Scarlett’s Rough Road to Hollywood

By John Wiley, Jr.
Posted December 2014

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the motion picture Gone With the Wind, which had its world premiere in Atlanta on Dec. 15, 1939. Author Margaret Mitchell hoped the long-awaited unveiling of the film made from her blockbuster novel would mean the end of the public’s interest in her. However, as when she first sold the movie rights, Mitchell vastly underestimated the staying power of Scarlett O’Hara.

On July 7, 1936, Margaret Mitchell agreed to an offer of $50,000 from Selznick International Pictures, Inc., for the movie rights to her novel, Gone With the Wind, which had been published the week before. Naively, she thought the sale would mark the end of her involvement with the motion picture, but her attempts to ensure that Hollywood and a movie-crazed public leave her alone was an unending struggle.

The author received the movie contract the following week. After reviewing its 16 pages with her husband John Marsh, who was her business manager, and her brother Stephens Mitchell, an attorney, she decided the document was “the stupidest contract” she had ever seen, and one “…no rational person could sign, regardless of the amount involved.”

The three of them had many questions; John Marsh wrote an 11-page, single-spaced letter laying out their concerns, noting he hoped “…getting the contract revised and signed won’t be as laborious as the job of getting this very long letter written.” He was to be disappointed. Marsh and Stephens Mitchell tried to get answers over the telephone, but to no avail. By month’s end, the author and her brother decided to go to New York to meet face-to-face with representatives of Selznick International.

“I will lose my mind certainly if this thing isn’t settled soon,” she told a friend.

Gone With the Wind had touched a chord in a Depression-weary nation, and readers poured out their hearts to Scarlett’s creator. Seemingly overnight, Mitchell became one of the most famous women in the country. Fans swamped her with mail; some days, hundreds of letters, along with dozens of copies of her novel to be autographed, arrived at her Atlanta apartment. Mitchell was grateful for the public’s appreciation of her work and felt duty-bound to respond and thank them for their kind words and answer their questions, even though it added to her workload. But her replies, warm and friendly, encouraged many readers to write a second time, often leading to a series of correspondence.

For advice on what to do “…when one has been so unfortunate as to become a best seller,” she turned to Stark Young, the Mississippi author of the 1934 novel, So Red the Rose. She wrote: “For instance, when I am expecting a hellishly busy day and five close friends telephone, announcing that their Aunt Minnies from Keokuk are visiting them and will have a stroke if they do not see what I look like—what am I to do? Northerners have said bluntly, ‘Tell your friends you’ll be jolly well pleased if their Aunt Minnies have two strokes as long as they don’t bother you.’ But you are a Southerner and you know the intricate and courteous relationships between friend and friend and kin and kin in this section. They are not to be dealt with cavalierly.”

“You hit the nail on the head,” Stark Young replied, agreeing that “…it’s the Southern in us that complicates” matters. He advised her to take a trip to Mexico or New Orleans under her married name—“There, nobody would bother you”—or to take advantage of the “big city’s privacy” of New York. But he admitted there was no long-term solution.

Fans already had begun writing her about the movie, and Mitchell believed selling the film rights would shift that burden onto Selznick. She and Stephens Mitchell took the train to New York on July 28. At Selznick’s Park Avenue office the next morning, they met with representatives of her publisher, Macmillan, as well as John Wharton, Selznick’s attorney and treasurer of Selznick International, and Kay Brown, the producer’s story editor. The author and her brother took an immediate liking to Brown.

“Margaret and I had not been in New York 15 minutes before we both whispered to each other that you were the smartest person around,” Stephens Mitchell told Brown years later.

The author and her brother were “as ignorant as a babe unborn” about the issues they faced, and Stephens Mitchell admitted he was intimidated by Wharton, one of the country’s leading theatrical rights attorneys. The first day of talks did not go well. Using Marsh’s lengthy letter as a guide, Mitchell’s brother raised several points that were dismissed as mere technicalities. In addition, any hope they held of the studio allowing the author a say in how the book was translated to the screen was quickly dashed. The contract specifically gave Selznick the right to make “...any and all changes and substitutions in the property,” including plot, action and dialogue. By the end of the day, the Mitchells considered simply walking away, but the author wanted to put the matter behind her, so they decided to stay and try again tomorrow.

The following day, Mitchell won a partial concession in the area of television rights. She had a section removed from the contract that obligated her to offer the movie rights to her next novel to Selznick before anyone else. She also insisted on inserting a line in the section about commercial tie-ups—items such as dolls, games and figurines manufactured to promote the film—that directed her name not be used in promoting such products.

That afternoon, July 30, Mitchell signed the contract, selling the movie rights to Gone With the Wind to producer David O. Selznick for $50,000. She received $45,000, and Macmillan and agent Annie Laurie Williams split the remaining $5,000 as their commission.

In Mitchell’s mind, her dealings with Hollywood were over. Selznick was free to make the motion picture he wanted from her book, and she would bear none of the blame should it fail. Contractually, the studio could not use her name to endorse “Wade Hampton Hamilton Bran Flakes” or “Scarlett O’Hara-Hamilton-Kennedy-Butler Toilet Water,” as Mitchell's husband joked.

Mitchell would not bother the people making the movie, and they would not bother her. However, the author’s innate curiosity and a maternal interest in what Selznick was doing with her literary “baby”—along with the public’s unshakable belief that as the author, Mitchell was their ticket to Hollywood—meant she could not stay aloof for long. And, as she soon learned, not everyone took contracts and promises as seriously as she did.


Excerpted from the prologue to The Scarlett Letters: The Making of the Film Gone With the Wind, edited by John Wiley, Jr. (Taylor Trade Publishing, $34.95) 




 Show & Auction Almanac

Antique Shop & Mall Directory



Internet Directory



Contact Us

Advertising Rates

 Privacy Policy

Web Links

2000 - 2017  Norton Printing and Publishing, Inc. - All rights reserved.
No portion of the Southeastern Antiquing and Collecting Magazine may be reprinted or reproduced without express permission of the publisher.