Help Wanted

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3

Margaret Mitchell, the quiet little woman who caused a big ruckus.

I am at a loss and would appreciate your help. Here it is, the 75th anniversary of the release of Gone With the Wind, the blockbuster 1939 classic motion picture of the classic Margaret Mitchell novel of the Old South. And I can’t find a Gone With the Wind celebration anywhere. Not a convention, not a conclave, not a picnic. Because Fireball is so much about Clark Gable, and includes an account of Gable’s tribulations making the picture and a description of the attendance of Clark and Carole Gable at the Atlanta premiere, I thought it would be natural for me to schedule a presentation about Fireball at a Gone With the Wind event this year. So where are the diamond jubilees? I guess it was the late 1980s when I attended one, maybe two, GWTW barbecues at Clark Gable’s birthplace in Cadiz, Ohio. These were pretty big shindigs with women in hoop skirts and an opportunity to meet and chat with original cast members Fred Crane (Stuart Tarleton) and Cammie King (Bonnie Blue Butler).

Come to think of it, that was 25 years ago, wasn’t it? GWTW was in sprightly middle age then. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but all the cast members are gone except for Olivia de Havilland. Is 75 years just too many for a celebration? Is it time for museums and musty, dusty antiquity? Is Gone With the Wind fast becoming as archaic as, say, Birth of a Nation?

I don’t know how well attended the digital restoration of Gone With the Wind was at last weekend’s Turner Classic Film Festival in Hollywood—we were in transit from the West Coast as it was unspooling. How did it go? Did any of this blog’s readers attend? Were there women in hoop skirts among the patrons that day?

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3

Fred Crane shares face time with Vivien Leigh. The Cadiz barbecue held 50 years later, during which I met Fred, looked exactly like this. Well…….sort of. Don’t they hold these kinds of things anymore?

I must be missing something, right? There have to be GWTW conventions that I’ve managed to overlook. We can’t be so rapidly losing touch with this epic motion picture. Or can we? It was such a cultural phenomenon, truly, unparalleled in American history. The book went off like a crate of dynamite upon release in June of 1936 and was reprinted upwards of 30 times by the end of the year. It earned a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for Margaret Mitchell, and again reigned as the top-selling novel in America in 1937. This novel was Big, and then came the movie, which was Just As Big. Speculation raged over which Hollywood star would play which role. Could David O. Selznick pull this miracle picture off? Or would it bomb? Would he even finish the thing? Then it premiered, and played, and played, and hit the road, and played on well into the war years. Then came the 1947 reissue, and then 1954, and the Civil War Centennial reissue of 1961, and a 70mm hatchet job in 1968, and another reissue in 1974. Gone With the Wind hit TV like Sherman in Georgia and played on pace with The Wizard of Oz and The Ten Commandments. It was a TV event, as it had been a theatrical event.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

The Gables receive a royal welcome upon their arrival in Atlanta for the GWTW premiere in December 1939. More than 150,000 people would flock to Peachtree Street to glimpse them.

But that was then. How are you feeling about Selznick’s Gone With the Wind these days? Do you still sit down and watch it? Do you try to introduce it to your children and grandchildren? Is there any hope for even attempting such a thing in our short-attention-span age? Is the 4×3 aspect ratio too out of date? Is the acting too corny? Is the lack of action too extreme? Or has it just plain been overexposed?

Personally I still get a kick out of Gone With the Wind, although not as much as I did 20 or 30 years ago. Now the back half moves pretty darn slowly and I get impatient with Scarlett for chasing around the feckless Ashley. Olivia de Havilland’s Melanie has grown on me quite a bit, though. Oh, how my mother despised Melanie, but I have to side with Rhett’s assessment that she was the only truly admirable woman in the story. Of course, I’m partial to Ona Munson’s Belle Watling too and think it would be swell to have a friend exactly like her.

So, help me out, will you? Where are the hot Gone With the Wind celebrations that I’m missing? What’s happened to the Epic Motion Picture of Our Time? Is it . . . gone with the wind? I’d welcome your perspective

that Gone With the Wind still holds onto some sort of relevance in 2014. I’m hoping it does. I’m hoping that maybe I’m just being a pessimist.

Also on a related but unrelated note: There have been many books written about the production of this motion picture. What is your favorite?

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3

Selznick’s money shot.

9 comments

  1. Robert, because of your column, I found the issue of the lack of a 75th Anniversary of GWTW addressed on an Olivia de Havilland blog. Here’s the link:

    http://www.oliviadehavillandonline.com/3/post/2014/01/2014-the-missing-75th-anniversary-of-gone-with-the-wind.html

    In a nutshell, Warners has temporarily withdrawn licensing of GWTW (with the sole exception of TCM’s festival) until October. At that point they then plan upon celebrating a re-issue of the film. Why October? I do not know. In the meanwhile, difficult for theatres to be involved in a major celebration of a film if they’re not allowed to show it. And I know that October is a long way off now for your promotion of Fireball, regarding a link to the most famous film that Gable or anyone else ever appeared in.

