AND THE WINNER IS... GONE WITH THE WIND
FRANKLY MY DEAR...
The 12th Film to win best picture is Gone With The Wind, from 1939.
The film was produced David O. Selznick and Directed by Victor Fleming – among others. The cinematographer was Ernest Haller, who replaced Lee Garmes – when Selznick was unhappy with the footage. The screenplay was credited to Sidney Howard – but there were contributions by as many as 14 other writers – including Ben Hecht, Joe Swerling and F. Scott Fitzgerald. It didn’t matter who wrote the script. It was all re-written by the hyper-critical David O. Selznick.
The picture, distributed by Loews, was produced on a budget of $3.85 million, and did over $20 million at the box office in its first five months. To date it's earned more than $390 million.
Adjusted for inflation it’s estimated to be the highest grossing film in history.
BEST OR WORST PICTURE?
There are a lot of people who simply don’t like this film, nor do they like the book. That distaste for Gone With The Wind, has deepened over time. There is a clear and inherent racism in the story. It was referred to in some circles, as a "Bigger and Better - Birth Of A Nation."
To be fair – Selznick made an active attempt to tone down the racism, and meet the NAACP's concerns for the film. Did he do enough, or was it just about avoiding a boycott?
At the insistence of the NAACP – who threatened a boycott - Selznick removed the use of the “n-word," from the script. Earl Morris film editor at "The Pittsburg Courier," called it the "hate word" in a scathing prediction of what the film was expected to be. It's a certainty that the perception of the film today would be much worse - if the "hate word" had stayed in the script.
Selznick didn't do as much as he could though. He disguised the Klu Klux Klan, as a political meeting, but kept it in the story.
He did change the race of the man who attacked Scarlett, to Caucasian, then had a black man come to her rescue, for which he received complaints from the Sons of Union Army Veterans - claiming there was no evidence that Gen. Sherman's soldiers ever assaulted anyone.
Selznick couldn't win. It's almost like the world would've been better off without the film at all.
There’s an opening disclaimer on modern releases of the film – essentially suggesting that – it may be our history, and we should acknowledge it, learn from it - but we don’t have to celebrate it.
Gone With The Wind is straight melodrama, wrapped in historical fiction. Clark Gable called it – a woman’s picture. There have been many films classified as “women’s pictures” over the years, including the hundreds of rom-coms, and screwball comedies of the early and mid-twentieth century. Misogyny aside - there’s really no such thing as a "woman’s picture." A good movie is a good movie. The pictures of Nora Efron, Amy Heckerling, Billy Wilder, Garry Marshall, Richard Curtis, and others prove the genre is alive and well today.
Many critics don’t consider Gone With The Wind to even be a good film – from a structure standpoint.
The protagonists have little or no character arc during the narrative. They overcome some obstacles – but end up right back where they started. Miss Scarlett is still the same narcissistic, manipulative woman we meet in the first scene. Rhett Butler is still full of the same self-centered, machismo. Ashley’s still a coward. Melanie remains throughout - the only decent human among the protagonists - cloyingly so. Even the slaves, though now free - and presumably on the payroll, though it’s never mentioned – are still working for the family.
Nothing has changed. This may be historically accurate – but that doesn’t necessarily make the basis for a good story. Scarlett O’Hara however, does have a beautiful character arc during the first half of the film. Then it’s all taken back.
If the film had ended at intermission it would have been a better movie. Scarlett – the reluctant hero – goes from self-centered southern belle to strong assertive powerful woman, intent on saving her Tara, and never going hungry again. That’s a hero’s journey.
Maybe Selznick should have left the writers to do the writing.
But - Psych! The second half of the film takes it all back. Scarlett learns nothing – she’ll still manipulate anyone, and anything to get her way. After all “tomorrow’s another day.”
The biggest problem though, is the racism inherent in the setting of the melodrama. The opening title scroll – laments the loss of the “land of Cavaliers and cotton fields of the old south - where gallantry took its last bow, the last of the knights and their ladies fair.” It literally says on screen the last of “master and slave.” As if that’s something to romanticize and agonize over losing.
Against the backdrop – of tragedy, and Civil War – it’s hard to care – at all - about the so-called heroes of the story. These are people who are willing to destroy the nation and keep 13 million people enslaved to protect their position in society.
