Monday, October 13, 2014

Rewards for Reading

Awards and rewards

When I was 16, I read Gone With the Wind for the first time. I imagined myself in scenes, and as a high school senior I extracted a scene from the book, memorized and performed it for my drama class assignment. 

Next I competed against 35 girls who represented 23 schools in the Dallas area UIL speech tournament. The scene where Mammy helps Scarlett get dressed for the barbeque at Twelve Oaks––I played both parts––won me a first place trophy.

Seated near the back of the high school auditorium, stage right under a balcony, when the announcer called my name, I was as overwhelmed and mystified as any Academy Award winner. 

Breathless and speechless by the time I got to the stage, I accepted that award. But afterwards, in the picture taken for our school newspaper, I look askance, nervous, self-conscious, wearing a dress I had made, back when dresses were all a girl could wear to school.

Hide and Seek

At this stage of life, I know that most actors hide behind the characters they play, and when they must come out from behind the camera or the footlights, their insecurities pop out like a red-head's freckles after a day in the sun.

Still, I remain fascinated by drama in its many forms. Whole worlds get compressed between the pages of books and during the screen hours of a movie. And there, the reader or watcher loses himself. 

And if he or she is lucky, they might find themselves too.

That's what happened to me back when I picked up the 1,037 pages of Margaret Mitchell's story of the Old South. I found myself in Scarlett O'Hara's character, enough to know that I didn't want to be like her, or rather, end up like her.

In a way, Scarlett set me on a course, a trajectory pointed away from innate selfishness.

Even author Margaret Mitchell said of "my poor Scarlett" that being compared to her was not a compliment. "Scarlett was a hussy and I am not."

Fact and Fiction:  Mirrors of self

When I read any book worth reading, I expect resonance. 

I expect, because I am a human being, to see some aspect of myself revealed––good or bad. Most often, both. I expect that what the writer took the time and care to capture in words will be worth the reader's time to follow. 

I expect a carrot or a stick. A reward or a reminder. A good book will show me something about life.

Because each of us is the main character in our own story, you and I are interested in ourselves and how our story will turn out. 

And we are never more interesting to ourselves––or more human––than when we can recognize ourselves in the mirror of another person's life.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Loving Your Children

We are family

The talk I gave last week for "Apples of Gold," a mentoring program for younger women, was about loving your children. I focused on wisdom as an aspect of loving your children because all 4 of my children are grown and now have children of their own to raise. We all need wisdom.
 James and me in Budapest, Hungary
My 4 kids on the first day of school, 1989
But where can wisdom be found? Where does understanding dwell? 
Job 28:12
I thought, ‘Age should speak; advanced years should teach wisdom.’ 
Job 32:7

Only I didn't want to speak on this subject because, well, I'm not that old. And I'm not that wise.

But with 10 grandchildren and number 11 on the way, I accepted this assignment––my own misgivings aside for telling other people how to raise their kids. Because anyone can be a parent, but not everyone knows how to parent.

Each parent must work out his/her own salvation with fear and trembling, I'm afraid. Yet some principles abide, enduring time's testing and cultural distinctions. 

So in the end, I came up with my own contemporary 10 commandments to guide parents who truly love their children. 

10 Commandments for loving your children

Thou shalt not idolize your children.
Thou shalt not treat children as little adults.
Thou shalt not cover up mistakes your children make or make excuses for their failures.
Thou shalt discipline your own children when they overstep boundaries.
Thou shalt teach your children to work.
Thou shalt teach your children to tell the truth.
Thou shalt teach your children to respect themselves and others.
Thou shalt teach your children good manners.
Thou shalt read to your children early and often, starting with the Bible.
Thou shalt not text and drive.

While there's a story behind each of these opinions strongly held by yours truly, I shall spare you those explanations. 

Here are 10 reasons I believe Thou shalt not text and drive should be a commandment.

6 grandsons:

Beau and Beck




4 granddaughters

cousins Ava and Rachel

1st grandchild, Kate
sister Sarah

fun when cousins get together
By the way, it's against the law in California to text and drive. 

Here's to parents and grandparents everywhere who are doing the best they can to love their children.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Making of Gone With the Wind, part 2


Clark Gable is Rhett Butler

Never any doubt in the minds of the reading public that Clark Gable should play Rhett Butler, only Gable himself needed convincing. And so did Louis B. Mayer, Selznick’s father-in-law, who had Gable under contract to MGM.

