as the Wicked Witch!
There are those who hold to the auteur theory, maintaining that it is ultimately the director who determines the quality of a picture. There are others who maintain that filmmaking is a collaborative effort. I think there is something to both of these theories, but I also think the casting of classic films over the years often demonstrates another factor in making movies. Quite simply, a lot of what makes a good film is sheer luck or circumstances. What if George Raft had successfully convinced Jack Warner he should be Rick Blaine? What if Paulette Goddard had been chosen as Scarlett O'Hara instead of Vivien Leigh? What if MGM had gotten their way and Shirley Temple was cast as Dorothy? Would Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, and The Wizard of Oz be considered classics today? I think Gone with the Wind could have worked with Paulette Goddard as its lead, but I rather suspect Casablanca and particularly The Wizard of Oz might not be remembered so fondly. It seems to me much of what makes a good film is good casting, and often casting is a pure roll of the dice.