The story doesn’t lament the loss of life, nor the imprisonment of African American lives. It laments the loss of the way of life for a few wealthy Americans. Trivializing the cataclysm that was the Civil War – is a grave injustice – and many viewers frankly don't give a damn, that Rhett loves Scarlett, who loves Ashley, who loves Melanie.
THE REAL LOVE STORY
Even the melodrama has structural problems. The love quadrangle – isn’t the real love story in the movie. The real love story in the film is between Scarlett and her plantation Tara.
This - it’s worth noting - makes Scarlet O’Hara an antihero who will literally do anything, use anyone, to save herself and her beloved plantation. She’s no different than Walter White – the high school chemistry teacher – turned Crystal meth dealer – from “Breaking Bad,” or Tony Soprano – the lovable but vicious mob boss from “The Sopranos.” They all embark on a single mission - save themselves - regardless of the cost.
If you’ve ever been to any of the remaining antebellum mansions that still survive in the deep south, you'll see that Lyle Wheeler – the films art director - got the sets spot on. He reportedly hired an historic consultant – to help create the reality of the southern homes.
Tara is very like a typical plantation farmhouse – right down to the wall paper and furnishings. There are echoes of the Carter House or the Carnton Plantation outside of Nashville, Tennessee. The fact that Nashville fell early – preserved many of the old homes from the destruction later in the war.
The two larger mansions in the film - Twelve Oakes, and the Butler Mansion in Atlanta are dressed correctly – but are far too big. There are no Southern mansions, including Graceland and President Andrew Jackson’s home The Hermitage - anywhere close to the size of those sets.
Lyle Wheeler was aware of this – and intentionally built the film mansions large to show off the opulence of Southern culture.
The production of Gone With The Wind was nearly as harrowing as the war it portrayed.
The film required the construction of 5500 period costumes.
The iconic crane shot in the railroad yard used the largest camera crane ever built. The production had only 500 extras, so they filled in the rest with dummies. The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) sued – insisting they pay the dummies scale.
You gotta wonder... Did SAG waive the meal allowance?
Shot in Technicolor®, the film’s first director was George Cukor – some of his scenes are still in the film. He was fired after a couple of weeks, because he and Selznick couldn’t agree on anything.
Cuckor was replaced by Victor Fleming – stolen from The Wizard of Oz. Fleming soon had a nervous breakdown and was replace by Sam Wood, only to have Fleming return after convalescing for a couple weeks.
Lee Garmes was the cinematographer for the first third of the film – up to Melanie having the baby – but got no credit at all – nor did he receive a share of the Academy Award® for Cinematography. He was replaced with Earnest Haller, and Technicolor® cinematographer Ray Rennahan.
Gone With The Wind, in general, is beautifully photographed. The exception is the process shots. There are several - including the first long shot of Tara – and they’re just atrocious by today’s standards – even pre-3d animation standards. It’s worth noting that process shots were fairly new technology at the time.
The burning of Atlanta was one of the first scenes shot. Selznick knew he needed to clear much of the back lot to build new sets, and the idea of burning them seemed to be the best idea. The crew ran miles of gas pipe through the old back lot to control the fire as best they could. Once the wooden buildings went up though, it would be a genuine out of control conflagration. Selznick brought in every fire department in the surrounding counties.
They only had one take, so Selznick rolled on seven technicolor cameras – all there were in Hollywood – then set the back lot a blaze. The fire lasted for an hour and a half. The shots of Gable and Leigh were added to the scenes later. Vivian Leigh hadn’t even been cast yet.
Once the film had been announced – there began a silly season of lobbying, and casting for the lead roles. Margret Mitchell reportedly wanted Groucho Marx to play Rhett Butler. That would’ve been a very different film. The role of Scarlett though, created the most consternation.
Selznick – spent $50,000 to send casting directors across the south looking for a genuine southern belle. 500 girls auditioned in Atlanta in one day. Several hundred beauty queens mailed in photos, with letters explaining why they should be cast. The Daughters Of The Confederacy chimed in with their opinions. They wanted Tallulah Bankhead. That would’ve been a very different picture. In all - the production team saw over 1400 girls, and Selznick still couldn’t find his ingénue. He’d always wanted an unknown to play Scarlett, but after the sweep of the south – Selznick relented and began seeing movie stars. The studio tested – Lana Turner, Paulette Goddard, Katherine Hepburn, Joan Bennett, Jean Arthur, even Lucille Ball.