Although Selznick considered others, actors he had under contract, he wanted Clark Gable as much as anyone.

This letter to DOS captures the spirit of all those who felt sure nobody but Gable should play Rhett:

"This is Rhett Butler, or else, 10,000,000 broken hearts."

The readers of GWTW assumed too that Margaret Mitchell had Clark Gable in mind as she wrote her book, only at the time Gable still worked in the Oklahoma oilfield, earning $12. a day. 

No, Mitchell insisted. “I was thinking of Groucho Marx.” She loved the Marx Brothers.

All the more to wonder at the astonishing outcome when at the Atlanta premiere, December 15, 1939, Margaret Mitchell praised Selznick for his “perfect cast” and his obstinacy to secure it.
from the Motion Picture Edition, picture taken with my iPhone

Frankly, my dear …

David O. Selznick added the “frankly” to the line that in the movie almost had to be cut. But frankly, frankly wasn’t the problem. 

As Margaret Mitchell had written the end of her story, Rhett Butler’s answer to Scarlett’s question “… If you go, what shall I do?” reads, “My dear, I don’t give a damn.”

The preview audience heard the line as, “My dear, I don’t care.” Uh-hmm. Gag. Choke. Spit out that line.

To use the line as written in the script, Selznick had to do battle. Following written appeals by Selznick, citing the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of damn, a vulgarism rather than an oath or a curse, as well as popular magazines’ use of the word, those who fought against this iconic bit of dialogue surrendered. Waiving the profanity clause for Selznick, the Motion Pictures Production Code was later rewritten.

But just in case appeals were lost, other options considered were “Frankly, my dear:

·      it leaves me cold.”

·      it has become of no concern to me.”

·      I don’t give a Continental.” [whatever that means]

·      I’m not even indifferent. I just don’t care.”

·      I’ve withdrawn from the battle.”

·      the whole thing is a stench in my nostrils.”

·      it makes my gorge rise.”

Whatever a gorge referred to, any tampering would have removed the unforgettable parting shot Rhett gave Scarlett. 

For those who like to skip to the end:

“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” left just the right taste in Rhett Butler's mouth.

Still, Selznick, true to Margaret Mitchell's novel, didn’t leave Scarlett in a puddle of tears. She’d go home to Tara. She’d think of some way to get Rhett back. She’d think about that tomorrow.

“After all, tomorrow is another day.”

The camera pulls back, the music rises and Scarlett once more shows her gumption. After all she has been through, not to mention all the trouble she has caused, Scarlett’s face brightens at the thought of Tara.

Margaret Mitchell had said that the theme of her story was survival. She had wondered how some folks have what she called, “gumption,” the ability to endure and survive the most tragic, confounding circumstances while others simply do not.

But when people went so far as to compare Margaret Mitchell to her literary heroine, she protested. “Scarlett was a hussy and I am not.”

The story of how Mitchell’s 1,037-page novel came to be published in the first place displays the author’s gumption. When one of Margaret's writer friends said, "You don't have what it takes to be a serious writer,” going so far as to challenge her for never having been rejected by a publisher, Mitchell gathered up her incomplete manuscript––what amounted to a suitcase full of manila envelopes with chapters of the book she had written over the course of 10 years. 

Still fuming from the insult, Margaret gave to Harold Latham, associate editor at Macmillan, who had come to Atlanta as part of a 3 month search for new talent, what she had never intended to submit for publication. 

Her disorganized manuscript had no opening chapter. In fact, Margaret Mitchell had written the last chapter first. She had duplicate versions of some chapters. Penciled revisions and corrections, typed on yellowed paper, she felt embarrassed by the condition of her manuscript and sought its return as soon as she calmed down.

Instead, Macmillan publishers refused and sent her a check for $5,000. 

With the book's publication, a series of events transpired that made Margaret Mitchell's real life almost as dramatic as her novel.

Drama Behind the Screen

 The Jezebel issue intrigued me. 

