On December 15, 1939, Gone With the Wind premiered.
The long-awaited event was treated like a local holiday. In fact, the governor of Georgia declared one, and the mayor of Atlanta, where the film had its premiere, held a three-day festival. The theater, which seated only 2,500 people, sold tickets for this once-in-a-lifetime event for 10 dollars apiece, a hefty price, considering that tickets usually went for 25 cents.
With tickets costing only two bits, it's easy to see why the film's producer, David O. Selznick, was concerned about making back the $3,900,000 in production costs. That's a lot of quarters. Yet he needn't have worried. For nearly 35 years thereafter, GWTW held the number-one position, earning over 25 times its initial outlay. This would be equivalent to a film costing $40,000,000 today - not an uncommon figure for a "special effects" - type film of the '80s - making over one billion dollars in rentals!
The critics, not surprisingly, were unanimous in their praise. The Hollywood Reporter reviewer said: "This is nore than the greatest motion picture which ever was made. It is the ultimate realization of the dreams of what might be done in every phase of film wizardry, in production, performance, screen writing, photography, and every other of the multitude of technical operations which enter into the making of a picture." Variety called it "one of the truly great films, destined for record-breaking box-office business everywhere." And while The New York Times thought the film was "a handsome, scrupulous and unstinting version of the 1,037 page novel," the reviewer also pulled his punches by asking, "Is it the greatest motion picure ever made? Probably not..." Today, of course, many film historians beg to differ.
Gone With the Wind is often noted as one of the most mystery-shrouded films of the century. All kinds of myths and legends were born when Margaret Mitchell's book first appeared in 1936. After millions had read the book and she had sold the rights to Selznick for $50,000 (eventually he gave her another $50,000, the first amount seeming so inadequate to him), more rumors began. To this day, many of these still persist. For example, it is a commonly held belief that she envisioned Clark Gable in the part of Rhett Butler when she wrote the novel.
Actually, Margaret Mitchell Marsh began the novel in 1926, while bedridden from an ankle injury. Having read every book in the Atlanta public library, she decided to follow through with her husband's suggestion that she write one of her own. She bagan the task that would take her 10 years to complete - but wrote the last chapter first! And in 1926, Clark Gable was an obscure actor touring in stock companies. It is very doubtful she had ever heard of him.
Another rumor that crips up frequently is that she never even wrote the book; this is a kind of "Shakespeare syndrome" that frequently surrounds unknown writers who produce bestsellers. Friends who visited her never saw her working on a manuscript. This is because she was secretive about her work, writing the book on pieces of paper which she would stuff into envelopes. Whenever friends dropped by, she would hide these under the sofa cushions. Later, she moved the stacks of envelopes into closets, never seriously intending to publish the novel. When she finally did turn the manuscript over to a publisher, it consisted of a mass of paper squeezed into a suitcase, untitled and lacking a complete first chapter. And Margaret, who was now having second thoughts, cabled the publisher, "Please send manuscript back. I've changed my mind." Fortunately, he ignored her request.
Mitchell overcame her shyness at least long enough to attend Gone With the Wind's premiere in Atlanta. In fact, one of the classic comments about the film has been attributed to her. Hollywood Anecdotes reports that after watching the high crane shot of the Atlanta station where Scarlett attends the wounded and dying Confederate troops, Mitchell turned to Clark Gable and whispered, "Mah Gawd, if we'd o' had as many soldiers as that, we'd o' won the woah!"
From the day the cameras began rolling on the film production, the rumor mills also began to turn. In an oft-recounted story, the search for the perfect Scarlett O'Hara had been conducted all over the country, and Selznick had interviewed 1,400 actresses. The most extensive screen tests in the history of motion pictures were made for this role. Sixty actresses tested, with 165,000 feet of film shot, costing $105,000 (enough to shoot a minor movie in those days). A nationwide poll of movie fans showed their first choice to be Bette Davis (43 percent), second was Katharine Hepburn
(14 percent), Norma Shearer was third (12 percent), Miriam Hopkins fourth (6 percent), and miscellaneous other actresses received the remainder of the public's votes.
Ignoring the public, Selznick had selected the three screen tests he like best - those of Joan Bennett, Jean Arthur, and Paulette Goddard.
Yet Scarlett O'Hara had still not been cast when the first scene - the burning of Atlanta - was filmed. As the old tear-down sets on the backlot (including the native fortress/gate from 1933's King Kong) were consumed by flames, Selznick is said to have been introduced to a charming young lady who was a visitor on the set. This little-known English actress named Vivien Leigh so bedazzled him with her face aglow in the firelight that he immediately agreed with his brother Myron, who introduced him to Vivien with those now-immortal words "I want you to meet Scarlett O'Hara!" The possibility that this story was concocted by the publicity department was never denied by Selznick, who when interviewed later would only comment, "You may be right."
