The most famous film of the era is undoubtedly 1939’s Gone with the Wind, based on Margaret Mitchell’s page-turning best seller about the South during the Civil War. The production was the brainchild of independent producer David O. Selznick (in Hollywood fashion, the “O” stood for nothing; Selznick had no middle name but decided that the initial “O” added dignity to his screen credit). Selznick knew that only Clark Gable could play the role of Rhett Butler. After tortuous negotiations, Selznick struck a deal to borrow Gable from MGM in return for cash, a significant percentage of the profits, and Selznick’s assurance that the finished film would be distributed through MGM.
The epic nature of the film required an enormous number of sets, and Selznick’s insistence that the film be shot in Technicolor sent the budget still higher. Selznick also conducted a national talent search for the actress to play Scarlett O’Hara, testing everyone from Miriam Hopkins to Joan Bennett before deciding on Vivien Leigh at the last minute. By then production had already begun with the famous “burning of Atlanta” sequence, which consumed all existing sets on the Selznick lot left over from earlier productions.
At least four directors were involved with the film. George Cukor began to direct, but he was fired after Gable expressed his displeasure at the way Cukor was handling the project. Cukor was openly gay at a time when homosexuality was completely taboo in Hollywood, and the homophobic Gable felt that Cukor was spending too much time directing Vivien Leigh and not paying enough attention to his own character. Victor Fleming took over the reins after Cukor’s departure, but when Fleming had a nervous breakdown, Sam Wood stepped in until Fleming was well enough to return. In addition, action director B. Reeves “Breezy” Eason handled many of the full-scale spectacle sequences, and a battalion of writers were assigned to the project, including (for a few days) novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, with added daily rewrites by Selznick himself. The entire production was designed by the brilliant William Cameron Menzies, who had designed and directed the celebrated British science fiction film Things to Come (1936), based on an original screenplay by H. G. Wells. The strong supporting cast included Olivia de Havilland, Leslie Howard, and Hattie McDaniel.
The massive nature of the production drove everyone to the wall; Selznick was taking pep pills on a daily basis just to keep up with the killing pace of production, and the sheer physical size of the film required an army of extras, assistant directors, production assistants, and the services of at least three directors of cinematography, Ernest Haller, Lee Garmes, and Technicolor’s houseman, Ray Rennahan. At a mammoth 222 minutes, the film was split in two sections and became an immediate sensation upon its release. Although Selznick toned down the racism in Mitchell’s novel considerably, the film is still full of insulting racial stereotypes, and when the film had its world premiere in Atlanta, the film’s African American stars, McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen, were not invited. The film’s rose-colored view of slavery and the Reconstruction era uncomfortably recalls The Birth of a Nation, and yet the film has a hold on the collective national memory that refuses to fade.