Why Was George Cukor “Gone with the Wind?”

David O. Selznick, Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard,
Olivia de Havilland, and George Cukor

In June of 1936, just one month after the publication of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, David O. Selznick of Selznick International Pictures spent a record-breaking $50,000 to purchase the film rights to the historical epic that every other major studio in Hollywood had turned down. Even before he bought the rights to make the novel into what would later become the highest-grossing film of all time, Selznick had hired director George Cukor to be the man in charge of bringing Mitchell’s vision to the screen. Cukor was well-equipped for the job of helming such an enormous picture, having previously established himself with such hits as Little Women (1933), Dinner at Eight (1933), and Camille (1936). He spent the next two years deeply immersed in the daily chores of pre-production on Wind, including supervising the rigorous screen tests of actresses vying for the role of perhaps cinema’s most influential character, Scarlett O’Hara. In the final weeks of 1938, Cukor dedicated hours of his time to coaching lead actresses Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland in preparation for their roles. Filming finally began on January 26, 1939 – and three weeks later, George Cukor was unceremoniously dropped from the film, and replaced with Victor Fleming. What happened?

The truth of what occurred between Cukor, Selznick and Wind has been a subject of speculation for over seventy years. Most agree that it ultimately came down to a clash over the script: Cukor preferred the version penned by Sidney Howard, whereas Selznick (naturally) insisted on using his own screenplay which he had crafted with Oliver H.P. Garrett. According to some accounts, Cukor was simply not happy with the work he was producing, and Selznick got tired of having his judgment as a producer insulted. (Incidentally, when Fleming was brought onto the project, he also expressed frustration with the script; Selznick immediately hired “the Shakespeare of Hollywood” Ben Hecht to rewrite the entire screenplay in five days’ time.) But there are still other, slightly more salacious stories – including one rumor which makes some very controversial insinuations about classic Hollywood’s bastion of heterosexual masculinity, Clark Gable.

George Cukor

It was an open secret in 1930s Hollywood that George Cukor was gay, that he was marvelous company, and that he threw the best parties in town. However, with a sharp wit comes a sharp tongue, which occasionally got Cukor into trouble. During one of his soirées, Cukor reportedly wouldn’t allow actress Carole Lombard in the door, labeling her “uncouth.” Naturally, this didn’t go over well with Lombard, who definitely would’ve shared the story with her beau, whom she married during the filming of Wind – that red-blooded American hero, Rhett Butler himself, Clark Gable. Furthermore, with such a macho image to maintain, Gable made no secret of his displeasure with Cukor’s perceived attempts to “throw the picture to the women” in his directorial approach to Wind. It was most likely Gable who suggested to Selznick that they replace Cukor with Victor Fleming, Gable’s pal with whom he would often commiserate over both Cukor and Selznick.

“[Clark Gable] and Victor Fleming were very macho people,” Selznick’s assistant Marcella Rabwin once told Cukor biographer Patrick McGilligan, “and they had great intolerances. One of the intolerances was for gays, and one was for Jews. They always referred to Mr. Selznick and Mr. Cukor in very unflattering terms. They always referred to David Selznick as ‘that Jewboy up there’ and Cukor as ‘that fag.'”

According to the most widespread account of the Cukor/Wind split, Gable, fed up with Cukor’s fussing over his actresses, snarled on set, “I won’t be directed by a fairy,” which so enraged Cukor that he walked off the set. When Gable failed to report to work the next day, Selznick weighed the consequences, and finally decided he’d rather have Gable than Cukor. But what did Clark Gable really have against George Cukor’s sexuality? What was his “beef” with homosexuals?

Clark Gable circa 1926

In his 1998 biography Wisecracker: The Life and Times of William Haines, Hollywood’s First Openly Gay Star, writer William J. Mann presents a rather bawdy explanation for Gable’s possible resentment of Cukor – one that has to do with the two men’s mutual acquaintance, Billy Haines. Gable and Haines first met in 1925 on the MGM lot. Allegedly, the two men had a brief, one-time sexual encounter. This was confirmed in later years by Joan Crawford, Haines’ best friend who herself had a torrid affair with Gable on and off for two decades. Mann does not make his claim lightly, and assures that “Gable was most definitely heterosexual, and Billy was likely the only man he ever had sex with.” As outrageous as this assertion may seem today and in Gable’s later career, Hollywood in the 1920s was a very different place. “The implication that [Gable] only had sex with Billy because he was trying to curry favor seems a latter-day invention, designed to explain away a defiantly heterosexual man’s transgressions,” Mann notes. “In the more relaxed days of the 1920s, explanations weren’t needed.”

Flash forward fourteen years, when Cukor and Gable were paired on Wind. While fourteen years can be a lifetime in Hollywood, it seems the one thing Gable wished the most would be forgotten had come back to haunt him.

Billy Haines was Cukor’s occasional guest on the Gone with the Wind lot. The director borrowed one of Billy’s eighteenth-century paintings to hang on the walls of Tara. His presence may have further unnerved Gable. The legend goes that [actor] Andy Lawler was at a Hollywood party and announced, quite loudly and quite likely high on cocaine, that “George is directing one of Billy’s old tricks.” The laugh at Gable’s expense got back to him, and he was outraged.

