A MAKING OF…

Steven Wilson’s The Making of Gone With the Wind comes out of the Harry Ransom Center and is published by the University of Texas Press with an intelligent foreward by the always succinctly articulate Robert Osborne.  BUT it is really a picture book of photographs of Vivien Leigh.  That’s more than all right with this fan and this blog.

And the stills from the set are pictures of a working actress, a hard-working Vivien Leigh who is almost never off-screen in a 242-minute production that was six months in the shooting;  who then did countless later retakes when everyone else involved had wrapped and gone on to other work.  (Pages 210-211 reproduce a Vivien Leigh work chart evidencing her as appearing in almost every scene and reporting to the set almost every day.)  Vivien Leigh finished Gone With the Wind exhausted; and while she would still do outstanding work on stage and screen, she would be almost always in delicate health and die at 55.

Having spent my life collecting pictures of Vivien Leigh, my first reaction to this book was astonishment at how many of these photographs I had never seen.  Stills from the GWTW set are the most common and most easily seen pictures of Vivien Leigh.  But this volume contains 62 pictures of her, 32 of which are new to me.  Where have all these photographs been all my life?  Apparently in safe keeping for us at the Harry Ransom Center on the University of Texas campus.  They are part of a host of material comprising the archives of David Selznick and those of Jock Whitney, his business partner.  This handsome volume originated in an exhibit of the materials at the Center in 2014.

One of the pictures , to my knowledge never before seen: A more than full-page photograph, facing and lapping over onto the one-page “Introduction,” presents a weary Vivien Leigh.  She is on set for the hospital scene in which we see her as a working nurse, assisting Dr. Meade whose operating room she will flee as she escapes from the hospital.  There is a pause in shooting, and she sits  on an empty bed next to a bed which holds a soldier, covering his face with a palmetto fan.  The one tall photographer’s light we can see is lit and bright.  Out- of- focus crew members are visible in the background.  One fuzzy  figure looks like Lyle Wheeler, but he seems an unlikely presence on the set at this point.

Vivien Leigh wears the print skirt and the buttoned beige top.  Her face has lost the slight roundness of all the years of her youth and the vestiges of which she still showed when beginning the punishing Gone With the Wind shoot.  The face now has the chiseled structure it will retain for fifteen years.  Mingling with the fatigue of her countenance are a skepticism and a gentle resentment as she looks to her right at someone or something we cannot see.  It is a candid photo of an actress at work, in tacky clothes, and she is gorgeous.

There are many other unusual shots.  There is a picture of her, with Clark Gable and Olivia de Havilland being given a tour of the Civil War cyclorama in Atlanta at the time of the film’s premiere there.  But back to the set,   there is a picture of her  informally chatting with photographer Ernest Haller before a take of the scene in which Scarlett tells Rhett she wants no more children.   Of especial interest in the book are the pictures of Vivien Leigh with director Victor Fleming.  Most photographs I have seen of the two on the set reveal the tension between them to the point that it seems to jump off the page.  (Note that in these photographs  —  the usual ones  —  Gable stands always at a gentlemanly distance or turned away from the glaring twosome.)  But there is little of all this in the present collection of set stills.  Apparently there were days, or at least moments, when director and actress managed some civility.  There have long been stories of Fleming having slapped both Judy Garland and Ingrid Bergman.  He did not go so far with his Scarlett, but there is record of his ridiculing her nationality and her accent (her native one, not her Southern one).

But the text of this splendid volume of pictures offers some disappointments, starting with the “Introduction” which speaks of the effort “to bring Gone With the Wind to the big screen.”  I make a minor point here, but this unfortunate statement at the very start of the book is a careless anachronism.  When Gone With the Wind was made,the standard silver screen in all theaters across the land and beyond was the only screen, Napoleon-like extravaganzas the rare exceptions.

We live in an era when “big screen” means made to be shown in a public theater, not made for television.  But there was a time when big screen referred to CinemaScope and allied barbarities, created to lure audiences from the home screen.  At the time many small theaters in many places made hasty, clumsy adjustments; and one learned not to go to revived classics in theaters that showed them on these makeshift screens in the wrong ratio, severing heads or cropping some other crucial part of the frame.

One group of idiot minds even cut  —  as in chopped up  — the original negative of Gone With the Wind and invited the public to see it,  “greater than ever on the wide screen.”

