Thursday, January 5, 2017

Gone with the Wind: Missed Opportunity

Like Old Acquaintance, here's another one of those "what might've been" posts for you. Did you know that Franchot was considered for the two male lead roles in Gone With the Wind?

Clark, Joan, Leslie, and Franchot in one photo. Source:
On November 14, 1936, secretary Lydia Schiller sent a tally of those up for the roles of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler to David O. Selznick. At this point in time, Vivien Leigh wasn’t even in consideration for the part of Scarlett. The top votes for the role were for Miriam Hopkins, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and Katharine Hepburn. Franchot was being considered for the role of Rhett Butler, but even at this early stage, Clark Gable had an overwhelming majority of the votes. Others being considered for the role included Ronald Colman, Warner Baxter, Fredric March, and William Powell.

I cannot picture Franchot as Rhett Butler. Clark Gable was made for it and it's hard to imagine any other actor of that time stepping in Rhett's shoes. Franchot was a highly skilled actor, but I don't believe audiences would've bought him as the rugged and rebellious Charlestonian.

In 1937, The New Yorker published a cartoon depicting Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, and Franchot Tone in the lead roles of Scarlett, Rhett, and Ashley. The cartoon was meant as a joke, but Franchot was a serious contender for the role of Ashley Wilkes before Leslie Howard was chosen. Selznick International Pictures story editor Kay Brown favored Miriam Hopkins and Bette Davis for Scarlett, Janet Gaynor as Melanie, Clark Gable as Rhett, and, in a 1936 letter to Selznick, urged him to hire Franchot Tone as Ashley.

I can completely envision Franchot in the part of Ashley Wilkes.  I think Leslie Howard was absolutely perfect in the part and my speculation of Franchot's abilities as Ashley are by no means a criticism of Howard's performance. A gentle character torn between an attraction to a fiery opposite and the safe steadiness of a like-minded cousin, Ashley is a commendable hero and coward all at the same time. This duality in the character could've been perfectly captured by Franchot. He excelled at the quiet exchanges, world weary glances, and elegant declarations of commitment that Ashley possesses.

Franchot starred in a period romance of his own during the GWTW casting process: the understated J.M. Barrie story Quality Street set in the early 1800's. Franchot is Dr. Valentine Brown, a man who devastates Phoebe (Katharine Hepburn) when he goes off to fight in the Napoleonic Wars. When he returns many years later, Valentine is stunned to find that his once light and playful Phoebe has become a drab, spinster schoolteacher. (I would like to point out that Katharine Hepburn is as luminous and as gorgeous as ever as the slightly aged Phoebe, so it's hard to buy this "poor, homely girl" storyline.) Valentine may think she's lost her spontaneity and zest for life, but Phoebe has a scheme up her sleeve.

Valentine Brown is an upstanding man who takes his duty in the war seriously, is gentlemanly to the ladies in the community, yet is influenced by the allure of youth and beauty. There is a gentle, kind quality to both Valentine Brown and Ashley Wilkes and, for me, Leslie Howard and Franchot Tone seem worthy candidates of either role.

Franchot Tone in Quality Street (1937); Leslie Howard in Gone with the Wind (1939).

Franchot Tone & Katharine Hepburn in Quality Street (1937);
Leslie Howard and Olivia DeHavilland in Gone with the Wind (1939).

  • Harwell, Richard. Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind Letters: 1936-1949. Macmillan, 1976.
  • Inafferrabile Leslie Howard:
  • The New Yorker. Volume 13. 1937.
  • Wiley, John.The Scarlett Letters: The Making of the Film Gone with the Wind. Taylor Trade Publishing, 2014.
  • Wilson, Steve. The Making of Gone with the Wind. University of Texas Press, 2014.

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