On display as part of the Ransom Center exhibit in a letter from DOS to Harry Warner, head of Warner Brothers Pictures, Selznick confronts WB for capitalizing on the publicity surrounding GWTW.
"May I remind you that the rights to 'Jezebel' were repeatedly turned don … until …"
No studio wanted to film Jezebel until after GWTW made its literary splash and Selznick had secured film rights. Jealousy erupted among studios and Warner Brothers made a shameless imitation.

By comparison, shot in less than 8 weeks, Jezebel was a Civil War lightweight. Yet because Bette Davis won the 1938 Best Actress Academy Award for her role in Jezebel, a wave of support for her to play Scarlett O'Hara crested. Selznick went as far as to consider her for the role with Errol Flynn to play Rhett, but Davis refused to play opposite Flynn.

Circles inside circles: Guess who owns the film rights to Gone With the Wind today? 

In 1995, Ted Turner (TCM) sold the rights he had purchased to Time-Warner. In an ironic twist, Warner Brothers now owns the movie Selznick originally produced, the film WB tried to overshadow with its  copy. 

Other circles inside circles:

Selznick managed to sign Clark Gable in a costly deal he made with his father-in-law Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM. Mayer convinced Gable that a hefty paycheck for starring in GWTW would induce his second wife, 17-years his senior, to grant him a divorce. During the filming of GWTW, March of 1939, 37-year-old Gable, married the love of his life, 30-year-old Carole Lombard. 

Vivien Leigh was also married and had a 4-year-old daughter, as did actor Lawrence Olivier, with whom Leigh had had a lengthy affair. Both eventually divorced their respective spouses and married each other.

Leslie Howard was married but living with another woman who accompanied him to the set of GWTW. From the outset, the 45-year-old actor was disinterested in his role. Howard read the script only for the scenes in which he played the character Ashley Wilkes. To Selznick, the actor who played the part of Ashley was as important, if not more so than who played Scarlett. Selznick gave Howard a copy of the novel as a gift, but he still refused to read it. 

Olivia de Haviland was not married but at the time of filming she was dating millionaire Howard Hughes, who later that year proposed to Olivia's sister, Joan Fontaine.


Before the Academy Awards had a category for costume design, Walter Plunkett designed these and countless other exquisite costumes down to the petticoats. 

When one of the actresses thought Mr. Selznick could save money, since no one would know authentic petticoats were there, he told her, "You will know it's there."


Walter Plunkett, Costume Designer

The dress Scarlett wore for her wedding to Charles was worn for filming almost as briefly as the on-screen marriage lasted. 

Of the 5 costumes on display at The Ransom Center, the wedding dress is a recreation. The rest shown are restored originals.  Yesterday's blog post shows pictures of the famous green curtain dress.

Pictured above, Vivien Leigh is wearing the dress that in the movie Scarlett wore to the barbeque at Twelve Oaks. This scene was shot 5 times. After Vivien Leigh had been given time to recover from 125 days of shooting that ended in July, she came back in October, refreshed and again youthful looking for a retake, wearing the white prayer dress. 

Controversy and Art

Controversy and censorship issues as well as personality conflicts behind the scenes reflect stories that are as much a part of the actual history of "The Making of Gone With the Wind" as the fictional telling of history both the novel and the film depict. 

Whether words on a page or scenes on a screen, these artistic creations cannot be revised, nor should they, to fit cultural tastes of current readers and audiences. They can be revisited.

To think this story represents a revisionist history of the old South, think again. View artistic creations like paintings in an art gallery. Frame representations in their context. Accept what cannot be altered and admire the work of artists. For eventually, the artists themselves are Gone With the Wind.
The main thing to remember is "The movie did not disappoint the readers of the book."  (DVD commentary)

And I say, "Fiddle-dee-dee." Enough already. There's no end of stories surrounding the making of Gone With the Wind. Trivia for the most part, perhaps, but what reading about the movie reminds me is that while the audience sees what gets shown on the screen, real people whose lives scarcely resemble the characters they portray work to create the timeless illusion. 

Maybe the movie at 75 is showing its age. But the very existence of this classic film continues to teach me something about life. 

The first audiences to view the film in 1939 had endured war and the Great Depression. These people were acquainted with hunger and starved for hope. This film showed them characters on both sides of a civil struggle who fought for what they believed. 

If anything makes the movie seem archaic, maybe it's because people today don't believe in much, or else they don't know what they believe. 

