a coarser sieve


Howard Hughes, whose acumen outside certain areas of expertise (aeronautics and the acquisition of beautiful actresses) was rarely sound, once said something intelligent about the relative merits of two movie directors. The remark was delivered in early 1939, when George Cukor had been shooting “Gone with the Wind” for about three weeks. An adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s thousand-page blockbuster novel, from 1936, about the Old South, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, the movie was the largest and most expensive production in Hollywood up to that time, with a huge cast, massive sets (the city of Atlanta was burned down and then rebuilt), and hundreds of unshaven and bandaged extras trudging across the landscape. As half of Hollywood maliciously cheered, the production slipped into disaster. The script could be kindly described as a mess, and the star—Clark Gable—was in turmoil. The initial rushes displeased David O. Selznick, the legendary, manic producer who dominated every aspect of the film, and he suddenly fired Cukor, who, he later said, couldn’t have handled the more spectacular elements of the movie. In Cukor’s place, Selznick hired Victor Fleming, who was then directing the other big picture in town, “The Wizard of Oz.” Fleming was a vigorous and resourceful man, but few people considered him an artist. The change pleased Gable but distressed the two female leads—the young stage and film actress Vivien Leigh, just arrived from England and not yet a star, and Olivia de Havilland, who was then Howard Hughes’s girlfriend. Both women depended on Cukor, who was known as a “woman’s director,” and de Havilland brought her troubles to Hughes, who advised: “Don’t worry, everything is going to be all right—with George and Victor, it’s the same talent, only Victor’s is strained through a coarser sieve.”

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