1939 Fifty Years Ago

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The governor of Georgia declared a state holiday. The mayor of Atlanta urged the men of his city to grow Kentucky-colonel whiskers and the women to wear hoop skirts. Citizens were requested not to tear off the clothes of the visitors from Hollywood. With the Stars and Bars waving from every building in Atlanta, three hundred thousand people lined the streets to welcome Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, and David O. Selznick to the December 15 opening of the motion picture Gone with the Wind .

Despite the problems associated with bringing Margaret Mitchell’s thousand-page Civil War novel to the screen, Gone with the Wind was too popular for Hollywood to ignore. The film took three years, four directors, a dozen screenwriters, and four million dollars to produce in time for its lavish opening in the seventy-fifth anniversary year of the fall of Atlanta.

From the beginning Clark Gable had been the natural choice to play Rhett Butler, but the search for an actress to play Scarlett O’Hara became a national obsession. Two years of polls, auditions, and screen tests finally turned up the British actress Vivien Leigh; Southerners protested that a Southern actress should have been chosen, but they were relieved that at least Leigh wasn’t a Yankee. The casting of Scarlett O’Hara remains one of Hollywood’s most cherished legends. Reported Time , “Vivien Leigh had not petted and pouted on the screen for five minutes before the fussy Atlanta audience was ready to underwrite Selznick’s choice of the little-known English actress to be the Southern belle.”

Selznick’s final problem was in getting one of Clark Gable’s lines past the censor. The Hollywood Production Code, which prohibited representations of nudity, venereal disease, and extreme violence, also barred profanity. Selznick complained to Will H. Hays, head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, that preview audiences had been disappointed by the omission of Rhett Butler’s “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Selznick pointed out that “on our very fade out it gives an impression of unfaithfulness after three hours and forty-five minutes of extreme fidelity to Miss Mitchell’s work.” Hays allowed the line to stay in the film.

Selznick’s fears about the linguistic and historical authenticity of Gone with the Wind were swept away with the applause, whistles, and tears of the Atlanta audience. “I feel it has been a great thing for Georgia and the South to see the Confederates come back,” said Margaret Mitchell at the premiere. But the producer still wondered whether the film was good enough to earn a profit on his investment. “At noon I think it’s divine, at midnight I think it’s lousy,” Selznick said. “Sometimes I think it’s the greatest picture ever made. But if it’s only a great picture, I’ll still be satisfied.”