Casting for the film proved to be a difficult task and one that was closely followed by the public. Within weeks of Selznick International Pictures purchasing the rights to Gone With The Wind, the company received an influx of letters from the public expressing opinions on casting. In response, the company began weekly fan mail reports (1) such as this sample from February 28, 1938. A letter written by Selznick (2) to a gossip columnist explains the company's casting process. In a letter written to Russell Birdwell (3), the film's publicity director, Selznick explains his decision to find a new talent for the role of Scarlett rather than hire an established actor.
Initially, he thought that he should hire an established star for the role of Scarlett. After a strong public response about who would suit the part and the realization that hiring an unknown actress could benefit Selznick financially, he decided to look for a new star for the part of Scarlett. In doing so, he could hire someone relatively inexpensively and place her under contract so that she would be committed to his studio when she became a star. He had used this same casting process with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938) and liked the rags to riches story of it.
In November 1936, Katherine Brown set out on a journey from Maryland to Georgia to find the unknown woman that could play Scarlett. Her itinerary included many women's colleges and universities with theater departments. In a memo to Selznick, Brown notes some of the obstacles of this casting trip, including the large scope of the search, the limited timeframe, and the recurring evidence that looks are not equivalent to talent. That memo, entitled "Invasion of the South" (4), was accompanied by a map (5) indicating her planned Virginia stops. Selznick and his company did not promote this trip as a contest to avoid potential issues if they did not cast the same woman that the public selected.
Twelve days into her "Southern Talent Search," Brown reported the successes and challenges (6) she encountered in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., as well as an account of her frustrations (7). She complained that when her visits were publicly announced, they attracted curious locals but no substantial talent. College drama departments and Little Theaters were the most productive stops on her search. Alicia Rhett was discovered during this search and was later cast for the role of India Wilkes. Two other women were identified for screen tests during the first "Southern Talent Search."
When first "Southern Talent Search" did not produce the talent that the studio had hoped for, George Cukor, the film's original director, led a second trip, continuing the search. On this trip, Brown suggested to Selznick that prospects who were attractive but lacked significant talent could fill small roles in the barbeque scene. Selznick wrote Brown in support of this idea (8). Cukor visited Margaret Mitchell, and conducted historical research during the talent scout, as expressed in a memo to Selznick (9). After Cukor returned home, the search for Scarlett continued in a quieter, less public manner. Searches continued in the south while Anton Bundsmann, Cukor, and Brown held auditions in New York City and Maxwell Arnow and Charles Richards, the Director of Casting, searched through stock players in Los Angeles. Arnow wrote a report (10) of the second "Southern Talent Search," outlining all the schools and theaters visited on the trip, along with the most impressive talent discovered, as well as report on scouting in Los Angeles (11) through various production companies, radio stations, theaters, and drama schools. Anton Bundsmann reported on Cukor's activity in New York City (12).
After a year and a half of searching, Selznick sent a statement (13) of frustration to Birdwell. In October 1938, during Cukor and Brown's second trip South, Selznick expressed a fear of failure (14) in casting a new girl for the role of Scarlett and began to entertain the idea of hiring a lesser-known but experienced star. One month later, Selznick's tone turned to defeat (15) in a memo to his secretary just weeks before he met and hired Vivien Leigh to play Scarlett.
Selznick's office prepared a chronology (16) of major events in the casting process in November 1938, more than two years after he began his search for the perfect actress to play the most coveted role in the history of film.