A writer in Sight and Sound, discussing early CinemaScope, wrote that moviemakers had chosen a shape inimical to the shape of the subject of almost all films:  humans.  The Fritz Lang character in Godard’s Le Mepris remarks that CinemaScope is for snakes and funerals.

And Gone With the Wind, which filmgoers  —  perhaps I should say movielovers  —  tend to remember as spectacular, was shot for that conventional thirties’ screen; and what sweep and grandeur it may have is the result of the talents of photographer, production designer, director and  —  definitely in this instance  —  producer.  The introduction to this handsome book notwithstanding, no one brought Gone With the Wind to the big screen.

The same “Introduction” describes Gone With the Wind as “breathtaking spectacle.”  This is not true either, though that is the feeling most viewers come away with.  The film is made up almost entirely of intimate scenes between two people: Scarlett and Ashley (five knockout scenes); Scarlett and Rhett; Melanie and Belle Watling; Melanie and Mammy.  The only moments to qualify as spectacle are the boom shot of the wounded in the Atlanta railroad yards and the flight from Atlanta through the fire at the same yards.  (For the idea of Gone With the Wind as remembered by the viewer compared with the de facto film, I am indebted to William Bayer:  The Great Movies, Grosset & Dunlap, 1973.)

Part of that giant feel of Gone With the Wind comes from the pictorial quality and the mood set by the opening credits  —  the original opening in the original ratio  —   as the title sweeps from right to left across the screen to the pounding of Max Steiner’s big romantic theme.  This is David O. Selznick’s film in love with itself.  It proclaims its bigness to us in those opening frames of credits.

Returning to textual disappointments, there is a caption on page 77 referring to “the Burning of Atlanta” set.  The repetition of this longstanding error is here solidified by even using that capital B.  The historical burning of the city took place two months after the incident in the movie’s (and the book’s) plot.  Scarlett and Rhett, with Melanie and her baby and Prissy, escape through a fire set by Confederates to destroy supplies and weapons in order to keep them out of Union hands.  Rhett even explains this to Scarlett in a line of dialogue.  The mistake of identifying the movie’s fire with Sherman’s torching of the city  is repeated in every book I know treating the filming of Gone With the Wind and is repeated throughout this book which even titles one of its sections, “The Burning of Atlanta.”

There are minor errors that I must quibble about.  The caption for the full-page still on page 176 has Vivien Leigh waiting for the scene in which she is caught in the panic of Atlanta’s streets after fleeing the hospital.  But in the picture she is waiting, as her costume indicates, for her walk through the wounded lining the railroad yards.

One of the volume’s principal interests is calendar:  who shot what, when (specific dates).  On page 178 the text mentions Menzies shooting the wreath on the door after the death of Frank Kennedy.  The only wreath on a door is that on the Butler house after the death of Bonnie.  There is a violet blue mourning ribbon on the door for Kennedy, momentarily visible when Rhett opens the door to leave after he has proposed to Scarlett, and there are apparent remains of a wreath on the floor of the house.

I am being petty, but these mistakes come as surprises given the collection and center and press from which the book arises.  But these errors pale in the face of the book’s misquotation of an iconic line from the film.  Not once but twice (p. 183 and p. 190) the text reports Scarlett as saying, “I’ll never go hungry again,” instead of “I’ll never be hungry again.”  It is jarring, and confidence-shaking.

But this is a beautiful volume.  Its calendars and worksheets and the space devoted to some not-often-covered behind-the-sceners make a contribution to Gone With the Wind scholarship and lore.  And this blog is happy to celebrate 62 pictures of Vivien Leigh, with two of them handsomely enlarged and repeated on the front and back jackets.  The physical volume is tangible evidence that Gone With the Wind IS Vivien Leigh.

Robert Osborne on Gone With the Wind:  “As wonderful as the film is with all those wonderful performances, without Vivien Leigh in the lead…She is the perfect one to play Scarlett O’Hara.  Vivien Leigh gives the role and the movie this timeliness.”  NOTE:  This is quoted in a USA Today article by Bryan Alexander.  Was he quoting a live conversation, an interview?  Does that explain the unfinished phrase of the first sentence?  And did the expressive and highly accurate Mr. Osborne say, or mean, timelessness?

Bryan Alexander himself writes:  “The film featured two of the biggest stars of the day:  Gable and Leslie Howard.  But it was newcomer Brit actress Leigh who commanded the movie…Leigh dazzled in a role that featured her in [al]most every scene.”  (USA Today, 9/21/14.)