On this day: Gone With the Wind premieres

December 15 1939: A film audiences still give a damn about

By Jennifer Lipman, December 15, 2010

Jewish producer David O Selznick earned an Oscar for the film version of Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel Gone with the Wind. The film, first shown in a star-studded Atlanta screening on December 15, won ten Academy Awards in total and the date of its premiere was declared a state holiday by the governor of Georgia.

Although some critics have complained of its idealised portrayal of the treatment of blacks in the Deep South, the story of Scarlett O’ Hara and Rhett Butler, as played by Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable, still captivates audiences today and remains one of the highest grossing films of all time.

Set against the backdrop of America’s Civil war, Selznick arranged for thousands of pounds worth of old film sets to be destroyed in order to depict Atlanta burning. The scene was filmed in one take.

Selznick, who grew up in Pittsburgh, started his life in the film business by working for his father Lewis, a silent movie distributor. Later he moved to Hollywood and became an assistant at movie powerhouse Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, before joining Paramount Pictures.

He worked on films from A Bill of Divorcement to King Kong, but his major successes came after 1935 when he started his own production company, Selznick International Pictures. The company worked on classic titles including A Star Is Born and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, before Selznick gained international recognition with the adaptation of Gone with the Wind.

In 1940 he collaborated with Alfred Hitchcock on Rebecca, but after that he took a step back from the industry and never again made a major film.

Selznick, who died in 1965 at the age of 63, married twice; the first time to Irene Gladys Mayer, whose father built up MGM. He was awarded a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame for his contribution to cinematic history.

What the JC said in a feature about Jews and Hollywood: Ben Hecht [one of the screenwriters for Gone with the Wind] in the early ‘forties sought to enlist 20 Jewish tycoons to press for the formation of a Jewish division in Palestine, under British command. All the moguls refused point-blank, including David O Selznick...who declared, ‘I am an American, not a Jew, and I am not interested in Jewish political problems.’ To change Selznick’s mind, Hecht asked him to name three people whom they would phone on the spot and ask whether they considered Selznick and American or a Jew. If even one of the three answered ‘an American,’ Selznick would win. Selznick lost, and later became head of the motion picture division of the United Jewish Appeal.

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Last updated: 2:59pm, January 28 2011