The Golden Age of Hollywood

Love it or loathe it, Gone With the Wind is one of the greatest pictures ever made.  And this, my friends, is a blog to match the film: huge, spectacular, colourful (British spellings again, I'm afraid!) and just a little corny in places.  I have used a variety of sources: the many books I have concerning its production, of which I will provide a list of recommended reading if anyone is interested, films that have been made about the production of GWTW (this is a common acronym for the film, and if I get tired I will probably use it myself), my own research at the University of Texas at Austin, as well as Max Steiner's score at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.  I also talked at length with Rudy Behlmer, author of Memo From David O. Selznick, as well as Daniel Selznick and Dame Olivia de Havilland.  

Above: The iconic image of Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh.

I would like to approach this film from a number of different angles.  Firstly, David O. Selznick's journey with the film; secondly, composer Max Steiner's journey; and thirdly, my own.

There could never be any other producer for Gone With the Wind than David O. Selznick.  According to his memos, he was on a rare vacation in May 1936 when one of his most trusted employees, Katherine Brown, wired him a detailed synopsis of a book about to be published that was going to take the literary world by storm.  She was absolutely nuts over the book, and the synopsis itself was over 100 pages, but when Selznick first read it, his response was lukewarm.  He certainly wasn't going to pay the asking price of $50,000 for a book by an untried, unheard of author whose first (and only) book this was - Margaret Mitchell.

But Ms Brown persisted - and it is to her we must give our eternal thanks that this movie ever got made at all.  Without her, it would never have happened.  Finally, on July 6, 1936, Selznick gave in and paid the money.  It was a cheque that paid for the most difficult and stressful three and a half years in his life, or indeed in the life of any movie producer up to that point.  It's worth noting at this point that Selznick was very likely the most difficult man to work for in the entire history of Hollywood.  He was driven to the point of collapse, which he and those around him did frequently.  In my opinion, although I am not a medical expert, Selznick was very likely suffering from Asperger's syndrome, very definitely obsessional, and the drugs didn't help either.  Pills were very common in Hollywood at that time, they were needed to cope with long days and nights of hard work, and Selznick took them regularly, especially during Gone With the Wind.

Once word got out that Selznick had bought the rights to the book, America went crazy.  The book quickly became one of the biggest, if not the biggest seller of all time.  Americans devoured this huge, 1,000+ page book, and pictured in their heads who would play the two lead roles; that of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara.  For Rhett, there was never any doubt; Clark Gable would play the role.  He was America's favourite, he was Selznick's favourite, but both were almost disappointed when Selznick's father-in-law, Louis B. Mayer, refused to loan Gable to Selznick's independent studio to make the film, family or no family.  Besides, Gable hated the idea. 

Scarlett O'Hara - willful, deceitful, strong, spoiled and vain - was a different matter altogether.  Indeed, one of the facets that kept America glued to its movie magazines and gossip columns was the highly-publicised search for the actress who would take on such an iconic role.  This search lasted almost from the day the book was bought right up to the very day that shooting began.  A large number of actresses were tried and tested - Paulette Goddard, Lucille Ball, Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Lana Turner, Carole Lombard, to name but a few.  One actress wasn't tested and this was as newsworthy as the ones that were - that was Bette Davis, who wanted the role badly, but her studio (Warner Bros.) would only loan her to Selznick if he took Errol Flynn as Rhett Butler.  Davis could never forgive Jack Warner for that.  She was given the title role in Jezebel (1938), for which she won her second Best Actress Academy Award, but the film itself was little consolation for the loss of this most prized role of Scarlett O'Hara.  Meanwhile, despite test after test after test, no one could satisfy Selznick that they could take on the part satisfactorily.

Another problem was the script.  Selznick was extremely demanding, especially where the script was concerned.  He meddled in their every tiny little detail, causing whichever writer was concerned unutterable fury.  He believed only one man could handle the job, and that was Sidney Howard, who had just won an Oscar for Dodsworth (1936).  But Howard would only work if he could stay on his farm in Massachusetts, some 3,000 miles from Hollywood.  This meant Selznick could not interfere in the slightest.  Reluctantly, Selznick agreed.  Howard submitted his first draft in March 1937, and it was long enough for a film almost six hours long.  Selznick was not happy at all.  Over the next few months, Selznick barraged the writer with revision after revision, but when the next draft came back even longer still, Howard told Selznick he wanted out and the producer effectively told him, don't let the door hit you on the way out. 

Above: Vivien Leigh & Hattie McDaniel.

By the late spring of 1938, Selznick had spent almost $500,000 of his own money, he had no cast, little crew and no script, he was burnt out and not a frame of film had been shot!  He needed help, especially financially, and he needed it quickly.  Not to worry, help was at hand, and probably from the most unlikely source that the producer could have imagined: Louis B. Mayer.

Mayer stepped in, but naturally, there were conditions: Selznick could have $1.25 million, but only if he took Clark Gable as Rhett, and gave worldwide distribution rights to the finished picture to MGM.  Selznick hated the idea, but he was backed into a corner; there was no other choice.  Finally, he agreed to Mayer's offer.  On the face of it, it seems strange that Mayer even entertained the idea of there being a finished picture - especially one that would cost so much money.

It also seems strange that Selznick had set a start date of January 26, 1939, had a director (George Cukor) but no principal cast or finished script.  When he went on a vacation before the start of production, he took four suitcases with him just to hold various drafts of the script!  On December 10, 1938, Selznick began filming the 'burning of Atlanta' sequence by setting fire to some of the old sets from King Kong.  It was on that night that he first met Vivien Leigh.  

Above: Vivien Leigh.

She was brought to him by future husband Laurence Olivier, who might have fancied his own chances as Rhett Butler, or at least Ashley Wilkes.  Olivier was in town to film Wuthering Heights, while Ms Leigh was to sign with her new Hollywood agent - Selznick's own brother Myron.  Myron came with the pair that night and fashioned an introduction that finally gave the world Scarlett O'Hara.  But Vivien Leigh was British!  Nevertheless, she had always seen herself as Scarlett and had worked on the Southern accent for some time.  She was ready.  Selznick was ready.  Vivien Leigh was signed.  Olivia de Havilland was signed as Melanie Wilkes, and Leslie Howard, another British actor, was signed as her husband Ashley.  Howard refused to change his accent; but, you know what?, he got away with it.

Principal photography on Gone With the Wind began on January 26, 1939, on Selznick's back lot in Culver City.  Selznick quite rightly wanted the film to be made in the most resplendent Technicolor possible, and indeed it was.  All the available Technicolor cameras were used to make this film look absolutely beautiful in its depth of colour range, its diversity from pastel colours to deep reds and oranges which appear throughout the film almost like a theme in itself, and much use was made of matte painting which, before CGI, often lent wonderfully detailed special effects to films, such as the scene with Rhett and Scarlett passionately kissing under a tree, with those deep shadows and orange skies appearing to highlight the passion.  

George Cukor had a reputation for his empathy with female actors, and neither he nor Selznick foresaw any problems on this picture.  It made sense: since the lead character was female, who else could direct but the man for whom this was his sixth film with Selznick?  But Cukor made a big mistake in assuming that this was just another Selznick picture based on a well-known novel.  The producer had gone from being lukewarm on the project to being entirely driven by it.  Sidney Howard's script was long gone (although he still received screen credit and an Oscar, albeit posthumously), and by the start of shooting, Selznick was staying up days and nights, with the help of Benzedrine, to finish it himself.  

Above: Olivia de Havilland & Vivien Leigh.

Nobody knew it at the time, but Gone With the Wind broke David O. Selznick's health.  His mental health completely collapsed.  He told Vivien Leigh that, in order to spare any lurid headlines, she could not live with her lover Laurence Olivier during the production.  He then had her go to a dialect coach for several hours a day to get the accent correctly.  

