Monday, June 01, 2009

'Frankly, My Dear, I Don’t Give a Damn'


Few books are so closely identified with a geographical region—Georgia and the Old South—as Gone with the Wind. Published in 1936, this 1,037-page tome was discovered by Macmillan editor Harold Latham on a swing through the South in search, of new writing talent. Its author, Margaret Mitchell, was a petite (4 feet 9-1/2 inches tall) native of Atlanta who had labored between 1926 and 1929 on her massive manuscript and then put it aside. So large was the Mitchell manuscript Latham had to buy another suitcase in which to carry it.

One of the most popular books of all time, the novel was priced at three dollars and sold more than a million copies in the first six months, a phenomenal feat considering that in 1936 the country was just emerging from the Great Depression. This Civil War-era masterpiece has been translated into twenty-seven languages. More than 30 million copies of have been sold worldwide in 38 countries. Approximately 250,000 copies are still sold each year.

Among the titles Mitchell had considered for her novel were Tomorrow Is Another Day, Tote the Weary Load, Milestones, Ba! Ba! Blacksheep, Not in Our Stars, and Bugles Sang True. She finally chose a phrase from a favorite Ernest Dowson poem, “Cynara”: “I have forgot much Cynara! Gone with the wind.” In Mitchell’s early drafts, the main character was named “Pansy O’Hara,” and the O’Hara plantation, later known as Tara, was called “Fountenoy Hall.”

Pirated galleys of the book turned up at some Hollywood studios, but Macmillan’s asking price was an exorbitant $100,000. Few studios expressed interest even after Macmillan reduced the figure to $60,000. Daryl F. Zanuck of 20th Century Fox offered $35,000 for film rights to the book. One week after Gone with the Wind was published, MGM producer David 0. Selznick topped this with a bid of $50,000, the highest sum that had ever been paid for an author’s first novel.

Realizing later that he had grossly underpaid Mitchell, in 1942, Selznick paid her an additional $50,000 as a bonus. Selznick had already produced three big movies based on classic novels, Little Women, David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities. Before becoming an independent producer, Selznick had worked at MGM, the company run by his wife’s father. The joke at MGM was “the son-in-law also rises,” a play on the title of the Hemingway novel.

The Screenwriters
Sidney Howard agreed to write the screenplay for a salary of $2,000 a week. To be free from studio interference, he insisted on writing it at his Berkshire farm in Massachusetts, 3,000 miles away from studio interference. His first draft would have made a movie more than five hours long. Howard reluctantly agreed to leave his Massachusetts farm and come to Hollywood to work on another draft with Selznick and George Cukor, the director assigned to the picture.

The second draft turned out to be 15 pages longer than the first. Sidney Howard received sole screen credit. However, in typical Hollywood fashion, a total of eleven other screenwriters (including Selznick) would work on the script. Tragically, Howard never saw the finished film. He died on his farm near Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in August of 1939. One of his farm workers had left the heavy farm tractor in gear, and when Howard started it by cranking it, the machine lurched forward and crushed him against a barn wall.

The StarsThe four principals were billed on the film’s posters in this order: Clark Gable, followed by Leslie Howard (birth name: Leslie Howard Stainer), Olivia de Havilland and “Presenting Vivien Leigh.” Leigh’s billing was quickly changed to just below Gable’s when she won the Oscar for best actress. Three of the four top-billed actors died at relatively young ages: Leslie Howard at 50, Vivien Leigh at 53, and Clark Gable at 59. Olivia de Havilland remains alive at the age of 93. Ironically, her character is the only principal character that dies in the film. David Selznick died at 63. Accident-prone author Margaret Mitchell died at 49, struck by a car while crossing Peachtree Street in Atlanta.

Leslie Howard was a passenger on KLM flight 777 from Lisbon to London on June 1, 1943. It was shot down by German fighter planes over the Bay of Biscay in the mistaken belief that Winston Churchill also was a passenger. Frustrated by ethnic typecasting, Butterfly McQueen, who played Prissy in Gone with the Wind, left films for occasional roles on TV. At the age of 64, she earned a B.S. in political science from New York's City College in 1975. She died in 1995 from burns received when a kerosene heater in her cottage in Augusta, Georgia, malfunctioned and burst into flames . She suffered burns over 70% of her body, which she willed to medical science.

Of the many actresses screen-tested for the role of Scarlett O’Hara, only Paulette Goddard and Vivien Leigh were tested in color. One theory holds that producer David Selznick had already secretly signed Vivian Leigh for the role as early as February 1938. The nationwide “Search For Scarlett O’Hara,” during which thousands of dollars were spent “testing” aspiring actresses for the part, was actually a clever publicity stunt on Selznick’s part designed to maintain interest in a very expensive film for which he did not yet have the money to produce.

The only actors producer Selznick ever seriously considered for the role of Rhett Butler were Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Errol Flynn and Ronald Colman. Gable didn’t see himself in a period film, nor did he believe he could live up to the public’s anticipation of the character. Two years earlier, hopelessly miscast, Gable had played in a costume drama, Parnell, with Myrna Loy. The film was roundly panned by critics and avoided by the movie-going public. Gable later regretted accepting the role. Selznick persuaded him to sign on to Gone with the Wind by offering a $50,000 signing bonus that enabled him to divorce his second wife, Maria Franklin, and marry Carole Lombard.

Very few of the principal cast members were happy with the characters they were portraying. Leslie Howard privately felt that he was much too old to play Ashley Wilkes (the character was supposed to be about 21 at the start of the film and Howard had been born in 1893, making him 46)). He wore extra make-up and a hairpiece to make him appear younger, but complained that his costumes made him look like “a fairy doorman” at a hotel. Selznick was able to persuade him to take the part by offering him credit as producer of another film, Intermezzo: A Love Story, in which he would star with Ingrid Bergman. Rand Brooks, who played the role of Charles Hamilton and died early in the story, was actually a rough outdoorsman and didn’t like playing a wimpy character. Butterfly McQueen disliked the negative stereotype of her character.

Judy Garland was the leading contender for the role of Scarlett’s younger sister, Carreen, but was tied up with commitments to The Wizard of Oz, another film being directed by Victor Fleming. Her “Andy Hardy” series co-star, Ann Rutherford, was cast. Veteran actress Hattie McDaniel was cast as Mammy after other African-Americans including Louise Beavers, Etta McDaniel, Ruby Dandridge, and Hattie Noel were briefly considered for the part. McDaniel became the first African-American to be nominated for—and win—an Academy Award. The fact that McDaniel would be unable to attend the premiere in racially segregated Atlanta annoyed Clark Gable so much that he threatened to boycott the premiere unless she was invited.

The Directors
Production of the film started on January 26, 1939, with George Cukor as director. Gable’s and Cukor’s personalities were poles apart. Cukor was a fussy, intellectual type and vague in his instructions to actors. He was also openly gay with effeminate mannerisms and was also considered to be a “woman’s director.” Cukor’s slow, methodical style reminded Gable of John Stahl, director of the ill-fated Parnell.

Legend has it that Clark Gable complained about director George Cukor, but nothing in Selznick’s internal memos indicates or suggests that Clark Gable played any role in the dismissal of Cukor. Instead, they show Selznick’s mounting dissatisfaction with Cukor’s slow pace and the quality of his work. After two weeks of shooting, Cukor was already five days behind in the schedule, a delay blamed by David Selznick on Cukor’s perfectionism and fondness for retakes. Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM was also unhappy with the rushes he had seen.

Selznick asked Gable, now an old hand in the movie business, for a suggestion. He recommended Victor Fleming, who had directed Gable in Red Dust and who was almost finished with The Wizard of Oz. To appease Cukor, MGM gave him another film to direct, The Women, with an all-female cast. On March 2 David Selznick restarted Gone with the Wind with Victor Fleming as director.

