When the shooting of Gone With the Wind began, producer David O. Selznick was still searching for Scarlett O’Hara.
Actresses flocked to Hollywood, talent scouts combed the South, and Selznick’s backers banged on his door. Over the course of two and a half years he’d shot 165,000 feet of film (27 hours), spending $105,000 on the most extensive screen tests in the history of cinema.
While Bette Davis, Joan Fontaine, Susan Hayward, Lana Turner, Katharine Hepburn, Norma Shearer, and other luminaries vied for the role, a virtually unknown Vivien Leigh vacationed on the Riviera with Laurence Olivier and a dog-eared copy of Gone With the Wind.
She was passionate about the book and about Scarlett and, against overwhelming odds, determined to become the lovely southerner with fiery green eyes, “a Cheshire cat smile,” and 16-inch waist. She sailed to New York and flew to Los Angeles, a 15 1/2 hour flight during which she practiced the catlike expressions of Scarlett O’Hara.
At the Selznick studio, Vivien Leigh was introduced to David by his brother Myron, who was, fortuitously, Olivier’s agent. She wore a graceful black dress, tightly cinched at the waist, and a broad-brimmed black hat. “The flames (of burning Atlanta) were lighting up her face,” Selznick later recalled. “I took one look and knew she was right. I’ll never recover from that first look.”
Looks aside, Vivien had to act. Final tests were made of three strong contenders—Joan Bennett; Jean Arthur; the favorite, Paulette Goddard—and of the newcomer, Vivien Leigh. These were scenes of Scarlett lacing up her corsets, confronting Ashley at Twelve Oaks, and entertaining with drunken passion Rhett Butler’s proposal of marriage. When the individual scenes with different actresses were viewed back to back, Selznick was at long last able to make a decision. He’d found that actress who concealed wildness beneath elegance and style, whose “green eyes in the carefully sweet face,” as Margaret Mitchell wrote, were “turbulent, lusty for life, distinctly at variance with her decorous manner.”
There were only two problems with Vivien Leigh: she was English (which patriotic Americans might not find appropriate), and she was having an affair with Olivier, although both were married and had children.
In his long press release announcing his choice, Selznick diplomatically avoided saying Vivien was English; she just happened to be married to a London barrister and had worked in England recently. He then visited the amorous couple and strongly urged the utmost discretion on their part. Poor Paulette. Goddard had apparently been on the brink of success (before Vivien appeared), when controversey over her own ambiguous relationship with Charlie Chaplin delayed the casting.
The film going public, argued Selznick, would not look kindly on such illicit behavior. As it was, the Olivier-Leigh romance probably added to the allure of the new actress, who would charm and dazzle audiences for decades to come.