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Rhett, She Wrote

When Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin), he allegedly said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” Historians now believe the quote is apocryphal, but the impact of Stowe’s anti-slavery tale was real: it was the best-selling novel of the 19th century.

Like Stowe, Margaret Mitchell stood under five feet tall, yet looms large over American literature for writing her first (and only) book, Gone With the Wind. Mitchell spent 10 years working on the novel, hoping to sell at least 5,000 copies. It has sold 30 million to date. When GWTW was published in 1936, even Mitchell couldn’t have dreamed it would become the year’s runaway bestseller and win the Pulitzer Prize.

After producer David Selznick acquired the movie rights, fans demanded they would accept only one actor as Rhett Butler: smokin’ hot superstar Clark Gable. (Asked to name her choice for the role, Mitchell quipped, “Groucho Marx”). To stoke anticipation for the picture, Selznick launched a brilliant publicity blitz surrounding his two-year “Search for Scarlett.”

Meanwhile, Gable was the only person on earth who didn’t think he was right for Rhett. Sure, he’d recently been crowned Hollywood’s box-office “King,” but Gable knew he’d take the hit if the film flopped. Eventually, the 38-year-old performer caved after MGM sweetened the deal with a $50,000 bonus that helped Gable settle a costly divorce. During a two-day break from shooting GWTW, Gable married the love of his life, actress Carole Lombard.

Production of “Selznick’s Folly” became its own drama. Directors were hired, fired or quit. Budgets bloated. Civil rights leaders protested the book’s portrayal of slaves. A dozen writers (including F. Scott Fitzgerald) struggled to wrestle Mitchell’s 1,037-page tome into a filmable script. In a tragic footnote, the writer credited with the movie’s Oscar-winning screenplay died in a freak accident before GWTW was released.

As for Scarlett? Nearly 1,400 wannabes, including Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn, tested for the once-in-a-lifetime role. In the end, 25-year-old British beauty Vivien Leigh rocked a Southern accent to win the year’s Best Actress honors.

In my next post, I’ll share the story of the film’s gala world premiere in Atlanta. Sadly, just 10 years after that triumphant night, Mitchell was killed by a hit-and-run driver at the age of 48. Fortunately, her epic story and Gable’s indelible performance, will live forever on screen.

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