Casting for the film proved to be a difficult task and one that was closely followed by the public. Within weeks of Selznick International Pictures purchasing the rights to Gone With The Wind, the company received an influx of letters from the public expressing opinions on casting. In response, the company began weekly fan mail reports such as this sample from February 28, 1938. A letter written by Selznick to a gossip columnist explains the company’s casting process. In a letter written to Russell Birdwell, the film’s publicity director, Selznick explains his decision to find a new talent for the role of Scarlett rather than hire an established actor.
Initially, he thought that he should hire an established star for the role of Scarlett. After a strong public response about who would suit the part and the realization that hiring an unknown actress could benefit Selznick financially, he decided to look for a new star for the part of Scarlett. In doing so, he could hire someone relatively inexpensively and place her under contract so that she would be committed to his studio when she became a star. He had used this same casting process with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938) and liked the rags to riches story of it.
In November 1936, Katherine Brown set out on a journey from Maryland to Georgia to find the unknown woman that could play Scarlett. Her itinerary included many women’s colleges and universities with theater departments. In a memo to Selznick, Brown notes some of the obstacles of this casting trip, including the large scope of the search, the limited timeframe, and the recurring evidence that looks are not equivalent to talent. That memo, entitled “Invasion of the South”, was accompanied by a map indicating her planned Virginia stops. Selznick and his company did not promote this trip as a contest to avoid potential issues if they did not cast the same woman that the public selected.
Twelve days into her “Southern Talent Search,” Brown reported the successes and challenges she encountered in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., as well as an account of her frustrations. She complained that when her visits were publicly announced, they attracted curious locals but no substantial talent. College drama departments and Little Theaters were the most productive stops on her search. Alicia Rhett was discovered during this search and was later cast for the role of India Wilkes. Two other women were identified for screen tests during the first “Southern Talent Search.”
When first “Southern Talent Search” did not produce the talent that the studio had hoped for, George Cukor, the film’s original director, led a second trip, continuing the search. On this trip, Brown suggested to Selznick that prospects who were attractive but lacked significant talent could fill small roles in the barbeque scene. Selznick wrote Brown in support of this idea. Cukor visited Margaret Mitchell, and conducted historical research during the talent scout, as expressed in a memo to Selznick. After Cukor returned home, the search for Scarlett continued in a quieter, less public manner. Searches continued in the south while Anton Bundsmann, Cukor, and Brown held auditions in New York City and Maxwell Arnow and Charles Richards, the Director of Casting, searched through stock players in Los Angeles. Arnow wrote a report of the second “Southern Talent Search,” outlining all the schools and theaters visited on the trip, along with the most impressive talent discovered, as well as report on scouting in Los Angeles through various production companies, radio stations, theaters, and drama schools. Anton Bundsmann reported on Cukor’s activity in New York City.
After a year and a half of searching, Selznick sent a statement of frustration to Birdwell. In October 1938, during Cukor and Brown’s second trip South, Selznick expressed a fear of failure in casting a new girl for the role of Scarlett and began to entertain the idea of hiring a lesser-known but experienced star. One month later, Selznick’s tone turned to defeat in a memo to his secretary just weeks before he met and hired Vivien Leigh to play Scarlett.
Selznick’s office prepared a chronology of major events in the casting process in November 1938, more than two years after he began his search for the perfect actress to play the most coveted role in the history of film.
1. Louise Platt
Louise Platt was the first actress to test for the role of Scarlett O’Hara. Though she did not get the part, she was cast in another Selznick production, Stagecoach, the same year. Three years later, she returned to New York to continue the Broadway career she had established before she entered films.
2. Tallulah Bankhead
The legendary actress Tallulah Bankhead was known primarily for her work on the stage. For more than a year she was the only established actress to have tested for the part of Scarlett. Selznick thought she would make a fine Scarlett but was afraid she could not be made to look young enough in the first part of the film.
