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In the annals of Hollywood, 1939 was a year of spectacular achievement. A recent article in The Washington Post cites it as one of the seven candidates for 'the best year in movie history' (1)--notable titles include Stagecoach (John Ford), the film that clinched the status of the western; the fantasy The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming); William Wyler's adaptation of Wuthering Heights; and Frank Capra's comedy Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. None, however, provoked such wild anticipation or ensuing adulation as Fleming's Gone with the Wind.

Released in 1936, the book of the same name--the only novel by Atlanta-born journalist and author Margaret Mitchell published in her lifetime--had won two coveted awards: the National Book Award for Most Distinguished Novel in 1936, and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1937. (2) Apart from receiving such prestigious attention, it was also wildly popular. Reading it again now, eighty-odd years later, it is easy to understand these two kinds of appreciation: not only is it an irresistible page-turner, but it is also expertly structured in its intertwined dealings with the personal lives at its centre and the broader social, political and military history against which the course of those lives is articulated.

Mitchell took the title from a poem by nineteenth-century British poet Ernest Dowson, (3) explaining her choice thus: 'It has movement, it could either refer to times that are gone like the snows of yesteryear [...] or to a person who went with the wind rather than standing against it,' she wrote to her publisher. (4) Or does it evoke the idea that so much of the life of the South, of Georgia in particular, would be lost to war's depredations?

Mitchell knew the South, where she lived all her life, and her novel is utterly imbued with a detailed, carefully researched sense of what life in Georgia was like at the time of the American Civil War and in the Reconstruction period that followed. Much as Mitchell was clearly devoted to this world, she doesn't flinch from noting the cruelties of the hierarchies of the time or the horrors of the war. But of course it is the core saga of Scarlett O'Hara that grabs readers from the first page and remains there on the last.

The novel's extraordinary popularity was a problem for those working on the film adaptation. As producer David O Selznick said during the preparation of the screenplay in 1937: 'We will be forgiven cuts if we do not invent sequences.' (5) In other words, audiences would expect the filmmakers to shrink the vast novel, but were unlikely to tolerate any playing fast and loose by adding events Mitchell had never imagined. As one who normally expects the film adaptation of a novel to offer something new, I have to accept in the case of Gone with the Wind that, though the film lasts just on four hours, the main change was always necessarily going to require a shrinking of characters and incidents so as to focus on the main business, which is the rise, fall and revival of the fortunes of Scarlett (Vivien Leigh). The film retains the novel's structure in the sense that this personal trajectory is set against--indeed, almost parallels--the history of the South. Here, 'the South' means essentially Georgia and, even more particularly, Atlanta, as the city's fortunes plummet from what we are meant to see as a site for gentlefolk and their (mainly black) servants to one that is overrun and set fire to by Yankee invaders from the North.

The film begins and ends as the novel does, and in doing so asserts the centrality of Scarlett. She is first seen flanked by two 'beaux', twins Brent (George Reeves) and Stuart Tarleton (Fred Crane), on the front porch of her family's imposing home, Tara, evincing her self-absorbed boredom with talk of possible war. When everything else has gone astray in the intervening hours, the last shot sees her returned to Tara and to an optimistic reliance on the fact that 'after all, tomorrow is another day'. Bookended by these two direct renderings of the novel's settings, the rest of the film pursues the moves between Tara and Atlanta and the tangle of relationships that constitute the novel's narrative trajectory with frequent, if less detailed, intervention in the matter of the Civil War. In other words, the film seeks to capture the novel's world and what happens in it, and is less preoccupied with making something new of it than with manipulating a huge literary work into the strictures of another medium while keeping it as intact as possible.

Casting coups and challenges

Mitchell kept out of the way of the adaptation process, saying, 'When I sold the book to the Selznick company, I made it very plain that I would have nothing to do with the picture' (6)--apart from recommending the local architect and painter Wilbur Kurtz as an authority on the Civil War period. (7) She was, however, once quoted as saying that her only suggestion for casting was for Rhett Butler to be played by Groucho Marx! (8)

Apart from Mitchell's facetious suggestion, there were a couple of other actors briefly considered for the role of blockade-running gambler Rhett, but before long it was clear that 'there was no one in the American public mind but Clark Gable who could be Rhett Butler'. (9) As Gable biographer Chrystopher J Spicer has written, 'After all, Rhett was described as tall, broad-shouldered, powerful and graceful, with dark hair, a mustache, and a way of looking at women as if they were naked.' (10)

