Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling civil war novel Gone With The Wind hit the bookstores in 1936. Hollywood producer David O. Selznick bought the movie rights for $50,000, and immediately began to put together a believable cast for the Gone With The Wind movie.
The movie’s cast had to be believable. After all, it was a period piece and the actors had to convince the audience they were from the Civil War-era South.
Handsome leading man Clark Gable had the role of Rhett Butler from the start. Ever since his Academy Award Oscar for Best Actor in 1934’s It Happened One Night, almost any Clark Gable movie was guaranteed to be a big success.
Actress Olivia de Havilland was signed for the important role of Melanie, but the search for the perfect Scarlett O’Hara, the book’s central character, would last for over two years. The Gone With The Wind book was one of the most successful novels ever published, and while Selznick had decided to take some liberties with telling the story on the big screen, he knew for the movie to be a success, he must choose the right actress.
Instinctively, he knew the success or failure of the picture would depend upon a believable Scarlett O’Hara.
Before the search finally came to an end, over 100 actresses would audition or be considered for the coveted role. Here are some of the better-known names.
1. Bette Davis: America’s Choice to Play Scarlett O’Hara
One of the favorites was actress Bette Davis who’d recently filmed 1938’s Jezebel in which she played a precocious Southern belle. Davis won her second Academy Award for the movie and was now one of the most popular actresses in America. In the 1930s, Bette Davis movies were almost sure-bet winners with audiences.
Davis made no effort to hide the fact she desperately wanted the part. And adding to the pressure to hire her for the role was a nationwide radio poll that declared her the audience’s favorite to play Scarlett.
Still, Selznick wasn’t convinced she could pull it off, and turned down a deal with Warner Bros. that would “lend” Davis and actor Errol Flynn to Selznick and MGM, with Flynn playing Rhett Butler.
The setback didn’t hurt Davis’s career; she would go on to enjoy a lifetime of cinematic acclaim, and receive eight more Academy Award nominations (10 total) in the next five decades.
2. Jean Harlow: Never Got the Chance
Harlean Carpenter, better known as the 1930s super sex symbol Jean Harlow was an early consideration for the role of Scarlett.
The actress who claimed she never wore underwear, and always slept in the nude, had already starred with Clark Gable in six movies, including Red Dust and Saratoga, and their on-screen chemistry led to a passionate off-screen romance.
Harlow was, in the 1930s, what Marilyn Monroe was in the 1950s: a bonafide sex symbol, and almost all Jean Harlow movies made M-G-M money.
Sadly, any chance she may have had at appearing in the Gone With The Wind movie was lost when she died in 1937 from acute nephritis.
3. Lucille Ball: She Who Laughs Last, Laughs Best
Before she became America’s favorite TV comedienne, young actress Lucille Ball enjoyed a reasonably successful career on the big screen. Like practically every other actress in Hollywood, she had read the Gone With The Wind book and imagined herself as the book’s heroine, Scarlett O’Hara.
In her late 20s, Ball had begun her career in the early 1930s with a handful of bit parts and uncredited roles. But by the middle of the decade she began landing better roles and began to move up the career-success ladder, albeit in mostly “B” movies.
None-the-less, after learning of Selznick’s search for his perfect Scarlett O’Hara, Ball went to Selznick’s office and waited for him. Having been drenched in the rain outside, she was kneeling in front of his office fireplace trying to dry her hair.
Selznick had her read her lines while she was still kneeling and then quickly dismissed her. Lucy never forgot the slight, and several decades later after achieving fame and fortune with her “I Love Lucy” TV series, she bought Selznick Productions and moved into his office.
She and her “I Love Lucy” cast members would all go on to become television icons and beloved the world over.
4. Katharine Hepburn: Was She Sexy Enough for the Scarlett Role?
In the Gone With The Wind book, Scarlett O’Hara had a strong and steely determination when it came down to facing life’s many challenges. Selznick needed an actress who could portray that on the big screen. And Kate Hepburn was just the answer.
“I am Scarlett O’Hara,” declared Katharine Hepburn when she approached David O. Selznick to audition for the role of Scarlett. Hepburn, now in her mid-30s, had already been nominated for two Best Actress Academy Awards, winning in 1934 for Morning Glory.
As the story goes, Selznick was none-the-less unimpressed and is reported to have responded to her audition by saying, “I can’t image Rhett Butler chasing you for twelve years.” Ouch!
