Despite the current glut of movie sequels, they’re hardly new. In 1939, the same year MGM distributed “Gone With the Wind,” the studio also released its third “Thin Man,” its second and third “Dr. Kildares,” and its seventh, eighth and ninth “Andy Hardys.”
Yet, for half a century, “GWTW"--the most successful movie of all time, based on the most popular American novel (more than 25 million copies sold since 1936)--has eluded sequelization.
But that may change.
As the 50th anniversary of the film’s Atlanta premiere is observed on Friday, novelist Alexandra Ripley is writing an official continuation, scheduled for spring 1991 publication. Warner Books was anxious enough for hardcover and paperback rights to offer $4.94 million, winning a bidding war engineered by the William Morris Agency in early 1988.
Sanctioned by the estate of the late Margaret Mitchell, Ripley’s novel will presumably pick up where Mitchell’s Civil War saga left off, with Rhett Butler uttering, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” then striding off through foggy Atlanta, leaving lovely Scarlett behind. (It was producer David O. Selznick who added “frankly” to the line for the film adaptation.)
Producer David Brown, who has become nearly obsessed about filming “GWTW II,” calls Mitchell’s classic “a mesmerizingly good novel with an unconventional ending that cries for a sequel.”
If Ripley’s untitled work-in-progress does generate a movie, it will conclude a Hollywood saga almost as charged with melodrama as the story of Rhett and Scarlett itself.
Ripley is the fifth writer, and her impending novel the sixth attempt, to ponder the post-Civil War possibilities faced by the temptuous couple.
Between 1976 and 1981, roughly $200,000 was spent on writers trying to move a “GWTW II” film project forward. That figure does not include legal and related development costs. At one point, a noted author researched and wrote a 750-page novel that was discarded.
Such is the aura surrounding the book and the original movie that the thwarted writers remain spellbound by their transitory participation in the project.
“ ‘Gone With the Wind’ is the great yummy, middlebrow American classic,” said Diana Hammond, one of the unlucky writers, “but it’s not a classic for no reason. And with such a provocative ending, how could you not want to know what came afterwards?
“As a writer, you know that Scarlett and Rhett should have another chance. They deserve a future.
“As a writer, you’re drawn into that hope for a perfect ending in a perfect world. I wanted to give it to them, and I think James Goldman (another of the ill-fated writers) wanted to give it to them, and I still want to give it to them, and I always will.”
That unresolved ending raised questions even before Mitchell signed a book contract with her publisher, the Macmillan Co., back in 1935. A Columbia University professor read the manuscript, and his otherwise-enthusiastic critique took issue with Rhett and Scarlett’s ambivalent relationship at story’s end.
On July 27, 1935, nearly a year prior to “GWTW’s” official publication, Mitchell wrote to her publisher that she concurred with the criticism, adding: “I think she gets him in the end.” But she left the conclusion as it was.
When the novel was published in June, 1936, Mitchell loathed her instant celebrity status. Likewise, although she sold the film rights to Selznick, she declined to participate in the making of the movie, even as an adviser. MGM got distribution rights to the picture for loaning the producers Clark Gable as the star. It was a blockbuster hit--grossing $24 million, an unprecedented sum for that time--but Mitchell would not hear of a sequel.
She died in 1949, struck by a taxi while crossing an Atlanta street. Her husband died three years later, and the estate fell into the control of her brother, Stephens Mitchell, an attorney who spent the ensuing decades as the tiger at the gates.
Now fast-forward to 1975: Forty years after she had first encountered “GWTW,” Katherine Brown still worked on behalf of the novel. Now a nigh-legendary agent at ICM, her most enduring client was the Mitchell estate. Realizing that the novel’s copyright would expire in 2011, at which point anyone could write an unauthorized spinoff, she persuaded the reluctant Stephens Mitchell that the estate should authorize its own movie sequelto have some control.
With Mitchell’s approval, Kay Brown (as Katherine is known) selected the Zanuck-Brown Company, which at the time was allied with Universal Pictures. In 1975, producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown were riding the crest of success with the 1973 seven-Oscar-winning “The Sting” and the current monster hit “Jaws.”
“I chose the boys mainly through my familiarity with David,” explained Kay Brown, who is not related to the producer. “He’s a very honorable person. There are not many people in the industry who would give it the personal attention all the way through that he would.”
“We thought about the proposal for maybe a microsecond,” David Brown recalled. “Then we asked, ‘How can we get the rights?’ ”
Zanuck-Brown struck a deal to produce the sequel with the Mitchell estate. Almost immediately, a problem surfaced: MGM insisted it held the sequel rights.
