Articles,  Gone With The Wind,  Scarlett O'Hara,  Vivien Leigh

The Search for Scarlett O’Hara

From the time it was announced, that David O. Selznick would be making Gone With The Wind into a movie, all the gossip columnists and movie magazines were aflutter with whom should play the characters Margaret Mitchell so expertly brought to life in her best-seller.

Selznick decided he wanted to cast an unknown actress as Scarlett, hence the search for Scarlett began. Thousands of letters poured into Selznick’s office and to people like gossip columnists Louella Parsons and Jimmie Fidler. Newspapers asked readers to participate in polls and to voice their opinions on the characters.

A drawing of the unknown Scarlett with Clark Gable depicted as Rhett
One of the reasons Selznick wanted an unknown is that he didn’t want the power of a well-established actress to outshine the movie and to turn it into so-and-so’s film. Selznick wanted to create a star. He knew that whomever he cast as Scarlett would become an overnight sensation and he wanted that new star all to himself.

In 1936, three search teams were sent out in pursuit of Scarlett O’Hara: one team to the West, one to the North and one to the South. The southern team would be headed by Kay Brown, David Selznick’s New York assistant, who’d brought Gone With The Wind to his attention and hammered away at him until he purchased the movie rights. They would scour college campuses and small theaters across the states. Kay wrote this funny letter to Selznick, “We are in Atlanta, barricaded in our rooms. The belles turned out in droves. For the most part they were all healthy mothers who should have stayed at home; the rich debutantes are all offering to pay us to play Scarlett… I feel like Moses in the Wilderness… I need a drink and Georgia is a dry state.”

The first actress to complete a screen test for Gone With The Wind was Louise Platt in September, 1936. The rumour mill was grinding away during the search. Bette Davis was the most popular actress with the fans to play Scarlett. In January 1937, the top five leading contenders, as faithfully reported by the newspapers, for the role were: Bette Davis, Miriam Hopkins, Constance Bennett, Katharine Hepburn and Tallulah Bankhead.

Tallulah Bankhead in her screen test for Scarlett O’Hara

Selznick sent a wire to Tallulah Bankhead, who naturally wanted to know if she had the part after being tested, “Dear Tallulah, The tests are very promising indeed. Am still worried about the first part of the story and frankly if I had to give you an answer now it would be no, but if we can leave it open I can say to you very honestly that I think there is a strong possibility. I should like to continue looking around and a little later on consider the advisability of making further tests with you… using dialogue… directed by George [Cukor]. These tests should be beneficial to your chances… and from our standpoint they would really give us a clear idea as to how you would be as Scarlett. In short, I think you are a definite possibility, but I cannot give you an answer for some time.”

Testing for Gone With the Wind

Other young ladies being tested for Gone With The Wind were Alicia Rhett, Susan Falligant, Louisa Robert and Adele Longmire. They were all found during the Scarlett search. Alicia Rhett was discovered on-stage and was later signed to play India Wilkes, Ashley’s sister.

Testing for Gone With the Wind

Bette Davis lobbied hard for Warner Bros. to buy Gone With The Wind for her. Even after Selznick snapped up the movie rights, Bette still wanted to play Scarlett. And she was offered up to Selznick in a package deal, with Errol Flynn as the dashing Rhett Butler. At the time, Bette didn’t have a high opinion of Flynn’s acting, “The part of Mr. Flynn as Rhett Butler appalled me. I refused.” 

According to Jack Warner: Before Selznick decided on Vivien Leigh, he came to me with a proposition to lend him Bette Davis and Errol Flynn as a costarring package for the picture. Bette was fond of Errol… but she was also realistic about Errol’s limited acting talent. She refused to have any part of the deal, and that was her last chance for the part.

Bette Davis as Jezebel

David Selznick wrote to Ed Sullivan: Certainly you ought to know that Warner Bros. wouldn’t give Bette Davis up for a picture to be released through MGM, even had we wanted Miss Davis in preference to a new personality. Warner Bros. offered me Errol Flynn for Butler and Bette Davis for Scarlett if I would release the picture through Warners– and this would have been an easy way out of my dilemma. But the public wanted Gable.

