Only five films in history have made more than $2 billion at the box office, two of which—Infinity War (2018) and Endgame (2019)—are entries in the Avengers series. But when box office totals are adjusted for inflation over time, incredibly the most successful movie of all time remains 1939’s Gone with the Wind, the box office takings of which, in modern terms, amount to an astonishing $3.7 billion. Here are some more facts and figures about cinema’s greatest ever movie.
Gone with the Wind was based on a 1936 novel by writer and journalist Margaret Mitchell. Mitchell only started writing the book out of boredom, when a slow-healing ankle injury left her confined to her bed. She kept the fact that she was writing a novel a secret to everyone around her. She continued to work on it for the next decade, but allegedly never had any intention of seeing it through to publication, let alone the big screen. It was only when an incredulous friend found out that she had devoted so much time to writing it that, to prove her friend wrong, Mitchell sent it to a publisher. (Reportedly, she instantly regretted the decision and telegrammed the publisher the next day with the message, “Have changed my mind. Send manuscript back.”) Happily, not only did the book go to print, but when movie mogul David O. Selznick purchased the rights to the story in 1936, he paid $50,000 for them—at that time, the most ever paid for rights to any book. Still, Mitchell remained distant from the project and declined to be involved with the production of the movie.
Vivien Leigh’s casting as Scarlett O’Hara was far from straightforward. In total, 31 different actresses were screen-tested for the role, including the likes of Tallulah Bankhead, Paulette Goddard, Susan Hayward, and Lana Turner. Leigh’s casting came so late in the movie that filming had already started when she was finally cast—but as luck would have it, the way that the production was scheduled, the first shots of Scarlett due to be filmed were those during the immense “Burning of Atlanta” scene, where she is only seen either in silhouette or from a considerable distance. As a result, Leigh herself does not appear in most of these early long-distance shots, even though Scarlett O’Hara does.
GONE. GONE. GONE.
In all, Gone with the Wind had three directors—George Cukor, Victor Fleming, and Sam Wood. The majority of the film is Fleming’s, as Wood only took over from him briefly after he took ill with exhaustion following several arduous weeks’ work on set. The movie’s first director George Cukor, meanwhile, was fired from the production just a few weeks into shooting—despite having spent more than two years developing the story before making it to set. At the time, Cukor’s sudden departure was written off as a clash between him and the movie’s producer, David O. Selznick, who reportedly objected both to Cukor’s budget and to his lavish interpretation of the story. But Selznick and Cukor were good friends who’d had a perfectly harmonious working relationship for many years before Gone with the Wind, so to many of those involved, it seemed odd to fire a committed and talented director so soon after filming had begun. Hollywood folklore, ultimately, would have you believe that there is a dark side to Cukor’s disappearance. According to at least one version of the tale, Cukor left at the request of Clark Gable, who was supposedly uncomfortable with Cukor’s homosexuality; while another version claims that Cukor, as a closeted gay man in 1930s Los Angeles, was fully aware that Gable had allegedly secured his big break in Hollywood several years earlier by working as a male escort. Whatever the truth, by the end of the 135-day shoot, Cukor had overseen just 18 days of filming; Fleming had been responsible for 93; and Wood the remaining 24.
The atmosphere on the set of Gone with the Wind was often reportedly not a particularly happy one. Vivien Leigh repeatedly clashed with Fleming and resented him replacing Cukor. In protest, she brought a copy of Mitchell’s novel to set every day to remind Fleming of all the ways that the book was superior to his vision of the story. (Eventually, Fleming erupted angrily and demanded Leigh “throw the damned thing away.”) Clark Gable, meanwhile, refused to be shown crying on film for fear it would tarnish his macho image. He also clashed with Fleming over a scene in which Rhett was supposed to break down on hearing that Scarlett has suffered a miscarriage. As for Leslie Howard, he despised playing the strapping 21-year-old playboy Ashley Wilkes; as a scrawny 40-something Englishman, Howard felt ill-suited to the part and admitted he had only accepted the role in exchange for Selznick offering him a producer credit on an upcoming film. “I hate the damn part,” he wrote in a letter to his daughter back home in England. “I’m not nearly beautiful or young enough for Ashley, and it makes me sick being fixed up to look attractive.”
The city of Atlanta was appropriately picked to host the premiere showing of Gone with the Wind, and the city embraced the event with gusto. The day of the debut became a state holiday, and more than one million fans descended on the city to soak up the carnival atmosphere. There were, however, several noticeable absentees. Leslie Howard abandoned the premiere to return to Europe ahead of the Second World War. Director Victor Fleming had by then fallen out with David O. Selznick, and he too refused to attend. And, unbelievably, Hattie McDaniel—who went on to become the first African American performer to win an Oscar for her role as Mammy—was banned from attending the premiere due to Georgia’s segregation laws at the time.