Whether or not the story of Andy Lawler’s loose lips sinking George Cukor’s ship is true, it’s clear that no one factor decisively forced Selznick to give George the boot. “It would be too naïve,” says Mann, “to assume that gossip about Billy and Gable had nothing to do with the antagonism between star and director – just as it would be perhaps too simplistic to say it caused Cukor’s ultimate dismissal.” Clearly the ousting made no noticeable dent on Cukor’s career. On the contrary: being fired from Gone with the Wind gave Cukor time to work on The Women, which, although it received no Academy Award nominations that year, is now considered one of the flagship films of 1939, which many call the greatest year in film history. He followed that with 1940’s The Philadelphia Story starring Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and Jimmy Stewart, and in 1941 he directed Greta Garbo’s final picture Two-Faced Woman. Wind was a success without Cukor, and Cukor was a success without Wind; maybe the split was just meant to be. But the legend of macho man Clark Gable clashing with the defiantly flamboyant George Cukor over revealing his not-so-macho secret lives on forever in queer Hollywood mythology.


  1. It’s worth noting, I think anyway, that Cukor continued to coach Vivien Leigh and Olivia De Havilland on the parts of Scarlett and Melanie after he was dropped from the picture. I think it was on weekends. And neither actress was aware he was coaching the other.

    • Adorable, isn’t it? And when they heard he was fired they both marched into Selznick’s office in full costume and begged him to reconsider. Clearly his actresses adored him — which, I suppose, is why The Women, with its all-female cast, was such a success for Cukor.

      • I agree. And I looove the Women. One of the funniest ensemble type films i’ve seen.

  2. Fascinating! I thought I had heard about Clark Gable having performed “favors” to get his career started in the book Hollywood Babylon, but you know how it is with books like that, who knows what’s true and what isn’t? I wouldn’t be surprised if he did switch teams, however briefly, at some point in his life though. It seems like everyone in Hollywood did/does

    • In the Haines biography, Mann discredits the rumor that Gable had sex with Haines to advance his career, because in 1925 Haines wasn’t a major player yet and they would have been on more or less equal footing. The two were most likely simply attracted to each other and went for it. It’s not likely that Gable (to borrow a line from Bringing Up Baby) “just went gay all of a sudden;” he was a man who identified as heterosexual and had predominantly heterosexual experiences, who had one or a few homosexual experiences. It happens. Sometimes sex is just sex.

  3. Really, it doesn’t seem to be that dramatic a thing. Selznick and Cukor were fighting over the script long before Gable was even signed. Gable didn’t wNt the part at all, mostly because he was very insecure about it. His last period piece, Parnell, had flopped horribly and he knew that everyone had a preconceived idea of what they wanted Rhett Butler to be and he was terrified if letting everyone down. He knew Cukor was a “womans director” do he didn’t feel comfortable under his watch, he felt he would be ignored and the support would be given to Vicien and Olivia instead. Him and Fleming were very good friends so I am sure he suggested him and Selznick wanted to make his star happy.

    I would like to point out that Marcella Rabwin is not a reliable source when it comes to Gable. She also claimed he was racist and treated Hattie McDaniel badly on set and that us complete and utter rubbish. Gable was many things but not racist at all. Him and Hartie were friends for years and there are hundreds of stories about him and his support for civil rights. Marcella didn’t like Gable for whatever reason so her comments about him should be taken with a grain if salt.

    As fir the whole Haines/ gay thing, I wasnt there, I don’t know. But I will say that the dates for his alleged affair with Haines don’t line up. Gable was in Oregon and Houston around that time. I have always doubted the gay rumours because first of all, Haines was a close friend of Lombards, decorated her home and all. She would not have wanted him around if she thought that he had had a thing with Gable. also Gable had a rich wife to help him along in his early days in Hollywood, he didn’t need to sleep his way to the top. He was being funded by her. Also Crawford is full of crap. She also claimed once that Lombard was a lesbian. She has told many lies about Gable, I think she was always jealous after their affair ended. She said they had an affair for 30 years, right up until he died, which is perposturous. Like was said. Lots of Hollywood in the 20s and 30s swung both ways here and there, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it was true about Gable but i am skeptical of the sources.

    Anyway I have just always thought the Cukor getting fired thing was not as dramatic as it has been told to be. Michael Srgow tells it quite well in his bio on Fleming.

    Sorry for the misspellings as I’m on my iPhone.

    • Sleeping with Haines in 1925 wouldn’t be “sleeping his way to the top” anyhow, as Haines was nowhere near the “top” yet. As for the dates not adding up, I would like to note that Gable appeared as an extra or bit part in eight films in 1925, so he must have been in Hollywood at some point.

  4. Paul

     /  June 28, 2011

    Too bad we’ll never know the truth…I do not buy Gable being anti-sem. If true, he’d never have had a film career. And sex w Haines seems equally curious.

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