“Fiddle-dee-dee... This war talk’s spoiling all the fun at every party...”
GONE WITH THE WIND
The only casting saga to have been filmed - as part of Garson Kanin's Moviola mini-series and, majestically, in the Ted Turner company's documentary about the making of GWTW.
Yet there nearly was no such saga.
Less than eager about Margaret Mitchell's book - "I do not feel we can take such a gamble" - producer David O Selznick said if he were still at MGM he'd go for Gable and Crawford. Instead, in June 1938, he stupidly announced MGM's Gable and Shearer. He was immediately shot down in flames - Shearer was far too old. She wisely gave up "the thankless role" as soon as her fan clubs disapproved.
“The one I’d like to play,”
Norma Shearer said, “is Rhett.”
While Gable said: "Rhett is simply too big an order. I didn't want any part of him." His lover, Carole Lombard, talked him into it - and he saved the film by his insistence on dropping director George Cukor ("I won't be directed by a fairy") for Victor Fleming ("I have to work with a real man"). Cukor, allegedly, knew too much about a gay affair of Gable's in the 20s. Plus his liaisons with Spencer Tracy. Or, Gable thought he did.
Cukor never told even his good friend, Katharine Hepburn, why he was sacked.
Kate had a great interest GWTW as she was the only actress that Margaret Mitchell had sent a copy of her manuscript to. Hepburn thought it fascinating, passed it to RKO production chief, Pandro Berman. His assistant, Joe Sistrom, felt Scarlett was unsympathetic - bad, therefore, for Kate's career. She next found Selznick holding the book. "Don't read it, David," said she, "buy it." He did so, but felt it better for his partner Jock Whitney's Pioneer Pictures - with Gary Cooper. But Selznick had not yet read the rapid best-seller and Pulitzer Prize winner.
As public interest flared, suggestions came in the mail, in media columns and competitions, Miriam Hopkins and/or Margaret Sullavan with Ronald Colman led early polls. Selznick, however, ordered "en entire cast of new faces" and a talent hunt started all over America - and, "as God is my witness," 500 hopefuls were seen in one day in Atlanta!
Scarlett O'Hara . Bette Davis maintained that Jack Warner offered her the role during her battle for better parts and directors. "Please don't leave," Warner begged her, "I just bought a wonderful book for you." Bette wasn't convinced and flounced out, snarling: "I'll bet it's a pip!"
She was right about one thing. Warner had not bought the rights, he was merely interested as other major studios shied away from a costume picture,in particular, a Civil War drama and, most of all, the $100,000 asking price.
Bette Davis said Selznick
wanted her and Errol Flynn.
David did not, refusing Jack Warner's offer of them both plus Olivia De Havilland for 25% of the profits. "But I wouldn't have done it with Flynn," insisted Davis. "So I gave up Scarlett myself - my own fault, so I can't be bitter about that. And it was really no great disappointment." She did her own version - and got an Oscar for it. "Actually, Jezebel was the same woman. Really was! And Willie Wyler's feeling of the South in Jezebel was more truly Southern than GWTW ." (Instead of Davis, Wyler wed starlet Margaret Tallichet, among the many testing for Scarlett)
Thoroughly anti-Bette, David Selznick swore: "I'd give it to Hepburn first." His agent brother Myron "determined" that she didn't get it. "Call it pay back time for the contempt she'd shown me" on her arrival in Hollywood.
Until her RKO studio offered $45,000 for the rights, increased to $55,000 after Selznick promised $50,000. Although he cited her among the best possibilities, until the major flop of their Holiday (made during the GWTW pre-production) sealed her fate.
Until her RKO her studio offered $45,000 for the rights, increased to $55,000 after Selznick promised $50,000. Selznick told her: “I can’t see Rhett Butler chasing you for twelve years.” And Cukor said she was wrong because, "first, the unquestionable and very widespread public dislike of her at the moment and second, the fact that she has yet to demonstrate that she possesses the sex qualities which are probably the most important of all the many requisites of Scarlett."
To test her questionable (and in reality, AC-DC) sex-appeal, Kate was "auditioned" by Errol Flynn, who was also being casting-couched by George Cukor for Rhett. After their tryst, Flynn never called Hepburn back. "I guess Selznick was right," she said, "I'm not that sexy, after all."
Tallulah Bankhead was
the first star tested
- in 1936, mainly to see if she could pass for 16. She could not. Other known names before Cukor's camera were: Nancy Coleman, Frances Dee (Joel McCrea's wife, later adjudged too beautiful for Melanie), Anita Louise, an inadequate Lana Turner, blonde Linda Watkins (she quit Hollywood until the 50s for the stage) and, - in a flash of desperate, starrier tests closer to the deadline - Diana Barrymore. Plus Joan Bennett, who made it to the last four: Arthur, Goddard, Leigh.
