Hollywood Scandals: Gone With the Wind, Why Director Cukor Was Fired by Selznick after Working for 2 Years on Casting

From the very first day of shooting Gone With the Wind, George Cukor sensed that producer David O.  Selznick was on edge due to his increasingly visible obsession to make “the greatest Hollywood movie of all time.”

On January 28, 1939, Selznick notified Cukor that Menzies was to have the final word on the production’s physical aspects and color values. This increased the tension between Cukor and Menzies, whose greater authority was perceived as a threat. A few days later, Selznick announced that he wanted to see the block rehearsal of each scene before it was shot. He also demanded that Cukor call him before making any changes in a scene or in the dialogue. This was done to avoid what Selznick termed “projection-room surprises.”

Cukor was shocked. “I was the director,” he later said, “and a director should shoot the scene before the producer sees it. That’s when the producer’s opinion is important, when he sees it on the screen for the first time. But Selznick started coming down on the set, giving hot tips which weren’t very helpful.”

This was a marked change in the working relationship that Cukor and Selznick had established over the years. “He helped me greatly,” Cukor said, “and we worked very well together.” “He was the producer I respected; I was a director he had some regard for.” But they had not worked together for several years, during which Cukor’s stature and confidence as a director had substantially grown. Cukor was now in full command of his craft, technical skills included.

Though Selznick had always been involved in casting, script, and art design, now he seemed to want to muscle in on the direction as well. Selznick could not bear being away from the set. He was constantly at Cukor’s side, bothering him about one thing or another, which infuriated Cukor and made him nervous. Selznick became an obsessive madman, a driven workaholic, completely self-absorbed with making GWTW the greatest film ever produced.

Few people knew that Selznick was on drugs at the time, which was affecting his behavior. Selznick was all caught up, and he was not getting any sleep. “George never emphasized the drugs as a weapon against Selznick,” said Paul Morrissey, “but he really resented his interference. ‘You’ll see it in the rushes!’ Cukor would say, ‘You’re not going to be on the set when I’m directing!'” “What George did on the set,” he said, “every director does–command–people know he is the authority, he’s driving the ship. If somebody else is there, it deflates his importance and authority.”

Any director of Cukor’s rank would have found Selznick’s action unacceptable and unprofessional. Cukor’s resentment was magnified by the fact that they were friends, and had made so many successful pictures together. “Knowing Cukor’s temper,” said Gerald Ayres, who later wrote Rich and Famous, “he could not tolerate Selznick saying, ‘You directed this scene without my permission.'”

Selznick also resented that shooting moved too slowly, that after two weeks the production was seven days behind schedule. In those two weeks, Cukor directed only one scene with Gable, though he was on the set on each of the six-day work week. Cukor liked having everyone around, even when he didn’t need them–just in case. The picture was shot out of sequence, with every scene approved by Selznick. And because the initial scenes centered around Scarlett, Leigh received most of Cukor’s attention.

Practically everything Cukor shot remained in the final picture. Cukor directed two important scenes–the first, early in the war, when Scarlett nurses Melanie through her labor pains and has to deal with the hysterical servant Prissy (Butterfly McQueen). And the second, after the war, when a marauding Yankee soldier breaks into Tara and Scarlett kills him.

When De Havilland was preparing for the birth scene, Cukor suggested primary research, since she knew nothing about child bearing. “Olivia,” Cukor said, “we’ve got to time these spasms exactly right. We’ve got to get the technique for it.” Arrangements were made for De Havilland, dressed as a nurse, to sit by the beds of women in various stages of labor at a LA hospital. De Havilland observed their hands and the sounds they made as the contractions came upon them.

An unmistakable cry rang out when one of the women was about to deliver. Within seconds, De Havilland was whist into the operating room to witness the birth. “It was one of the most moving and awe-inspiring experiences of my life,” De Havilland said. “I made notes about the exclamations, the cries, the breathing rhythm, everything-just as George demanded.”