“By now,” Brown said, “the legal departments of both companies were talking. So we did the usual bold Hollywood thing. Instead of fighting it, we joined forces.
“MGM really didn’t have to do anything. They put up a little writing money. And most importantly, and this is what (eventually) sunk the project, they were given the right to veto the entire movie.”
Meanwhile, Zanuck-Brown began to search for a writer. “We auditioned writers the way David O. Selznick auditioned actresses for Scarlett,” Brown said. “We talked to a number of authors, mostly women.” One, Mary Lee Settle, wrote an outline. The producers paid for it--and kept looking.
So it was that Settle, a native of West Virginia, wrote the first of the unproduced sequel stories. Three years later, in 1978, this prolific novelist won the National Book Award for “Blood Tie.”
But she was no longer involved with “GWTW II.”
In stepped novelist/biographer Anne Edwards.
“They (Zanuck-Brown) knew I was a thorough researcher,” she said. “I was given carte blanche to do all the research I wanted. I went down South and did a research tour that lasted for 10 weeks the first time and six months the second time.”
Edwards then wrote a 750-page novel titled “TARA: The Continuation of GONE WITH THE WIND.”
“My book opens with Scarlett on a train to Tara,” she said. “The action takes place during the next 10 years, in Atlanta, New Orleans, Charleston, and ends in 1878.”
“Anne Edwards was commissioned to write what I call a screen story,” David Brown said in clarifying. “We said: ‘Write us a story.’ She said, ‘I’m going to write you the bloody book.’ But it was intended to be only the basis for a screenplay. It then also could serve as the novelization of the movie. Ordinarily, the novelization would follow the screenplay. In this case it came first because we didn’t know what the screenplay would be based on.”
Edwards’ manuscript took 2 1/2 years to write and was submitted to the producers in 1978. By then, she was so fascinated with Margaret Mitchell that she wrote a meticulously researched biography. “Road to Tara,” published in 1983, has been Edwards’ most successful book, translated into 13 languages.
Enter James Goldman.
The Academy Award-winning screenwriter (“The Lion in Winter,” from his play) was fresh from having written “Robin and Marian,” the 1976 film in which he had extended the lives of two legendary lovers.
Goldman was hired to adapt the Edwards story. But after reading it, he suggested instead that “the best thing to do, in spite of the fact that she had written this enormous novel, was to pretend that she hadn’t, and go write a screenplay.” Zanuck and Brown gave him his head.
“Everything was so pleasant about this project,” Goldman said. “The only arguments were whether to hold the meetings at Universal or MGM.
“My original instructions were to write a film which was not an epic. The two involved studios didn’t want to do a grand, multi-multimillion-dollar thing. They wanted something intimate, intense and under two hours.”
Goldman came up with a story, got a go-ahead, and wrote. But by the time he turned in a script, which Zanuck-Brown liked, they wanted something completely different. Goldman was asked to write a sprawling epic akin to the original film.
“I started over from scratch,” he said. “This was not simply an expansion of the first script. They wanted an entirely different animal.”
To acquaint the audience with the new actors, Goldman reprised the final few minutes of the original movie with the new cast. “I took Rhett out the door and had him say, ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.’ Then I followed him down the street. The audience had to bite the bullet right at the very beginning, or leave.”
Goldman’s wife, Bobby, called the second script “the best popcorn movie--it had everything. When Sam Cohn (Goldman’s agent at the time) read it, he actually called us up, sobbing, ‘You killed Mammy!’ ”
“Yes, I killed Mammy,” Goldman confessed, referring to Scarlett’s beloved black nanny, “but only towards the end. She died in Scarlett’s arms, and Scarlett sang her a lullaby. Rhett, out of his love for Mammy, came to the funeral. It was a way to bring Rhett and Scarlett back together.”
Goldman kept them in the South, ending his story in 1876, during the National Centennial. He felt his most important contribution in continuing what Mitchell had begun was in maturing Scarlett’s character:
“In many ways, Scarlett at the end of the Selznick film is the same little girl who’s fussing about her corset before the Civil War ever begins. She has to grow up.”
Zanuck-Brown liked the new script; MGM did not. “Dick and I evolved the theory that MGM never wanted to make a sequel to ‘Gone With the Wind’ because they had ‘Gone With the Wind,’ ” David Brown said.
“MGM’s position was to pursue the sequel,” countered Frank Davis, who throughout these years was MGM’s vice-president, business affairs, and who left the company last year. “I never saw any evidence of ‘Let’s block it.’ ” Rather, he said, MGM executives never saw any sequel scripts they liked.
Yet, with their five-year option winding down, the producers had little recourse but to helplessly stand by and smile.