The hunt continued... 1,400 actresses were interviewed in total.
Seen during the unknowns' phase were: Katharine Aldridge, Ardis Ankerson, Fleurette DeBussy, Diana Forrest, Susan Fox, Bowles Locker, Shirley Logan, Austine McDonnel, Lynn Merrill, Mary Ray, Terry Ray,... And 14-year-old Shelley Winters, who told George Cukor in her thick Brooklynese, "I'm da only gal to play Scarlett O'Hara!" He laughed; "everybody laughed, he gave me a Coke and said: You really have to go to college." I said: But I need your money now."
Among those in the coast-to-coast auditions was Lucille Ball. "Me? Play Scarlett? Oh, impossible!" She worked with Southern scholar Will Price on a Georgia accent for her test - "terrified... drenched by rain and read three scenes for Selznick - all on my knees."
Chosen to test were: Diana Barrymore, Joan Bennett, Nancy Coleman, Frances Dee, Adele Longmire, Anita Louise, Brenda Marshall, Marcella Martin, Dorothy Mathews, Haila Stoddard, Margaret Tallichet, Linda Watkins,
On Selznick's initial short list was his ex-lover Jean Arthur (she allegedly burnt her December 17, 1938 test), Dorothy Jordan (later "the best Melanie to date") and Loretta Young. He even tested such illustrious people as Liz Altemus, the celebrated horsewoman who had married Selznick's partner, John Hay Whitney...future publisher of the New York Times and US Ambassador to the UK. Jock Whitney had put up 50% of the money to buy GWTW and could be said to be conducting his own tests. His lovers included Tallulah Bankhead , Joan Crawford and Selznick's eventual choice, his next door neighbour Paulette Goddard.
Paulette was good and kept getting better in eight tests during 1938. At 29, he was, however, not young enough - and looking far better in black-white than in full colour. Scarlett was her's, except for the lack of a marriage license... with Chaplin. And publicity man Russell Birdwell warned that her "insane an absurd attitude towards the Press... will explode in our very faces if she's given the part."
Despite spurious claims,
33 actresses only were actually tested,
from Louise Platt on September 28, 1936,
to Lyn Swann just after Christmas 1937.
Plus Susan Hayward (still known then as Edythe Marrener, and using her test to start her career with a Paramount contract). Only Goddard and Vivien Leigh were tested in colour.
For Selznick it was down to Jean Arthur, Constance Bennett, Paulette Goddard and a British outsider. Paulette was due for her ninth test on December 22, 1938, when - fiddle-dee-dee! - she was withdrawn and Vivien Leigh substituted for her second test... in a dress "still warm from the previous actress."
Katharine Hepburn refused to test,
knowing she’d be signed and then
dumped when a winning unknown was found.
In 1991, she revealed that right down to the wire - "the day before they had to start - the day before! " - the final arrangement was that she was Scarlett. Then, Myron Selznick brought a client to watch the burning of Atlanta shooting, turned to David and said: "Hey, genius, meet your Scarlett O'Hara." Vivien Leigh.
Although needing work on her accent, Viv had won - being paid a mere $25,000 for her 125 days as Scarlett. And no one seemed to notice that Selznick's official 1938 announcement of Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh and Olivia De Havilland was made on Friday the 13th of January. And no one knew that George Cukor would secretly coach Vivien...
Shooting began two weeks later - January 27 - with Hedda Hopper was outraged at a British Scarlett. "I'm sure a million Americans will stay away as a protest." The South said: "Better a Brit than a Yankee!" One Selznick aide said Viv was perfect because she was "cunning, conniving and manipulative." Just like Scarlett - or, Pansy in Margaret Mitchell's first draft.
And tomorrow was indeed another day for two Scarlett wannabes -.the only ones winning other roles in the epic. Marcella Martin played Cathleen Calvert... and Evelyn Keyes, from CB DeMille's contract books, became the even bitchier O'Hara - Scarlett's sister Suellen.
Finally, when Vivien married her Larry Olivier in Santa Barbara on August 31, 1940, her (last minute) matron of honour (!) was... Katie Hepburn.
Rhett Butler . Gable topped everyone's list for the "visitor from Charleston" - with scant competition from Ronald Colman, Fredric March and the author's choice, Basil Rathbone. Selznicks wife said David entertained the idea of Humphrey Bogart "for a a week before sanity took over."
Signing Gable meant a release deal with MGM - for 50% of the profits. (No wonder Selznick preferred Gary Cooper!) Both, he said, were true gentlemen. Better still, men liked them as well as women. Producer Samuel Goldwyn balked at loaning Cooper and so Rhett was the people's choice... and his $50,000 signing-on bonus, on August 24, 1938,enabled him to divorce his second wife, Rhea Langham, and marry Carole Lombard (they had met, of course, at a Jock Whitney party). So everyone was happy. Even Selznick, forced by LB Mayer to stump up a third of the bonus, plus Gable's $4,500 a week salary "for a period reasonably necessary to complete the role." That worked out at $120,000 for 71 days' work. .