When they shot the actual scene, Cukor sat at the foot of the bed, outside the camera range. “Everytime I was supposed to have a spasm, George twisted my ankle.” Cukor was repeating an old trick he had used with Maureen O’Sullivan in David Copperfield. Years later, when De Havilland gave birth to her first son, she sent Cukor a wire: “You were not there to twist my ankle, but I still had the baby. I did it without your help!”

On February 12, there was a dramatic turn of events, when Cukor was suddenly dismissed and the shooting suspended. In production less than two weeks, but with a number of its most important scenes shot, the 2 million property faced another extended delay.

De Havilland recalled that it was during the bazaar sequence that news of Cukor’s dismissal hit the set. “I at once spoke to Vivien, commiserating with her in this calamity, and Vivien and I went together to call on Selznick in his office. We remained there for three and a half hours, pleading with him not to let George go, but our efforts were not successful.” Ironically, De Havilland and Leigh were dressed in black, their widows’ garb for that day’s work. When reports of their efforts reached Cukor, he was deeply touched, but also amused by their “appropriate” clothes for the occasion.

“The only solution,” Selznick said, “is for a new director to be selected at as early a date as is practicable.” In a memo to Jack Whitney on February 13, Selznick wrote: “Mr. Cukor’s withdrawal is the most regrettable incident of my rather long producing career.” The memo was meant to give the impression that the dismissal was based on a mutual decision.

Selznick had a knack for firing directors; Cukor was not the first. Fearing Cukor would “interpolate” into the script, Selznick behaved like a dictator, no one could be trusted. “I was put off,” Cukor later said, “because David, in all honesty, felt that I wasn’t doing things quite right. I really never knew the facts, but there came a point, after I’d be shooting for a few weeks, when he obviously didn’t think I could do it.”

Selznick indeed expressed dissatisfaction with the tempo of Cukor’s direction. Strongly against theatrical stylization, he thought Cukor’s pace was too slow and his emphasis too strong on the female characters. Irene Selznick claimed in her memoirs that “George’s work was simply not up to David’s expectations,” implying that the project, an epic film, might have been too big for him.

Once in production, ego struggles continuously raged on the set. The relationship between Gable and Leigh was polite, but not friendly. There is no doubt that Gable’s dislike of Cukor contributed to his dismissal. Gable’s relationship with Cukor was never more than formally cordial. Dissatisfied from the start, Gable protested vigorously at MGM that Cukor’s direction would not be to his advantage. Everybody knew Gable fretted about Cukor’s already burgeoning reputation as a “woman’s director.” And he was unnerved by the speed with which Cukor established rapport with Leigh and De Havilland. Gable wanted a “man’s director”–a Victor Fleming or even Jack Conway.

When Cukor asked his actors to begin their “Southern” lessons, Gable took his first rebellious stand. “I am informed by MGM,” Selznick wrote to Cukor on December 8, “that Gable refuses under any circumstances to have any kind of a Southern accent.” From then on, the informal agreement was whatever the King wants, the King gets.

“I’m not sure that Clark really thought I was much good,” Cukor later said, “Perhaps he mistakenly thought that because I was supposed to be a ‘woman’s director,’ I would throw the story to Vivien, but if that’s so, it was very naive of him and not the reaction of a professional actor.” “It’s not the director who ‘throws’ things and puts the emphasis the wrong way,” Cukor explained. “That would be like singing certain notes very loudly or heavily to divert attention from the others.”

According to Cukor, in the last interview he gave, Gable had more compelling reasons for wanting him off the picture. Cukor knew of Gable’s days as a hustler on the Hollywood gay circuit, when the actor first arrived in LA. One of these sexual encounters was with William Haines, an actor who later became Cukor’s friend and designer. Cukor claimed that his very presence reminded the macho actor of his dubious sexual past.

Lambert said that Cukor was pretty honest about his dismissal. Lambert, who wrote a book about the making of GWTW, dismissed the famous story about Gable and Haines. “The episode between Haines and Gable may have happened,” he said, “but I don’t think that Gable would ever have done that–he was too professional. He would have made it a condition at the start.”