And nothing sinks a soul so deep as to believe in nothing.

For now, my cup runneth over with GWTW … 
the story, the author of the book, the movie, the man who made the movie, the actors who portrayed characters that came to life in my imagination, the roles each person played in the making of Gone With the Wind

Enchanted still by this epic film and stories that surround its making, I hope that generations of 16 year-old girls will like me continue to read the novel. And see the movie. 

If not today, then think about it tomorrow. 

"After all, tomorrow is another day."

See GWTW at the movies, Sunday Septmember 28 or Wednesday, October 1, 2014. Check local theater listings for showtimes of this special event.
Note: Relying on multiple sources results in variations on the same story, therefore editing for this post, I have used information, comments and ideas that reflect my own conclusions. 
Thank you very much for your kind consideration.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Making of Gone With the Wind

September 9, 2014–January 4, 2015.
Enchantment with the book, the movie, the story of survival set against the backdrop of the Civil War and Reconstruction that followed, began for me when I first read Margaret Mitchell's book at age 16––the same age as Scarlett O'Hara when the story begins. 

Hadn't I already seen the movie? Yes. 

Alert with a wide-eyed thrill of let's go to the movie, my mother had taken me to see Gone With the Wind when I was 4-years-old. Afterward, a vague recollection of holding her hand amidst a pressing crowd, I stumbled through the lobby following a lengthy nap. 

Back when great films only reappeared in limited release in select theaters, I saw the movie GWTW for a second time during my high school senior year, inside a lavish BIG-screen theater at Northpark, in Dallas, TX. Bowled over was I.

Christmas in September

Reading about the restoration of some of the costumes and the planned GWTW exhibit a year ago, as soon as tickets became available, I looked forward to this trip to Austin as if waiting to unwrap a Christmas present. At the Harry Ransom Center on the campus of the University of Texas, September 5, 2014, my husband and I joined a few hundred invited guests to a preview event that commemorates 75 years since the release of the movie, Gone With the Wind.

Items selected from David O. Selznick's private collection, including the green curtain dress, display in chronological order the saga of making this epic film. 

Today, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) offers regular showings on television, and copies of restored versions on VHS and DVD's make the film readily available. Still, for me, the thrill of watching, and talking about, GWTW has not gone.

"My own true love"

This past week, I gave a program on "The Making of Gone With the Wind" based on the Ransom Center exhibit. Information from several books about the movie and about Margaret Mitchell's novel and some notes from DVD extras that were included in the 70th Anniversary edition of the film supplement what I saw at the Austin exhibit. 

Seizing this opportunity, I also paid tribute to the parody, "Went With the Wind," performed on the Carol Burnett Show in 1976 by wearing my own green curtain dress. Watch the YouTube video of the other Carol, not me. Still makes me laugh out loud.


Standing next to me is Miss Scarlett, the dress form

How can a 75-year-old movie still captivate audiences?

David O.  

David Selznick himself added the O to his name. A flourish, he liked the way the O made his name sound. O could represent the producer’s magnificent obsession to make a movie masterpiece. But along the way, DOS (how Selznick often signed telegrams and memos) endured setbacks, criticism and jealousy as his enterprise earned the name “Selznick’s Folly.”
Days after the novel's release in June, 34-year-old David O. Selznick purchased the movie rights for $50,000. Yet more than 2 years would pass before filming began. 

The original Macmillan published release of Gone With the Wind sold more than 176,000 copies, continuing to sell "at a furious rate," 1.7 million copies in a year, selling 50,000 copies in one day. Margaret Mitchell had hoped that the book would sell 5,000 copies "so they won't lose money." 

In 1937, Margaret Mitchell won the Pulitzer for her novel, further compounding Selznick’s anxiety and a sense of urgency that his film version capitalize on the novel’s success. He had more than a few days yet to tote the weary load of this monumental task.
A first edition of Margaret Mitchell's surprising best-seller

To maintain public interest and secure free publicity for the film, Selznick's studio embarked on a nationwide search for the woman to play Scarlett O'Hara, a search that played out in newspapers across the country. For possibly the most coveted film role in history, stars and wanna-be-stars auditioned, wrote letters and launched campaigns to attract attention. In all, Selznick conducted 1,600 screen tests before selecting his Scarlett. 

