It’s a story that has been told many times,and it illustrates what a showman David O.Selznick was.
When Selznick gained the rights to Margaret Mitchell’s smash hit novel, Gone With The Wind,he set about creating as much public interest as he could on the casting of Scarlett and Rhett. A poll in 1936 showed 98% of the public wanted Clark Gable to play Rhett. (Gary Cooper and Ronald Colman were a long way behind).
MGM made sure they had the best possible deal for loaning out their biggest star – they supplied half the film’s budget, got full releasing rights and half the box office.
Casting Scarlett proved much more difficult.Selznick wanted a new personality who would be a new star for his own studio,Selznick International.
Kay Brown,from Selznick’s New York office, started auditions all over America. 500 girls turned up at open auditions in Atlanta. Kay told her boss, “We saw every Miss Atlanta from 20 years back.”
The proposed director,George Cukor, also went round the southern states,but by July 1937 Selznick cautioned Kay Brown to let all the girls who considered themselves Scarletts, that their chances were about a million to one.
A year later, although the search had generated masses of publicity,no one had been cast. Selznick commented, “We may have to resort to the Lana Turners and the other girls that have been dug up from high schools etc.”
George Cukor had also seen actresses in New York sent from agents like Leland Hayward and William Morris. Susan Hayward (then Edythe Marriner and a model) was considered by Cukor to be a definite possibility.
In Hollywood, young stock players from other studios were tested. Of MGM’s Lana Turner, Selznick said, “She might fit into smaller parts but is not experienced enough for any of the bigger roles.”
For a year Tallulah Bankhead was the only established actress to have been tested. She was from the South,but Selznick feared she would not look young enough in the first part of the film.
Other actresses tested from 1936 to 1938 included Louise Platt,Paulette Goddard,Anita Louise,Frances Dee,Nancy Coleman,Jean Arthur and Joan Bennett.
Paulette Goddard was tested 7 times,more than anyone else.She was given a color test,with George Cukor coaching her off camera. On the Youtube clip, we hear Cukor saying, “Once more, Paulette. Your face is so hard.”
It’s fascinating to see Paulette,Joan Bennett and Jean Arthur do the same scene – putting on a corset.
It sounds like fiction, but on December 10th,1938 shooting began on the burning of Atlanta scenes. Selznick’s brother Myron Selznick,brought his client Vivien Leigh to the lot. Vivien did tests on Dec. 21 and 22 and joined Jean Arthur, Joan Bennett and Paulette Goddard as the final 4 choices.
The winner was the English actress who signed her contract on Jan.16 1939. Principal photography started on Jan.26th.
There were public protests because Vivien was English and largely unknown in the States. Selznick hit back by saying Wallace Beery had played in Treasure Island and Fredric March in The Barretts of Wimpole Street.
But the casting of Vivien Leigh was perfect. She became Scarlett,won an Oscar and became part of Hollywood history.