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Jo'Burg Days: Gone With The Wind

…She packed her scattered manuscript into a suitcase and – so one story goes – raced to the train station where she was lucky to catch Latham before he boarded the train to New York. In her hurry, the suitcase burst open and the manuscript fell onto the platform, and the scattered papers were gathered up and stuffed back into the case just before the train pulled out of the station…

Barbara Durlacher tells of Margaret Mitchell and her novel Gone With The Wind that was turned into what was to become perhaps the most famous film ever made.

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn’.

That iconic phrase has echoed down the years ever since 1939 when it was uttered by Rhett Butler in the blockbuster movie “Gone with the Wind”. The film starred Vivienne Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara and Clark Gable as Rhett Butler and since its launch has been voted as one of America’s Top Ten Best Films.
It is listed as the highest grossing movie in Hollywood history.
When the novel was published in 1936 it was an immediate success and a Pulitzer Prize winner. Then, in 1939 the story was brought to the world’s cinema screens and in the seventy years since then, “Gone with the Wind” has retained its position as one of the world’s most popular books, said to be outsold only by The Bible.

Seventy years after David O Selznick’s smash hit film opened, “GWTW” continues to be shown and there are many who have seen and enjoyed Hollywood’s interpretation of Margaret Mitchell’s book again and again on movie and television screens. Millions of people have formed their perceptions of the American Civil War from Margaret Mitchell’s famous story, and the scenes of the burning of Atlanta with the wounded and dying lying out in the hot sun waiting for the administrations of one lone doctor is, for some, their idea of what really happened during those tumultuous years.

Amazingly, the book continues to attract new readers, and despite several failed attempts by other authors to write a sequel, none has caught the public imagination, and the provocative question of ‘what happened next?’ remains unanswered.

The story and compelling characters Margaret Mitchell created in her book are only rivalled by the facts of her life and it might be appropriate here to take a few moments to sketch what kind of woman wrote this long, passionate book.

Margaret Mitchell was one of the first of the new-wave of independent young American women keen to make a mark on the society in which they lived. Her genteel background and upbringing hardly fitted her for the rough and tumble of the career she chose, but when she finally managed to break free of the demands of an old-fashioned family, the close-knit and carefully structured society of deep-south Atlanta was scandalised to learn that she had chosen to enter the business world as the only woman journalist on a local newspaper. Here she had the opportunity to live the free and easy life she’d yearned for and accounts of the time tell how, as an up-and-coming news reporter, she and other Bright Young Things energetically danced the nights away during those years of the “Jazz Age”.

Her weekly column did not distract her from attending scores of parties with her large group of friends and before long she married dashing “Red” Upshaw, who was an equally up-and-coming fledgling bootlegger. His glamour did not last long however, and after a number of unpleasant confrontations which culminated in spousal rape, the marriage was annulled. Despite this, it is widely believed that the character of Rhett Butler was based on Mitchell’s fascination with her first husband. There is no denying the sexual excitement that comes through the pages of her book with every appearance of the character, something which was perfectly depicted in the movie by Clark Gable.

Much of Mitchell’s chronicle of the four years of the ‘War between North and South’ was gleaned from elderly men and ageing relatives who had fought in or been present at the battles. As a child she had listened entranced to their stories and was determined the valour and courage of the participants would be recorded. Meticulous about detail, she researched every fact, even down to the weather conditions prevailing on the days of the big battles, insisting that she owed it to the participants to get every fact correct.

Strangely, during writing and after having completed the book she resolutely refused to acknowledge that she was busy with anything and for some time hid the completed epic in a suitcase under a divan. Eventually, after much persuading, a friend got permission from Mitchell to contact a visiting agent from Macmillan Publishing in New York City. Harold Latham was in Atlanta scouting for new Southern authors, and on the insistence of friends, Mitchell was finally convinced to show him her book. She packed her scattered manuscript into a suitcase and – so one story goes – raced to the station where she was lucky to catch Latham before he boarded the train to New York. In her hurry, the suitcase burst open and the manuscript fell onto the platform, and the scattered papers were gathered up and stuffed back into the case just before the train pulled out of the station.

Arriving in New York, Latham had the mammoth task of sorting out the mess, but as he continued wading through the unnumbered pages, he became increasingly convinced that the book had the makings of a masterpiece.

When the filming was underway, it was necessary to re-write the screenplay extensively, and as delays cost Selznick $50 000 a day, it was imperative to do the re-write as quickly as possible. The original screenplay had been written by Jo Swerling and Sidney Howard, but encountering problems with this version, other writers including Ben Hecht were brought in. Reducing the original six hours to a more manageable film length was achieved by the writers “working eighteen to twenty hours a day for a week and eating nothing but bananas and salted peanuts”. The completed film however, still runs to four hours and an innovative idea was to show the movie in two parts, which was achieved by dispensing with all trailers and newsreels before the start. This format has been used for “GWTW” showings ever since, with a 10 minute interval mid-way.

For months before the start of production, Selznick had been auditioning countrywide to cast the part of Scarlett O’Hara. All the prominent actresses of the day had already been auditioned but he had not yet found the woman he wanted. At the time, an unknown British actress was visiting her lover, the famous Shakespearean actor Laurence Olivier, then filming in Hollywood. On a whim, they decided to visit the set of “GWTW” and the following incident is described in one account of how Selznick found his Scarlett O’Hara.

In order to save time, Selznick had decided to film the scene of the burning of Atlanta while still auditioning actresses for the title role. This was a complicated feat entailing setting fire to many of the old sets lying around the lot and for reasons of cost, could not be repeated. There was great tension on the set due to this complicated and dangerous undertaking, made more difficult by a strong, gusting wind.

At the climax of the fire, wearing a straw hat with a large brim, high heels and gloves, Vivienne Leigh approached the viewing platform. Holding onto the hat with one hand, she was introduced to David O Selznick, and as he took her hand, her delicate features were silhouetted against the flames. Inspired by her beauty he exclaimed, “That’s her. That’s my Scarlett O’Hara!” and the part was cast.

Some years later, Vivienne Leigh was asked what it was like to kiss Clark Gable, the sex idol of his time.

“He wore dentures, and his breath smelt dreadful,” was her reply, shattering the dreams of thousands of envious women.
Despite this, GWTW went down in movie annals as the most successful Hollywood movie ever and extraordinary feat for a sweeping epic that has no parallel in today’s world. It can still draw people with its magic, despite the obvious faults in the writing and competition from later, better made films. Scarlett O’Hara, Rhett Butler, ‘Gone With the Wind’ and David O. Selznick have achieved their place in movie history.


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