Friday, September 12, 2014

The Scarlett Letters: The Making of the Film Gone with the Wind by John Wiley Jr.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read:  August 27, 2014

One month after her novel Gone With the Wind was published, Margaret Mitchell sold the movie rights for fifty thousand dollars. Fearful of what the studio might do to her story—“I wouldn’t put it beyond Hollywood to have... Scarlett seduce General Sherman,” she joked—the author washed her hands of involvement with the film. However, driven by a maternal interest in her literary firstborn and compelled by her Southern manners to answer every fan letter she received, Mitchell was unable to stay aloof for long. In this collection of her letters about the 1939 motion picture classic, readers have a front-row seat as the author watches the Dream Factory at work, learning the ins and outs of filmmaking and discovering the peculiarities of a movie-crazed public. Her ability to weave a story, so evident in Gone With the Wind, makes for delightful reading in her correspondence with a who’s who of Hollywood, from producer David O. Selznick, director George Cukor, and screenwriter Sidney Howard, to cast members Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland and Hattie McDaniel. Mitchell also wrote to thousands of others—aspiring actresses eager to play Scarlett O’Hara; fellow Southerners hopeful of seeing their homes or their grandmother’s dress used in the film; rabid movie fans determined that their favorite star be cast; and creators of songs, dolls and Scarlett panties who were convinced the author was their ticket to fame and fortune. During the film’s production, she corrected erring journalists and the producer’s over-the-top publicist who fed the gossip mills, accuracy be damned. Once the movie finished, she struggled to deal with friends and strangers alike who “fought and trampled little children and connived and broke the ties of lifelong friendship” to get tickets to the premiere. But through it all, she retained her sense of humor. Recounting an acquaintance’s denial of the rumor that the author herself was going to play Scarlett, Mitchell noted he “ungallantly stated that I was something like fifty years too old for the part.” After receiving numerous letters and phone calls from the studio about Belle Watling’s accent, the author related her father was “convulsed at the idea of someone telephoning from New York to discover how the madam of a Confederate bordello talked.” And in a chatty letter to Gable after the premiere, Mitchell coyly admitted being “feminine enough to be quite charmed” by his statement to the press that she was “fascinating,” but added: “Even my best friends look at me in a speculative way—probably wondering what they overlooked that your sharp eyes saw!” As Gone With the Wind marks its seventy-fifth anniversary on the silver screen, these letters, edited by Mitchell historian John Wiley, Jr., offer a fresh look at the most popular motion picture of all time through the eyes of the woman who gave birth to Scarlett.

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Margaret Mitchell
Gone With the Wind is one of my favorite films, but I knew almost nothing about the making of it when I stumbled over The Scarlett Letters by John Wiley Jr. Naturally intrigued I couldn't help picking up the title and indulging my curiosity, but it was Mitchell herself who captured my imagination with her carefully-crafted, thought-filled and genuinely emotional correspondence.

Through her private letters, Wiley introduces readers to a woman wholly averse to the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. Unwillingly thrust into the public eye, her missives paint a remarkable portrait of an author's struggle to cope with the wave of interest, criticism and praise generated by a project she wished not to be a part of. Generous with her time, Mitchell generated a prolific number of letters to friends, fans and film-makers, expressing everything from gratitude to dismay as her masterpiece was adapted to the silver screen.

Seventy-five years after it debuted in Atlanta, Gone With the Wind remains one of the most beloved and iconic films ever made, but as is often the case, it is what happened behind-the-scenes that makes the finished product truly extraordinary. Humorously candid and forthright, The Scarlett Letters is a rare volume that will appeal to fans of both the novel and film as well as those interested in the writer who gave life to the vain, self-centered, insecure and somewhat spoiled, Scarlett O'Hara. 

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I am the author of “Gone With the Wind.” When I sold the motion picture rights to Mr. Selznick it was on the understanding that I was to have nothing to do with the movie production. I was utterly weary from the hard labor of getting my large book to press, I had lost a lot of weight, and I had been told to take a six months rest and try to regain all the weight I had lost. Therefore, it was understood that I would do no work on the adapting of the book for the screen, would have no voice in the casting and would not go to Hollywood.
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Heather C said...

Would you believe that I haven't seen Gone with the Wind or read the book? However, I am going to be seeing it at the movie theater for the 75th anniversary in about 2 weeks. Sounds like a cool book.

Anonymous said...

I hope you enjoy it!