When Macmillan published Margaret Mitchell’s epic novel Gone With The Wind in the spring of 1936, it created quite a stir in the publishing world and later with the reading public. To no one’s surprise, the major Hollywood studios took notice and the race was on to see which studio would buy up the film rights. Those rights wouldn’t come cheaply; Macmillan’s agent Annie Laurie Williams had set the asking price at $100,000.
Kay Brown of Selznick International Pictures was the first to show serious interest and sent a synopsis to her boss, David O. Selznick. Over at Universal, Elsa Neuberger wanted to option the book, but her bosses reminded her they wanted no more costume pictures. Warner Bros. studio head Jack Warner thought it might be a good role for his rising star Bette Davis. However, Davis was engaged in a feud with the studio and decamped in a huff for England, which was the end of Warners’ interest in the property. Another rising star, Katherine Hepburn of the RKO studios, had read the book and was determined to convince the studio to secure the rights.
The Selznick studios finally won out, due chiefly to Kay Brown’s persistence, paying a more reasonable $50,000 for the rights. RKO had finally realized the potential of the book and tried to sneak in an offer of $55,000, but Miss Williams stood by her deal with Selznick and refused to consider RKO’s late offer.
Now that Selznick had the rights to what was looking like a great American novel, among the things he had to consider was proper casting of the main roles. As the book grew in popularity, so did many readers’ ideas of just who should play the principal parts. Photoplay magazine launched a publicity campaign designed around the notion that Clark Gable should be cast as Rhett Butler. Letters received at the magazine supported the idea and soon no one, including Selznick, could imagine any other major star in the role. Gary Cooper was briefly considered, but finally Selznick was forced to negotiate with Metro Goldwyn Mayer, who held Gable’s contract, for his services.
The casting of Rhett Butler was relatively simple when compared with the question of who would play the coveted role of Scarlett O’Hara. Word had by now gotten around Hollywood and the country that the movie was about to go into production, and actresses famous and not so famous were lining up for a screen test or at least a reading.
The prevailing opinion in Dixie was that there could be no other choice for the role than that notorious daughter of Alabama, Tallulah Bankhead. For over a year, the actress was the front-runner until Selznick decided she was just a bit too old to play a sixteen-year old Scarlett. Paulette Goddard, a somewhat inexperienced but excellent actress who was the mistress of Charlie Chaplin, took her place in the lead. Goddard was one of the few hopefuls that tested more than once, and was considered good enough to be tested in Technicolor.
Meanwhile, Bette Davis returned from England and was now interested in the part, but found her absence from Hollywood had put her out of the running. Warner Bros. would later cast Davis in the role of Julie Marsden in Jezebel (1938), their successful attempt at a Southern period drama. Katherine Hepburn was again mentioned as a possibility, but was not given a test.
Still the search continued. Selznick tested Lana Turner (excellent, but too young), Frances Dee, Jean Arthur, Joan Bennett (later to be the star of the creepy 1960s soap opera Dark Shadows), Diana Barrymore, and model Edythe Marrener, who would become a famous actress by the name of Susan Hayward. Selznick even sent scouts all through the American South searching for the perfect girl, to no avail.
By late 1938, the choices had narrowed down to Paulette Goddard, Jean Arthur, and Joan Bennett. Principal photography had commenced on the film, and the schedule was tight. Soon, Selznick would need to begin shooting scenes that included Scarlett. During the filming of one of the ‘burning of Atlanta’ scenes, Selznick’s brother Myron stopped by to see how things were going. Not coincidentally, he brought along a young actress from England, Vivien Leigh, that he thought would be the perfect Scarlett. Myron introduced her, and as Selznick later remembered, “ … the dying flames were lighting up her face … I took one look and knew she was right – at least right as far as her appearance went … and right as far as my conception of how Scarlett O’Hara looked.”
The next day, Leigh read for Selznick and director George Cukor. On the strength of that reading, she was put through a few days of screen tests, some in Technicolor. Cukor was extremely pleased with her performance, and Selznick, satisfied as well, offered her the part. On January 14, 1939, he announced to the world the casting of Vivien Leigh. The search for Scarlett O’Hara was over.
Griffith, Richard and Mayer, Arthur. The Movies. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957.
Haver, Ronald. David O. Selznick's Hollywood. New York: Bonanza Books, 1985.
Wilson, Steve L. "Gone With The Wind: The Search for Scarlett." The Ransom Center On-Line Exhbition. 1997. <http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/exhibitions/online/gwtw/scarlett/> (August 2003)