    I first saw the film at its theatrical 1968 reissue and, while I certainly enjoyed it, was horrified by the orange print that I saw, proclaiming afterward to anyone near that the film had terrible colour. I was not aware, of course, of the deterioration factor that can affect Technicolor prints without restoration.

    As for the film itself, while once I loved it, today my feelings are more along the lines of deep admiration for the remarkable professionalism of the production, rather than an on-going love affair. The film is simply too long for me to watch all the way through many times, and I fully agree with you about the film’s second half, when the story line begins to drag and becomes a little too soapy for my tastes.

    On the other hand, most of the performances have stood the test of time very well (well, excluding the uninspired Leslie Howard in a clearly uninspiring role for the actor). And simply not enough can be said about Max Steiner’s sweeping musical score, still one of the film’s greatest strengths, in my opinion.

    There is also the performance of Hattie McDaniel, which I love, as well as that of Butterfly McQueen, whose character (or is it the actress?) drives me beyond distraction (but doesn’t she do that to everybody?). I can understand the particular diffculty that her scenes would have for black viewers, though many feel the same way about McDaniel, too. This film’s romantic take on the pre-war American South, turning a blind eye to the cruelties of slavery, has always been the film’s greatest controversy and burden, right from the time of protest groups at its 1939 release.

    The one book that I’ve read involving the film is a huge coffee table collapser, David O. Selznick’s Hollywood by Ronald Haver. It’s a wonderful read, complete with multiple photographs and an indepth breakdown on the making of Selznick’s films, with a good portion of the book devoted to GWTW. If one has enough of a workout in advance to actually lift the book (okay, I exaggerate a bit but it does weigh three and a half pounds) it can’t be recommended enough. But it was a pricey item when I purchased it years ago, and I have no idea if it’s still available today. One might have a better time seeking it in a second hand store. It is one of the great movie books in my collection.

    1. Wow, Tom, thanks for this information! I missed this in January and am astounded at the heavy-handed approach by Warner Bros.–ironically the studio competing against Selznick for a Civil War epic and the one that released Jezebel many months before David O. even shot a foot of GWTW. Now Warner Bros., the legal owners of the GWTW “property,” strikes again.

      Licensing showings of the film is one thing; a convention or other commemorative event wouldn’t be included in the ban, would it? The film itself wouldn’t be shown at such a thing, but fans and memorabilia dealers would gather to celebrate and share information. It’s all still a little murky for me.

      I hadn’t thought about the Haver book lately, but, good call, Tom. It is a honey. I store my copy in the library in the basement where the overflow books are–it’s too hefty to display upstairs.

      Thanks very much for the reality check on the picture. You and I both cut our teeth on that 1968 roadshow reissue. I was pretty young and remember being bored to near death, having heard I was going to see a Civil War movie and expecting exciting battles. Boy was I in for a shock, and four hours of torture.

  2. Robert, I did find this article about the 75th anniversary in Atlanta but unfortunately, it doesn’t highlight a single event but rather for those interested, it shares info about local museums. Perhaps you could connect with them to present your book. I think it would be well received. http://www.atlantamagazine.com/georgiatravel/story.aspx?ID=2140600

    I went to Cadiz for Gable’s 100th birthday celebration back in 2001 and I agree with you that there were hoop skirts aplenty. There I met Gable’s son and also Herb Bridges, author of several GWTW books. Sadly, Mr. Bridges died last year. I think he was quite the raconteur when telling stories of the making of the movie and was a popular presence at various GWTW events. He stayed in touch with Alicia Rhett (India Wilkes), Cammie King (Bonnie Butler) and Rand Brooks (Charles Hamilton) but they, too, have all passed on. The Gable website in Cadiz does say they’re planning something for September so that would be a great place to present your book and not too far from home. My experience there though is that the people who attend are GWTW fans and love to hear about the movie. They seemed a little less interested in the life of Gable so you might have to bone up on some Gone With The Wind factoids. 🙂 http://clarkgablefoundation.com/news.html

    As for me, my favorite book and the first book I read about the movie was Scarlett Fever. And I love the documentary The Making of a Legend. I’m sure TCM will show it again this year. If you haven’t seen it, it’s wonderful and really pays tribute to the work of David O. Selznick. My favorite part is when they preview the movie in Riverside, CA interrupting the playing of Beau Geste. Imagine sitting in the theater and getting this surprise. I get chills every time I watch this scene. http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/72494|0/The-Making-of-a-Legend-Gone-With-the-Wind.html

    Has Gone With The Wind held up well? I think so but it’s long and easy to lose interest in. I took a poll where I worked a couple of years ago when a local theater was showing classic movies during the summer and had released the schedule. Most of the young people had never heard of Casablanca, Gone With The Wind, Citizen Kane or for that matter The Graduate, Chinatown or Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

    As for me, Clark Gable is it as Rhett. He is my favorite character in the movie and the book. Vivien Leigh was also amazing but it’s actually the smaller roles played by wonderful character actors who shine; Gerald O’Hara (Thomas Mitchell), Jonas Wilkerson (Victor Jory), Aunt Pittypat (Laura Hope Crews) and Mrs. Merriwether (Jane Darwell).

