Gone with the Wind, based on Margaret Mitchell's best-selling novel about the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction, made producer David O. Selznick's name a box-office draw, made the relatively unknown Vivien Leigh an international star, and became the most popular motion picture of all time.
Soon after Selznick bought the movie rights to Mitchell's novel in July 1936, thousands of fan letters began to arrive at Selznick International Pictures, most of them demanding that Clark Gable play the role of Rhett Butler. In order to get Gable, Selznick had to make a deal with MGM and Louis B. Mayer, who held Gable's contract. In exchange for Gable's services and $1,125,000 of the film's budget, MGM would receive the distribution rights and half the profits of GWTW.
Since Selznick had a contract with United Artists to distribute all his films until the end of 1938, principal shooting on GWTW could not start before 1939. In order to maintain public interest in the film before shooting could begin, Selznick launched a nationwide talent search to find an unknown actress to play Scarlett O'Hara. In the course of the two-year search, 1,400 candidates were interviewed and 90 were tested, at a total cost of $92,000. Among those considered for the part were Katharine Hepburn and Paulette Goddard. The role eventually went to Vivien Leigh, a British actress who was largely unknown to American audiences.
The production phase of GWTW began auspiciously in December 1938, with the Atlanta fire scene – the largest fire ever staged in a film up to that time. Principal shooting, which started six weeks later, was plagued by numerous problems and required seven months to complete. The main problem was the script, which despite the efforts of more than a dozen writers, remained a confusing mass of revisions, and revisions of revisions, until after shooting was completed. The disorganized condition of the script made shooting difficult and created tension among the production personnel. After only three weeks of principal shooting, Selznick replaced director George Cukor with Victor Fleming. Two months later, Fleming, upset by Selznick's handling of the script, went home and refused to work. Selznick quickly hired Sam Wood to direct and when Fleming decided to return to the film two weeks later, Selznick let the two men split the directorial chores.
When GWTW was finally completed, it turned out to be a monumental film in almost every respect. Its technical achievements included the Atlanta fire sequence, the use of matte paintings to provide distant backgrounds and to complete partially constructed sets (GWTW marked the second use in Technicolor film of the matte process in which painted backgrounds are blended with filmed scenes of live actors), and the railroad depot crane shot, in which the camera pulls back and up to reveal Scarlett O'Hara walking among thousands of wounded Confederate soldiers – about 2000 live extras and dummies. Its total cost was $4.25 million – equivalent to $50 million today. It had the longest running time (3 hours 40 minutes) of its day and the largest titles in cinema history – each word of the film's title fills the screen itself. It was also the first major film to successfully challenge the Production Code's prohibition of profanity – with Rhett Butler's final line, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."
When GWTW premiered in Atlanta on December 15, 1939, over one million people poured into the city of 300,000, hoping to see Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, and the other stars who attended the premiere. After three days of parades, celebrations, and Confederate flag-waving, a select audience of 2500 people saw the film, and they loved it. GWTW quickly became a worldwide critical and box-office success and won ten Academy Awards, a record that stood until 1959, when Ben Hur won eleven.
As of 1983, GWTW has earned $76.7 million in domestic rentals. In 1976 NBC paid $5 million for the film's television premiere. The program, aired over two nights in November, 1976, received a 47.6 Neilsen rating – the highest rating ever received by a movie on television. CBS subsequently paid $35 million for 20 airings of GWTW over a 20-year period. When appropriate adjustments for inflation are made, GWTW is the biggest box-office success in cinema history. The current critical consensus is that GWTW is the quintessential Hollywood studio system product.
Release Date: 1939
Starring: Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Leslie Howard, Olivia De Havilland, Hattie McDaniel, Thomas Mitchell, Barbara O'Neil, Caroll Nye, Laura Hope Crews, Harry Davenport, Rand Brooks, Ona Munson, Ann Rutherford, George Reeves, Fred Crane, Oscar Polk, Butterfly McQueen, Evelyn Keyes, Jane Darwell, Leona Roberts, Everett Brown, Eddie Anderson, Ward Bond, Cammie King, J. M. Kerrigan, Isabel Jewell, Alicia Rhett, Victor Jory, Howard Hickman, Mary Anderson, Paul Hurst, Marcella Martin, Mickey Kuhn, and Zack Williams
Director: Victor Fleming
Writers: Sidney Howard, with structural innovations by Jo Swerling and some dialogue by Ben Hecht and John van Druten
Source Citation: Dunagan, Clyde Kelly. "Gone with the Wind." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 472-475.