Ashley Wilkes . Margaret Mitchell always saw him as Randolph Scott. With reason, said director Michael Curtiz. "He's the only gentleman in this business of self-promotiing sons-of-bitches."
Selznick favoured Leslie Howard, but he’d had
his fill of “weak, watery” ineffectuals.
Also seen: Lew Ayres, Richard Carlson, Melvyn Douglas, Ray Milland, Vincent Price, Shepherd Strudwick... And Jeffrey Lynn and Douglass Montgomery played him (solid as and just as wooden) in numerous tests - of potential Scarletts. Selznick finally won Howard over by making him the star and associate producer of Intermezzo .
Melanie Wilkes . When Joan Fontaine tested, she suggested her sister… and from then on, Olivia de Havilland was always #1, although tied to Warners, before she got Mrs Jack Warner on her side (resulting in a cash-plus-swop deal for James Stewart). Before Warner gave in, Marsha Hunt was Selznick’s First Reserve. Between 1936-49, Marsha made more than 50 movies. From 1950-58, a paltry eight after being shamefully Black List-smeared in the Red Channels pamphlet due to membership of the Committee for the First Amendment.
Selznick’s other Melanies were Hollywood wives. 1. Dorothy Jordan, retired actress wife of King Kong producer Merian C Cooper (also seen as a possible Scarlett). 2. Frances Dee, Joel McCrea’s wife - who lost out because Selznick fretted that her beauty would outshine Vivien Leigh’s. (Dee had tested for Scarlett) 3. The RKO secretary-turned-RKO star Dorothy Wilson (wed to scenarist Lewis R Foster). "I was retired at the time and Melanie was in the only role that could have persuaded me to return to movies."
David also saw Priscilla Lane, Andrea Leeds (who had made 22 films during 1936-40). Martha Scott nearly lost the role of Emily in Our Town , 1940, because of her Melanie test was so bad.
Mammy . Another Hattie - Hattie Noell - also tested, but "T'ain't fittin' - it just ain't fittin'." Also considered: Louise Beavers, Ruby Dandridge (Dorothy's mother) and Etta McDaniel, older sister of Hattie McDaniel who famously remarked:
“I’d rather play a maid
than be one.”
Hattie Mac tested with Vivien Leigh, among others, and became the first black actor to be nominated for and to win an Oscar - one of the eight.
Belle Watling . In a surprising image-switch, silent ikon Lilian Gish asked to play the brothel madame. Selznick asked Warners for Ann Sheridan - and having already loaned De Havilland, Warners insisted on star billing for Sheridan. Nothing came of it. Considering Betty Compson and Marjorie Rambeau, the producer settled on Ona Munson as the "dyed-haired woman."
Pittypat Hamilton . Melanie's Aunt became Laura Hope Crews, after Selznick and Cukor dropped Billie Burke for a rare reason for Hollywood actresses. Too young!
Ellen O'Hara. Lilian Gish had been the first - very symbolic - choice for Scarlett's mother - eventually played by Barbara O'Neil, who was just three years older than Vivien Leigh.
Carreen O'Hara . “A nothing part,” said MGM’s chief lion, LB Mayer dubbed as an excuse for not loaning anyone out to Selznick's company, Judy Garland had Scarlett’s sister in the bag until her Andy Hardy series co-star, Ann Rutherford, took it on when Judy was rather too busy with a little something called The Wizard of Oz.
Brent Tarleton . Victor Mature tested for Scarlett's Beau later won by his Pasadena Playhouse pal George Reeves, the future Superman .
Jonas Wilkerson was inherited by Victor Jory following the death of Robert Gleckler during the first month of shooting.
And Millicent Miller claimed she had to beat off some
300 other hopefuls... to be Vivien Leigh’s stand-in!
That's Millie hiding under the bridge, pulling a turnip from Tara's fields, pulling the revolver to shoot a Union soldier, etc. She died aged 81 in 1990.
During the shooting, Gable and Fleming disliked Viv - and it would have been worse if they had discovered that George Cukor was secretly advising, coaching, indeed, “directing” her Scarlett! (And De Havilland's Melanie).
Inevitably, the drained Selznick could never match his $4,085,790 masterpiece. - still the #1 film in box-office history in inflation-adjusted figures ( $1,329,453,600) , ahead of Star Wars, The Sound of Music, ET and The Ten Commandments. Continual re-issues of "that damned picture" - 1954's had GWTW signifying: Greater With The Wide Screen - annoyed him. "When I die, the paper will read: Producer of Gone With The Wind died today."
He was right.
The New York Times, June 23, 1966... DAVID O SELZNICK, 63, PRODUCER OF GONE WITH THE WIND DIES .