And for what turned out to be the most memorable role in movie history, Vivien Leigh received the paltry sum of $15,000 for her performance.
There was never any doubt in Selznick's or the public's mind, however, about who would play the role of Rhett Butler. Once the book was published, Clark Gable was the only actor ever seriously considered. Yet Gable himself almost turned down the role. According to Academy Award
Winners, the actor's initial reaction was "I don't want the part for money, chalk or marbles" - but a $2,500 weekly paycheck, plus $100,000 bonues, probably went a long way toward changing his mind. Later Bagle disclosed the real reasons for his hesitation: "I was scared when I discovered that I had been cast by the public. I felt that every reader would have a different idea as to how Rhett should be played on the screen, and I didn't see how I could please everybody."
Keeping track of the film's writers and directors soon became as much a public pastine as guessing who would be Scarlett. At least 10 writers worked on the screenplay. Although Sidney Howard was credited and received the Oscar for Best Screenplay, other drafts were written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jo Swerling, Ben Hecht, John Balderston, John Van Druten, and Michael Foster. Selznick himself did the final rewrites. Three directors also had a hand in the production. George Cukor was on the set the first day, January 26, 1939. Three weeks later he was fired, according to some, at the behest of Clark Gable. His replacement was Victor Fleming, who received full screen credit, although having just completed The Wizard of Oz
, Fleming eventually succumbed to sheer exhaustion, leaving the final week's shooting to Sam Wood (Goodbye, Mr. Chips).
One line that presented a bit of a problem to all the scriptwriters is that immortal one delivered by Rhett Butler at the story's end, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." Audiences familiar with Mitchell's book were placing bets as to whether the line would be allowed. Although today there is probably nothing that can't and hasn't been said on screen, audiences' easily outraged ears were protected in those days by a Hollywood censorship bureau known as the Hays Office. In 1922, former Postmaster General Will Hays was appointed president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. This self-regulatory board immediately compiled a list of 11 "don'ts" and 25 "be carefuls." This later became known as the Motion Picture Production Code, and was with us through the '60s.
Although the word "damn" was a big no-no, it had gotten by the censors at least three times in the past. In 1932, Emma Dunn exclaimed, "Well, I'll be damned" in Blessed Event, and Fred Stone had cursed on screen by saying "Damn you" in Alice Adams, a 1935 film. "Damn" was uttered by both Leslie Howard and Marie Lohr in Pygmalion (1938).
Somehow, these precedents didn't seem to count, and the Hays Office stubbornly refused to let the word remain in the script. In an impassioned letter, Selzick pleaded with Hays:
"The word as used in the picture is not an oath or a curse...The omission of this line spoils the punch at the very end of the picture and on our very fade-out gives an impression of unfaithfulness after three hours and forty-five minutes of extreme fidelity to Miss Mitchell's work..."
Hays finally relented, but fined Selznick $5,000 for having violated the Production Code. (However, the word "miscarriage" was strictly verboten, and the book's sentence "Cheer up, maybe you'll have a miscarriage" was revised in the film to "Cheer up, maybe you'll have an accident.")
On November 7, 1976, Gone With the Wind had another debut, this time on the small screen. Again, records were set. Aired in two parts, the first part scored a Nielsen rating of 47.6 (47.6 percent of all sets were tuned to the film) and a 65 share (65 percent of all sets turned on were tuned to GWTW). The second day's showing had equally impressive numbers. In 1978, CBS paid $35 million to MGM for the rights to televise GWTW 20 times over the next 20 years, the highest fee ever paid for TV rights to a movie.
Since then, Gone With the Wind has become available for viewing in our living rooms at any time on videocassette. Yet in 1989, a restored print of the film began breaking box office records all over again when it was released to the theaters.
Ted Turner, the controversial Atlanta businessman who had bought the MGM film library in 1985, spent two years and $250,000 restoring the print for its 50th anniversary re-release. The premiere screening at the 5,874-seat Radio City Music Hall in New York was a sellout, with seats going for $12.50 apiece (cheap, by the Atlanta 1939 premiere prices). On hand then, as she had been 50 years earlier, was Butterfly McQueen ("Prissy"), one of the film's few surviving cast members at the time.
Nearly all of the cast of Gone With the Wind are themselves gone.
Clark Gable ("Rhett Butler") died of a heart attack in 1960.
Vivien Leigh ("Scarlett O'Hara"), plagued by tuberculosis and physical exhaustion through much of her career, died in 1967).
Leslie Howard ("Ashley Wilkes") was killed in a plane crash in 1943 on a secret mission for the British government.
Hattie McDaniel ("Mammy"), the first black Oscar winner, died in 1952.
Margaret Mitchell was hit by a car and died in 1949.
David O. Selznick died in 1965.
Butterfly McQueen died in a house fire in 1995.
Sidney Howard won an Oscar posthumously for Best Screenplay. He died in August 1939 when he was crushed to death by a tractor at his Massachusetts home.