On December 10, 1938, shooting began on Gone With The Wind with the Burning of Atlanta scene, although no one had been cast to play the role of Scarlett. That night, David Selznick's brother, Myron, came onto the set escorted by a strikingly beautiful and mysterious woman.
That woman was Vivien Leigh and her entrance was no accident. She had come to Hollywood from England ostensibly to be with Laurence Olivier, one of Myron's clients, who she would marry a year and a half later. She had also come to Hollywood to pursue the part of Scarlett. Although both Selznicks might have heard about Leigh, David O. Selznick had never met her.
Selznick began serious consideration of Leigh the following Monday morning. Call sheets (1) record that her screen tests were made on December 21 and 22. She signed her contract on January 16, 1939, and principal photography began on January 26.
The casting choice was controversial. In response to widespread protests that someone other than a Southern woman had been chosen, Selznick's publicity department, headed by Russell Birdwell, went to work to persuade the public that Leigh was right for the part. He wrote numerous letters to gossip columnists (2 - 3) and crafted a biography of Vivien Leigh distributed to magazines and newspapers in justification of the casting decision.
The following is Vivien Leigh's biography, as written by Russell Birdwell:
From Russell Birdwell
Selznick International Pictures
Culver City, California
Vivien Leigh, whose father is French and mother Irish, will play the role of Scarlett O'Hara, whose father was Irish and mother French.
The selection of Miss Leigh by David O. Selznick, president of Selznick International Pictures, Inc., yesterday brought to a close the two-year controversy over the selection of a Scarlett for Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With The Wind."
Choice of Miss Leigh was based upon tests directed by George Cukor, who will direct the picture.
Clark Gable already has been announced for the role of Rhett Butler, and with the screenplay by Sidney Howard and Oliver H.P. Garrett completed, Selznick has the stage set for the beginning of production. The picture, to be filmed entirely in Technicolor, goes before the cameras within the next two weeks.
In her physical characteristics as well as her ancestry, Miss Leigh resembles the heroine of Miss Mitchell's book. She is five feet three, weighs 103 pounds, has green eyes, brown hair with a touch of red, and even possesses Scarlett's pointed chin.
Miss Leigh is a newcomer to American production, but has had some experience in English studios. For Alexander Korda she played in "Fire Over England" and "Storm in a Teacup." More recently, she was seen in "A Yank at Oxford," produced by MGM in London.
Prior to her recent screen work, Miss Leigh had a great deal of experience on the stage, having played leads in "The Mask of Virtue," "The Happy Hypocrite," "Henry VIII," "Bats in the Belfry," "Because We Must" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
She has been under contract to Alexander Korda, but under the terms of her contract for Selznick, and by arrangement with Mr. Korda, she will be under exclusive contract for the future to Selznick Inter-national, except for one picture yearly which she will make in England for Mr. Korda.
In private life, Miss Leigh is Mrs. Leigh Holman, wife of a London barrister and mother of a five-year-old daughter, Suzanne.
Miss Leigh was born in Darjeeling, India, at the foot of Mt. Everest, on November 5, 1913, daughter of Ernest Richard Hartley, stock broker, of French decent, and Gertrude Robinson Hartley, born in Ireland. She was schooled in Paris, London, Switzerland, Italy and Germany.
At the age of fifteen, as a student in Mlle. Manileve's school in Paris, Miss Leigh was taught dramatics by an actress of the Comedie Francaise. She was given a chance to try her talent in school productions of Victor Hugo's plays, and her aptitude brought urgings to continue her dramatic studies.
Three years later Miss Leigh entered the Academy of Dramatic Art in London to study for her career. A year later she met and married Holman, returning to school after the honeymoon.
Before she got the chance to play her first professional acting role, Miss Leigh found herself concerned with the more important real-life role of a mother. Once the care of little Suzanne was well arranged, however, Miss Leigh went out to prove to herself that her earlier ambitions had been justified.
Starting slowly, Miss Leigh took what small parts she could get. She was given her first big opportunity on the stage when Sydney Carroll gave her a role in his production, "The Mask of Virtue" at the Ambassadors Theatre.
In making her Hollywood debut for Selznick International, she goes into the most widely-discussed role in the history of motion pictures. Literally thousands of actresses and non-professionals were considered for the role. The search included the efforts of talent scouting units in all parts of the country, especially the South. Due to the importance of the role, most of the major stars in motion pictures have at one time or another been considered, but Selznick continued to hope for a girl who was not identified in the minds of the public with other roles, a girl who would not have to subordinate a previously established personality in the creation of Scarlett O'Hara.
Some months ago it was announced that January fifteenth had been set as a deadline for the selection, and as the time limit drew to a close the choice narrowed down to a few players. Miss Leigh appeared at the studio, hoping, but little daring to believe that she would be considered for the role, at the moment when the fire scenes were being made for the sequence dealing with the burning of Atlanta, and was introduced to Selznick at the moment when the fire was at its height. He was immediately impressed by her physical resemblance to the Scarlett of Miss Mitchell's creation, and acting tests were promptly arranged.
Miss Leigh's name is pronounced as though spelled "Lee."