15 April 2016

I can't do anything about the script

When producer David O. Selznick bought the film rights to Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind in July 1936, he knew that transforming the book into a workable screenplay would be a helluva job. It was estimated that filming the entire 1,037-page novel would make a picture of about 168 hours long, so drastic cuts were necessary to get it down to a manageable size (without damaging the novel's key elements). To write the screenplay, Selznick first hired Jane Murfin with whom he had worked before on a few films, but he quickly fired her when he heard that Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist/screenwriter Sidney Howard was also available. 

So Howard was hired, and in February 1937 he submitted his first draft which was far too long with a running time of about six hours. Several editing sessions with Selznick followed, but Howard failed to deliver a script with an acceptable length. Consequently, more than a dozen other writers were brought in by Selznick to work on Howard's script, including Ben Hecht and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Selznick himself also worked on it). Their joint efforts resulted in a final screenplay that was close to Howard's original version (but apparently much shorter). In the end, Howard received sole screen credit for the screenplay and was also the only writer to be honoured with the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. (The Oscar was posthumous as 48-year-old Howard died tragically in a tractor accident at his farm in August 1939, before GWTW was released.)

From the very start, David Selznick wanted to involve GWTW's author Margaret Mitchell in the filmmaking process. He asked her repeatedly to work on the screenplay, but Mitchell refused and wanted nothing to do with it. She wanted nothing to do with the casting either or any other aspect of the production. Mitchell was, however, quite happy to meet with George Cukor (GWTW's first director), Sidney Howard or anyone else from Selznick's company, and she offered her assistance in bringing the filmmakers into contact with people who might be useful. (Atlanta historian Wilbur Kurtz and Mitchell's friend Susan Myrick were both hired by Selznick as technical advisers at Mitchell's suggestion.)

In the fall of 1936, plans were made for George Cukor, Sidney Howard and Katharine Brown (assistant to David Selznick) to visit Atlanta. To make sure that Howard knew about her attitude towards the film, Mitchell wrote to Katharine Brown on 17 November: "I hope you told Mr. Howard that I am not doing anything about the adaptation for I don't want him to come down here with a false impression". Brown wired back that Howard knew, so naturally Mitchell was quite upset when she received a letter from Howard asking her to help him with possible additional dialogue and to read his script. On 21 November 1936, Mitchell answered Howard's letter, saying there must have been a misunderstanding, that she wanted nothing to do with the script or the film. Mitchell listed several reasons for her refusal to cooperate, one of her biggest concerns being the people from Atlanta who would never forgive her if they didn't like the film and she had in some way been part of it ("You didn't write the book and you do not live here in Atlanta and if they do not like something then you will be excused").

Mitchell's letter to Howard is shown below and is one of the more than 300 letters written by Mitchell, collected in The Scarlett Letters: The Making of the Film Gone With The Wind (edited by John Wiley, Jr.; October 2014).

Incidentally, Mitchell and Howard wrote several letters to each other but in the end they never met.


Mr. Sidney Howard
Tyringham, Massachusetts

Atlanta, Georgia
November 21, 1936

My dear Mr. Howard:

I was so pleased to have your letter and am happy to know that you are coming South. You were very kind to write me so many nice things about "Gone With the Wind" and I especially appreciated your remarks about the negro dialect which was just about the toughest job in the book. 

But my pleasure at your coming is somewhat dimmed by the fear that there has been a misunderstanding about my part in the production of "Gone With the Wind". I hasten to write to you for I would not have you come South under a misapprehension.

When I sold the book to the Selznick Company, I made it very plain that I would have nothing whatsoever to do with the picture, nothing about additional dialogue, nothing about advising on backgrounds, costumes, continuity. They offered me money to go to Hollywood to write additional dialogue, etc.  and I refused. I sold the book on that understanding. Not more than a week ago, I wrote Miss Katharine Brown of the Selznick Company and asked her if you were familiar with my attitude and she wired me that you were.

