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The Search for Scarlett O'Hara

Updated on November 1, 2011

The Search for Scarlett

One of the most coveted roles in film history was that of Scarlett O'Hara in the 1939 production of the epic film 'Gone With the Wind'. The dramatic, almost fairy tale "Search for Scarlett" by producer, David Selznick for an actress to play the crucial role has become legendary. There was a host of glamorous contenders for the part - just about every actress in Hollywood was mooted at some time or other, and the winner was a rank outsider, an almost unknown actress, Vivien Leigh, who was not even American.

Good as the story is, it is only partially true. It appears that the whole "Search for Scarlett" saga was, at least partially, a publicity stunt, dreamed up by Selznick, who knew a good thing when he saw one. If this is so, as seems likely, it must be one of the most elaborate and successful such stunts in movie and advertising history, because, let's face it, we're still talking about it today, over seven decades later.

This is what happened.

The Book

The romantic Civil War novel, 'Gone With the Wind' written by Margaret Mitchell, was published on June 30, 1936 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937.

It was a best-seller, selling over a million copies in its first year and it triggered the interest of producer and studio executive, David O. Selznick, to buy the movie rights for $50,000 - a record amount at the time, particularly to an unknown author for her first novel.

The forthcoming movie created immense public interest in every aspect of production, particularly the casting of the principal characters.

Initial Casting

When the book became a bestseller, the public began clamoring for the movie to be made, and as far as they were concerned, there could be only one Rhett Butler. Ninety-eight percent of the casting suggestions which poured into the studio were for Clark Gable. Selznick had a problem. He had no suitable male stars under long-term contract and knew he would have to borrow from another studio. He resisted the suggestion of the author, Margaret Mitchell, that Basil Rathbone shoud play the part. He did consider Errol Flynn, Gary Cooper and Ronald Colman but every thought led back to Gable (although Gable himself had reservations, thinking the role was too much for him).

Clark Gable Signs Up

Clark Gable and Mayer seated, Selznick behind Gable
Clark Gable and Mayer seated, Selznick behind Gable

 Eventually, Selznick's father-in-law, MGM chief Louis B. Mayer, agreed to loan Gable to Selznick, in return for the right to distribute the film and fifty percent of the box-office sales. "The King" had to go along with it, mainly because he really didn't have a say in the matter. By August, 1938, Gable had been signed up and the other principal roles of Ashley Wilkes and Melanie Wilkes had been relatively easily filled by Leslie Howard and Olivia de Havilland respectively. This left the difficult and pivotal role of Scarlett O'Hara still vacant. This was where the fun began.

The Search

The search for Scarlett was both a major problem and a major opportunity for Selznick. It was only after buying the film rights and studying the book that he began to realise how crucial the role of Scarlett really was. The movie was essentially a story about Scarlett and her search for love, through the Civil War, several marriages, the birth of a child, and even a miscarriage. Hardly ever off the screen, she is a complex, emotional, indomitable figure and Selznick knew it would take a skilled actress to portray the many, sometimes conflicting, facets of her character. He could not use a beginner. But he knew that the search would be almost as interesting to the public as the film itself.

At the outset, from mid 1936 he began a very public nationwide casting call which created invaluable publicity, and applications from aspiring actresses flooded in. Over 1,000 complete unknowns were actually interviewed and many famous or soon-to-be-famous actresses were either screen-tested, auditioned, or actively considered. The novel's author, Margaret Mitchell, favored Miriam Hopkins, who was from Georgia, as being the right type of actress to play Scarlett. However, Hopkins was in her mid thirties at the time and was considered too old for a part which called for a 16 year old Scarlett at the opening of the film.

Miriam Hopkins
Miriam Hopkins
Bette Davis
Bette Davis
Katharine Hepburn
Katharine Hepburn

Almost all of the prominent actresses of the day were considered. For instance Bette Davis, the public's favorite, actually ruled herself out, as she did not wish to play opposite her Warner Brothers stablemate, Errol Flynn, who was a frontrunner for the Rhett Butler role for a short while.

Katharine Hepburn, was another top name who demanded an interview and told David O. Selznick "I am Scarlett O'Hara! The role is practically written for me." His reply was succinct but ungallant, "I can't imagine Rhett Butler chasing you for ten years."

Other household names were tested and discarded, such as Lucille Ball, Tallulah Bankhead,  Clara Bow, Joan Crawford, Irene Dunne, Joan Fontaine, Greer Garson, Susan Hayward, Carole Lombard, Ida Lupino, Merle Oberon, Norma Shearer, Barbara Stanwyck, Margaret Sullavan, Lana Turner, and Loretta Young.

By late 1938,after over two years of searching and with public interest at a fever pitch, there were four actresses officially in contention. Jean Arthur, Joan Bennett, and Paulette Goddard were all high profile names. The fourth actress was hardly known at all. Her name was Vivien Leigh.

The Unknown Candidate
The Unknown Candidate


Vivien Leigh was a petite, radiantly beautiful actress who was already well known in England for the emotional intensity she brought to her stage and movie performances. She was also attracting some notoriety for her relationship with Laurence Olivier. The two were both already married to others but were living together whilst each awaited a divorce.

Selznick had first seen Vivien in early 1938 in the movies 'Fire Over England' and 'A Yank at Oxford'. She had requested then that her name be submitted for consideration as Scarlett and by the summer of that year David Selznick and his brother Myron, who owned a London Hollywood acting agency, were conducting highly confidential negotiations with Alexander Korda, to whom Leigh was under contract, for her services later that year.