The closest thing Selznick found to what he was looking for was Goddard, but she was living - out of wedlock - with Charlie Chaplain. Afraid a scandal could ruin his picture, Selznick told Goddard the part was hers if she could present a marriage license. She declined.
VIVIAN LEIGH – THE HEROINE
It was while they were shooting the burning of Atlanta that things changed. Selznick’s brother Myron – who was an artist manager walked up with a newcomer – Vivian Leigh. Myron reportedly said – David – “I’d like to you meet your Scarlett.”
Selznick later told his assistant – “She’s perfect. Now if she can only act.” When Leigh did her screen test – she claimed the dress was still warm for the woman who had tested just before her.
The Daughters Of The Confederacy were aghast that a British woman was cast over a Southern girl. To avoid scandal - Vivian Leigh was forbidden to see her live-in lover – Laurence Olivier - during shooting. Selznick wanted his Miss Scarlett to seem virginal, and put guards around her to make sure she didn’t slip out and get caught in flagrante by the press.
Selznick did however arrange for a couple of conjugal visits on the down low. Reportedly, it was arranged for the lovers to meet in New York were Olivier was doing a play, and later in Kansas City for the weekend. Judging from Leigh’s performance on screen, Selznick probably didn’t want to be on her bad side.
According to Marcella Rabwin, Selznick’s assistant – none of the men wanted to be in the picture.
Clark Gable wanted a divorce, so he could marry Carole Lombard. His wife though was MGM boss - Louis B. Mayer’s daughter.
Mayer wanted Gable to do the film.
Gable didn’t think it was his kind of picture and refused.
As a compromise – Mayer offered his daughter half a million dollars, if she’d agree to the divorce, and if Gable did Gone With The Wind.
Mayer – in his best homage to Scarlett O’Hara - was willing to toss out his daughter’s marriage for his own profit. MGM got 50% of the profits – and Loews – MGM’s parent company - got distribution rights. Gable did the film – and married Carole Lombard.
Leslie Howard didn’t want to play Ashley.
He said wearing the southern costumes made him look like the doorman at the Beverly Wilshire. He wouldn’t even read the book, and couldn’t have cared less about the role. Selznick’s assistant said in an interview for ABC’s documentary, “Our World,” that the way he got Howard to play the role was - to promise a shot at producing. It was one of Howard‘s lifelong dreams. The promised film was Intermezzo, with Ingrid Bergman. The film was released in 1939 – with Howard in the leading role opposite Bergman, but the producer credit still reads David O. Selznick.
Olivia the Havilland reported that he was taken with a severe melancholy during the shooting of the film. She believed it was because his character Ashley knew that war was coming and that the south was going to lose. Meanwhile in real life, Howard knew that war was coming to Britain - his home country - and was worried that they would lose.
STEREOTYPING AND RACISM
Butterfly McQueen who played Prissy the young slave girl, hated playing an ignorant, dimwitted black girl. McQueen, thought Prissy – as written - was stupid and backwards. McQueen continued to act in film and TV, winning a Daytime Emmy for an ABC Afternoon school special – Seven Wishes Of A Rich Kid. Hattie McDaniels, the good angel on Scarlett O’Hara’s shoulder, took home the Best Supporting Actress Oscar® for her role as Mammy.
Initially the Academy refused to let McDaniels attend the - still integrated – Oscar® ceremony.
Selznick, insisted - finally arranging for to her be there.
McDaniels though was forced to sit at the back of the audience, at least until she went up front to accept her Oscar®.
She, was the first African-American to win an Academy Award – and that night the only one allowed in the room.
According to reports, no one liked anyone else on the film.
Gable hated George Cukor – reportedly because the director was openly gay. Gable – a notorious homophobe - was thrilled when Cukor was replaced with Fleming, whom he saw as a man’s director. Vivian Leigh and Olivia de Havilland – stormed into Selznick’s office - in costume - to protest George Cuckor’s firing. They wanted a woman’s director.
Fleming wanted Scarlett to be bitchier – so he goaded Leigh into the mind frame, by calling her “Fiddle dee dee,” on set. Vivian Leigh hated kissing Clark Gable because he had false teeth. Selznick – crumbling under the work load he’d created for himself - was popping speed like breath mints during the day – and taking sleeping pills at night. He may have been a genius but he was a pain to work with.