But now your letter arrives and I realize that they have not told you and I am very distressed about it. I still have no intentions of doing anything about additional dialogue or even looking at the script. There are many reasons for this and I will try to list them as briefly as possible.

In the first place it would do no good for me to look over the script- any more than looking over a Sanscrit grammar. I know just as much about Sanscrit as I do about writing for the movies. A script would mean nothing to me and it would take me weeks or months to figure it all out.

In the second place, I haven't the time. I never dreamed writing a book meant losing all privacy, leisure and chance to rest. Since July 1, I've averaged an engagement every forty minutes from nine in the morning till long after midnight. And, between these engagements, I've had to handle an enormous mail and try to see my family.

The third reason is this. I know it sounds like a silly one but it is an important one to me. If I even so much as looked over the script, without even passing judgment on it, and there was some small item in the finished production that incensed or annoyed the people of this section, then I'd get the blame for it. Southerners have been wonderful to my book and I am grateful indeed that they like it and are interested in the forthcoming picture. Not for worlds or for money would I put myself in the position where, if there was something they didn't like in the picture, they could say, "Well, you worked on the script. Why did you let this, that and the other get by?" I would never live it down and I could never explain that I really had nothing to do with the script. It won't matter to them if there is something in the movie they don't like that you may be responsible for. You didn't write the book and you do not live here in Atlanta and if they do not like something then you will be excused.

From the minute the news of the movie sale broke, I have been deviled by the press and the public for statements about who I wanted in the picture, who I wanted to do the adaptation, where I wanted it filmed. I have never opened my mouth on any of these subjects for it occurred to me that such statements would be the greatest presumption on my part as Mr. Selznick and you are most competent people and know how to produce good pictures. Moreover, having said I'd have nothing to do in any way with the production, I've published it in Ascalon and told it in Gath that I have no connection with the film of "Gone With the Wind." To be frank, I do not care who they put in it or where they film it. To be quite frank, I have all confidence in you and Mr. Cukor and Mr. Selznick so why should I rush about issuing statements to the press on matters that are none of my business?

I did tell Miss Brown that I would be only too happy to do this for her--that if she, or Mr. Cukor or you, came South I would do all I could in making contacts for you for finding new talent, for rounding up research workers and local historians who know what really went on down here in those days. I said I'd take her from Dalton to Milledgeville, showing her old entrenchments, old houses and introducing her to people in each town along the way to help her. That's going to be a tough assignment in itself. But I can't do anything about the script or about additional negro dialogue. I just can't. I'm too nearly crazy now with the load I'm carrying to even consider it, even should I want to do it.

I know this foregoing doesn't sound hospitable nor obliging! But I had to write it for I realized that the Selznick Company had not explained the situation to you and I was very upset at the thought of you coming all the way down here in the belief that I was going to be of any assistance on the picture beyond making contacts. 

May I tell you now, how sincerely happy I was when I heard that you were going to do the adaptation? I did so want the book to fall into good hands and was so pleased when it did!

Speaking of Civil War Monuments- you should see our Southern ones. I believe they were put out by the same company that put out the Northern ones. They are twice as ugly and three times as duck-legged!*


*The last paragraph regarding Civil War Monuments is Mitchell's reaction to Howard's news that he had bought a farm in a village with a Civil War Monument.

At the premiere of GWTW with Margaret Mitchell (far left) and husband John Marsh, seated next to Clark Gable and wife Carole Lombard.

This post is part of  CMBA's Spring Blogathon "Words! Words! Words!" Click here for a list of all the wonderful entries.


  1. I think I like Margaret Mitchell! She spoke her mind and stuck by her guns, so to speak.

  2. I like her, too. She seems fair but firm, but not without graciousness.

  3. This is fascinating. I remember hearing Toni Morrison say something quite similar about Beloved--that screenwriting wasn't her skill, and she thought she had no business interfering with others' versions of her story. I appreciate the sentiment, but when it results in something horrifying (i.e., Clan of the Cave Bear--the film), the book does suffer.

  4. Smart lady - it must have taken quite a strong constitution to not be seduced by Selznick's full court press.