3. Elizabeth Whitney
4. Linda Watkins
Linda Watkins appeared on Broadway at an early age and established a successful stage career in New York. In Hollywood, she enjoyed only modest success, despite being recognized for her acting ability and beauty. By the time of the Scarlett search, she had returned to New York to pursue her stage career.
5. Adele Longmire
7. Edythe Marrener (later, Susan Hayward)
Edythe Marrener was modeling hats in New York when Selznick’s wife, Irene, discovered her. Although she was not given the role of Scarlett, Selznick gave her a short-term contract. When the contract expired, she changed her name to Susan Hayward and signed with Warner Brothers.
8. Linda Lee
9. Brenda Marshall (aka Ardis Ankerson)
10. Paulette Goddard
Paulette Goddard was an outspoken actress who made several public claims that she had been cast as Scarlett. Although her presumptuousness angered Selznick and his staff, she was seriously considered for the role. In the attached memo, Selznick expresses his interest and hesitations in casting Goddard.
11. Ellen Drew (aka Terry Ray)
12. Anita Louise
Anita Louise started as a child actor in silent films and gracefully made the transition to adult roles. She was a favorite in period and costume dramas such as Madame DuBarry (1934), Marie Antoinette (1938), Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), and Anthony Adverse (1936). In later years, Louise moved to television in the series My Friend Flicka (1956–1957) and many others.
13. Carole Lombard
Carole Lombard, who was married to Clark Gable, introduced Selznick to Dallas native Margaret Tallichet. Although Tallichet was not cast as Scarlett, she played a small part in Selznick’s A Star is Born (1937).
14. Frances Dee
Frances Dee began as an extra in Hollywood, but by 1930 she was being cast in major roles in such films as Little Women (1933), Of Human Bondage (1934), Becky Sharp (1935), Wells Fargo (1937), and I Walked With A Zombie (1943). At the time of the Scarlett search she was married to actor Joel McCrea.
15. Nancy Coleman
16. Marcella Martin
Marcella Martin was discovered during the final “Southern Talent Search” in Shreveport, Louisiana. She tested for Scarlett but was instead cast as Cathleen Calvert in the barbeque scene.
17. Austine McDonnel
18. Lana Turner
Lana Turner was just 18 years old at the time of her screen test for the role of Scarlett. She was an MGM stock player.
19. Diana Barrymore
20. Jean Arthur
Jean Arthur started in films during the silent era, but her husky voice, versatility, and adeptness at comedy made her a top box office draw by 1936. She wanted the part of Scarlett very badly and was tested three times. Selznick considered her one of the top contenders. After Vivien Leigh was cast, Arthur got hold of her screen tests and, as the memo below illustrates, destroyed one of them.
21. Joan Bennett
Joan Bennett, sister of actresses Barbara and Constance Bennett, quickly rose to Hollywood stardom beginning in 1929 with the film Bulldog Drummond. Bennett was originally a blonde but had changed her hair color a year before her Gone With The Wind test for another film role. Her new look proved popular with audiences.
22. Vivien Leigh
On December 10, 1938, shooting began on Gone With The Wind with the Burning of Atlanta scene, although no one had been cast to play the role of Scarlett. That night, David Selznick’s brother, Myron, came onto the set escorted by a strikingly beautiful and mysterious woman.
That woman was Vivien Leigh and her entrance was no accident. She had come to Hollywood from England ostensibly to be with Laurence Olivier, one of Myron’s clients, who she would marry a year and a half later. She had also come to Hollywood to pursue the part of Scarlett. Although both Selznicks might have heard about Leigh, David O. Selznick had never met her.
Selznick began serious consideration of Leigh the following Monday morning. Call sheets record that her screen tests were made on December 21 and 22. She signed her contract on January 16, 1939, and principal photography began on January 26.
The casting choice was controversial. In response to widespread protests that someone other than a Southern woman had been chosen, Selznick’s publicity department, headed by Russell Birdwell, went to work to persuade the public that Leigh was right for the part. He wrote numerous letters to gossip columnists and crafted a biography of Vivien Leigh distributed to magazines and newspapers in justification of the casting decision.