When Victor Fleming took over as director, he rejected the shooting script, telling Selznick, “David, your (expletive) script is no (expletive) good.” Selznick panicked and called novelist Ben Hecht, offering him $15,000 for a quick rewrite. Production was shut down for 17 days while Ben Hecht rewrote it. Hecht thought Sidney Howard’s original script was superb and used it as the basis for his rewrite, which was largely a scissors and paste-pot job. Hecht cut Sidney Howard’s screenplay to give more focus to the story of Scarlett and Rhett and to eliminate some of the historical pageantry.

Almost half of Cukor’s scenes were scrapped or later re-­shot. When Fleming received the revised script, he calculated that there were 650 separate scenes to be filmed. In order to complete the picture in time for a Christmas release, he would have to shoot three pages of script a day, each the equivalent of only two minutes of film time.

Although he had been dismissed from the production, George Cukor privately continued to coach both Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Haviland on weekends at their request. One of the few scenes directed by Cukor to survive to the final cut of the film is the birth of Melanie’s baby. Cinematographer Lee Garmes was fired a month into production because his footage was deemed to be too dark. Ernest Haller and Technicolor Company cameraman Ray Rennahan replaced him.

First Facts and HonorsHalf a million feet of film were shot. This was edited down to 20,000 feet. There are more than 50 speaking roles and 2,400 extras in the film. All seven of Hollywood’s then-existing Technicolor cameras were used to film the burning of the Atlanta railroad depot. Estimated production costs were an unprecedented $4.25 million. Up until that time, only Ben-Hur (1925) and Hell’s Angels (1930) had cost more. It was the longest and most expensive film ever made. It went on to earn the highest receipts and the most Academy awards.

The premiere in Atlanta on December 15, 1939, at the 2,500-seat Loew’s Grand theater had been planned for months—almost as long as the shooting of the film. The governor declared a state holiday. Programs were prepared showing the najor performers in the film, but the programs distributed at opening eliminated McDaniel’s photograph. The cast flew to Atlanta—that is, the white members of the cast. Hattie McDaniel, Oscar Polk, Butterfly McQueen and the other blacks in the cast remained in Hollywood. Their presence would have caused problems in racially segregated Atlanta. Clark Gable was upset at the exclusion of McDaniel and threatened to boycott the ceremonies until McDaniel persuaded him to participate.

The movie’s line “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” was voted as the #1 movie quote (out of 100). by the American Film Institute. The word” frankly” does not appear in the book; a screenwriter added it. Contrary to popular belief, Gone with the Wind was not the first film to use the word “damn”. The expletive was used in numerous silent title cards and in several talkies, including Cavalcade in 1933 and Pygmalion in 1938.

Gone with the Wind was ranked #4 on the American Film Institute’s 1998 list of the greatest films in 100 years of filmmaking. It was the first color film to win the Best Picture Oscar. It ranks third in the Academy Award most nominated films list with 13 nominations. It won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Screenplay (Sidney Howard), Best Art Interior Decoration (Lyle Wheeler), Best Film Editing, Best Color Cinematography, and a special award for William Cameron Menzies and the Irving J. Thalberg Memorial Award for David Selznick. It was the first film to credit a production designer, mainly to highlight the major contributions of William Cameron Menzies, who not only art-directed the film but also directed some of the second units.

The 1940 Academy Award ceremonies were held on Feb 29, 1940 at a banquet at the Coconut Grove nightclub in the Ambassador Hotel with Bob Hope as master of ceremonies, White cast members of Gone with the Wind sat together. Hattie McDaniel and a black companion sat at a separate table at the rear.

At nearly four hours in length, Gone with the Wind is the longest running movie to win the Academy’s Best Picture award. At a time when the average price of movie tickets in the U.S. was 23 cents, admission to Gone with the Wind was set at 75 cents at matinees and $1.10 at night. The film, had a long running time and an intermission of ten minutes so one complete show took four hours. Most theaters could only fit in three performances a day. Despite this handicap, in its first run, it sold 202 million tickets—an amazing figure considering that the population of the U.S. at that time was a little more than 130 million. And its total box office gross, adjusted for inflation, has soared to a stunning $1,329,453,600.

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