The option expired in 1980, with the sequel rights presumably reverting to MGM.
Stephens Mitchell, meanwhile, had endured five aggravating years of legal wrangling and delay, without ever seeing the enormous profits that had lured him into a sequel project he had once opposed.
In June 1981, a few weeks after the option expired, Mitchell, then 85, sued MGM in federal court, seeking a declaratory judgment that he, not the studio, held the sequel rights. The case was still being waged when Mitchell died in May, 1983.
Katherine Brown and David Brown both testified on behalf of the estate. Exactly one year and two days after Stephens Mitchell’s death, U.S. District Judge Robert Vining ruled that “GWTW” heirs (now Stephens Mitchell’s two sons) solely possessed the movie rights. Vining’s decision, which was upheld on appeal, put MGM out of the picture.
“I was delighted,” Brown said. “I’d always operated under the principle that the estate owned the sequel rights. And we were forced into an alliance with MGM by the claims of their legal department. My opinion is that our movie with Jimmy Goldman’s script would have been made but for the MGM deal.”
In 1984, the Mitchell estate took a bold step. They authorized a book sequel to “GWTW.” Prior to this, they had opposed the concept of a soft-cover “novelization” of any film sequel.
Katherine Brown set out to find a new Margaret Mitchell. In autumn, 1984, she read an unproduced script about an American woman caught up in the Chinese Revolution and asked to have lunch with its author, Diana Hammond, at New York’s Dorset Hotel.
“I went primarily because I wanted to meet the legendary Kay Brown,” recalled Hammond, who was surprised when Brown asked if she could come up with an idea for a sequel.
“She said that some writers had taken Scarlett and Rhett to Europe,” Hammond said. “I said, ‘Oh no, that’s all wrong. Scarlett and Rhett are quintessentially American. Their story is here, and their future is here, or it’s not worth doing. As the post-Reconstruction country grows and expands, Scarlett must grow with it.’
“Kay patted me on the head and said, ‘You’re my cookie.’
“It was all done on spec. I was never paid a cent. But it was quite extraordinary. As soon as I finished my current project, I picked up my pen, and it was as if I’d been waiting all those years to give Scarlett and Rhett a second chance. I had the inheritance. I felt it was a legacy.”
Hammond’s 45-page outline “poured out” of her in two weeks. She titled her story “Scarlett and Rhett,” and brought the characters into the 20th Century.
When the outline was delivered in February, 1985, Kay Brown praised it as “extraordinary.”
At this point, with Hammond’s lawyer involved in negotiations with both ICM and the estate, she “rather naively” assumed that the deal was struck.
“I was even beginning to feel some concerns,” she said. “Kay had told me: ‘When you get involved with “GWTW,” it takes over your life.’ And I began to worry about this. Nevertheless, it was all very exciting.”
The excitement was short-lived. Wanting a fresh start, the executors of the Mitchell estate severed their longstanding relationship with ICM and, in July, 1986, engaged the William Morris Agency.
“In one minute, I was history,” Hammond said. “The minute ‘GWTW’ was taken away from Kay Brown, who was at ICM, I was gone. It was a crushing blow.
“I was heartbroken, but even more upsetting was to see this property taken away from Kay Brown. She is such a great lady. She was in on ‘GWTW’ from the beginning, and she has never received the recognition she deserves.”
David Brown doggedly pursued the project, proposing to the estate that “GWTW II” be done in TV mini-series form. But NBC’s offer of a $1 million advance paled beside Warner Books’ $4.94 million, and Ripley went to work on the novel.
Even now, Zanuck and Brown and other expectant producers await its completion to see if it’s produceable.
“When Dick (Zanuck) and I dissolved our partnership in 1987,” David Brown said, “we held on to one agreement where we would make a film together, and that would be the sequel to ‘Gone With the Wind.’ This one project survived our divorce.”
The irony in all this is that so many journalists and critics are convinced that any “GWTW” sequel must by its very premise be doomed. How can a sequel, they wonder, possibly stand up to the most popular American film of all time?
“Several of my colleagues have taken me aside,” Brown said, “and asked, ‘Do you really want to end your career with a whimper instead of a bang? This is a no-win situation. Are you crazy?’ To which I reply, ‘I must be crazy.’ ”
And what if the phone were to ring and Brown were to learn that he’d been selected to produce the film adaptation of Ripley’s book?
Without hesitating, the 73-year-old producer named the people he’d call: “Dick Zanuck, my agent Sam Cohn, and my wife (publisher Helen Gurley Brown). Then my fourth call would be to my internist.
“I’d say, ‘Look, you’ve got to keep me going for another 10 years . . .’ ”