THE GENDER/RACE PAY GAP
There were legendary the wage discrepancies on Gone With The Wind. Clark Gable worked 71 days, and was paid $117,917.
Vivian Leigh however, worked 125 days, yet was only paid $39,851 for the film.
Leslie Howard got $76,250.
While Olivia de Havilland was paid $25,375.
But none of that compares to Hattie McDaniels – the first African American Oscar® winner who only got $6,459 for the entire film.
Selznick had mortgaged the metaphorical farm to make the movie, and was beginning to worry he’d never make his own, and his investors’ money back. His story editor – Kay Brown – told her boss the film was “nothing but a sentimental piece of tripe.” Clearly the distaste for the film isn’t just from a modern-day viewpoint. Another of Selznick’s friends called it – “just the story of a bitch, and a bastard -and nobody’s gonna care about that.”
But - audiences did.
When the film premiered in Atlanta, Georgia, the Governor declared a state holiday.
100,000 people lined the streets to witness the spectacle. Hattie McDaniels wasn’t one of them. In Georgia she wasn’t allowed in the segregated theater.
In spite of all the good and bad; all the production problems, and story issues - the legacy of Gone With The Wind is enormous.
In 1939 – arguably Hollywood’s best year – there were 483 feature films released.
Gone With The Wind, was up for best picture against – Dark Victory, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Love Affair, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, and Wuthering Heights. Gone With The Wind was nominated for 13 Academy Awards and won 10.
The Award’s Ceremony emcee - Bob Hope - called the show that year “a benefit for David Selznick.”
Any film this successful has, of course, been parodied. One of the best is Carol Burnett’s - “Went With The Wind,” sketch from 1976. The sketch centers around Scarlett’s dress made from the curtains of Tara. The idea came from the show’s costumer, Bob Mackie.
If you’ve not seen it, I won’t spoil it for you. But look it up online. It’s one of the best sight gags in the history of comedy. The laugh was so long that production was halted for twenty minutes. Every time they tried to restart the audience, cast and crew fell apart all over again.
It’s considered the longest laugh in television history, and the dress Mackie designed, is in the Smithsonian. Here's the link! https://youtu.be/-8wVvGQ0P4Y
NOTE: The entire sketch is worth a watch. It's television history. The relevant moment starts at 15:00 in.
After the film Vivien Leigh married Laurence Olivier - though they later divorced. She suffered from a bi-polar disorder, and was treated with electroshock therapy. Vivian Leigh died of TB in 1967.
Clark Gable married Carole Lombard who died in a plane crash in 1942. A heart wrenching account of Gable’s reaction to the loss, can be found in Garson Kanin’s book Hollywood.
Gable died from a heart attack in 1960.
Leslie Howard went home to England, and worked for the war ministry making anti-nazi films. The British Film Yearbook described him as – one of the most valuable facets of British propaganda during the war.
He was aboard BOAC Flight 777 when it was shot down by the Luftwaffe in 1943. His war ministry work – sparked conspiracy theories about his death. Howard’s Gone With The Wind co-star Olivia De Havilland was among those conspiracists who believed Howard - a member of British intelligence - was targeted by the Germans.
Victor Fleming only made five more films before his death in 1949.
The same year Fleming died (1949), Margaret Mitchell - who wrote the novel - was hit and killed by a drunk driver – while crossing Peachtree Street in Atlanta. She was 48.
GIVING A DAMN - OR NOT?
There’s been a lot made over the years about Rhett Butler‘s final line of the film – “Frankly Scarlett I don’t give a damn.” A story persisted for decades, that Gable was paid an extra $10,000 to swear on screen. There was a concern it would damage his reputation. It was believed to be the first time the words were used on screen. This may have all been publicity, because Cavalcade – an earlier Best Picture winner had already broken that ground.
According to ABC journalist Linda Ellerbee - the Hayes office didn’t want the word used but David Selznick convinced them it would be okay. According to the Oxford English dictionary it was a vulgarism not a swear word, therefore acceptable.
Typical of the Hays Office, they agreed to let him keep the word in the film then fined him $5000 for keeping it in the film.
No wonder they say the most creative people in Hollywood are the accountants.