Vivien Leigh worked hard on her Southern accent, which is more than can be said for either Clark Gable or Leslie Howard.  Gable simply refused to speak with a Southern accent, and he also failed to get along with Cukor.  Both Leigh and de Havilland loved him - he was a 'woman's' director.  Cukor and Gable's animosity created a large amount of tension on the set and went some way towards explaining that just 23 minutes of footage had been shot by the end of the first two weeks.  The director didn't help his case by blaming Selznick's script; he argued for the return of the original Sidney Howard draft.  That was it.  This was Selznick's baby, and if you offend his ego, you're out.  Cukor was out.  

Above: Leslie Howard & Vivien Leigh.

Oh, dear.  Two weeks in and you have three unhappy principal actors, no director, a script written by a drug-fuelled madman, and no clue as to how or when the situation could be resolved.  Selznick decided it was best to appease Gable, and went after Victor Fleming, already a friend of Gable's, and already at MGM filming The Wizard of Oz.  In order for Fleming to get up to speed on Gone With the Wind, Selznick shut the production down.  Cost: $10,000 a day.

Legendary scriptwriter Ben Hecht was called in for a rewrite after Selznick had told him not to read the book.  Instead, the producer stayed up one night with Hecht, again fuelled by uppers, acting out the entire story, on his own.  It must have been a sight to behold.  Nevertheless, Hecht had a script ready in just 14 days.  

For a while, it seemed as though Fleming was the right choice; production continued, but this time it was Vivien Leigh who quarrelled constantly with her director.  Unlike Gable's arguments, Selznick did nothing about it.  

By April 1939, Selznick's hair was white, and his stomach covered in ulcers.  If he did not like your work, you were simply fired and replaced by someone else (unless you were on screen, of course).  Selznick had no qualms about that whatsoever.  In addition, Selznick was on the set continually, consistently undermining Victor Fleming, leading to more or less constant confusion.  On April 29, Fleming walked off the picture.  Selznick believed he had suffered a nervous breakdown, but it was more likely an attempt by the director to stop him interfering.  Selznick's level of perfectionism made Stanley Kubrick look like Tom Shadyac.  Everything was done and redone; Selznick re-took Fleming's shots and night after night stayed in his office with his secretary dictating literally hundreds of pages of memos about every tiny minutia of the production.  

Selznick responded to Fleming's departure by hiring Sam Wood, who worked for about two weeks on his own and then, when Fleming returned (a power play of his own by Selznick), he and Wood seemed to work together directing various sequences, with Wood more or less acting as a second unit director.  

Gone With the Wind wrapped on June 27, 1939, after 125 days of principal photography.  At the time, this was something of a record; especially if one takes into account the previous 30 months of pre-production.  This was already an outstanding achievement, but at this point, it was also a colossal mess.  The hard work was just beginning.

Above: the matte image of Vivien Leigh & Clark Gable under the Great Oak in front of Tara.

Of course, the insanity began in all areas of post-production - editing, reshoots duping, scoring and so forth, but I am going to concentrate on that since that is my area of 'expertise.' (He laughed!)

I was fortunate enough to study Max Steiner's original, handwritten, four-stave 'short score' which is housed at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, a beautiful part of the world full of beautiful people.  The university is fortunate to have among its staff James V. D'Arc, a world-renowned film scholar and an expert on the music in particular.  It is he who is the reason for Steiner's personal legacy to be housed there.  His knowledge is extraordinary, and his generous nature unending.  He allowed me unparalleled access to Steiner's letters, documents and - most importantly of all - his music.

A short score is so called not for its length - it was the longest score thus written up to that point in the sound era.  It is a score which utilises only four staves instead of the full orchestral layout.  This is simply to save time.  Steiner wrote notes throughout this and every score for his orchestrator, giving detailed instructions on scoring and arrangement.  The orchestrator knew exactly what to do, even if Steiner did not instruct.  For many years Steiner worked with Bernhard Kaun, and then Murray Cutter on dozens of scores each.  They knew him well musically, and they knew his personality, which flowed forth in his musical scores.

Above: Cover of the 1954 10" album release of Gone With the Wind.  It wasn't complete.

