Saturday, February 25, 2006

REAL "GONE WITH THE WIND" Part II

HAPPY DAYS ARE HERE AGAIN…

“I have covered many a spectacle in many a country – the Olympic Games in Berlin, The Grand Prix in Paris…but I have never seen a city give itself so completely to one thing as Atlanta has to the movie premiere of Gone With The Wind.”
- Henry McLemore of United Press


The Atlanta premiere for Gone With The Wind was among the most gloriously manic and resplendent events of 1939. After a strenuous shoot and even more frenzied editing process to get the film ready on time, Selznick had the Lowe’s Grand downtown theatre façade in Atlanta Georgia altered to resemble the front of Tara. Margaret Mitchell – who had remained conspicuously absent from any and all public events associated with the film – arrived to see the spectacle that Hollywood had made of her work. She was not to be disappointed with the final results.

Gable arrived on the arm of Carol Lombard, and after dedicating the evening to Margaret Mitchell and the people of Atlanta, was given the key to the city. Though it remains impossible to extract an exact total in the number of people who lined the sidewalks leading from the airport to the theater – Selznick’s estimation of ten million seems, at least in viewing the newsreels of the hour, not too far off.

When the house lights came up on Friday December 15, 1939 Gone With The Wind effectively ended its tenure as the most popular novel of all time and forever entered the echelons of screen immortality. Afterward, Margaret Mitchell had nothing but praise for Selznick and the film; “It was a tremendously emotional experience for me. It’s not up to me to speak of the grand things these actors have done…I want to commend Mr. Selznick’s courage and his obstinacy and his determination in just keeping his mouth shut until he got exactly the cast he wanted.”

George Cukor – who had considered his removal from the project months earlier a fatal rupture in both his private and professional relationship, wired Selznick that evening with “I don’t know whether to be common, course or humble…but I wish you all my love.” Following its New York premiere – yet another lavishly mounted engagement that had theater patrons and highbrow critics alike extolling the film’s praises, Gone With The Wind began its final ascent to the Oscars.

In all the film earned a staggering nine statuettes – a then record sum. Today, it is the anomalies that stand out more than the list of merits for achievement. Clark Gable did NOT win for Rhett Butler. That honor went to Robert Donat for Goodbye Mr. Chips. Hattie McDaniel beat out Olivia de Havilland in the Best Supporting Actress category to become the first black actress thusly honored.

Delivering one of two of the best speeches ever given at an awards ceremony, McDaniel concluded her oration with “I sincerely hope that I will always be a credit to my race and will always hold this as a beacon for whatever else I may achieve.” Vivien Leigh delivered the more dispassionate acceptance of the evening with, “I should like to dedicate this award, if I may, to that figure in whom all points of Gone With The Wind meet…David Selznick.”

TRAGEDIES BEHIND THE CURTAIN

In May of 1943, as Gone With The Wind was accumulating a stunning array of accolades that seemed both infinite and indeed well-deserved, an aircraft carrying film alumni Leslie Howard en route to England from Gibraltar was shot down by the Germans. Speculations over the cause of the tragedy have veered wildly between Axis misinformation - that quietly assumed Winston Churchill was aboard the plane, to leaked knowledge about the actor having been on a secret intelligence mission for the British government. One point on which all could agree – one of Britian’s finest actors had died needlessly. He was the film’s second casualty.

Even before principle photography had wrapped up, screenwriter Sidney Howard had been killed in a tractor accident on his farm; his posthumous Oscar was a bitter epitaph to one of the finest scenarists and most intelligently written screenplays of his generation.

But perhaps most tragic of these was the loss of Margaret Mitchell, run down by a drunk driver on a warm August evening in 1949. Mitchell, who emphatically refused to even entertain the idea of writing a sequel to Gone With The Wind, had decided to go to the movies with her husband, John. Parking across the street from the theater, they had barely made it half way across the tarmac when a man with twenty-three prior drunk driving convictions lost control of his vehicle and struck the author head on. She died six days later.

During the latter years of change and decline in the film industry, Gone With The Wind has remained a vital cornerstone – both artistically and financially – though by the late 1940s only MGM was reaping its profits. In dollars adjusted for inflation, Gone With The Wind remains the most financially successful motion picture of all time.

David Selznick – whose personal and professional failures had cost him his studio by the mid-1950’s died of a heart attack on June 22, 1965.

On October 26, 1952, the film’s alumni lost gifted character actress, Hattie McDaniel to breast cancer.

Clark Gable would die of a heart attack in 1960, some would say, over stress brought on by costar Marilyn Monroe while shooting The Misfits. Gable’s death came with the added tragedy that his wife was pregnant with their first child – a son, named John Clark Gable, born March 20, 1961.

At the end of the decade, on July 7, 1967 Vivien Leigh succumbed to tuberculosis while preparing a comeback on the London stage. She was by that time long divorced from the man that had brought her to America in the first place - Lawrence Olivier, and rather a reclusive and troubled figure, prone to breakdowns and mental illnesses in the years leading up to her death.

On December 22, 1995 Butterfly McQueen became the latest casualty, burned to death in a house fire.

But the list of regretful loses in this artistic community that so idyllically came together for the creation of an enduring masterpiece does at least end on a high note – decidedly, on a living one. Olivia de Havilland remains the only living person associated with the film. The sister of actress Joan Fontaine, born July 1, 1916 in Tokyo Japan, de Havilland currently resides in Paris and is as spirited as ever. Her unerring zeal for talking about classic Hollywood and her participation in Gone With The Wind in particular has made her a true treasure of Hollywood’s glory days.

She is, to put it mildly – a grand lady of the old school and one of the last great vestiges directly linked to the golden age of Hollywood. While the currency of life dictates that we shall indeed have to say farewell to her too one day, Gone With The Wind has assured us of her formidable craftsmanship unto the ages and a presence preserved on celluloid for as long the preservation of great art and artists persists.

@ Nick Zegarac 2006 (all rights reserved).