Gone With the Wind: Making of Classic

Part One in a Series of Articles
All along, producer David O. Selznick had serious doubts about George Cukor’s skills and stamina to handle an epic on the order of “Gone With the Wind” (GWTW). 
 
Periodically, he would concede that his firm decision to use Cukor was held “through difficulties.” One major concern was the huge amount of money Cukor was paid, though the movie was nowhere near ready for production. “We are in danger actually of winding up paying him about $300,000 for his services on GWTW,” Selznick complained to his associates in September 1937.
 
While preparations for GWTW continued, Selznick tried to keep Cukor busy on other pictures, but the director turned down both “A Star is Born” and “Intermezzo.”  “I think the biggest black mark against our management to date is the Cukor situation,” wrote Selznick, “and we can no longer be sentimental about it. We are a business concern and not patrons of the arts.”  There was talk about the possibility of making a new deal with Cukor for GWTW, or using the project to lure a new director, like Victor Fleming or Frank Capra, for a long-range contract with Selznick International.          
 
In February l938, Selznick told Cukor of the arduous task he and Sidney Howard had undertaken in putting together the script. With each word carefully weighed, they double-checked the text against the book, substituting valuable lines for the script’s more ordinary lines. Then, they double-checked against the Story Department notes, production notes, Hal Kern’s cutting suggestions, and, of course, the Hays Office notes. 
 
Concerned that their painstaking work was going to be in vain, Selznick asked for Cukor’s pledge not to use the book during production, and not to add any lines, as he has been doing for the tests, because anything extra would be too costly. The addition of five or six words per scene, Selznick noted, would count up to a thousand feet or more that was taken out with “terrific agony and intense work.” Selznick was not adverse to Cukor raising points before shooting began, but he wanted assurances that Cukor would shoot only what was written.          
 
Selznick hoped to have every set of the picture designed at least 3 weeks prior to shooting, and decided to proceed, even if the present script was not final. Given the picture’s scale and expense, Selznick wanted everyone to realize the vital importance of organizing the film as no film had ever been before. Selznick suggested regular discussions with Cukor, so that he would have “no worries” about the sets once the picture started shooting.
 
Getting Clark Gable
 
Casting still remained the greatest concern. The overwhelming sentiment was that the role of Rhett Butler was made-to-order for Gable.  Cukor thought that Gable would be good, but he by no means believed that Gable was the only actor who could do it. “Cooper or Gable,” Cukor told an interviewer, “To me it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other. Perfect for either.” 
 
Getting Gable, MGM’s most popular star, was a complicated issue, however, and Selznick knew that the studio would have the upper hand in making the deal.  Negotiations were conducted through Al Lichtman, as Selznick didn’t want to deal directly with Louis B., his father-in-law. A tough trader, Lichtman set these terms: Metro would loan Gable and half of the production costs, estimated at $2.5 million, on the condition that MGM release the film. After production costs and a distribution fee of 15 percent of the grosses, MGM and Selznick would share equally in the profits. The deal meant that Selznick, still committed to a distribution deal with United Artists, would have to hold back GWTW until the end of 1939 to get Gable.
 
The contract was signed in August 1938, and MGM promised to “deliver” Gable on January 5, 1939. Gable was asked to call Cukor to discuss his costumes, hair, and moustache.  After meeting the actor on the MGMG lot, Cukor was even more concerned about Gable’s accent and approach, but Selznick reassured him that Gable would be all right: “He is as much concerned as we are, perhaps more.”
 
Gable proved to be more than all right, giving “the performance” of his career, for which he would garner another Best Actor Oscar nomination, though lose the actual award to Robert Donat in “Goodbye Mr. Chips.” 
In fact, it’s hard to imagine the movie without Gable.
 
In later years, various scholars suggested that it was Gable who was responsible for firing Cukor from the picture, but my research and bio of George Cukor don’t support this hypothesis, as I would show in a future article.