Warner Bros. gave Bette Jezebel, her first costumed film. Of course, the Scarlett O’Hara comparisons started immediately. “Tush, Tush,” said Bette to the rumors. “The only similarity is that the girl I portray, like Scarlett, is a hundred years ahead of her time. ‘Jezebel’ was a play on Broadway two and a half years before ‘Gone With The Wind’ ever appeared.”

Miriam Hopkins

Miriam Hopkins was a huge favorite in the polls to play Scarlett and like Scarlett, she was a Georgia girl. She lobbied her studio, United Artists, to purchase Gone With The Wind. On not getting the role, Miriam said in 1937, “It’s a fat role for any actress. But, although I got votes from every section of the country, although shop girls, hairdressers everywhere, they all stopped me and asked me to play her, although even my mother says I should have done it because we’re from the South and her name is the same as Scarlett’s mother, Ellen, even with all those reasons I can only tell the truth. I’ve never been asked. I just wasn’t invited to the party.”

Susan Hayward as Scarlett and Dorothy Jordan as Melanie Wilkes
Brooklyn born Susan Hayward was another young woman to make a screen test for Gone With The Wind, in 1937. After posing for an article, How Models Come to New York, George Cukor saw her picture and he thought she might make a good Scarlett.
“They gave me a screen test in a Long Island studio and there must have been something about it that pleased them because they brought me to Hollywood where I was tested again and again. For some reason never explained, they changed their minds and I found myself in the ranks of the also-rans in the Scarlett race.” Six months later, Warner Bros. signed her to a six month contract. When that contract expired, Susan screen tested for Beau Geste and landed the part with a long-term contract to Paramount.

Arleen Whelan was a young lady who been living in Los Angeles and making her living at the Roosevelt Hotel in the beauty shop. She left there to work as a manicurist, in a Hollywood barbershop, where two weeks later she was discovered.

Arleen Whelan

The following was reported in a fan magazine: She is the girl who was chosen months ago to play Scarlett O’Hara in GWTW. And the only why she won’t be playing Scarlett is that the studio to which she is signed (20th Century Fox) won’t sell her contract to the studio producing the picture (Selznick International). Fifty-thousand dollars were offered for her contract and refused. Only the insiders have known up to this point that she was definitely selected as Scarlett- until Mr. Zanuck suggested to Mr. Selznick that he take his $50,000 and spend it on trying to find an Arleen Whelan of his own.

“Here’s something you might want to know, producers at the Selznick Studios heard about Arleen and asked to see her tests. They were searching for a girl who would fit into the Scarlett O’Hara role and with the permission of 20th Century Fox, Arleen was farmed out for three months while she learned a southern accent under Selznick tutors. An offer was made to buy her contract from Darryl Zanuck who promptly refused to let go of what he considered the outstanding discovery of the year in Hollywood…” -Tyrone Power

In Arleen’s own words: “Sidney Howard, who wrote the script for Gone With The Wind, saw me in the Brown Derby. He thought I ‘looked like Scarlett’ and he said he knew I was an actress by the way I ate. I’ve been self-conscious about eating ever since. They arranged with Mr. Zanuck to test me. Then they sent me to studying a southern accent, learning how to wear those grand old southern clothes. I’ve never enjoyed any experience so much as that. I’m still studying with the coach I had there- Gertrude Fogler.”

“It was a disappointment not to be able to play Scarlett,” Arleen said, “but I still think I’m the luckiest girl in all the world. From a manicurist table to a sound stage is a long, long jump and no one knows it any better than I.”

Margaret Tallichet surrounded by letters Selznick’s office received in regard to Scarlett.
Margaret Tallichet was another rumored contender. Margaret was making her living as a typist, at Paramount, when her good friend, Carole Lombard, introduced her to David Selznick. She had no acting experience, so Selznick had her take lessons and convinced her to try out for small theater productions to gain acting experience. 

Margaret had four screen tests, in March 1938, for the role of Scarlett. She was finally offered the part of Carreen, Scarlett’s youngest sister. After the Selznick team worked with her for almost a year, trying to sculpt her acting abiltiy, Margaret married film director William Wyler in October 1938. She soon became pregnant and gave birth to her first child in 1939. Margaret would abandon acting in 1941.