However, the casting of Rhett was a simple matter compared with that of Scarlett. Major actresses of the time were eager to test for this plum role: Bette Davis, Miriam Hopkins, Katharine Hepburn, Tallulah Bankhead, Paulette Goddard and many others were all considered by Selznick before--two-and-a-half years and US$50,000 later (11)--he settled on English actress Leigh. Selznick did not want the film to become a 'star vehicle', 'a Davis picture' or 'a Hepburn picture', preferring the idea of a relatively unknown actress who could 'carry' the film. (12)

Other key roles were filled by Leslie Howard, as Ashley Wilkes, the man Scarlett loves, and Olivia de Havilland, as Melanie, the woman he marries. These two actors were already significant Hollywood stars--and, at the time of writing, de Havilland, now aged 102, remains the last surviving cast member. Prior to joining the production, she was under contract with Warner Bros., whose boss only agreed to release her to Selznick when she persuaded him that appearing in Gone with the Wind would increase her box-office allure, and that this would be to Warner's advantage when she returned there. (13)

The other key character, Mammy, the forthright house slave who is undaunted by Scarlett's ways, was played by Hattie McDaniel, who won an Academy Award--the first ever awarded to a black actor--for Best Supporting Actress. McDaniePs grandparents had been slaves in Georgia, and she had been a vaudeville performer before entering the film industry. Her character's role is particularly important to Gone with the Wind given the centrality of the depiction of the black slave population to the film's ideological texture.

Years in the making

There are not many films whose production history is almost as riveting to read about as the film is to watch, and not many about which so much has been written as Gone with the Wind. I've suggested already the daunting notion of bringing such a bestselling phenomenon to the screen and some of the casting challenges, but these scarcely begin to account for the more than two years of deals and hassles that took place before the cameras could start to turn.

To begin with, Kay Brown, New York representative of Selznick International Pictures, had to persuade David Selznick to pay US$50,000 for the screen rights to 'a book, the author of which nobody has ever heard of'. (14) Selznick had a record of producing films derived from classic and popular novels, such as David Copperfield (George Cukor, 1935) and Anna Karenina (Clarence Brown, 1935). Well, everyone knew about Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy, but who was Margaret Mitchell? Brown, of course, ended by convincing him to pay up, and subsequently striking a deal with MGM studios when the matter of casting Gable became an issue. While there would be three directors involved in the making of Gone with the Wind, it remained essentially a 'producer's film' as its costs soared over matters such as casting tests, endless editing of the screenplay and the making of thousands of costumes.

Selznick's first choice for director, Cukor, had worked with him on several notable films in the 1930s--including David Copperheld, another dauntingly large adaptation job--and later claimed to have worked on the pre-production of Gone with the Wind 'for almost a year'. (15) Gable, then perhaps the most powerful star in Hollywood, objected to his presence, however, regarding him as 'a woman's director'--indeed, Cukor had shown himself adept at getting the best out of some leading female stars, including Hepburn and Greta Garbo--and insulted him before the cast and crew, ending one tirade with 'Fuck this! I want to be directed by a man!' (16) Selznick eventually complied by replacing Cukor with the more macho Fleming, a friend of Gable's.

It is interesting to reflect on what is left of Cukor's contribution to the film. As one account has it, 'Most of what Cukor directed remains in the film. His careful establishment of the relationships and motivations in the story's beginning carries it through to the end.' (17) Leigh and de Havilland, lamenting his dismissal, both sought clandestine guidance from him afterwards. As a result, perhaps, the relationship between Scarlett and Melanie becomes one of the strongest--and, ultimately, most moving--narrative strands of the film. Fleming, on the other hand, 'energized the cast by picking up the pace and emphasizing clarity and spectacle over nuance and subtle details'. (18)

In looking closely at the film, it is tempting to try to identify the respective influences of these two directors. In the event, Gable, under Fleming's direction, refused to cry in the crucial scene when Scarlett falls down the staircase, and even Fleming's nerves began to give way to the extent that he had to take time off. He was briefly replaced by a third director, Sam Wood, who'd had a big success with Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), made in England for MGM. It is, of course, difficult to fully know who was responsible for which moments in an enterprise as vast as Gone with the Wind, but 'Wood was responsible for one complete sequence--the episode involving the Yankee looter breaking into Tara and being shot on the staircase by Scarlett' (19)--and also contributed to several other scenes.

