Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Southern History Book of the Month: Gone with the Wind: David O. Selznick’s Production of Margaret Mitchell’s Story of the Old South

by Mary Anne Ellis, Librarian, Southern History Department, Central Library

Gone with the Wind: David O. Selznick’s Production of Margaret Mitchell’s Story of the Old South

On June 30, 1936, Gone with the Wind was published and the life of the author, an Atlanta reporter named Margaret Mitchell, would never be the same again. Her epic novel became a bestseller and won her the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. But what was uppermost in the minds of many of the fans was . . . who will be cast in the movie? The search for Scarlett that culminated in the casting of Vivien Leigh is a well-known piece of cinematic legend. After many delays the film finally premiered in Atlanta in December of 1939, accompanied by a lush and colorful program filled with information about the film and the stars, including personal takes from the actors that give fascinating insights into the process of bringing the novel to the big screen. For many members of the reading public, Clark Gable simply was Rhett Butler and no one else would do, but Gable confesses that he was none too eager to play the role:
My reaction to playing Rhett Butler is both frank and simple. “The condemned man ate a hearty meal.” Now don’t get me wrong. As an actor, I loved it. As a character, he was terrific. As material for the screen, he was that “once in a lifetime” opportunity. But as Clark Gable, who likes to pick his spots and found himself trapped by a series of circumstances over which he had no control, I was scared stiff. 

Vivien Leigh also has some interesting commentary on what it was like to be caught up in the phenomenon of “Scarlett fever”:
There were dozens of girls testing, and I did not seriously consider that I might actually play the part. Yet once it was decided upon I discovered that there was no joking about playing Scarlett. From then on, I was swept along as though by a powerful wave—it was Scarlett, Scarlett, Scarlett, night and day, month after month.

The artwork and design of the program clearly reflect the era. On the cover, Clark Gable as Rhett Butler stands out as a broad-shouldered figure in black, but the women who swirl about him in colorful gowns are very much in the 1930s style of artwork that could come from an ad for cosmetics or high-end perfume. And speaking of those colorful gowns, we learn in the "Facts About the Production" pages that “more than 5500 separate items of wardrobe were required to be designed by Walter Plunkett, for which he had to draw more than 400 sketches”—a task made even more complicated by the progress of women’s styles from the hoopskirts of the Civil War years to the bustled gowns of the Reconstruction era.

A final sign of the times appears on the back cover, in which we learn that the program is sold in theatres showing the film and may be purchased at 25 cents a copy. A quarter would certainly buy more then than it would now! This gorgeous program is indeed a relic of a different era, when a night out at the movies was a genuine occasion—and this occasion made film history.

Fans of both the novel and the film would enjoy this time-capsule item about the transition of Gone with the Wind from page to screen.

For more information:
Gone with the Wind full text online – and
Twenty Things You Might Not Have Known About Gone with the Wind
Roger Ebert’s review of Gone with the Wind
Hattie McDaniel winning Best Supporting Actress
Trivia and Fun Facts About Gone with the Wind
Gowns, Illustrations and More—The Making of Gone With the Wind

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