Southern women have epitomized Scarlett O’Hara for decades. Since we were children, we’ve flounced around in mother’s draperies and sat in front of the mirror for hours attempting to perfect Scarlett’s impeccable pout and feline grin. We manifest her flippant approach to love and admirers and imagine ourselves as the diligent daughter of her post-War struggles. Our vision of Scarlett is invariably the flawless visage of Vivien Leigh, her vibrantly green eyes and pale complexion framed by the bouncing, raven curls. Vivien Leigh and Scarlett O’Hara are practically synonymous, but our symbolic Southern belle was nearly outfitted with an entirely different face.
When Atlanta author Margaret Mitchell’s work was published in 1936, it was to immediate popular acclaim; the public clamored for copies, catapulting the book to the top of bestsellers lists before reviewers even had a chance to publish their findings. With such a fervent fan base, the entertainment industry immediately recognized the potential profit for converting the novel into film. After a tussle for rights, David O. Selznick’s Selznick International Pictures emerged victorious—but the struggle was only just beginning.
When it came to casting, the producers of Gone with the Wind faced a gargantuan challenge: landing a cast that not only met their own standards, but the exacting standards of the public. The existing popularity of the tale meant inevitable success for the film industry, but it also meant a watchful and demanding eye in the presence of such a passionate audience. As David O. Selznick and his team embarked on their search to find actors and actresses to fill the roles, they were also bombarded with constant judgment, suggestions, and objection from the public.
Some of the roles, like the casting of Rhett Butler, were easy to fill. Both the folks behind Selznick International Pictures and the public unanimously agreed that the only contender for the roguish Rhett was Clark Gable. The only dissenter, in fact, was Clark Gable himself, but faced with pleading and imploring from his fans and Selznick, Gable consented to the role.
But Scarlett O’Hara, one of the most anomalous female protagonists in fiction, would prove critically challenging to find for the film. Distinctly feminine but nearly androgynous in attitude, bitingly intelligent but unwittingly naive, beautiful, young, and, most importantly, Southern, Scarlett was a role giving Selznick quite the task. Add to that the public’s increasing fervor for the tale and their immovable opinions regarding who should be cast—especially in the leading role—and the task quickly turned from difficult to nearly impossible. Selznick and his team began the search almost as soon as the book reached the public in 1936, but it would take over two years, until December of 1938, for Selznick to find his muse.
The biggest names in the business were all intent on landing the role and, with the public’s support, they immediately took to hounding the producers. Selznick waded through letters of recommendation and screen tested celebrities, despite his belief that Scarlett’s starlet would in fact be an unknown. Bette Davis, who played the part of a Southern belle in 1938’s Jezebel, passionately pursued the role, as did Jean Arthur and Lucille Ball. Both Susan Hayward and Lana Turner, relatively unknown at the time, tested for the role; the test alone helped catapult them to fame. Perhaps the most famous applicant was the matchless Katherine Hepburn. Known around Hollywood and the world for her blatant attitude, sharp features, and coarse tone, Hepburn fought heartily for the role. After Selznick refused to consider her, she demanded to see him, burst into his office and declared, “I am Scarlett O’Hara! The role is practically written for me!” To which Selznick coolly replied, “I can’t imagine Rhett Butler chasing you for twelve years.”
Though Hepburn possessed the signature brazen impertinence signature of Scarlett, she and her famous counterparts lacked the demureness and naivety of the young Southern belle. Selznick instead turned to the public—not for their opinions, but for their actresses. He sent his team on a series of Southern Talent Searches, touring the South, from Maryland to Georgia, on the hunt for a true, Southern Scarlett. The search focused on women’s colleges and universities with theater departments, hoping to unearth youthful, raw talent. Another advantage to finding an unknown actress was financial: not only would the production team need to pay her less, she would also be under contract with Selznick International Pictures when she inevitably became a famous film icon. Alas, Selznick’s great Southern Talent Searches revealed some talent, enough to fill the minor roles and dance hall scenes of the movie, but his Scarlett still slipped from his grasp.
Vivien Leigh, a young British actress, followed Selznick’s quest from across the sea. Leigh reached out to her publicist, the London representative of Myron Selznick’s talent agency (Myron was David’s brother) regarding her possible suggestion for the role. Myron mentioned Leigh to his brother; after watching Leigh in action in some of her recent films, Selznick immediately dubbed her “too British” and morosely took up the torch once more. Soon thereafter, Leigh left London for the States, purportedly to follow her beau, Laurence Olivier, but also with the intention of meeting Selznick and landing the much-sought-after role of Scarlett O’Hara.
In December of 1938, Selznick was at the end of his tether; two years of searching had failed to produce Scarlett and he couldn’t postpone production any longer. Jaded and disenchanted with the search for his Scarlett, Selznick put aside his burden and began shooting on December 10, 1938. This first scene to be filmed, the epochal “Burning of Atlanta,” was apocalyptic and massive but, notably, did not require the presence of Scarlett. Deeply involved in the production of the pivotal scene, Selznick was distracted by the appearance of his brother with a breathtakingly beautiful woman. According to lore, Vivien Leigh stepped through the flaming set and extended her delicate hand toward Selznick, her coat flipping open in the breeze to reveal a svelte waist, and softly lulled, “Good evening, Mr. Selznick.” He had finally found his Scarlett—or rather, she had found him.
But the job was far from over. Though Selznick knew almost immediately that Vivien Leigh was Scarlett O’Hara, writing to his wife and describing her as the “Scarlett dark horse,” Selznick and his team still had to convince the impassioned public. His publicity department quickly set to work, distributing her biography to national newspapers and magazines and spreading paraphernalia touting her as the best and only choice for Scarlett. They took objections in stride; for example, when defectors cited her Britishness as an integral flaw, they were quick to point out that Leigh’s ancestry—Irish and French—was in fact exactly the same as Scarlett O’Hara’s. After much convincing, the public finally accepted Leigh.
Selznick’s casting proved perfect. At the Twelfth Annual Academy Awards, a glowing Vivien Leigh took home the award for Best Actress for her role as the eponymous Scarlett O’Hara. The role launched her career in America and remained her most influential and renowned performance throughout her life. Today it’s difficult to imagine Scarlett O’Hara as anyone but Vivien Leigh—but arriving at that conclusion was one of the most difficult decisions of Selznick’s life. Perhaps, through that long, arduous, two-year search when the future looked bleak, Selznick would restore his strength with the words of Scarlett herself: “After all, tomorrow is another day!”
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