Let’s address the elephant in the room. If I am going to write about the films of 1939, there is one film that must be pushed out into the middle of the room, front and center. In 1936, Margaret Mitchell won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her novel, Gone With The Wind, which became the top-selling book for two years running. David O. Selznick bought the rights to GWTW early, but due to problems, it took three years to film and release the movie.
One reason that it took so long to get the film to the screen was because Selznick only wanted one man to play Rhett Butler, Clark Gable. Gable was under contract to MGM, who wasn’t about to lend Gable to another studio. Lending actors to other studios to make movies was a common practice, but by the late 30’s Gable was such a hot property and screen idol that MGM wouldn’t lend him. To give you an idea of just how idolized Gable was, check out this video of a pre-Oz Judy Garland singing a love song to a Gable photograph:
In order to get Gable, Selznick negotiated an exorbitant deal with Sam Goldwyn’s father-in-law, Louis B. Mayer, in which he took on huge financial obligation, and gave MGM distribution rights.
But. He got Gable.
And for Scarlett O’Hara? The drama was no less intense. Selznick, for publicity, announced a 1400-person casting call for actresses to read and audition for the part. The gimmick did generate a swell of publicity for the film, but didn’t produce someone for the role. Instead, a veritable Who’s Who of Hollywood actresses (and their agents) were lobbying and working the phones for the part of Scarlett, including Katherine Hepburn, Jean Arthur, Tallulah Bankhead, Joan Bennett, Paulette Goddard, Susan Hayward, Vivien Leigh, and Lana Turner. In the end, it came down to Paulette Goddard (who had starred opposite Gable in It Happened One Night, in 1934) and Vivien Leigh; Selznick’s choice was Goddard, but controversy over her marriage to Charlie Chaplin caused him to opt for Leigh.
Despite the casting problem, the end result was that Gone With The Wind won ten Oscars and became the all-time grossing movie production up to that time; it took another 25 years for a film to earn more than GWTW. According to Wikipedia, when adjusted for monetary inflation, is still the most successful film in box-office history.
Tortured though it might have been to bring about, here is the first meeting of these two fabled characters: