In July 1936, producer David O. Selznick bought film rights to Margaret Mitchell’s immensely popular historical saga, a mere month after its publication. Many other studio execs had declined this project, little realising just how popular it would immediately become. Selznick paid $50,000.
Casting proved to be anything but simple, as everyone wanted a chance to star in such an epic film. In particular, there was fierce competition for the two leading roles. Since the studio system made it very difficult for actors under contract at one studio to work for another, production was delayed till late 1938.
Selznick had wanted Clark Gable to be Rhett from the jump, but MGM was loath to lend him to other studios. Gary Cooper was also considered, but his own boss, Samuel Goldwyn, likewise refused to lend him elsewhere. Because Selznick wanted Gable and no one else, he agreed to his father-in-law Louis B. Mayer’s pricy deal in August 1938:
Pay Gable’s weekly salary and give half the profits to MGM in exchange for $1,250,000 (half the film’s budget). Meanwhile, Loew’s, Inc. (MGM’s parent company) would release the film.
During the very long production delay, Selznick drummed up publicity and revised the script. He particularly focused on a $100,000 casting call for Scarlett. Though this proved to be ultimately ineffective, it created great buzz. The original casting call screened 1,400 unknowns, and then the big names began competing for the role.
Thirty-one women made it to actual screen tests, including Tallulah Bankhead, Diana Barrymore (John Barrymore’s daughter by his second marriage), Jean Arthur, Joan Bennett, Paulette Goddard, and Vivien Leigh. The lattermost two became the finalists, and the only ones tested in Technicolor.
Margaret Mitchell most wanted Miriam Hopkins to play Scarlett, but in her mid-thirties, she was far too old. In the book, Scarlett ages from 16–28, thus ideally calling for someone in her early twenties.
According to urban legend, Paulette Goddard lost the role because of controversy regarding her relationship with Charles Chaplin. To this day, there’s still doubt about whether they were ever legally married, or just lived together. However, Selznick knew Vivien Leigh was cohabiting with Laurence Olivier because their respective spouses refused to grant divorces.
The real reason for not giving Paulette the role was apparently Selznick’s worry over legal issues arising from competing contracts with his studio and Chaplin’s studio.
Vivien Leigh’s casting was announced 13 January 1939.
Since the source material is over 1,000 pages long, there needed to be judicious cuts for the screenplay. Sidney Howard’s original script would’ve resulted in a film over six hours long, but he refused to leave New England and come to California to make on-set revisions. Thus, various local writers shouldered the task.
Director George Cukor was fired three weeks into production and replaced by Victor Fleming, who was simultaneously directing The Wizard of Oz. When Fleming voiced dislike of the script, Selznick hired Ben Hecht to do a complete rewrite in five days.
By the end of the week, he’d revised the first half. Selznick began work on the second half, but after falling behind schedule, Howard was brought back for a week.
Since there’d been so many pens on the script, there was questioning as to whom should receive screen credit. The decision was sadly made for the studio when Howard was killed in a tractor accident at age 48, four months before the première.
Urban legend claims Selznick was fined $5,000 by the infamous Hays Office for Rhett’s famous final line, but in reality, the Motion Picture Association passed an amendment on 1 November 1939 to forbid the words “hell” and “damn,” unless their usage “shall be essential and required for portrayal, in proper historical context, of any scene or dialogue based upon historical fact or folklore … or a quotation from a literary work, provided that no such use shall be permitted which is intrinsically objectionable or offends good taste.”
The score was composed by Max Steiner, and became his longest work to date, at two hours and thirty-six minutes. He also spent the most amount of time writing it, twelve weeks. Five conductors were hired.
Today, the theme most people associate with the film is that of Tara, though Steiner wrote two other themes, one for Scarlett and Ashley, and another for Ashley and Melanie. Interestingly, he wrote no theme for Scarlett and Rhett.