Steiner was sentimental and had a sense of humour which showed itself in the music, and on the page.  On many occasions Steiner wrote comments which were by turns instructions on the music, or dreadful puns (which he loved particularly), and then sometimes lewd or rude comments and pictures - sometimes all of them!  Gone With the Wind was no exception.

As I have mentioned, Gone With the Wind was Steiner's longest score to date, and indeed the longest score by anyone up to that point.  What makes it more astounding is that Steiner left it very late indeed to accept Selznick's offer to compose the score.  It wasn't until around October of 1939 that he finally relented, after Selznick set up MGM's chief of music Herbert Stothart by getting him drunk one night and bragging that he was going to do the GWTW score and not Steiner, within earshot of men who were known like carrier pigeons to get information back to Steiner at Warner Bros.  Steiner was 'mad as hell,' and called Selznick to tell him he was doing it, and right away.  Selznick had triumphed.

It's probable that he was already taking them, but certainly, throughout the composition, Steiner was on Benzedrine, at Selznick's recommendation, in order to cope with the demands of very little sleep for two months.  He was still composing scores for Four Wives and We Are Not Alone at the same time as Gone With the Wind!  Amazing!  I believe that GWTW has around 135 minutes of music within its 220-minute length.  Some small cues are written by other composers, but only under strict instruction and supervision.  In addition, these cues included only themes which had already been composed by Steiner.

Which brings me on to Steiner's use of thematic material.  Since he began composing for film around the end of 1931, Steiner always wrote themes for principal characters, moods, emotions and, in the case of GWTW, houses!  Steiner's most legendary theme, which begins with the magical four-note sweep of the film's opening, is, in fact, the theme for the house, Tara, in which Scarlett O'Hara grew up, lived and was willing to die to save.  All of the main characters have themes, and Steiner also - under instruction from Selznick - interwove themes from the Deep South and the Civil War period, such as 'Marching Through Georgia,' and 'The Old Folks at Home.'  If you want to study this aspect of the score further, do read Heather Grace Fisher's excellent thesis on the use of American Traditional Music in the GWTW score here:

Including the traditional music, there were dozens of themes for dozens of characters and situations.  It was a monstrous score to put together, and Steiner managed to achieve this in little over a month.  He was recording the score at Samuel Goldwyn's soundstage by November 1939, and the pressure was on - the date of the premiere was set for December 15, 1939, in Atlanta.  It was to be the biggest premiere in film history.  Then, as now, the film had to be shown before Christmas in order to qualify for the Oscars, which would give it a further publicity boost.  

The score alone almost broke both Selznick and Steiner.  Day after day, Selznick was dictating memos as long as seven pages of typescript detailing changes that Selznick wanted in the music.  This was in addition to all the other areas of the production that Selznick wanted, and got, complete control of.  Everything from the odd note here and there to relative sound levels of score and dialogue, Selznick was on it.  Steiner did all he could to accommodate, but it meant that the score was still being recorded as late as December 11.  

The premiere of Gone With the Wind was as big and as legendary as any in film history, before or since.  Held in Atlanta, all of the stars were there, Selznick was there, Margaret Mitchell was there; Steiner wasn't.  He was not especially bothered by such things.  Like most composers, he wanted the attention to be focused on the music, but at premieres, the music hardly got a mention, so he avoided them as a rule.  It's a shame he didn't; if he had, the magnificent achievement that is his score for this picture would have been singled out for deserved praise without question.  

Thus, Gone With the Wind entered into its place in movie history.  Dollar for dollar, the film is still perhaps the most successful of all time.  Since the crash of 2008, and with other films' earnings now in the billions of dollars, it is probably in danger of losing its top spot, if it hasn't already.  When the Academy Awards were held in February 1940, Vivien Leigh won an Oscar, as did Hattie McDaniel, Sidney Howard, Victor Fleming, (neither of the latter two acknowledging the works of others - Sidney Howard couldn't, since he was already dead), the cinematographers, art directors, and the editors.   Among the many firsts that this picture presented was the featured role (and subsequent Oscar winner) of a black actor in a non-'black' film.  The film won 10 Oscars in all, including Best Picture, which Selznick accepted.  After all, it was his film.  Steiner, although nominated, did not win, astonishingly enough.  

