Simanaitis Says

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DAUGHTER SUZ AND I RECENTLY caught the last part of Gone With the Wind. Each of us had seen this near-4-hour epic before, but this didn’t lessen the entertainment of its broadcast on Turner Classic Movies. Indeed, it got me digging out sources for GWtW tidbits. 

The Burning of Atlanta. David Thomson offered a neat observation in his marvelous compendium, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film.

Thomson opens his Vivian Leigh entry with “It was a Saturday evening, December 10, 1938, the first day of shooting on Gone With the Wind. On the forty-acre backlot behind the Selznick Studio in Culver City, the burning of Atlanta was to be staged.”

Image from GWtW.

“To that end,” Thomson wrote, “old sets—some as old as King Kong and King of Kings—were dressed up with Atlanta, 1864 facades. When all the burning was done, the real sets for Gone With the Wind could be built on the cleared ground, so that proper shooting might begin in the last week of January.”

Pre-Viv Shooting, But Soon.… Thomson noted, “Selznick as yet had no actress to play Scarlett O’Hara: the stand-ins for the escape from the fire were told to keep their faces averted so that they could match with any chosen star—most likely Paulette Goddard at that stage.”

“As the fire passed its peak,” Thomson said, “three visitors came to the backlot: Selznick’s brother, Myron, the top agent in town; one of Myron’s clients, Laurence Olivier, who was in Hollywood doing Wuthering Heights; and Olivier’s mistress, an English actress named Vivien Leigh. Myron called out to David, ‘Hey, genius, meet your Scarlett O’Hara!’ ” 

Thomson noted, “By Christmas, Leigh had the part.” 

From a 1939 Review. The New York Times Book of Movies recounts details of Frank S. Nugent’s December 20, 1939, review: “Miss Leigh’s Scarlet has vindicated the absurd talent quest that indirectly turned her up. She is so perfectly designed for the part by art and nature that any other actress in the role would be inconceivable.”

“Technicolor,” Nugent noted, “finds her beautiful, but Sidney Howard, who wrote the script, and Victor Fleming, who directed it, have found in her something more: the very embodiment of the selfish, hoydenish, slant-eyed miss who tackled life with both claws and a creamy complexion, asked no odds of anyone or anything—least of all, her conscience—and faced at last a defeat which, by her very unconquerability, neither she nor we can recognize as final.”

Scarlet’s “After all, tomorrow is another day” can be heard not as a final line, but a commencement.

A Complex Leigh. Darjeeling India-born and British-reared, Leigh “preferred to stay in England, to learn her craft as a stage actress, and to be Olivier’s consort,” Thomson observed. “In the process, she had a miscarriage, she contracted tuberculosis, and she began to discover that she could not match Olivier: she was not in his class as an actor; and he was too competitive.”

“By then,” Thomson said, “her mental health was unstable…. The marriage was on the rocks…. Olivier left her for a younger woman, the actress Joan Plowright.”

Vivien in Orson’s Shadow. Austin Pendleton’s play Orson’s Shadow, set in 1960 London, is based on actual interactions of Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier, Joan Plowright, Kenneth Tynan, and, late in the play, Vivien Leigh.

Olivier and Leigh have an acrimonious encounter when she shows up unexpectedly at a theater rehearsal of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. As she leaves the theater, Leigh utters, chillingly, “Macbeth…, Macbeth…, Macbeth.” ds

Viv sure has good final lines. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2023

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