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In the Galleries: “Gone With The Wind” producer David O. Selznick demanded proper Southern accents from actors

By Gabrielle Inhofe

Letters poured into producer David O. Selznick’s office on the proper use of Southern accents in Gone With The Wind. One woman wrote, “Come South and study our dialect. I don’t know your people as you do, but it cuts deep when we see our lovely old Southern life ‘hashed up.’”

 

Clark Gable employed a dialog coach, but two days before filming, Selznick learned that Gable was refusing to use an accent. Selznick then had Will Price, from the casting department, and Susan Myrick, a technical advisor, work on coaching the actors in the use of an appropriate accent.

 

Price and Myrick, in a memo to Selznick and director George Cukor, wrote, “we find that the script includes innumerable attempts at written southern accent for the white characters. Both Miss Myrick and I strongly agree that this is extremely dangerous as it prompts the actors immediately to attempt a phony southern accent comprised merely of dropping final ‘ings’ and consonants. A phony southern accent is harder to eradicate than a British or western accent.” They then advise that the script should be retyped, without the written southern accents.

 

Filming went on hiatus as Selznick replaced director George Cukor with Victor Fleming. Selznick wrote to studio manager Henry Ginsberg about his concerns over the accent during this period: “We know that Leslie Howard has made little or no attempts in the direction of accent and since he is on our payroll there is little excuse for this…. I am particularly worried about Vivien Leigh since she has been associating with English people and more likely than not has completely got away from what was gained up to the time we stopped.” Leigh was already under fire from the media and many Southerners for being British, so it would have been doubly ruinous for the film if she were unable to employ an accent.

 

Memos related to the actors’ accents are on view through January 4 in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind. A fully illustrated exhibition catalog of the same title is available. Co-published by the Harry Ransom Center and University of Texas Press, the catalog includes a foreword written by Turner Classic Movies (TCM) host and film historian Robert Osborne.

 

 

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Q&A: Film critic Molly Haskell discusses “Gone With The Wind”

By Sarah Strohl

Molly Haskell, film critic and author of Frankly, My Dear: Gone with the Wind Revisited, explores the popularity and influence of both the book and film, from their first appearance to the present on Wednesday, November 19, at 7 p.m. The program, which is held in conjunction with the exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind, will be webcast live.

 

In her book Frankly, My Dear, Haskell explores how and why the saga of Scarlett O’Hara has kept such a tenacious hold on the national imagination for almost 75 years. In the first book ever to deal simultaneously with Margaret Mitchell’s novel and David O. Selznick’s film version of Gone with the Wind, Haskell seeks the answers. By all industry predictions, the film should never have worked, but Haskell argues that what makes it work so amazingly well are the fascinating and uncompromising personalities involved of Mitchell, Selznick, and Vivien Leigh.

 

Below, Haskell answers questions about her own experiences with Gone With The Wind, her take on Scarlett O’Hara’s legacy, and more.

 

You talk about how the popularity of Gone With The Wind might have diminished its reputation in the eyes of critics: “According to the stern moral axiom that a film can’t be both great and popular, our affection for it is almost a mark in its disfavor.” (pg. 34) Why do you think this is, and do you think this rings true for films today?

​I think it’s still true. Gone With The Wind was, in a way, the first blockbuster, though Jaws is the one with which we associate the current use of the term, and it was followed by Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars—the latter almost in a class by itself. Then there are more Spielberg and Lucas mega-hits—the Indiana Jones films and Jurassic Park cum sequels. None of these is taken seriously, though I think standards have shifted somewhat, and the distinction between high culture and popular culture is far less rigid than it once was.

 

You describe reading or seeing Gone With The Wind for the first time as a “formative experience.” Do you remember where you first experienced Gone With The Wind?

​If you mean the movie, I can’t pinpoint the date. I read the book when I was about 12 or 13, swallowing it whole overnight. By the time I saw the film, I was a little more ambivalent about Scarlett: she was gutsy, courageous, ambitious, indecorous (all pluses to my way of thinking), but she was also a Southern belle, something I very much didn’t want to be. Except just a little!​

 

You noted certain parallels between Margaret Mitchell and Scarlett O’Hara. To what extent do you think Mitchell wrote herself into the role of the protagonist?

​I think she thought she was creating Scarlett in the image of her grandmother, a powerhouse of a lady (as were the war widows and survivors of her generation, in Mitchell’s eyes). But so much of the flapper-micshief-maker-tomboy Peggy Mitchell went into the role, and with such ​galvanic force, that she became the heroine almost in spite of her author.​

 

 

When Gone With The Wind emerged, girls and young women everywhere fell in love with Scarlett as a role model for passion and independence. Do you think Scarlett is relevant to young women today?

​Definitely if viewers are able to see beyond the Southern manners, the period trappings, and the always troubling treatment of slavery and the blacks. Scarlett has so many modern offspring, women who have been liberated by feminism (and women’s suffrage, for which Mitchell’s mother fought), without necessarily acknowledging it: Madonna, Lady Gaga, even the Sex and the City babes and Girls!.​

 

 

When casting Scarlett, Selznick reviewed more than 1,400 candidates over two years and spent $92,000 before settling on Vivien Leigh for the role. Can you describe the level of desire and competition for girls who were dying to be Scarlett?

​It was not just the great role of 1939, it was the role of a lifetime. Actresses who were completely wrong for it, like Katharine Hepburn, campaigned. Stars who hadn’t auditioned in years auditioned for it, while others covertly let it be known that they ​were available. Selznick scoured the South. Women wrote to Mitchell begging her to intercede for them. The “quest” stoked stories and filled fan magazines, until it seemed as if everyone in the country had weighed in one way or another. And not just as to the role of Scarlett, but Rhett Butler, too. Though that was practically unanimous: Clark Gable.

 

Do you think there are any actresses today who could come close to Leigh’s performance?

​It’s hard to say, since we no longer have the studio system grooming stars, and no longer want or expect the particular kind of glamor that those stars radiated. It’s such a different game, and each era’s definition of what’s convincing and “real” in acting changes radically. This is a good thing, I think. Who would want to recreate that unique experience? When people try, as in remakes, it usually fails.

 

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Image: Cover of Molly Haskell’s Frankly My Dear: Gone With The Wind Revisited.

In the Galleries: A discarded happy ending for “Gone With The Wind”

By Gabrielle Inhofe

Gone With The Wind’s scriptwriter Sidney Howard had the difficult task of converting the 1,000-page novel into a film script that was not too long, without sacrificing key elements of the novel. One of producer David O. Selznick’s concerns was that all problems be caught before filming started, because cutting scenes out would be more expensive than having an appropriately long script written in the first place. To help Howard, Selznick and his story editor Val Lewton employed the skills of other scriptwriters and authors.

 

In October 1938, Selznick sent the script to two top MGM scriptwriters, Lawrence Stallings and Bradbury Foote, for help editing. The men, under confidentiality, had eight days to make their suggestions.

 

Foote’s editing gave the film a happy ending, destroying one of the novel’s most emotionally powerful scenes. In Foote’s rewrite, Rhett does indeed leave, but Mammy thrashes the famous “Tomorrow is another day!” speech, telling Scarlett, “Never you mind tomorrow, honey. This here is today! There goes your man!” The scene dissolves to a shot of a railroad station. Scarlett corners Rhett in the car of a train, entreating, “Oh, Rhett! Life is just beginning for us! Can’t you see it is? We’ve both been blind, stupid fools! But we’re still young! We can make up for those wasted years! Oh, Rhett—let me make them up to you! Please! Please!” He kisses her hands, and the scene fades out. Selznick considered this rewrite “awful.”

 

Selznick employed a host of other writers to help find creative ways of combining scenes from the novel, and almost all of the writers who worked on the script did so after filming had commenced. Writers F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ben Hecht, John Van Druten, John Balderston, Ronald Brown, and Edwin Justus Mayer briefly worked on the script. In a memo from Fitzgerald to Selznick, Fitzgerald proposes that Scarlett’s miscarriage be cut. The death of Bonnie, Scarlett’s miscarriage, and Melanie’s death in childbirth, all in rapid succession, would be too much for the audience to endure. Fitzgerald mentions that the miscarriage seems less sorrowful in the book because Scarlett already had three children. He writes, “There is something about three gloomy things that is infinitely worse than two, and I do not believe that people are grateful for being harrowed in this way.”

 

Pages from various drafts of the screenplay are on view through January 4 in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind. A fully illustrated exhibition catalog of the same title is available.  Co-published by the Harry Ransom Center and University of Texas Press, the catalog includes a foreword written by Turner Classic Movies (TCM) host and film historian Robert Osborne.

 

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Meet the Staff: Film Curatorial Assistant Albert A. Palacios

By Gabrielle Inhofe

Meet the Staff is an occasional series on Cultural Compass that highlights the work, experience, and lives of staff at the Harry Ransom Center. Albert A. Palacios has been the Film Curatorial Assistant at the Ransom Center since January 2010 and is a doctoral student in Latin American history at The University of Texas at Austin. He holds a Master of Science in Information Studies and a Master of Arts in Latin American Studies from The University of Texas at Austin. He was recently awarded the 2014 prize for best graduate essay for Book History. The judges noted “Not only is his research breathtaking, he offers a whole new approach to the issue of Spanish colonial censorship, and beyond that, a new perspective on the mechanics of censorship in general.”

 

Palacios has coordinated several major volunteer projects, including the digitization of the Alfred Junge collection, the preservation of the Perry Mason film, and the fan mail database in the web exhibition Producing Gone With The Wind.

 

What does an average day for you entail?

Typically I manage eight to 15 graduate volunteers working at the film department each semester. We work on a range of projects, from creating digital collections and preserving film media to processing archives. However, this past semester we had 24 graduate and undergraduate students helping develop content for the web exhibition Producing Gone With The Wind.

 

Tell us about your role in the exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind?

I was the project coordinator for the Gone With The Wind fan mail database, which shares thousands of letters that Selznick International Pictures received between 1936 and 1939. I recruited and trained graduate volunteers on preparing letters for scanning, digitization, image cropping, database records, transcription, as well as writing feature stories about the different types of letters. I also reviewed for quality and approved each entry. To date, we have records for more than 3,000 letters and transcripts for more than 6,000 pages.

 

What’s the most rewarding part about your job?

I think working with the volunteers is the most rewarding. They help us accomplish many high-quality projects, and they are always so excited and engaged. I am particularly glad to see that the myriad experiences and skills we offer can support their professional development. They help us preserve and make our collections accessible, while we help them define their career aspirations.

 

Tell us about your academic background and interests.

I started as an undergraduate at UT, pursuing a dual degree in architecture and anthropology. I knew I didn’t want to be an architect or an archaeologist when I finished in 2009, but I still wanted to explore questions of design and cultural representation. I started looking at museum exhibition design while I was studying architecture in Italy. That was when I decided to combine my architecture and archaeology/anthropology majors within the context of museums and archives at the School of Information. I graduated with my master’s degree there and jumped over to Latin American studies, where I wrote my thesis on book censorship in sixteenth-century Mexico. After receiving my master’s degree, I began in the history Ph.D. program. Ultimately, I’m working toward becoming a curator of Latin American special collections.

 

Did you travel to research your thesis?

I have gone to Mexico City, Chicago, New York, and other U.S. cities the throughout past two years to hunt down Mexican “inculabula” and manuscript sources that elucidate publishing practice in sixteenth-century Mexico. I am analyzing the censorship process, printing privilege (akin to copyright) and the social networks that intellectually and economically favored New Spain’s authors. I’m happy to say that two papers from that research are being published this year—one will be a chapter in a book and another in an academic journal.

 

What’s your favorite movie?

Spellbound! I’m a big fan of psychological thrillers. At the Ransom Center, we have original storyboards, construction drawings, and props that were created for the movie’s dream sequence.

 

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