How and why has the saga of Scarlett O’Hara kept such a tenacious hold on our national imagination for almost three-quarters of a century? In the first book ever to deal simultaneously with Margaret Mitchell’s beloved novel and David Selznick’s spectacular film version of Gone with the Wind, film critic Molly Haskell seeks the answers. By all industry predictions, the film should never have worked. What makes it work so amazingly well are the fascinating and uncompromising personalities that Haskell dissects here: Margaret Mitchell, David Selznick, and Vivien Leigh. As a feminist and onetime Southern adolescent, Haskell understands how the story takes on different shades of meaning according to the age and eye of the beholder. She explores how it has kept its edge because of Margaret Mitchell’s (and our) ambivalence about Scarlett and because of the complex racial and sexual attitudes embedded in a story that at one time or another has offended almost everyone.
Haskell imaginatively weaves together disparate strands, conducting her story as her own inner debate between enchantment and disenchantment. Sensitive to the ways in which history and cinema intersect, she reminds us why these characters, so riveting to Depression audiences, continue to fascinate 70 years later.
On the chilly evening of December 10, 1938, the shooting of Gone with the Wind began with a tremendous roar on a Culver City studio lot. Amid a two-mile-long replica of old Atlanta and with tender provided by the flammable leftovers from the set of King Kong, the ersatz city was set ablaze while stunt doubles of Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler fled the inferno on buckboard and firemen from L.A. aimed their hoses at the raining embers. The lenses of every available Technicolor camera (there were a dozen in existence at the time) were trained on the one-shot, make-or-break scene. Two years after announcing he would adapt Gone with the Wind after forking over a record sum to Macmillan for the rights, producer David O. Selznick, who rebuffed one backer's insistence that it would be a safer bet to rely on a model shot of Atlanta aflame, didn't yet have a finished script; he wouldn't have Clark Gable, on loan from MGM in exchange for world distribution rights and half the film's box office, for another couple of months; and he hadn't even cast the role of Scarlett, after the brilliant but bogglingly expensive publicity stunt of a nationwide amateur talent hunt to find the perfect, would-be celluloid belle (1,400 hopefuls were interviewed, 90 given screen tests, and exactly one actually cast, in a minor role) and dalliances with Katharine Hepburn (who lobbied for the part), Bette Davis, and even RKO Studio's loony suggestion of Lucille Ball. (Charlie Chaplain's companion, Paulette Goddard, seemed to have the role locked up, but a massive letter campaign spearheaded by the Florida chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy torpedoed it.)