Norma Shearer

On June 24th, 1938, headlines were made when it was announced that Norma Shearer would play Scarlett O’Hara and Clark Gable would be cast as Rhett Butler. Five days later, Maxine Garrison wrote, “But I’ve been trying to digest La Shearer as Scarlett for more than two days now and the idea won’t stay put.” Garrison went on to remark that Norma was too groomed to play Scarlett. “…I remember Scarlett vying with the pigs at Tara in digging roots in a denuded garden, grubbing away for months without a thought to her looks… Scarlett driving a heavy wagon from Atlanta to Tara over almost impassable roads. Scarlett being manhandled by Rhett in one of the book’s most vivid scenes, hearing for the first time in her willful life the full list of her sins, squabbling with Rhett like a fishwife. And Norma Shearer just doesn’t fit in there, not in the light of any of her past performances, clever and suave though they have been. She is a master of the movie art of understatement. But Scarlett can’t be played that way. Scarlett is a thousand moods in one, a creature of utter spontaneity, a flash of lightning against the pale landscape in which ladies moved in her day. Perfect grooming had no part in her charm, complete self-control was never one of her virtues.”

On August 1st, Ms. Shearer formally withdrew from consideration in David Selznick’s epic. She thought herself “unsuited as his leading lady of ‘Gone With The Wind.’” She received several letters from her fans, who voiced their opinions that she shouldn‘t take on the role. “I am convinced the majority of fans who think I should not play this kind of character are right. I have advised Mr. Selznick and Mr. Mayer of my feelings so they will not consider me for the part should the MGM deal with Selznick go through.”

Katharine Hepburn with George Cukor
Katharine Hepburn was another actress who desperately wanted to play Scarlett O’Hara. She was good friends with George Cukor, who’d previously directed her in Holiday and Little Women. As Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins did, Hepburn tried to get her studio, RKO, to buy Gone With The Wind for her. “When Katie first read Gone With The Wind, she was wildly enthusiastic. She tore into Pan Berman’s office at RKO and begged him to buy the book for her. But, before producer Berman could say “Jack Robinson,” David Selznick had beaten him to the finish… triumphantly scooping Hollywood on the distinguished novel of the year. Naturally, this was a bitter disappointment to Katie but, characteristically, she didn’t give up hope. From that day to this she has never relinquished her dream to play the part of Scarlett.” Both Hepburn and Cukor tried to persuade Selznick to cast her in the lead role. In October of 1938, a newspaper article ran this quote, “Miss Hepburn received an impressive number of fan endorsements, but Selznick privately declared he would not consider her.”
Paulette Goddard
Paulette Goddard was tested for Scarlett several times, in 1938. Rumours began about her being cast as early as February, 1938. One of the biggest drawbacks to casting Paulette was the question of whether or not she was married to Charlie Chaplin. The two of them were living together and creating quite a stir in the gossip columns. Selznick didn’t want any adverse gossip following his movie to the box-office. The rumor. at the time. was that she and Chaplin had been married at sea, but Paulette would not, or could not, produce proof. When Paulette was interviewed by one of the leading movie magazines, she was asked directly if she was married. Paulette replied, “I have vowed never to discuss my private life. I intend to keep that vow.”

Rumors flew thick and fast about Gone With The Wind. She was to be Scarlett- sure! But she wasn’t. She was frank concerning her feelings on that score. “I was terribly disappointed at the time, but now I am glad that I shan’t be Scarlett,” she confided. “You see, if I had succeeded, I should probably never been able to duplicate my performance with a subsequent success. And if I had failed– well, I don’t like to think about that either! And so, honestly cross-my-heart, I am glad it all turned out the way it did. Miss Leigh is an established actress and no matter how her Scarlett turns out, she can go on. But it might have finished me!”

Laurence Olivier was in Hollywood, filming Wuthering Heights, when Vivien Leigh decided to leave London and visit him. They were in the midst of a great love story, as a little over a year ago, they had each left their respective spouses and moved in together. Beginning in September 1938, Vivien had been starring, on stage, in the title role of Serena Blandish. In November, Vivien traveled on the Queen Mary and arrived in the states, at the end of the month. She had a limited amount of time in America, as she was scheduled to appear soon in another play back home in England. 

