As is Gone with the Wind folklore, producer David Selznick’s search for the perfect Scarlett O’Hara reached far and wide, cost thousands of dollars and took years. Every female star auditioned for the part, regardless of how qualified she was. People on the street debated on who should play her. Southern debutantes took acting lessons and bought train tickets to Hollywood. It caused a nationwide frenzy.
Then appeared the dark horse: British Vivien Leigh–whose casting surprised some, and rattled others. Civil War descendants decried her casting in letters to newspapers, stating, “The selection of Vivien Leigh is a direct affront to the men who wore gray and an outrage to the memory of the heroes of 1776 who fought to free his land of British domination.” Yikes.
Clark, worried over the daunting role of Rhett Butler, expressed concern at first also:
I’ll be truthful about it… I’ll confess that the first time I saw her I doubted that Vivien could really play Scarlett. That reaction shows I’m no casting director. But, accustomed to the more abandoned and superficial personalities of Hollywood girls, Vivien seemed too demure to me, at that first meeting, for the vivid, relentless Scarlett.
David Selznick introduced us to each other at a dinner party at his home. Vivien was wearing a very plain, tailored dress. She’s much tinier in real life than she appears on the screen, and since she uses little make-up she has a very young, unsophisticated air. Besides, she had all the fires banked that evening and that Olivier guy was her escort.
Now I know I should have stopped to consider all that. But having seen Vivien only in “A Yank at Oxford”, in which she didn’t have a lot to do, I just looked at her that first evening at David’s and wondered if that keen-minded producer had gone haywire when he signed her.
I knew he hadn’t the first day Vivien and I got on a set together.
Whatever outrage there was seemed to fade as filming began, as most were just excited the film was finally underway. Soon after filming began, Vivien was described as: “a small, slim, beauteous girl with a personality like a slumbering volcano, which many erupt at any moment, and an English accent that sounds as if it came right out of Oxford. Her Southern accent, ma’am? She can turn that melting accent–leared from Susan Myrick, the Emily Post of the South–on and off like a faucet.”
Although it was a highly coveted role and one she had sincerely wanted, there was a lot of strain for Vivien on the set. Scarlett being in virtually every scene, Vivien worked for 125 days–in contrast to Clark’s 21–and had to work with constant script revisions and three directors. When asked if she changed her characterization of Scarlett for each director, Vivien had this to say:
I didn’t change my characterization. I just had to get used to working with different directors, but my characterization is my characterization, and I wouldn’t change it for anyone…I admired [Scarlett] tremendously, but at the same time I was furious with her for being so hard and selfish, and when Rhett Butler left her, I felt she had gotten exactly what she deserved. If her mother had lived or if she had allowed herself to come under the influence of Rhett Butler, she might have been a different girl. But because Rhett Butler was so much like her–though in a much nicer way–she didn’t realize how right he was for her, but she was interested in Ashley, who was completely wrong for her.
As filming dragged on and on, the press reported rumors on both side of the spectrum: that the strain of filming was getting to the two principal actors and that there was quite a feud between Clark and Vivien, or that the two were romantically involved. Not so, says Rhett and Scarlett.
Hollywood goes just as much to extremes when it comes to male and female stars cast together as it does on any other subject. Get a man and a woman in a picture together and you are immediately reported as either fighting or romancing. The fact that in eighty per cent of your pictures you have no emotion about the beautiful creature opposite you, other than an interest in her acting ability, is never printed. Yet that’s the truth more often than not.
As for any possibility of Vivien Leigh’s falling in love with me I knew that was out from our first glance. For never have I seen any girl more completely in love than that one is—with Laurence Olivier. It’s as visible as a Neon sign that she can’t think or talk of or dream about anything or anyone else on earth—except when she’s on the set. When she’s on the set, she’s what a good actress should be. She’s all business.
As for my falling in love with her, I’m sure that could have been plenty pleasant except that, added to her lack of interest in me, I didn’t have any heart to give away, either. Mine was staked out to that Lombard girl who is mighty beautiful and brainy.
Vivien dismissed any notion of a feud, saying:
Who could quarrel with Clark Gable? We got on well. Whenever anyone on the set was tired or depressed, it was Gable who cheered that person up. Then the newspapers began printing the story that Gable and I were not getting on. This was so ridiculous it served only as a joke. From the time on the standard greeting between Clark and myself became, ‘How are you not getting on today?’
There’s been much published about Vivien hating to kiss Clark because of his bad breath. I am sure thanks to his full set of dentures, love of onions and three-pack-a-day smoking habit, his breath wasn’t always perfect, but it didn’t seem to cause a major rift. And the countless leading ladies that preceded Vivien didn’t complain!
So, no, Vivien was not flung into the heap of Clark’s leading ladies that were leading on AND off screen. And although they did not appear to be close friends for the years following, Vivien send a sympathy note to Clark’s widow Kay at his death and also sent a silver rattle at the birth of his son.
The “ghost” of Scarlett followed Vivien the rest of her life. All of her film performances were compared to that iconic role and even when she died nearly thirty years later, some headlines proclaimed “Scarlett O’Hara Dead!”
When comparing herself to Scarlett, Vivien mused:
I hope I have one thing that Scarlett never had–a sense of humor. I want some joy out of life. She never knew what joy was, except when she was very young.
And she had one thing that I hope I never have–selfish, blind egotism. I understand that that’s something people sometimes get in Hollywood. I’m watching out for it.
Scarlett was a fascinating person, no matter what she did. But she was never a great person. She was too petty, too self-centered. She could never consider another person, for that person’s sake. She promised Ashley that she would look out for Melanie. But she didn’t make that promise for Melanie’s good. She made it as part of her scheme to win back Ashley’s love.
In many ways, she wasn’t a very admirable person. But one thing about her was admirable–her courage. She had more than I’ll ever have.
I am not so sure of that, Miss Leigh…
This post is part of the Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier Appreciation Blogathan. Visit vivandlarry.com to see all the posts!