In April 1939, producer David O. Selznick recognized that the grueling pace of filming Gone With the Wind was taking a toll on his cast and crew, especially director Victor Fleming.
On April 14, Selznick confided in a memo to executive staff that Fleming “is so near the breaking point both physically and mentally from sheer exhaustion that it would be a miracle…if he is able to shoot for another seven or eight weeks.” Selznick recommended “selecting an understudy…so that he could step in on brief notice.”
One possibility Selznick suggested was Robert Z. Leonard, the Academy Award-nominated director of The Divorcee (1930) and The Great Ziegfeld (1936). Selznick wrote: “I once dragged him in on A Tale of Two Cities when [Jack] Conway fell ill and he started shooting for me on twenty minutes notice.”
Another possibility was William Wellman, who was the noted director of The Public Enemy (1931), A Star is Born (1937) and Nothing Sacred (1937). Selznick wrote: “I am sure Bill would do this as a favor for me.”
But the director Selznick ultimately chose to wait in the wings as Fleming’s understudy was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contract director Sam Wood, who had just completed directing Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Wood did not have long to wait.
April 29 was an exhausting day for Fleming and his cast, preparing for Melanie’s death scene. The morning rehearsal proved to be unsatisfactory, so Fleming requested Selznick’s presence on the set to discuss the scene. The producer was unavailable, so screenwriter Sidney Howard stepped in to provide guidance.
After lunch, Selznick and Howard rewrote the scene’s dialogue. The cast rehearsed the revised scene, and Fleming resumed filming in the late afternoon. By 7 p.m., Fleming had completed filming the heartbreaking scene.
The company then moved to the Forty Acres lot for an exterior night shoot involving Leigh, de Havilland and Ona Munson in the scene of Scarlett and Melanie encountering Belle Watling outside the Atlanta military hospital. While rehearsing the scene, Leigh objected to Fleming insistence that she convey Scarlett’s scorn toward Rhett’s mistress. Apparently at the end of his rope, Fleming rolled up his script, threw it at Leigh’s feet and walked off the set.
Selznick put in an emergency call to Sam Wood, who arrived on the set at 1 a.m. on Sunday, April 30. Selznick provided him with a detailed scene description. Following their discussion, Wood directed the scene, with filming ending at 4 a.m.
During Fleming’s absence, Wood proved to be a steady, efficient director. Wood directed Scarlett tearing down the green velvet draperies, Scarlett and Ashley embracing at the lumber mill and Melanie and Belle conversing in the carriage.
When Fleming returned to the set in mid-May, Selznick decided to retain Wood to maintain the filming pace and to take some of the pressure off Fleming. Wood directed sequences such as Rhett and Bonnie in London and the naming of Bonnie. Fleming directed Rhett pouring Mammy a drink and Scarlett searching for Dr. Meade. The stars frequently found themselves working with Fleming in the morning and Wood in the afternoon.
Do you detect any directorial differences among the scenes directed by Fleming versus those directed by Wood? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please post in the comments section below.
Sources: Gone With the Wind: 1939 Day by Day
The Complete GONE WITH THE WIND Trivia Book (2nd edition)
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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