Unfazed by the rejection, Hepburn filmed The Philadelphia Story with Jimmy Stewart, and it was one of 1940s biggest box office hits. The movie garnered the actress her third Oscar nomination, and in the following decades she will be nominated nine more times for a Best Actress Academy Award, and win three times, giving her a total of five Best Actress Oscars in twelve attempts.
Today, Hepburn is regarded as one of the most accomplished actresses in cinematic history, and many Katharine Hepburn movies show up regularly on late-night TV.
5. Joan Crawford: A Night With Selznick Didn’t Convince Him
Gone With The Wind movie producer David O. Selznick had recently worked with Clark Gable and Joan Crawford on the film, Dancing Lady, and noticed the chemistry between them. It was a chemistry that led to a long-time love affair between the two actors, and it’s been reported that when Gable’s then-wife actress Carole Lombard died in a 1942 airplane crash in Nevada, Gable was in bed with Crawford when the phone rang to give him the bad news.
Crawford was lobbying studio execs over at MGM to give her the role, and even went so far as to have Selznick stay the night in her Hollywood mansion so she could charm him into signing her.
But her plan didn’t work, and despite her close relationship with Clark Gable, Selznick wasn’t convinced she was right for the role and she was soon added to the list of Scarlett O’Hara wannabes.
In 1978, a year after the movie icon’s death, her adopted daughter, Christina Crawford, authored the book “Mommy Dearest,” in which she detailed incidents not only of child abuse, but also allegations of sexual misbehavior and bi-sexualism.
The public has largely shrugged off these claims, and today Joan Crawford movies are still popular, and often replayed on classic movie channels.
In November 1938, a young blonde beauty named Lana Turner showed up to audition for GWTW producer David O. Selznick.
Turner was an up-and-coming Warner Bros. sex symbol. The “Sweater Girl” had caught the public’s attention in Warner’s 1937 film, They Won’t Forget where she’d played a Southern beauty. Selznick had her audition in a scene where actor Melvyn Douglas played the part of Ashley Wilkes. However, Selznick was not impressed, saying her audition was “completely inadequate,” and that the fledgling star was simply “too young to have a grasp of the part.
A few years after her rejection, Turner appeared in the 1941 horror-film classic, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and five years later would star in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Her one Academy Award nomination for Best Actress came in 1958’s Peyton Place, but the Oscar went to Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve.
7. Carole Lombard: Even Boyfriend Clark Gable, the King of Hollywood, Couldn’t Land Carole Lombard the Part
Like nearly every other actress in Hollywood, any Carole Lombard biography will tell you she longed to play Scarlett O’Hara. But she decided to try a different tack from her fellow actresses: rather than approach producer David O. Selznick, she sent actor Clark Gable a copy of the Gone With The Wind book, writing on the inside, “Let’s do it! Carole.”
The pair had starred together in 1932’s No Man of Her Own, and they’d kept in touch. Gable took the gift as an invitation to hook up.
To make a long story short, Carole Lombard didn’t get the part, and didn’t even get asked to do a screen test. But in her eyes, she got the bigger prize: a torrid love affair soon ignited between the couple and in March 1939 the two were married in Kingman, Arizona.
Scarlett O’Hara could never tame Rhett Butler… but Carole Lombard did!
8. Paulette Goddard: Could Charlie Chaplin’s Child Bride Convince America She Was Scarlett?
By all accounts, the role of Scarlett O’Hara would go to a favorite actress of Selznick: Paulette Goddard, the wife of silent screen comedian Charles Chaplin.
Selznick had anguished over who should get the coveted role, and by most accounts, had narrowed his choices down to two actresses: Tallulah Bankhead and Paulette Goddard.
But Hollywood studios had started including “morality clauses” in their contracts which presented Selznick with a big problem: Bankhead was an active lesbian in Tinseltown circles, and Goddard couldn’t prove she was officially married to Chaplin. The pair claimed they were married aboard a ship on a cruise to the Far East in 1936, but had no documents to back them up. Any type of bad publicity could sink Selznick’s “ship,” and after agonizing over who to pick, Selznick finally made his Scarlett choice after filming on the movie had actually begun.
It would be a relatively unknown British actress by the name of Vivien Leigh. And her performance would be so convincing, she will win the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance.
After a two-year search, David O. Selznick finally found his Scarlett O’Hara with British actress Vivien Leigh, and the Gone With The Wind cast was complete.
(This original article was written by Tim Anderson and published on Reel Rundown)