‘1939: Secrets Of Hollywood’s Golden Year’ Episode 2: Recap And Review

As discussed in the recap of episode 1, the year 1939 marked a significant milestone for the film industry, with the release of several movies that would come to define modern cinema. However, episode 2 takes a fascinating departure from this topic and delves into the scandalous love affair between Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh and explores the complex reasons behind the success and discomfort of classic films like Gone with the Wind, and Stagecoach.

Spoilers Ahead

The Making Of The Classic

Gone with the Wind was a movie ahead of its time, a cinematic masterpiece that pushed boundaries in storytelling and filmmaking. It was the brainchild of David O. Selznick, a renowned filmmaker who was infamous for his attention to detail and perfectionism. He poured his heart and soul into the project, and the pressure of bringing Margaret Mitchell’s novel to life kept him awake at night. The production of the movie was fraught with difficulties, from delayed filming to casting issues. Selznick had his heart set on casting the iconic Clarke Gable as Rhett Butler, a move that caused many delays in production. Meanwhile, the search for the perfect actress to play the headstrong and fiery Scarlett O’Hara proved to be just as challenging. Selznick was determined to find the perfect Scarlett, and he auditioned countless Hollywood actresses, but none seemed to fit the bill. Finally, he discovered Vivien Leigh, a newcomer to Hollywood who was having an affair with the dashing Lawrence Oliver. Leigh’s audition was a revelation, and Selznick knew he had found his Scarlett. 

The Colorful Depiction Of Slavery

While hailed as a cinematic masterpiece, Gone with the Wind has always been a subject of controversy. The film’s epic scope and grandeur were the result of the obsessive perfectionism of David O. Selznick, who was determined to create a timeless masterpiece. However, the movie’s depiction of the American Civil War from the perspective of Confederates who fought to defend slavery has been criticized as being nothing more than racist propaganda. The film’s use of Technicolor brought to life the glamour and romance of the Old South while simultaneously glamorizing the depiction of slave laborers working in the plantations and fields. One particularly jarring scene showed white Southern belles enjoying a peaceful nap while little Black girls fanned them with peacock feathers. Film historian Todd Boyd asserts that Gone with the Wind represents a desire to see Black people subordinated to white people, perpetuating the narrative of the Civil War and its repercussions. Despite the film’s undeniable aesthetic achievements, it is impossible to ignore the inherent racism in its portrayal of the antebellum South. The segregation on the movie set was a clear example of the deeply ingrained racism in the film industry at the time. Black actors were forced to use separate toilets and had to deal with discrimination both on and off-screen. The issue took center stage when the black actors on set protested against segregation, and it was Clark Gable who took a stand and demanded that all toilets be made equal. The controversy surrounding Gone with the Wind also sparked criticism from the black community. Many felt that the film was a glorification of slavery and the Confederacy, and black actors were often attacked by colored columnists for participating in the film.

The Quarrels

David O. Selznick was deeply troubled by the secret romance between Vivian Leigh and her co-star, Laurence Olivier. He feared that if the news of their illicit love affair became public, it would bring down the movie he had invested so much in. To prevent this, he convinced Olivier to leave town, hoping that the separation would prevent any scandalous rumors from spreading. Initially, everything appeared to be under control. However, as time went on, Vivian Leigh found it increasingly difficult to cope with the distance between her and Olivier. Also, the constant pressure and scrutiny from producer David O. Selznick took a toll on her mental health. At one point, she even broke down in tears, leading Selznick to call on her partner, Lawrence Oliver, to come to her aid. The weight of the film’s ambition and Selznick’s constant presence left Leigh feeling depressed and anxious. On the other hand, Hattie McDaniel, who gave a powerful and groundbreaking performance as Mammy in Gone with the Wind, faced her own struggles during the film’s production. Despite her undeniable talent and contributions to the movie, she was prohibited from attending the film’s premiere due to the shameful Jim Crow Laws. Eventually, on Selznick’s approval, Hatty received a nomination for “Best Supporting Actress.” 

Gone with the Wind was a monumental success, earning over $18 million in its first year and garnering multiple Academy Awards. Among the winners were David O. Selznick and the film’s leading lady, Vivien Leigh. Notably, Hattie McDaniel made history as the first Black person to receive an Oscar for her portrayal of Mammy. However, McDaniel’s Oscar night was marred by the oppressive racism of the time. Despite her incredible talent and achievement, she was forced to sit in a segregated area, separated from her fellow actors of different races. It was a stark reminder of the pervasive discrimination that existed in the film industry and society at large. 

‘Stagecoach’ By John Ford

John Ford’s Stagecoach was another hugely successful film of that era, featuring the legendary John Wayne in the lead role. Wayne’s career was forever changed by the success of the movie, which helped to solidify his status as a Hollywood icon. However, working with Ford was not an easy task for Wayne, as the director was known for his demanding and sometimes abrasive style. Despite Wayne’s prior experience in Western dramas, he was unprepared for the challenges posed by Ford’s filmmaking style. Ford would push Wayne to his limits, using a combination of taunts and belittlement to get the performances he wanted. His uncompromising attitude often led to clashes with movie studios, as well as with the actors he worked with. John Ford’s devotion to his craft was evident in his approach to filmmaking. He was so loyal to his vision that he often chose to film on location in places like Monument Valley, far away from the constraints and interference of studio bosses. This allowed him to exercise complete creative control over his projects and produce films that truly reflected his artistic vision. The iconic chase sequence in Stagecoach” filmed in Monument Valley, not only helped to elevate the film to classic status but also set a new standard for Western movies.  The film, nevertheless, came under fire for its violent Native American stereotypes. 

The year 1939 will always be remembered as a climactic juncture in the yore of cinema, and the latest installment of the “Secrets of Hollywood” series does an outstanding job of capturing its significance. Through a combination of firsthand interviews and insights from movie historians, the program provides a rare and unfiltered look at just how important this year was for the film industry. In addition to being a groundbreaking year for film, 1939 was also one of the most financially successful years in the history of cinema. Despite the challenges of wartime inflation and economic uncertainty, theaters across the country managed to amass a staggering $600 million in revenue over the course of the year.

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