Even today, Gone With the Wind is still a yardstick by which many other films, especially epics, are measured.  Selznick was a bold and brave producer, willing to compromise nothing in order to get what he envisioned to be a great picture.  And this is a great picture which, as a reflection of both the time it was set and the time it was made, does contain a degree of racism which can bring a sting of discomfort to modern audiences.  Nevertheless, one must accept that this is a historical picture, made almost 80 years ago and set almost 160 years ago.  

But a great picture it is, whichever aspect of film making takes your interest.  It is the film on which producer David O. Selznick stamped his mark, with which he is most closely associated with and the film from which it took him almost five years to recover.  Some may argue he never recovered from its production.  He certainly never bettered it.  It is a picture which could stand theatrical release today and still make a profit.  I believe it to be a great picture, a great production and a great score.  At the end of the day, it cost $4 million to make, around $70 million today.  It was the most costly, but it made its money back.  I would like to submit to you Gone With the Wind; the grandest, yet the most intimate film ever made up to that point.  It is a film that took hundreds of people to make; yet is clearly the work of one man - David O. Selznick.  Gone With the Wind goes into my Top Five with ease.  I will always love and respect this film, and the people who made it.

My own journey with the film began when it was first shown on British television, on the BBC back in 1981.  It was shown in two parts over two days.  I was awestruck, especially by the score, composed by Steiner, of whom I had never heard at the time.  When I did my music degree, my final dissertation was on Steiner's journey from Symphony of Six Million (1932) through Gone With the Wind.   The film led me to spend about six months of my life and around $60,000 studying Max Steiner, his life and music, just for personal enjoyment.  So this film has cost me a lot of time, and a lot of money, and I wouldn't have it any other way.  I have subsequently watched it in one sitting many times, and it never ceases to give me complete enjoyment, just wrapped up not just in its story, but in the production of it, which is a story in itself.  It is almost four hours long, but I urge you to give it a go at least once in your life if you have not done so already.  x

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Comment by Stephen Butler on August 4, 2017 at 9:45am

Thank you so much, Kevin!  As I said to Rosie, your opinion means a great deal to me because I appreciate kind comments from someone as knowledgeable and respected as yourself.  I too love the film as one of the greatest ever made.  No detail was too small for Selznick, and it shows on the screen.  Dedication like that deserves equal dedication in return.  I hope I have and will continue to do that. x

Comment by Ktrek on August 4, 2017 at 1:07am

Thanks for taking the time and effort to write all that for us Stephen. One of the best blog posts I have read! 

GWTW is one of the finest films ever made. The four hour length puts a lot of people today off but it just couldn't have been done in less and do the story justice. I honestly cannot think of a single thing I don't like about the film. The casting is spot on, the directing and photography is memorable, the score is an earworm that you never forget. As soon as anyone mentions GWTW you hear the theme in your head. The costuming was also superb.

I wish I could watch it again right now but we have too many things going on in our lives right now. Big changes ahead for my wife and I as we are looking to relocate. So, if you all don't hear from me for awhile in about a month or two you'll know that it's probably because I don't have the Internet yet at our new house.

Anyway, thanks again for this interesting read. I have never read any books about GWTW and so most of this was new to me.


Comment by Stephen Butler on August 2, 2017 at 2:42am

Thank you, Rosie.  I am glad you read it because it is always gratifying to receive a positive response from someone as knowledgeable and respected as yourself.  I did spend several days writing it; I went through a lot of my own books and research to pick out the best bits and pieces.  I'm wondering what film to do next!  It has to be a film with which I have had a personal journey, or else it defeats the term 'blog,' in my view.  I'll get on it. x

Comment by Rosie Sayer on August 1, 2017 at 1:57pm

Stephen, your devotion to this film is humbling. Thank you for sharing all that. Another wonderful blog post from you!

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