Vivien Leigh was there

On the back-lot of the old RKO studio, known by then as Selznick International Pictures, December 10, 1938, the first scene filmed showed the burning of Atlanta.
Production Designer William Cameron Menzies' designs for the burning of Atlanta
In a dramatic scene that recreates Sherman's army's march through the South, Selznick captured on film the inferno that signaled all but the official end of America's Civil War.
No re-takes for this spectacular, stunt-filled scene.

Delapidated backlot sets burned as 7 Technicolor cameras rolled, making way for the 90 sets that would be built for GWTW, using more than a million feet of lumber. A virtual fireworks display with Los Angeles area fire departments standing by, filming had begun. 

David O. had lit the match. 

Rather than alert news outlets, calls from residents to police and fire departments brought media attention as people reported seeing an enormous blaze light the night sky.

After filming that pivotal scene, DOS had burned his first bridge. No turning back. Now he had to choose his  Scarlett. 

Another publicity stunt, concocted for the press, Vivien Leigh with her newly signed agent, Myron Selznick––David’s brother––and Lawrence Olivier, whom Leigh would later marry, arrived just in time to watch sets from King Kong and Garden of Allah collapse. 

Vivien Leigh's face that evening––a warm glow cast from the flames that burned––may have given her the distinct advantage she needed to win the role of Scarlett. But contrary to the myth that this night was the first time Selznick had laid eyes on her, DOS had already met Miss Leigh, hidden her at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and planned her dramatic arrival to stage his so-called discovery of new-to-America talent.  

The search for Scarlett narrowed to 4 actresses: Vivien Leigh, Paulette Goddard, Joan Bennett, and Jean Arthur, who each made screen tests of the same 3 scenes. Goddard who had been favored early on to play Scarlett lost to the latecomer, British actress Vivien Leigh.
Vivien Leigh
Paulett Goddard

Friday, January 13, 1939, Selznick announced his
Signing contracts, January 13, 1939
selection of Vivien Leigh, along with the rest of his cast, Clark Gable as Rhett, Olivia de Havilland as Melanie and Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes. Official filming began January 26,1939. 

Noting dates emphasizes the speed of production for what in hindsight became a miraculous film achievement. 

Script? What Script?

Screenwriter Sidney Howard had managed to distill Margaret Mitchell’s story to a 6-hour script. Had the novel been filmed as it was written, it would make a movie 168 hours long. That translates to a week of 24/7 viewing time.

Colored pages reflect script changes

Multiple screenwriters, 2 Directors, daily script revisions, as well as scenes filmed out of sequence, produced an unwieldy mess. Chaos and fatigue beset nearly everyone involved with filming. 

Selznick oversaw everything from production design, to costumes, to issues of censorship and racial controversy, to hovering over director George Cukor who was fired (or did he resign?) after 2 weeks, and then second-guessing replacement director Victor Fleming. Fleming, who received screen credit for direction, also directed The Wizard of Oz that same year.  

How did one man, DOS, keep up with so many moving parts? 

The higgledy-piggledy filming of the movie would eventually consume 449,512 feet of film––160,00 feet of film printed–– and 20,300 feet of film in the final film with a running time of nearly 4 hours.

“Accurate continuity didn’t exist except in [Selznick’s] head,” remarked someone close to filming and post-production. David O. Selznick spent 4 intense months editing, “a demented process,” this same source said, yet Selznick’s editing ability shone in the finished film. 

A “No Press preview” in Riverside, CA, a 2-hour drive from Hollywood, stunned the audience who thought they had come to the Fox Theater to see the movie Beau Geste.

When told this audience could not leave once the movie began, their thunderous applause erupted as curtains opened to a framed still:

“David O. Selznick’s Gone With the Wind.” 

The movie had no titles or its own yet-to-be written by Max Steiner score for the soundtrack (The Prisoner of Zenda soundtrack played instead), yet this one and only preview audience saw the long-awaited movie Selznick managed to film in 125 days, and complete in time for the 1939 Academy Awards. 

End of part 1

In part 2, read about Clark Gable and the line that could have caused the end of the movie to fizzle. 

[Note: Photography at the exhibit was permitted and the photos posted here were taken with my Canon G15 camera.]