Indeed, the distrust between Gable and Cukor certainly reached unpleasant proportions. Cukor further irritated Gable by calling him “dear” and “darling” on the set, as was his habit with all his stars, male and female.

Gable took advantage of the fact that Selznick had to beg MGM to get him. Selznick knew that Gable didn’t want to do the film. Gable went on payroll on January 23, a day after his wife Ria announced their divorce, and Selznick feared that he would leave the production to marry his new love, actress Carole Lombard.

“Selznick did fire George,” Katharine Hepburn said, “but I don’t think he really understood it. I think that Gable didn’t like George, because he would be very careful with Vivien Leigh. He would be much more interested in the woman’s character than in the man’s.” According to Hepburn, Cukor probably thought of Gable as “just one more character to present himself, whereas Leigh was a new personality. Disappointed, Gable might have thought, ‘What the hell am I going to do George is fascinated by Vivien Leigh and doesn’t pay any attention to me.'”

Cukor knew that Gable was insecure in that role and didn’t want to do it, but he needed the money for his divorce. “Gable went into the movie very insecure,” Lambert said, “and he did see at once that George and Vivien had a terrific rapport. That, combined with George’s reputation as a ‘woman’s director,’ made Gable feel he was going to be on the less attentive end of the stick. His insecurity made him very demanding.” According to Lambert, “Gable was not Cukor’s kind of actor, though Cukor thought he was right for the part. They probably didn’t have a deep rapport, not in the sense that George did with Cary Grant.”

Lambert also refuted the claim that Selznick didn’t think Cukor was good enough. “George’s account basically was that Selznick kept rewriting the script, and that he did hold things up. They were getting behind schedule.” In Bhowani Junction, the l955 film about India, Lambert said, “Cukor handled the crowd and action scenes brilliantly, so, I don’t see any reason to suppose that he couldn’t have done it. Especially in that kind of operation, where there was so much technical back-up.”

It’s hard to know where George begins or Selznick ends,” Lambert noted about their relative contribution. Still, in the final account, it is Selznick who is the auteur of that movie. Morrissey and other critics disagree. Morrissey claimed Cukor should get more credit for GWTW. “George did the casting,” he said, “and he shaped the level of performances.” “There was something absolutely deadlocked good sense about Cukor,” Morrissey said, “he had this gift of knowing what’s good acting. It’s not just dialogue, it’s performing. In GWTW, almost all the performances belong in history. People like Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen, Laura Hope Crews, are totally theatrical and artificial. When you can be funny and artificial and get away with it, that’s great acting. George never said, ‘Now, be realistic, this is a serious movie.’ There are a lot of dopey, awful directors who smother actors. He could see that Laura Hope Crews (who played Aunt Pittypat) was over the top, but she was good.”

“It is nonsense to say that I was giving too much attention to Vivien and Olivia,” Cukor told a reporter. “It is the text that dictates where the emphasis should go. Gable didn’t have a great deal of confidence in himself as an actor, although he was a great screen personality; maybe he thought that I didn’t understand that.”

Gable felt that a “he-man” director like Victor Fleming would put guts into the picture. He did complain a lot about Cukor, and worked on Selznick until he got Fleming. Selznick used Gable’s complaints as an excuse to get rid of Cukor, whose directorial style he did not like. Interestingly, when the foul-mouthed Fleming saw the footage that had been shot, he is reported to have said, “David, your fucking script is no fucking good.”

“Cukor won from me total confidence,” said De Havilland, “just as he did from Vivien. He had a wonderful sense of detail in shaping a characterization.” “The greatest of difficulty after Cukor left, was the change of directors; there were three of them. For Vivien and I, the loss of Cukor was a terrible blow. He had so much to do with our having been chosen for our roles, he had helped us so much in setting our characterization. We thought that without him we would flounder and fail.”