    Cheers!

    1. Very helpful information, Marina. Thank you!

      You make a great point, speaking of Cadiz, that Gone With the Wind fever doesn’t necessarily translate into interest in the themes of Fireball. Scarlett Fever has been a primary resource for me for 20 years. And proving that great minds think alike, my favorite story related to GWTW in any way is the sneak preview in Riverside and the reaction when the crowd realizes they will get to see a sneak preview of the most-talked-about picture ever made. Like you, I get chills just thinking about the reaction at that moment–more electricity than Tesla could shake a stick at.

  3. Yes, I agree with you about that surprise Riverside preview of GWTW. Even today it is a goose pimple creator just thinking about. Particularly if the preview version of the film had that famous right-to-left scroll of the film title, the giant G followed by the huge O, N and E, as the audience gasped in surprise and then burst into cheering and applause, realizing they were about to be the first in the world to see the most publicized film of their time! And if that preview had Max Steiner’s music at that early stage (I don’t know that it did), it must have really been a mind blowing experience at that initial moment.

    But as the film rolled into its final reels, there must have been some real head scratching going on at the homes of the audience members, though. “Gosh darn it, Ernie,” I can almost hear one woman yelling at her returning hubby, “Just how long is that Beau Geste movie anyway?”

    1. Funny you should mention these things, Tom. The opening did NOT feature the right-to-left giant letters. It had artwork like a storybook that turned page by page. And the music was NOT Steiner; it was repurposed music from Selznick’s The Prisoner of Zenda by Alfred Newman. A classic score that fit OK under the circumstances. It’s funny, but to me, and maybe to Marina as well, these oddities actually enhance the goosebumps for what must have been a near-orgasmic experience in that theater.

      Another great point, Tom. Imagine the irate parents whose daughter was two hours past her curfew, and then Dad was reaching for the shotgun when the terrified boy swore they had just seen Gone With the Wind.

  4. Well, Robert, I guess that preview audience was pretty ecstatic anyway, even without the Steiner music and title scroll. I’m probably wrong but I can’t of another film that has that kind of right-to-left title scroll, certainly none before GWTW. Combined with the Steiner score, Selznick certainly knew how introduce his film, just through the titles, as a BIG event.

    Ironic, too, that Beau Geste would be the film jettisoned in the theatre for GWTW since its star, Gary Cooper, had been the one actor, I believe, that Selznick had seriously considered for the role of Rhett outside of Gable. Cooper didn’t want to play Rhett, telling William Wellman the film “is going to be the biggest flop in Hollywood history. I’m just glad that it’ll be Clark Gable falling flat on his face and not Gary Cooper.”

    Coop was far from alone in making that prediction at the time, of course. Watching Cooper in Saratoga Trunk is the closest that we can come to seeing him as Rhett, and he would have been an interesting choice, I think. But that is to take nothing away from Gable, whose screen combination of rakish arrogance and animal magnetism really does make him the perfect choice for the role.

    Cooper may have been in more good films that Gable but there’s only one Gone with the Wind. I seriously wonder just how strong Gable’s name would register with audiences today if he hadn’t been in that one film. Look at Cooper. As genuinely competitive as he was with Gable at the box office over the years, I don’t think his name means as much to people today. High Noon is a famous western, of course, but it’s still not a name like GWTW.

    1. No one is a bigger fan of Cooper than I am. In fact, I’m writing this on his birthday, May 7th. I think your assessment of Coop, Tom, is a perceptive and honest one. Although I believe Coop could have pulled off an admirable Rhett, he certainly had the looks and acting chops to do it, there is the unmistakable Gable animal magnetism and rough quality that was perfect for the role. There was always a bit of the brute in Gable, whereas Coop was always the hero. Rhett Butler needed a hard edge to him. Underneath the polished smile and custom made clothes, Rhett was a rascal with a dark past. Gable pulled it off beautifully, and I believe he often does not get enough credit for acting that part so well. Each man shined in so many wonderful roles…that’s why we still talk about them so fondly. Happy Birthday, Coop…

  5. I love Coop too, Carol. I’m a little frustrated that he isn’t more celebrated today, compared to, say, Wayne. (Perhaps it was because Cooper showed more versatility in his selection of roles than the Duke, who became more firmly entrenched in the public’s mind as a macho westerner).

    Cooper and Gable also had a rather competitive relationship. That even extended to the size of the Duesenbergs that they had. Photos can be seen of the two men hunting together (possibly Sun Valley, Idaho). On one occasion, however, after Lombard’s death, Gable let it be known to Coop that Carole Lombard (who had known Cooper intimately prior to her relationship with Clark) used to throw Cooper up into his face during arguements. Cooper had a reputation within Hollywood circles as being a great lover, and somehow I can’t envision Carole being delicate about that fact either in the heat of the moment when arguing with Gable.

    Kind of helps explain why Gable made sure his Dusenberg was a foot longer than Cooper’s. I say that a little facetiously, I must admit, since I’m not certain if the car length competition between the two actors took place before or after Gable’s fallouts with Lombard.

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