Classic Hollywood: Rhett, She Wrote
When Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin), he allegedly said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” Historians now believe the quote is apocryphal, but the impact of Stowe’s anti-slavery tale was real: it was the bestselling novel of the 19th century.
Like Stowe, Margaret Mitchell stood under five feet tall, yet looms large over American literature for writing her first (and only) book, Gone With the Wind. Mitchell spent 10 years working on the novel, hoping to sell at least 5,000 copies. It has sold 30 million to date. When GWTW was published in 1936, even Mitchell couldn’t have dreamed it would become the year’s runaway bestseller and win the Pulitzer Prize.
After producer David Selznick acquired the movie rights, fans claimed they would only accept one actor as Rhett Butler: smokin’ hot superstar Clark Gable. (Asked to name her choice for the role, Mitchell quipped, “Groucho Marx”.) To stoke anticipation for the picture, Selznick launched a brilliant publicity blitz surrounding his two-year “Search for Scarlett.”
Meanwhile, Gable was the only person on earth who didn’t think he was right for Rhett. Sure, he’d recently been crowned Hollywood’s box-office king, but Gable knew he’d take the hit if the film flopped. Eventually, the 38-year-old performer caved after MGM sweetened the deal with a $50,000 bonus that helped Gable settle a costly divorce. During a two-day break from shooting GWTW, Gable married the love of his life, actress Carole Lombard.
Production of “Selznick’s Folly,” as it was known, became its own drama. Directors were hired, fired, or quit. Budgets bloated. Civil rights leaders protested the book’s portrayal of slaves. A dozen writers (including F. Scott Fitzgerald) struggled to wrestle Mitchell’s 1,037-page tome into a film-able script. In a tragic footnote, the writer credited with the movie’s Oscar-winning screenplay died in a freak accident before the film was released.
As for Scarlett? Nearly 1,400 wannabes, including Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn, tested for the once-in-a-lifetime role. In the end, 25-year-old British beauty Vivien Leigh rocked a Southern accent to win the year’s Best Actress honors.
In my next post, I’ll share the story of the film’s gala world premiere in Atlanta. Sadly, just 10 years after that triumphant night, Mitchell was killed by a hit-and-run driver at the age of 48. Fortunately, her epic story, and Gable’s indelible performance, will live forever on screen.
Join us for Gone With the Wind, the grand finale of our Film Club series 1939: Hollywood’s Greatest Year on Sunday, December 29 at 2pm at The Loft.
About Jeannie MacDonald
Jeannie MacDonald is a freelance writer with a lifelong passion for classic movies. She’s written TV, radio, print and digital copy for Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros., as well as humor essays for the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and Chicago Tribune.