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"It's a picture that goes beyond mere quality. A huge thing. Famous for its excess. Full of melodrama, action, sentiment. History painted in glorious Technicolor. But real history is often accidental and muddled. The truth is that Gone with the Wind came out of chaos and confusion. Blind faith and great good luck." That's how the documentary The Making of a Legend: Gone With the Wind (1989) sums up the movie that tops many all time favorite lists and stands as a lasting testament to epic filmmaking. But, as we learn in The Making of a Legend, the behind-the-scenes story of Gone With the Wind is almost as exciting as the actual film.
The documentary begins with Margaret Mitchell and her runaway best seller. The novel, which was published in 1936, caught the country in the midst of the Depression, with trouble brewing in Europe and folks looking for a little escapism. A woman in New York, named Kay Brown, was one of those captured by the story. And she, it just so happened, was producer David O. Selznick's east coast representative. Surprisingly, it took a good deal of convincing to persuade Selznick to purchase the film rights to GWTW at a price of $50,000. The documentary includes many interviews and re-enactments with Kay Brown who spins the backstage yarn as well as anyone. Margaret Mitchell herself wanted nothing to do with the movie and wished them luck on the project. They would need it.
The Making of a Legend depicts David O. Selznick as a "cheerful, charming, arrogant madman." And indeed, during the two and a half years he spent casting, planning, filming and editing GWTW Selznick did become the butt of many jokes around the country. His single-minded focus and drive seemed unrelenting. The documentary briefly explores Selznick's background, his marriage to Irene Mayer and the formation of his own studio, Selznick International Pictures. And it makes clear that GWTW was greatly the result of one man's passion. Selznick had a hand in almost every aspect of the film, from screen tests, to multiple rewrites, to costuming. What at the time seemed obsessive is actually what makes the film so unique; its attention to detail is so absolute in every respect that it set the standard for all future Hollywood epics.
After watching The Making of a Legend, it seems amazing that GWTW ever got made, much less turned out a critical and popular success. There were complications at every turn as the documentary explains. First there was the casting craze with talent searches across the nation for Scarlett that turned up nothing but the Hollywood starlets like Paulette Goddard, Katharine Hepburn and Miriam Hopkins who were already in the running. There were too many screenwriters and versions of the script to count. There was Clark Gable, the only man the country would accept as Rhett, who wanted nothing to do with the part. There were budget problems due to Selznick's excessive spending. And there was director George Cukor who came to blows with Selznick (not to mention Gable) early in production and was replaced by Victor Fleming (who nearly had a nervous breakdown himself before the production was finished).
The magic, myth and madness of Gone With the Wind's production culminates in one legendary scene that the documentary describes in depth - the burning of Atlanta. Technically, the scene is groundbreaking, as Assistant Cameraman Harry Wolf describes it in the documentary - there were only seven Technicolor cameras in existence and all of them were used for this sequence. The creative approach and frenzied pace for filming the scene also set the tone for the rest of the production. Old sets on the back lot were cleared to allow room for GWTW's many sets. So to kill two birds with one stone, crews burned the old sets and filmed the fire to recreate the burning of Atlanta. And, since this all needed to be done in a hurry, the scene was shot before principal casting was confirmed. The raging fire created a behind-the-scenes spectacle equal to GWTW's massive publicity wave. Fire departments from all over the area were called in to control the flames and many concerned citizens called police stations to report the blaze. But the fire brought good luck too; David O. Selznick discovered his Scarlett when Vivien Leigh showed up on the lot. Of course, there's a lot more to what really happened and The Making of a Legend: Gone With the Wind provides the perfect insider look at the greatest film of 1939 and perhaps all time.
Producer: Daniel Selznick, L. Jeffrey Selznick
Director: David Hinton
Screenplay: David Thomson
Film Editing: Bobby Jones
Cast: Margaret Mitchell, David O. Selznick, Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Butterfly McQueen.
by Stephanie Thames