In 1938 Olivier went to Hollywood to to play Heathcliffe in William Wyler's 'Wuthering Heights. Vivien followed shortly after, partly to be with him and partly to fulfil her ambition to play Scarlet O'Hara in 'Gone With The Wind'.

The Scenery Burns
The Scenery Burns

The Result

Shooting began on the film on December 10, 1938. As is common with movies the scenes were shot out of sequence and the first scene to be done was the spectacular burning of Atlanta. In fact what Selznick filmed burning on the Forty Acres backlot that Selznick International and RKO shared, were old studio scenery props, some from 'King Kong, five years earlier.

It was in the suitably highly dramatic surroundings of burning buildings that David Selznick first met Vivien Leigh, supposedly with his brother Myron making the introduction, "Hey genius! Meet your Scarlett!" as Vivien appeared from of the flame-lit shadows.

The story was invented for the press that Leigh and Laurence Olivier were just visiting the studio as guests of Myron Selznick, who was also Olivier's agent, and that Leigh was in Hollywood hoping for a part in Olivier's current movie, Wuthering Heights. It seems much more likely that the whole event was a publicity stunt and that the decision to cast Leigh had already been made.

Nevertheless the final stages of the Search for Scarlett continued. Joan Bennett and Jean Arthur were tested and rejected, (it is rumored that Arthur burned her screen test after being refused the role), which left just two hopefuls, Paulette Goddard and Vivien Leigh.

Paulette Goddard, The Nearest Contender
Paulette Goddard, The Nearest Contender


Paulette Goddard came the closest to winning the role. She was a beautiful and talented actress and Selznick liked her screen tests. She lost the role through her controversial private life. Supposedly married to Charles Chaplin, she could not furnish Selznick with a marriage licence. Across America women's clubs voiced their outrage and Paulette's chance was gone - for being in real life too much like the independent-minded Scarlett O'Hara.

On December 20 both Paulette Goddard and Vivien Leigh became the last actresses to be screen tested and the only two to be tested in Technicolor. The winner of the Search for Scarlett was announced on January 13, 1939 as Vivien Leigh. The search was over.

Casting a Legend

The Perfect Choice
The Perfect Choice

The Aftermath

 Vivien signed her contract on January 16, 1939 and began work on the film on January 26. The casting choice caused controversy and at first there was widespread protest that a non American, non Southern woman had been chosen. Selznick's publicity department, headed by Russell Birdwell, went into overdrive to persuade Hollywood gossip columnists like Ed Sullivan, Hedda Hopper and Walter Winchell that Leigh was the right choice for the part. They could just as easily have waited. Vivien leigh did their job for them. On screen.

Vivien Leigh celebrates her Best Actress Oscar with David Selznick
Vivien Leigh celebrates her Best Actress Oscar with David Selznick

When 'Gone With The Wind' was released it caused a sensation. Within a few months it became the biggest grossing movie of all time. There was a highly publicised world premiere on December 15, 1939 at the Loew's Grand Theater in Atlanta, with a parade that attracted 1.5 million spectators and a grand ball attended by Vivien Leigh, Gable, Olivia de havilland, Selznick, Margaret Mitchell, and other celebrities.

The movie received resounding critical praise. It received thirteen Academy Award nominations, more than any other film up to that time, and won eight Oscars, including Best Picture for Selznick and Best Actress for Vivien Leigh.

And so Selznick's "Search for Scarlett" campaign was vindicated.

Immediately after the Oscars were announced, the billing for the movie was changed. Instead of "and presenting" Vivien Leigh it was altered to "starring" Vivien Leigh. Vivien went on to receive another Oscar for her brilliant performance as Blanche Dubois in 'A Streetcar named Desire' in 1951 but with her beautiful green eyes, and dazzling smile, she will always be remembered as Scarlett O'Hara. The perfect choice.

Olivia de Havilland, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh and David Selznick at the Awards Ceremony
Olivia de Havilland, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh and David Selznick at the Awards Ceremony

A Worthy Winner

Vivien Leigh as the Beautiful, Unforgettable Scarlett O'Hara
Vivien Leigh as the Beautiful, Unforgettable Scarlett O'Hara | Source


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    • rjbatty profile image


      3 years ago from Irvine

      I recently read that "Gone With the Wind" was the highest grossing movie ever made (adjusted for inflation). That in itself is something to ponder.

      Kudos to you for encapsulating the effort to bring Scarlett to the big screen. You somehow managed to create an actual sense of tension in your Hub by summarizing the history behind the casting. You brought interesting details to your Hub that would have gone unrecognized by most who were not already GWTW followers. You displayed true craftsmanship here.

    • yenajeon profile image

      Yena Williams 

      7 years ago from California

      Thorough and fun while still being investigative. Loved the movie and this article!

    • gunsock profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from South Coast of England

      Thanks for the comments William and Cogerson. It was a fantastic performance and its difficult now to imagine anyone else playing Scarlett.

    • Cogerson profile image


      7 years ago from Virginia

      Great informative hub on one the greatest performance ever to be filmed in movie history

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 

      7 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Still another excellent job, gunsock. Hollywood really knew how to do things back them -- and there was no better year than 1939 for the movie industry. Vivien Leigh certainly proved by her magnificent performance that she indeed was "the perfect choice."

    • gunsock profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from South Coast of England

      Thanks pchh, glad you enjoyed the hub.

    • pchh profile image


      7 years ago from Philippines

      Hey Gunsock,

      Been going over your different hubs the past hour, and all I can say is please keep it up. Thanks for sharing.


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