Before it was a classic film, Gone with the Wind was a classic PR stunt. The film's producer, David O. Selznick, announced that he would launch a nationwide search for the young woman who would play Scarlett O'Hara. The move provoked a furore; Margaret Mitchell's novel, published in 1936, was already a national bestseller - it seemed that everyone was reading it - and the desire to star in the movie version proved irresistible. As in a proto-Pop Idol, lines of would-be Scarletts queued up for desultory screen-tests, each dreaming of Tara and stardom. Letters poured into the Selznick studio recommending starlets for the role; one of them suggested someone almost unknown in America, the British actress Vivien Leigh. The fact that nearly every player in Hollywood, as well as a substantial proportion of the book's readers, imagined themselves as Scarlett O'Hara meant the choice was never going to be easy. Scarlett was both an everywoman, and a frustratingly elusive character to cast. Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Lana Turner, Paulette Goddard: all of them were nearly right, yet none quite captured the required quality. Through a mixture of cunning, determination and strategic good luck, Vivien Leigh nabbed the role in a way that might have appealed to Scarlett herself. The search for the film's star ended in fairytale fashion. Paulette Godard was provisionally cast as Scarlett, until Leigh was 'spotted' in the watching crowd on the night that filming began, with discarded Hollywood stage-sets blazing around her in simulation of the burning of Atlanta. Her being there was hardly fortuitous, but owed rather to a mixture of her own wiles and the sense of theatre of the producer's brother, Myron Selznick, an agent. The moment sums up something about the film: from the tattered legend of the event something fabulously disreputable shines through.
LRB 6 August 2009 | PDF Download