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.
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?
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.