It’s no secret that Clark Gable didn’t want to be in Gone with the Wind. Despite the public’s insistence that he was the only one who could play Rhett, he had no desire to step into the shoes of the rebellious blockade runner. “The reason I didn’t want to do Gone with the Wind–here is a novel that is the top seller of all time. Now, people form opinions about characters–they formed an opinion that I was going to play it. They already had a preconcieved idea of what they were going to see. That’s why I didn’t want to play, I said too many people know this character. My God, with Rhett Buter, if they saw one thing they didn’t like, they would have remembered back to the book. I had to be on my toes and I knew that,” he later recalled.
Through pre-production and casting, the director on the film was George Cukor. George was a gay man and was known as being a “woman’s director,” able to coach the best performances out of actresses. This made Clark uneasy right from the start, as he was not feeling very confident in the role and knew that George was focusing more on Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland than him.
The rumor is that Clark didn’t like George Cukor because he was gay and that George knew about a gay affair that Clark had in the 1920′s and that made Clark uncomfortable, so Clark had him fired and replaced with his buddy, Victor Fleming.
Let’s peel the orange on this one. First of all, yes, Clark was a bit of a homophobe. He was a Republican and rather conservative in his thinking and, after all, this was the 1930′s, there weren’t exactly gay pride parades going on. Clark tended to be very uncomfortable around gay men. He felt the same around Charles Laughton on the set of Mutiny on the Bounty. For some reason, people pounce on this and declare that because he was so uneasy around gays that that must mean it was because he himself was gay! Ridiculous. If being a homophobe means one has gay skeletons in their closet, then we must have a lot of gay Republican politicians!
The “gay affair” that is claimed that Clark had was with William Haines, a gay silent movie actor who later turned interior designer. The rumor is that he and Clark had a fling around 1925 and that Clark was a “rent boy” and did sexual favors for pay. I am inclined not to believe this for several reasons, mainly because the only place this secret nugget has been printed is in salicious, disgusting so-called biographies that are full of lies. Also, it just doesn’t fit with whom Clark was—he was fascinated by women, always chasing women, and I just don’t think he was ever gay–even for pay. Also, if this thing with William Haines was such a well-known fact as these so-called authors claim it was, then why would Carole Lombard let Haines in her house? She and “Billy” were friends–he had decorated her famous Hollywood Blvd bacherlorette pad– and he was at the ranch from time to time. I sincerely doubt that Clark would let him in the house if the rumors were true and Carole wouldn’t have blamed him.
Clark’s preference for rough-and-tumble director Victor Fleming instead of George Cukor should come as no surprise, gay rumors or not. Vic Fleming was a long-time pal of Clark’s, having directed him in Red Dust, The White Sister and Test Pilot. But an important factor to remember is that David Selznick and George Cukor were at odds without Clark’s influence. Clark was probably a factor in Fleming being hired in George’s place, however.
From Michael Sragow’s excellent biography on Fleming,Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master:
…Gable’s preference for Fleming to direct GWTW instead of George Cukor was not only well-known; it was also reported before principal photography began. And ever since he joined the production, Gable has been out of sorts. He shot his first scenes in January 1939, two weeks after Leigh and Olivia de Havilland. Doubtless he felt uncertain in a new studio, acting with women who already a close rapport with Cukor.
After Selznick fired Cukor, John Lee Mahin recalled, Gable made a late night visit to Fleming’s house to beg to come on to GWTW. Mahin was probably thinking of the events of the early morning hours of Sunday, February 12; a coup de theatre straight out of a screwball comedy and at odds with Selznick’s denial that he consulted with Gable about the directorial change.
In this version, Selznick, Gable, and Eddie Mannix, after viewing GWTW rushes at Selznick’s house, paid a 3:00am visit not to Louis B. Mayer but to Mervyn Leroy at his Santa Monica beach house. The ruckus stirred Leroy from slumber. He looked down from his bedroom window and demanded; “I’m in bed–what do you mean by busting in at this hour of the night?” Selznick shouted in return; “We want your director–we’ve got to have Victor Fleming!” It took a series of phone calls–including at least one to Mayer–but a few hours later Leroy at released Fleming from The Wizard of Oz. Selznick announced Fleming’s hiring two days later.
“My God, imagine picking up a project like that at this stage,” Fleming was heard to muse that week on the Oz set. “Still, if Clark’s going to sulk, I guess I better do it.” As soon as Selznick made the switch, Norman Webb of National Box Office Digest wrote the producer that he was glad Fleming was taking over, because, unlike Cukor, “Victor Fleming has one of the very best box office records in the industry.”
So what did happen to Cukor? And why did Selznick summon Fleming? Contemporary columnists and well as latterday analysts, trying to make sense of Selznick’s decision, have often placed the onus on Gable. But several eyewitnesses contradict the notion that Gable catalyzed the crisis, no matter how central he was to the outcome. Susan Myrick, the film’s Georgia dialect coach and technical advisor, provided an intimate account in a letter to the book’s author, Margaret Mitchell. She wrote that Cukor told her he had “looked at the rushes and felt he was failing. He knew he was a good director and knew the actors were good ones; yet the thing did not click as it should.” He demanded that they return to the original script by Sidney Howard. Selznick balked and offered his own ultimatium: “OK, get out.” In 1954, Ed Sullivan wrote that Cukor reached the point of no return when he clashed with Selznick on how to film a scene of Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) walking down the stairs to meet Scarlett: “I think Ashley, at that moment, would be scared to meet her,” Selznick said. “I disagree wholeheartedly,” Cukor replied.
Cukor was never specific in his own recollections. “David talks generally,” he said in 1968, recalling the day he was summouned to Selznick’s office. “He said something like, ‘It’s not coming along the way I want it to, I’ve taken complete responsibility and it has to be my way.’”
Bottom line is, that even though Clark was the biggest star of the film, he didn’t have some inflated ego that caused him to demand that Cukor be shoved out and his buddy Fleming be brought in. Selznick and Cukor were butting heads already and Clark’s displeasure was just icing on the cake. Clark didn’t get Cukor fired, but once the decision was made that Cukor was out, he certainly was 100% behind the idea of bringing Fleming in.
And can any of us really say we are dissatisfied with the results?
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