Vivien had read Gone With The Wind when it first came out. She’d made her mind up and decided she’d be the one to play Scarlett O’Hara, even announcing that “I shall play Scarlett O’Hara, wait and see.” to her cast mates of 21 Days Together, back in 1937. Vivien later reminisced, “I wanted to play Scarlett from the first time I read the book. That was in London, when I was appearing in a flop play. I fell in love with the novel and gave the cast copies of the book as opening night presents. I told them that if I ever went to Hollywood, it would be to play in ‘Gone With the Wind.’ They all laughed and said I was crazy.” 

Vivien Leigh as Serena Blandish, Fall 1938

David Selznick couldn’t wait any longer; with or without a Scarlett, he needed to start filming Gone With The Wind. Several old sets needed to be cleared off the Forty Acres lot so that the sets for Gone With The Wind could be built. On December 10th, 1938, it was decided to set fire to these old buildings to create the burning of Atlanta sequence. It was at the end of filming this, that David’s brother, Myron Selznick, approached him with two people; one of them was Laurence Olivier and the other, Vivien Leigh.

Two days later, David wrote to his wife, Irene: Saturday night, I was greatly exhilarated by the fire sequence. It was one of the biggest thrills I have had out of making pictures- first, because of the scene itself, and second because of the frightening but exciting knowledge that Gone With The Wind was finally in work. Myron rolled in just exactly too late, arriving about a minute and a half after the last building had fallen and burned and after the shots were completed. With him were Larry Olivier and Vivien Leigh. Shhhhhh: she’s the Scarlett dark horse, and looks damned good. (Not for anybody’s ears but your own: it’s narrowed down to Paulette, Jean Arthur, Joan Bennett and Vivien Leigh).

In 1941, David recalled this moment: Before my brother, Myron… brought Laurence Olivier and Miss Leigh over to the set to see the shooting of the Burning of Atlanta, I had never seen her. When he introduced me to her, the flames were lighting up her face and Myron said, “I want you to meet Scarlett O’Hara.” I took one look and knew that she was right- at least right as far as her appearance went- at least right as far as my conception of how Scarlett O’Hara looked. Later on, her tests, made under George Cukor’s brilliant direction, showed that she could act the part right down to the ground, but I’ll never recover from that first look.

The top four contenders for the role were now Paulette Goddard, Jean Arthur, Joan Bennett and Vivien Leigh. In December, 1938, each of them were filmed, in three test scenes: Mammy helps Scarlett into her corset at Tara, Scarlett declares her love for Ashley in the library at Twelve Oaks and the paddock scene with Ashley at Tara.

Jean Arthur as Scarlett
Joan Bennett as Scarlett with Douglass Montgomery as Ashley
Paulette Goddard being made-up for her screen test as Scarlett

Vivien completed her screen tests on December 21st and 22nd. On Christmas Day, 1938, George Cukor informed her she had the role of Scarlett O’Hara. She later recalled that moment when Cukor told her, “‘Well, Vivien, I guess we’re stuck with you.’ Like that. As matter of fact as if he’d said, ‘Well, Vivien, have some more turkey.'” 

Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara

Finally, after two and a half years, more than 1,400 interviews, 500 readings and screen-tests combined and thousands of dollars spent, Selznick finally had his Scarlett O’Hara.

Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara

In addition to Vivien Leigh as Scarlett, the search produced Alicia Rhett (India Wilkes), Marcella Martin (Cathleen Calvert) and Mary ’Bebe’ Anderson (Maybelle Merriweather).

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  • Unknown

    I just can not picture anyone especially Bette Davis as Scarlett, Vivien Leigh was the best choice they could have made. Parts are meant to fit the actresses ability.

  • Unknown

    Love the whole story of The Search For Scarlett!!!! I had also watched the film about it and it proved how Vivien, in looks alone, had outdone everyone else ~ and her impeccable acting ability and was the perfect embodiment of Scarlett ~ in comparison to the other women/actresses who were also being considered. I believe her youth also was a factor. It seemed all the other actresses appeared somewhat too old for the role. Anyway, I've been an avid fan of Miss Leigh ever since I've watched GWTW. Thank you so much for this article.

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