Premieres Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Following its premiere, Gone with the Wind, independently produced by David O. Selznick, received a then-record ten Academy Awards and became the biggest blockbuster in motion-picture history to that time.

Summary of Event

In 1935, David O. Selznick left Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), the premiere Hollywood studio of the time, to form Selznick International Pictures. Selznick International Pictures As an independent producer, Selznick made films that were in keeping with his preference for adaptations of classical novels, often with central roles for women. Early in 1936, at the urging of his East Coast story editor Kay Brown, Brown, Kay Selznick read a synopsis of an as-yet-unpublished Civil War melodrama by Margaret Mitchell. Worried about the box-office failure of other Civil War stories and the length of the novel, Selznick initially refused to pay the asking price of sixty-five thousand dollars for the book’s film rights. Just a week after the book’s official publication in July, 1936, Selznick reconsidered and made an offer of fifty thousand dollars, which was accepted. The novel immediately became a runaway best seller, and the Gone with the Wind phenomenon began. [kw]Gone with the Wind Premieres (Dec. 15, 1939) Gone with the Wind (film) Motion pictures;Gone with the Wind [g]United States;Dec. 15, 1939: Gone with the Wind Premieres[10110] [c]Motion pictures;Dec. 15, 1939: Gone with the Wind Premieres[10110] [c]Entertainment;Dec. 15, 1939: Gone with the Wind Premieres[10110] Selznick, David O. Mitchell, Margaret Leigh, Vivien Gable, Clark De Havilland, Olivia Howard, Leslie McDaniel, Hattie Fleming, Victor Menzies, William Cameron

Selznick was obsessive about his role in film production. No detail was too small for his involvement, and no price was too high to achieve the quality he sought. These facts are partially responsible for the cost and length of the production of Gone with the Wind. In addition, Selznick had a contract with United Artists to distribute the films he produced through 1938. Popular opinion, however, demanded that Clark Gable, who was under contract to MGM, play the role of Rhett Butler. Louis B. Mayer, Mayer, Louis B. the head of MGM, agreed to lend Gable and to provide one-half of the film’s financing (estimated then at $2.5 million) in return for world distribution rights and half the total profits. Because he had other films then in various stages of production and because of his typically extravagant methods, Selznick did not have enough capital to make Gone with the Wind on his own. In order to get Gable and financial backing, Selznick eventually accepted Mayer’s offer.

In early 1937, Selznick commissioned Sidney Howard, Howard, Sidney a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, to write the screenplay. In six weeks, Howard completed a four-hundred-page script that translated into six hours of screen time. To get the script to a more manageable length, Selznick and Howard worked on three subsequent drafts in early 1938. Still not satisfied with the script, Selznick put it aside while he returned to the unresolved casting problems.

During this time, as a means of focusing public attention on Gone with the Wind while stalling production until the contract with United Artists expired, Selznick’s publicity director, Russell Birdwell, Birdwell, Russell orchestrated a nationwide “search for Scarlett,” seeking an actress to play Scarlett O’Hara. Selznick was never convinced that an inexperienced or unknown actress should play the central character, who would be on screen in nearly every shot of the film, but he relished the publicity that the search provided. He considered a number of established Hollywood stars for the role of Scarlett, including Bette Davis, Miriam Hopkins, Paulette Goddard, Norma Shearer, Jean Arthur, Joan Bennett, and Katharine Hepburn, but none was felt to be quite right. Selznick signed with MGM for the use of Gable in August, 1938, and production was scheduled to begin in December, 1938, even though there was still no finished script and the roles of Scarlett and of many of the supporting characters had not yet been cast. The “burning of Atlanta,” in which old movie sets on Selznick International’s backlot were set ablaze while doubles for Rhett and Scarlett fled, initiated the production of the film.

Rewrites on the script continued and employed a number of writers, including Jo Swerling, Oliver H. P. Garrett, Charles MacArthur, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ben Hecht. Selznick insisted that the writers use only dialogue from the novel and respect the narrative structure of the original as closely as possible. None of the writers who followed Howard was allowed to work without Selznick’s constant interference, and script revisions continued throughout the film’s production.

Casting decisions for principal roles were finally announced on January 13, 1939. Olivia de Havilland landed the role of Melanie, which she had actively pursued, and Leslie Howard reluctantly consented to play Ashley as part of a deal that allowed him to produce his next film. Vivien Leigh was chosen to play Scarlett, and although she had been a serious contender for several months, Selznick preferred to have her arrival in Hollywood seem the result of happenstance rather than deliberate planning in order to avoid the wrath of rejected actresses.

On January 26, 1939, production of Gone with the Wind began in earnest, with George Cukor Cukor, George as director. After only a few weeks of filming, Cukor left the production, in part because of his refusal to comply with Selznick’s demand for approval of every camera setup. In addition, Cukor was widely known as a “woman’s director,” and Clark Gable felt that his role was being diminished at the expense of the female characters. Victor Fleming, with whom Gable felt comfortable, was chosen to replace Cukor.

The removal of Cukor set a tone of upheaval that was to characterize the remainder of the production. Selznick demonstrated that, with the exception of the stars, all personnel were expendable parts and that he was the dominant creative force of the production. At least five different directors, three cinematographers, and countless writers were involved in the production of Gone with the Wind—a fact that had surprisingly little effect on the film’s look, as it was Selznick, and to a lesser extent production designer William Cameron Menzies, whose vision shaped the film.

