How Olivia de Havilland Won the Role of Melanie in GWTW

A book to celebrate GWTW's 75th Anniversary!
A book to celebrate GWTW’s 75th Anniversary!

RKO actress Joan Fontaine received a message that director George Cukor wanted her to read for GWTW. Oh, what she wouldn’t give to play Scarlett! But when she arrived for her appointment, she discovered that the director had her in mind for Melanie. Since that role held no interest for her, she suggested that Cukor test her sister, Olivia de Havilland. 

De Havilland was hungry for Melanie. And she knew that her competition was stiff: Elizabeth Allan, Andrea Leeds, Ann Shirley, and Frances Dee had tested for the role. She read for the part at Cukor’s office, and he suggested that she read for producer David O. Selznick. 

Several days later, de Havilland replayed the same scene in Selznick’s house with Cukor taking the role of Scarlett. When de Havilland finished, Selznick decided that she was Melanie and offered her the role on the spot. She was joyous, but then her emotions crashed to the floor. Jack L. Warner would never let her accept the part. 

De Havilland was a contract player at Warner Bros. When her career began there in the 1930s, she was cast opposite handsome Errol Flynn. The combination worked. Dashing Flynn and doe-eyed de Havilland starred in a string of hero-rescues-damsel-in-distress films from Captain Blood to Robin Hood. But as Flynn’s career soared, de Havilland’s seemed permanently grounded. 

Against her was Warner’s star system that favored male actors such as Cagney, Robinson, and Bogart. Plus, the reigning queen of the lot, Bette Davis, was not easily dethroned. So there really was no place for de Havilland’s career to go unless she sought roles outside the studio. And this, according to Jack L. Warner, was verboten.

True to his dictates, Warner’s response was a resounding “No” when de Havilland approached him about taking on the role of Melanie. He also feared that once de Havilland had a taste of freedom she would be unwilling to return to the shackles of the studio system.  

But Warner underestimated demure de Havilland. Rather than accept Warner’s verdict as the final word, this iron-willed magnolia decided to appeal to someone who could change her boss’s mind: his wife. 

De Havilland invited Ann Page Warner for tea at the Beverly Hills Brown Derby and poured out the details of her plight. Mrs. Warner, a former actress, was sympathetic and pledged to do what she could. With such a powerful force at work, Jack L. Warner soon capitulated.  

Soon, Olivia de Havilland found herself at the Selznick International Pictures’ studio on the set of Gone With the Wind in the role of Melanie Hamilton Wilkes, and Hollywood would never be the same. 

Happy 100th birthday, Ms. De Havilland! Gone With the Wind fans all over the world love you!

Blog Bio: Pauline Bartel is the author of The Complete GONE WITH THE WIND Trivia Book (2nd edition) and an expert on the film and its history. Visit the website (www.paulinebartel.com/resources/books/books-available) for further information. Follow her on Twitter @PaulineBartel and “like” her on Facebook (www.facebook.com/TheCompleteGWTWTriviaBook).

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