Whatever the contributions of Cukor and Wood, neither of their names appear in the film's credits; Gone with the Wind is, officially, 'directed by Victor Fleming'. Arguably, the other two went on to have more illustrious careers. Other crucial collaborators included Sidney Howard, who, like Fleming, receives solo credit for the screenplay, though there were at least four others who had a hand in it; production designer William Cameron Menzies, who had the challenging task of re-creating a convincing sense, in both interiors and exteriors, of the 'old South'; and composer Max Steiner, whose unforgettably soaring 'Tara's Theme' haunts some of the film's most memorable moments.

One last production matter that needs noting relates to the censorship so rigorously imposed in the US in the second half of the 1930s. There was tension about whether Rhett would be allowed to say, 'Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn,' when he leaves Scarlett. (20) Elsewhere, Belle Watling (Ona Munson), who clearly runs a brothel in the novel, was not to be explicitly designated as a sex worker, and a censorship-advice memo from the Hays Office warned against her being made to appear too 'sympathetic in contrast to the decent women of your story'. (21) The film was also not to depict the Ku Klux Klan, the secret Southern organisation set up to intimidate and attack blacks and Yankees, which features explicitly in Mitchell's book. Selznick himself said that the production had 'to be awfully careful that the Negroes come out decidedly on the right side of the ledger'. (22)

On the screen at last

Considering all the production hurdles that had to be cleared and the ever-soaring budget, it seems miraculous that the film ever got made at all--let alone became one of the pillars of the industry, legendary for both what appears on the screen and what went on during the years of its preparation. Its premiere was held in Atlanta (naturally) on 15 December 1939, just in time to be considered for the following year's Oscars. Running for just on four hours, it was screened in two roughly equal parts with an interval. A poignant note relating to this star-studded occasion is that 'the civic authorities in Atlanta would not allow a picture of Hattie McDaniel in the souvenir program given away at the opening'. (23)

Structurally, Gone with the Wind begins by establishing both the South and Scarlett. The opening text prepares us for historical change from the start: 'There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow [...] A Civilization gone with the wind ...' This cuts to a view of the imposing facade of Tara, where Scarlett is flanked by her two beaux. Their talk of imminent war irritates her--but not nearly as much as the news that Melanie is coming to the neighbouring property of Twelve Oaks with a view to marrying Ashley. She flounces off, with Mammy shouting after her.

A good deal has been set in motion in these early moments. The prospect of a Yankee invasion of the slave-owning South will have untold influence on what follows, as will what we have seen of the beautiful but self-absorbed Scarlett. She is used to much male attention, but loves Ashley, and can't believe he'll want to marry that 'pale-faced, mealy-mouthed ninny'. Her outspoken view of Melanie initiates another plot strand that will persist throughout, and that may well be one of the film's subtlest achievements: that is, that the war throws them together into a lopsided relationship, in which Melanie's sheer goodness finally imposes itself on Scarlett's selfish strength. One of the other key moments in the first quarter of the film is the 'library scene', in which a recumbent and unseen Rhett overhears Scarlett insist to Ashley that she loves him and slap him as he replies that Melanie 'is part of my blood'. Rhett then reveals himself, with the recollection of this scene becoming part of his hold over Scarlett.

In terms not just of relationships but thematic preoccupations, these early episodes prepare us persuasively for what is to come. Scarlett's father, Gerald (Thomas Mitchell), talks of 'land' as 'the only thing that lasts', and the rest of the film--whatever the destructions of war or the loss of loved ones--bears this out. At the end of Part 1, when Scarlett has fled Atlanta and brought Melanie and her baby back to Tara, there is an indelible image of her in silhouette against the night sky. She pulls up a vegetable, weeps and pledges: As God is my witness [...] I'm going to live through this, and, when it's all over, I'll never be hungry again.' And the film's final moments echo this theme of connection to land: after tumultuous experiences of war and marriage (Rhett has left her, Melanie has died, life in Atlanta has wildly changed), she is once again at Tara, again in silhouette, as she contemplates the property as 'the only thing that matters'.