Filming officially ended on June 27, 1939, although work on retakes and process shots continued. Postproduction was only slightly less chaotic than the other stages of the film’s creation, but Selznick showed a four-hour version to MGM executives in late August and received an enthusiastic response. The completion of the music track, intertitles, additional editing, and the largest main title ever designed resulted in a final version running three hours and forty minutes. Two sneak previews in September received overwhelmingly positive response, although some criticism was leveled at the amount of kissing in the film and at Rhett’s final line, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” The use of any profanity, and specifically the word “damn,” was forbidden by the Motion Picture Production Code Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 Hays Code of 1930. Selznick eventually received permission to use the word, although he was fined five thousand dollars for violating the code.

Gone with the Wind premiered in Atlanta on December 15, 1939, and the occasion delivered all the glamour and spectacle of Hollywood during its heyday. Huge crowds thronged the spotlit theater, women fainted when Clark Gable arrived, and many of the country’s most wealthy and powerful people attended. The film went on to garner ten Academy Awards, Academy Awards;Gone with the Wind including the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, for outstanding achievement in motion-picture production, for Selznick. The first Oscar awarded to an African American performer went to Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy and who would remain the only black to win an Oscar for another twenty-four years.


The total production cost of Gone with the Wind, including prints and publicity, ran to $4.25 million, more than twice the average cost for a prestige picture of the time. The length of the film and the inclusion of an intermission were extremely rare practices. Gone with the Wind’s production eventually utilized 59 leading and supporting cast members, 2,400 extras, 1,100 horses, 375 pigs, mules, oxen, cows, dogs, and other animals, 450 vehicles, including wagons, ambulances, and gun caissons, 90 sets built using 1 million feet of lumber, 5,500 wardrobe items, and 449,512 feet of film shot in Technicolor, a relatively new process at the time. All of these elements added up to the biggest film spectacle ever produced, one that many industry insiders predicted would fail to return a profit.

The popularity and profitability of Gone with the Wind signaled both the height and the beginning of the end of the Hollywood studio system. The year 1939 was a banner year for Hollywood, producing such films as Dark Victory, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, Wuthering Heights, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and profits increased through the war years. However, the Hollywood system of “vertical integration,” in which production, distribution, and exhibition were controlled by the major Hollywood studios, was under attack as a monopolistic practice. In 1948, a court decision put an end to block booking, blind bidding, price fixing, and other unfair business practices, and the major studios were ordered to divest themselves of their theater holdings. The decision spelled the beginning of the end for the studio-based production system.

As an independent producer, Selznick already worked outside the studio system, although he relied on the cooperation and financial support of the major studios to produce the top-quality “blockbuster” films that were his goal. The phenomenal success of Gone with the Wind marked the arrival of the independent producer as a dominant force in the industry, and Selznick served as a model for the production approach that eventually replaced the studio system in the new Hollywood. Selznick’s filmmaking method was not marked by the assembly-line efficiency and economy often equated with the studio system but was both extravagant and painstaking. He believed that the public would pay increased ticket prices to see high-quality film spectaculars, and the reception of Gone with the Wind proved him correct.

The marketing strategy employed for the release of Gone with the Wind became a model for later blockbuster films. Exhibitors charged seventy cents at the door, two to three times the going rate for a movie ticket. Loew’s Incorporated, MGM’s parent company, charged exhibitors 70 percent of the box-office revenues, twice the usual fee for a top feature, which Loew’s then split with Selznick. Initially, the film opened only in large cities in premiere movie theaters; subsequently (nearly two years later, in some cases), it was released to second-run theaters. Gone with the Wind was reissued four times by 1948 and continued to reap profits with each new release.

In 1940, Selznick International Pictures had only three films in release, but the company netted $10 million in profits that year. Only MGM, with profits of $8.7 million, was even close, and half its profits came from its distribution of Gone with the Wind. The film became the biggest blockbuster in movie history and was not dislodged from its number one position until 1965 and The Sound of Music. Gone with the Wind (film) Motion pictures;Gone with the Wind

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Behlmer, Rudy, ed. Memo from David O. Selznick: The Creation of “Gone with the Wind” and Other Motion-Picture Classics, as Revealed in the Producer’s Private Letters, Telegrams, Memorandums, and Autobiographical Remarks. Introduction by Roger Ebert. Massive compendium of Selznick’s personal papers and official and unofficial correspondence, revealing much about his contributions to his films and his manner in collaborating with and managing others. Filmography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bridges, Herb, and Terryl C. Boodman.“Gone with the Wind”: The Definitive Illustrated History of the Book, the Movie, and the Legend. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989. Published to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the film. Contains hundreds of stills, many in color. Brief history of the film, from preproduction to premiere. No index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cameron, Judy, and Paul J. Christman. The Art of “Gone with the Wind”: The Making of a Legend. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1989. Introduction by Daniel Mayer Selznick. Another oversized anniversary edition, with full-page photos and more production information than the Bridges book. Includes limited index, original memos, and telegrams related to the film’s production.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Flamini, Roland. Scarlett, Rhett, and a Cast of Thousands. New York: Macmillan, 1975. Numerous photos from the collection of the author and others. Includes detailed history of the film’s production and a good index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lambert, Gavin. GWTW: The Making of “Gone with the Wind.” Boston: Little, Brown, 1973. The author knew Vivien Leigh, George Cukor, and David O. Selznick. Provides interesting information regarding the psychological disposition of the key people involved. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schatz, Thomas. The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era. New York: Pantheon Books, 1988. Explores the Hollywood studio system with close analysis of representative companies, including Selznick International Pictures. Provides insightful historical context for production of Gone with the Wind. Includes notes on sources and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taylor, Helen. Circling Dixie: Contemporary Southern Culture Through a Transatlantic Lens. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2001. This study of the transatlantic reception of representations of the American South includes a chapter devoted to sequels and revisions of Gone with the Wind, attesting to the lasting popularity and influence of the work on both sides of the Atlantic. Bibliographic references and index.

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Categories: History