Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Gone with the Wind

1939 - Dir.: Victor Fleming (and George Cukor, Sam Wood, William Cameron Menzies, etc.)

Shown at The FeckenOdeon on April 26th, 2003

"Forget it, Louis. No Civil war film ever made a nickel!" (Irving Thalberg, 1936). This giant of a film made plenty of nickels - it topped the earnings poll for many generations and by 1974 had made $150m. That it was made at all was largely down to the determination of David O. Selznick who bought the rights from author Margaret Mitchell for a paltry $50,000 (he later had a pang of conscience and slipped the lady another $50,000).
Selznick drove the project with iron determination and, when the thing threatened to swallow up his own studio, swallowed his pride and went cap in hand to his old employer Louis B. Mayer. Although almost half of the film was directed by Victor Fleming (45%) - who received the screen credit, four other directors contributed various parts of the film: Sam Wood (15%), William Cameron Menzies (15%), George Cukor (5%) - the first director, B. Reeves ("Breezy") Eason (2%), and the remaining from various second unit directors (18%). Fleming had a nervous breakdown ten weeks after he replaced George Cukor and the turnover of writers was no less frenetic. Sidney Howard is reckoned to have contributed most (he died before the film was complete). Ben Hecht and Scott Fitzgerald also had a crack at it (Selznick sacked Fitzgerald after only three weeks). The great Burning of Atlanta scene was shot weeks before the lead roles were even cast. Seven cameras rolled as enormous sets on the MGM backlot were torched - it is thought that D.W.Griffiths' set for "Intolerance" was amongst them.
The casting of the main roles was a matter of intense public and industry debate - in particular that of Scarlett O'Hara. Fourteen hundred tests were shot and every Hollywood name was in the frame at some time or other. Norma Shearer was chosen and turned it down. Paulette Godard and Joan Fontaine were likely contenders and then, shock of shocks, an English actress got the part. Vivien Leigh hadn't even been screen tested but had been spotted by Selznick in "A Yank in Oxford". She was paid $25,000 for 125 days work while co-star Clark Gable got $121,000 for his 71 days. The film took ten Oscars including one for the marvellous Hattie McDaniel - the first ever for a black actor. Sadly Selznick soured her achievement by suggesting that it would be too embarrassing if she were to attend the premier in Atlanta.
"Gone with the Wind" opened in London with a simultaneous premier in three theatres - The Empire, the Ritz and The Palace. It was rapturously received and disorderly scenes were witnessed as the public scrambled for tickets. There was disorder behind the scenes too - MGM asked British cinemas to pay 70% of their takings for the privilege of showing the film - and to raise their ticket prices. The large circuits and the Cinema Exhibitors Association rebelled. Questions were asked in in parliament and it was left to smaller operators, notably the Granada circuit, to bring the film to the provinces - and to make a handsome profit.

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