Gone with the Wind was not a typical, film-a-week studio production. It was advertised as: 'The most magnificent picture ever!' This was meant from the start to be an epic: big, broad, expensive and long. It won nine Oscars and is generally held to be the most popular American historical film ever made. It is still on the list of the top 20 money-making films of all times (and would probably remain first if inflation were taken into account). It opened in the USA in the second week of December 1939. By New Year's Day Selznick's 'blockbuster' had sold a million dollars' worth of tickets. In London, it opened in 1940 and played for a record 232 consecutive weeks. In 1976 the American TV première of Gone with the Wind was the highest-rated single network programme ever broadcast.
Gone with the Wind was adapted from a novel by Margaret Mitchell, an Atlanta newspaper reporter. Her lengthy book was based on stories of the old South that she heard as a child. The story was published in 1936 and immediately became a best-seller, going on to break sales records and attracting the Hollywood studios. Gone with the Wind had the potential - if carefully scripted and especially marketed - to cross demographic barriers in the audience. In particular, it had the potential to be both a men's and a women's picture at the same time: a war story and the heroic figure of Rhett Butler for the men; epic romance and the emotional Scarlett O'Hara for the women. The film was produced by David O. Selznick in conjunction with MGM. Selznick not only identified the novel's huge potential as a top box-office film; as a long-time industry insider he also negotiated a lot of personal control over production.
Once Selznick had bought up the rights to the book, he had to set about casting the picture. Gable was an obvious choice for Rhett, but Selznick gained a publicity coup by basically publicly auditioning America for an actress to play the part of Scarlett. In the search for Scarlett, 1400 candidates were allegedly screen
Gone with the Wind
tested. Selznick really spun the drama out. On 10 December 1938, Selznick shot the famous burning of Atlanta sequence with stunt doubles standing in for Gable and the still uncast Scarlett O'Hara. According to the legend, in the light of the flames of the Atlanta set, Selznick's brother, an agent, introduced him to his new client Vivien Leigh. Leigh was cast on the spot.
You will notice that the name Selznick is cropping up regularly in this story. David O. Selznick was not the director. He controlled the film - the casting and so on - before assigning a director. He fired the first director - George Cukor - on the pleadings of Clark Gable (who thought Cukor was a 'woman's director'). Victor Fleming replaced Cukor, but Selznick continued his hands-on style, including overseeing the set-ups of every shot. It is not entirely unreasonable to cast Selznick as 'producer as auteur' - but we should not underestimate the role of William Cameron Menzies - the production designer - and the influence of Selznick's brother Myron.
The production proceeded on an epically expensive scale: 59 leading and supporting players, 2400 extras, 90 sets; women's costumes alone cost $100 000 to buy. Selznick aimed at some form of authenticity. Dozens of historical advisers were brought in, plus a Southern dialogue coach, an expert on Southern etiquette and a historical architect specialising in the American Civil War period. Production costs topped $3.5 million (or $200 million in today's money), with another half a million spent on prints, publicity and advertising.
Even stripping away the hype (part of its allure, after all), Gone with the Wind remains triumphant. However much it cost to make - it made money. However shallow the supporting cast - the stars are stellar and compelling. However long and sprawling the movie may be - it remains, like Casablanca (see chapter 11) or Star Wars (see chapter 28), a testament to the power of mainstream commercial cinema as an engaging storytelling medium and enduring cultural product.
* When watching the film - as with Stagecoach (chapter 9), The Seven Samurai (chapter 17), Apocalypse Now (chapter 30) and so many others - you should consider how movies portray and mythologise historical events and periods.
• 'Hollywood' is often assumed to produce 'realist' films - yet Gone with the Wind contains many expressionist flourishes -not least in the sets and lighting. Fleming made The Wizard of Oz in the same year - with apparently rather more justification for stylised mise en scène. Why do you think the filmmakers chose to move away from realism for this epic?
• Beyond being a ripping good yarn, Gone with the Wind does contain some very disturbing portrayals of black people and a deeply condescending view of the role of women. Is this simply 'telling it like it is' in the pre-Civil War South?
• If (heaven forefend!) you were remaking Gone with the Wind for a twenty-first century audience, who would you cast as Rhett and Scarlett? (Would it be easier to remarket the original? Why?)
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