In moments like those referred to above, the film's structure is potently enacted in its superbly controlled visual sense. The cinematography by Ernest Haller and the uncredited Lee Garmes is equally adept at rendering the personal and the panoramic: for a film in which relationships are so central, and so often under intense pressure, it establishes again and again what is going on between two people in eloquent two shots of very different emotional quality. In the previously mentioned library scene, the camera moves in on a close two shot of Scarlett and Ashley as she urges her love for him and pulls away as he turns to leave. This two shot is then contrasted with the subsequent one of Scarlett and Rhett, in which he makes clear that he has overheard this exchange. And we recall this in a still later shot in which Ashley, going off to war, begs Scarlett to look after the gentle--and pregnant--Melanie.

Against the levels of intimacy dramatised in such close-up moments are the beauties of the prowling camera that render the contrasting interiors of pre-war elegance, the wreckage of Tara and Atlanta under the Yankee invasion, and the towering overhead shot in which over a thousand wounded or dead are lain in rows in the town's streets. Regarding the last of these, Ronald Haver reports that 'in addition to eight hundred extras, the scene was populated with eight hundred dummies, who were rocked back and forth by live actors discreetly camouflaging the fraud'. (24) This vast, unforgettable image delivers the film's view of the tragic loss of war, but it is motivated in terms of its personal drama by having Scarlett hopelessly scouring the terrible scene for Dr Meade (Harry Davenport) as Melanie's baby is about to appear.

There is so much more one might say about the film's depiction of the complexities of the war and the lives it so fiercely invades--and how those lives respond to this invasion--but, above all, I stress that Gone with the Wind's triumph lies in the marshalling of skills at every level of filmmaking to achieve this duality. Its critical, commercial, industrial and popular reputations have combined to ensure its place in film history. Revisiting the film eighty years after its premiere, one sees why.

Brian McFarlane is an adjunct professor at Swinburne University of Technology. His most recent book is Making a Meal of It: Writing About Film (Monash University Publishing. 2018).


(1) 'What Was the Best Year in Movie History?', The Washington Post, 28 December 2018, <>, accessed 3 April 2019.

(2) See Ellen F Brown & John Wiley Jr, Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind: A Bestseller's Odyssey from Atlanta to Hollywood, Taylor Trade Publishing, Plymouth, UK, 2011, pp. 149-50.

(3) From Dowson's poem 'Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae'--the relevant line is: 'I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind'.

(4) Margaret Mitchell, quoted in Judy Cameron & Paul J Christman, The Art of Gone with the Wind: The Making of a Legend, W.H. Allen & Co., London, 1989, p. 27.

(5) David O Selznick, quoted in Ronald Haver, David O. Selznick's Hollywood, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1980, p. 240.

(6) Margaret Mitchell, quoted in David Thomson, Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick, Andre Deutsch Ltd, London, 1993, p. 229.

(7) Thomson, ibid., p. 227.

(8) ibid., p. 243.

(9) Chrystopher J Spicer, Clark Gable: Biography, Filmography, Bibliography, McFarland & Company, Jefferson, NC, 2002, p. 162.

(10) ibid., p. 162.

(11) Anne Edwards, Vivien Leigh: A Biography, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1978, p. 9.

(12) Cameron & Christman, op. cit., p. 36.

(13) Haver, op. cit., p. 262.

(14) Cameron & Christman, op. cit., p. 28.

(15) George Cukor, quoted in Carlos Clarens, Cukor, Seeker & Warburg, London, 1976, p. 188.

(16) Lee Garmes, quoted in Charles Higham, Olivia & Joan: A Biography of Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, New English Library, London, 1984.

(17) Cameron & Christman, op. cit., p. 73.

(18) ibid., p. 73-

(19) Tony Thomas, 'Sam Wood', in Clive Denton, Kingsley Canham & Tony Thomas, The Hollywood Professionals Volume 2: Henry King, Lewis Milestone, Sam Wood, Tantivy Press, London, 1974, p. 155.

(20) Molly Haskell, Frankly, My Dear: Gone with the Wind Revisited, Yale University Press, Newhaven, CT, & London, 2009, p. 2.

(21) As cited in ibid., p. 49.

(22) David O Selznick, quoted in Thomson, op. cit., p. 235.

(23) ibid., p. 337.

(24) Haver, op. cit., p. 283.
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Author:McFarlane, Brian
Publication:Screen Education
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2019
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