To replace George Cukor, Selznick approached Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) contract director Victor Fleming. Fleming was not interested in taking over the directorial reins of the troubled Gone With the Wind. At the time, he was manic with Munchkins on the set of The Wizard of Oz and didn’t want to take on another exhausting project.
Clark Gable was all for Fleming. Fleming had a reputation of being an action director and had directed Gable in Red Dust, The White Sister and Test Pilot. The two were also old friends and enjoyed motorcycling, carousing and drinking together. Gable appealed to Fleming to accept the job on the basis of their friendship. MGM was applying pressure as well, and Fleming reluctantly agreed to take on the project.
On Saturday, February 18, 1939, Fleming met with Selznick to view the film footage of Gone With the Wind that had been shot so far and to review the script. Fleming was never a man to pull any punches. As soon as the lights came up in the projection room, he turned to Selznick and said, “David, your f—ing script is no f—ing good.”
Since screenwriter and playwright Sidney Howard’s original effort, Gone With the Wind‘s script had been changed by numerous pens, including Oliver H.P. Garrett, John Van Druten, Charles MacArthur, Winston Miller, John Balderstron, Michael Foster, Edwin Justus Mayer, and even F. Scott Fitzgerald. Selznick had resorted to printing revised pages on different shades of colored paper in an effort to keep track of each writer’s contributions.
By the time Fleming was hired as director, the script resembled a veritable rainbow. Fleming’s graphic estimation of the script’s quality shocked Selznick into admitting that the script was, indeed, in serious trouble.
Selznick had no time to lose in reviving his script. Each day of suspended filming was costing the studio over $65,000. So Selznick turned to a famous script doctor who had a reputation for working miracles: Ben Hecht.
Hecht, brilliant but cynical, had begun his career as a playwright with his partner Charles MacArthur. Together they penned The Front Page and Twentieth Century. Lured by more lucrative work in Hollywood, Hecht then turned to writing scripts. He wrote Design for Living for Ernst Lubitsch and Notorious for Alfred Hitchcock. He always worked for the best price because he was a shrewd bargainer and a fast writer. He had written Nothing Sacred for Selznick in two weeks and rewrote Hurricane for Samuel Golden in two days.
But could Hecht save Gone With the Wind?
On Sunday, February 19, 1939, Selznick and Fleming arrived early at Hecht’s house. They spirited Hecht away in Selznick’s car, and on the way to the studio they came to terms: Selznick would pay Hecht $15,000 for one week’s work.
At the studio, Selznick was horrified to learn that Hecht had never read Gone with the Wind. Fleming admitted that he had not either, so Selznick launched into an oral synopsis that took over an hour. “I had seldom heard a more involved plot,” Hecht remembered. “My verdict was that nobody could make a sensible movie out of it.”
Hecht read the existing script, which he termed a real “humpty-dumpty job.” He then asked Selznick if any one of the previous writers had produced a better version. Selznick suddenly remembered Sidney Howard’s two-year-old draft and sent secretaries scurrying to find it. Hecht called it a “superb treatment” that needed only substantial editing and agreed to base his rewrite on Howard’s script.
In Selznick’s office for the next week, Hecht attacked the script mercilessly in 18-to-24-hour stretches. Since Hecht was not familiar with the characters, Selznick and Fleming acted out each scene as Hecht edited. Contributing writer John Van Druten was brought back to the studio to assist Hecht.
Selznick also helped in the effort. On Tuesday, February 21, Selznick made notes for the action in the Atlanta Bazaar scene, including Rhett spotting Scarlett in one of the booths, Aunt Pittypat scolding and Melanie defending the widowed Scarlett for appearing in public, Rhett greeting Melanie and Scarlett, and Rhett confessing to Scarlett that he is profiting from the blockade.
The next day, Selznick made notes for scenes set after Ashley’s return to the war, including Scarlett working in and running from the Atlanta hospital, getting caught in the street chaos during the evacuation, riding in the carriage with Rhett, encountering Aunt Pittypat and Uncle Peter about to flee to Macon, and arguing with Dr. Meade about staying to care for Melanie.
The pace was arduous and took its toll. Selznick ruled that food interfered with creativity so he banned all sustenance except for bananas and salted peanuts. Selznick took Benzedrine to keep awake and recommended the wonder drug to his cohorts. On day four, Fleming suffered a burst blood vessel in his eye, and the following day, Selznick collapsed while eating a banana. Nevertheless, at the end of the week, Hecht had succeeded in revising the entire first half of the script.
On Sunday, February 26, 1939, one of Hecht’s last tasks was revising Gone With the Wind’s opening credits prologue, romanticizing the South as a “land of cavaliers and cotton fields.”
Selznick tried to convince Hecht to stay and finish the second part of the script. Hecht felt “there wasn’t enough money in the world for this kind of suicidal work — eighteen to twenty hours a day — and I got out in a hurry.”
With Hecht gone, Selznick decided to undertake the rewriting of Part Two on his own — in addition to overseeing every aspect of Gone With the Wind‘s production.
Sources: The Complete GWTW Trivia Book, second edition, 2014
Gone With the Wind: 1939 Day by Day, 2022
2023 Twin Year: The 2023 calendar matches the days of the 1939, making 2023 a twin year to 1939. That’s the premise of Pauline’s new book Gone With the Wind: 1939 Day by Day. In that book, she chronicles the production, premieres and reception of GWTW from January 1, 1939 to December 31, 1939. Fans will love following the drama and intrigue of GWTW’s production on each event’s exact day and date.
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