Though De Havilland liked Fleming’s direction, there were times when in preparing a scene she would miss Cukor’s insights. De Havilland did call Cukor one day to ask if he would give her a counsel. He invited her to lunch at the Victor Hugo restaurant in Beverly Hills. “We read over the scene about which I felt uneasy, and he gave me marvelous advice.”

On at least two other occasions, De Havilland turned to Cukor, who always responded with “grace, kindness and wisdom. “My consultations with George lasted about an hour,” she said, “and aside from the first luncheon, they took place at his house.” De Havilland felt guilty about moonlighting with Cukor, as if she were running her scenes behind Leigh’s back, until she found out that Leigh was doing exactly the same thing.

Leigh liked Cukor the minute she saw him, because he “smelled” of theater and was so imaginative. She was extremely angry at Selznick’s decision to dismiss him; Cukor was her only hope of enjoying the film. But even after he was fired, Cukor continued to coach Leigh, who trusted him more than she trusted Fleming–or herself. Leigh’s regular three-hour rehearsal with Cukor on Sundays was her favorite part of the week.

Unlike De Havilland, Leigh actually resented Fleming. She kept going back to her screen test and stuck as closely as she could to Cukor’s direction. “I was an awful bitch on the set,” she once told Cukor. They had been working on her big scene with Ashley and she felt it wasn’t right. “Let’s see how George handled it,” she said, forcing Fleming to screen her test. Nothing would irritate him more.

The picture went on and on and Leigh missed Olivier, who was in London. Exhausted and impatient, she would spend her Sundays at Cukor’s. One day, she took a swim, lay down on a chair in the sun and fell asleep for hours. Cukor sat next to her, watching with delight this beautiful creature.

Cukor spent two years on GWTW, preparing, researching, making tests. It was no consolation that other artists on that project also failed to last. After Sidney Howard was taken off, innumerable writers worked on the script, including Scott Fitzgerald. According to De Havilland, Cukor’s severance from GWTW was “a major blow” for a man of his great ability, sensitivity, and prestige.”

Although GWTW finally came off effectively, Cukor held that it contained Selznick’s “seeds of destruction.” “Some producers want to direct, believing they can do it better, but they don’t, so it frustrates them and spoils their relation with their director.” Son, Selznick’s great strength, his relation with people began to fall apart, and many of his stars, Ingrid Bergman, Joan Fontaine, and Vivien Leigh, left him.

Selznick and Cukor continued to be friends, though Cukor never really forgave him. The problem for Cukor was that he could not talk about his bitterness. Generous, Selznick would go to any trouble for Cukor as a friend–Cukor described him as a “tough businessman with a big streak of personal tenderness and loyalty.” “When something like this happens,” Cukor told Lambert, “it’s the luck of the game.” But it is hard to believe he really meant it. At the time, Cukor pretended that “when you’ve finished a picture and it’s ruined by other people’s cutting, that’s much worse, it stays with you.”

Cukor had to be careful in talking about Selznick, because everything he said was interpreted as too critical. “A lot of water has gone under the bridge,” Cukor would say about GWTW. Asked if he hated being taken off the picture, Cukor said, “I’ve long ago reconciled myself to what can best be termed the vicissitudes of war out here.” But Frances Goldwyn observed that “When Selznick fired him, he didn’t yell or scream, but he ate great many cakes.”

“What in the world happened about GWTW,” asked the disgusted Hepburn, who learned about it while performing in Boston. “I simply can’t imagine the picture not directed by you. But then it has been a pain in the neck and I should think that you are probably relieved of an interesting but very problematical venture.” Revolted by the whole thing, and to console him, Hepburn reported that Cukor’s girls have finally redeemed themselves, referring to her stage role in The Philadelphia Story, and Tallulah Bankhead’s in The Little Foxes. “Darling, how much I wish you were here to see Little Foxes!” Bankhead wrote. “It’s all been worth it. I’m not only in a good play, but really the best play, and we’re the talk of the town.”

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