Twenty-year-old New York model, Edythe Marrener, was convinced she would win the most coveted female role in motion pictures.
The year was 1937. The location, the Selznick International Studios in Culver City, California. As she nervously waited to take her very first screen test, she tried to ignore the fact that the muslin gown she was wearing was still warm from the previous hopeful who had worn it less than ten minutes before. After all, hadn’t the studio invited her to Hollywood following the publication of her photographs in an issue of The Saturday Evening Post? “Yes”, she told herself, “They want me because they know I’ll be the perfect Scarlett.”
“…a classic beauty enhanced by flaming red hair”
The search for an actress to play Scarlett O’Hara, the fiery heroine of Margaret Mitchell’s best selling novel Gone With The Wind, had gripped the whole nation. Hundreds of aspiring Scarletts – from the brightest female stars in Hollywood to totally unknown American models, secretaries and shop girls – had all applied for an audition. But they and the public at large were completely unaware that the “Search for Scarlett”– as it was dubbed by the US media – was no more than a complete hoax. It had been dreamt up by independent film producer David O Selznick, who had bought the movie rights to the novel in 1936. Following the announcement that a film of Mitchell’s book was to be produced by Selznick, letter from thousands of fans of the novel flooded the producer’s publicity offices. All of them stated that the hero of the story, Rhett Butler, could only be played by one movie actor: “The King of Hollywood”, Clark Gable. Selznick had wanted Gary Cooper for the role, but the amount of mail he received persuaded him to make a deal with MGM for the services of Gable, who was under contract to the studio. As part of the arrangement to use their star actor, MGM demanded exclusive distribution rights to GWTW. But Selznick had a contract with United Artists to release all of his films through to the end of 1938, which meant he could not begin filming his civil war epic until early 1939. How could Selznick hold the public’s interest in his movie for three long years? His solution, although pure hype, was sheer genius: continual publicity by launching a nationwide search to discover an unknown actress to portray, at the time, the most famous female character in fictional literature.
Long before Edythe Marrenner received her invitation to come to Hollywood to audition for the part, Selznick thought he had already found his Scarlett. She was the film actress Paulette Goddard, a dark beauty with a fiery personality. Selznick believed she would perfectly personify the Scarlett character onscreen as she was depicted in the novel. But there was a major problem with casting her in the role, and that was the widespread disbelief about her married status. Goddard was a protégée of Charlie Chaplin, and was openly living with the comedy actor. But were they married, or indulging in an immoral liaison? Goddard assured Selznick that she and Chaplin had been married on a boat in Singapore. However when Selznick asked to see the marriage licence, Goddard was unable to produce it, explaining it had been destroyed. At the time the strict Production Code censorship did not just apply to what appeared onscreen, but was equally applicable to Hollywood actors’ private lives as well. Selznick could not risk his film being boycotted by the powerful Catholic Legion of Decency, and an outraged public. Consequently, he decided to continue looking for Scarlett amongst Hollywood’s established stars in parallel with the sham of his nationwide search. British actress Vivien Leigh would win the part of Scarlett, in late 1938.
But now, a year prior, Edythe Marrener stood in the centre of the sound stage and was handed several pages of script. She was confused as to what, exactly, she had to do. Then a quiet voice said, “Miss Marrener, the camera is behind you.” The voice belonged to a nearsighted little man sitting in a canvas chair, who then said, “Face the camera and read from the first page.” Quickly controlling her panic, Marrenner began to read until she heard the man shout: “Cut! No, no, no. You must project yourself more.” She quickly replied, “ Look, who’s reading this, you or me?” A silence suddenly descended over the set, until the man signalled for the cameras to roll again. After reading through several scenes she was thanked and directed back to the changing room, to remove her costume. She asked the woman who accompanied her who the bespectacled man sitting in the canvas chair was. “Mr George Cukor,” replied the woman, “The contract director for Gone With The Wind.” (Cukor would be later replaced by Victor Fleming.) Edythe shrugged her shoulders and thought, “Well, wasn’t a hot-tempered personality what they were after?”
A week later Edythe was summoned to David O. Selznick’s office. As she entered his inner sanctum, Selznick was somewhat surprised when Edythe leant over his desk, extended her hand and said “So pleased to meet you at last.” Clearing his throat, Selznick said, “We’ve studied your tests Miss Marrener, and decided you need more acting experience. Go back to Brooklyn and learn how to act.” Edythe sat motionless, and then responded: “No, Mr, Selznick.” She stood and smiled. “I think I’ll stay. I like California, and the orange trees.” A now angry Selznick barked, “Then turn in your return train ticket to New York at the front office.” “Can’t,” she said as she walked toward the door. She turned and fixed him with an intense gaze: “I’ve already cashed it in to live on. Bye.”
Edythe – with her classic beauty enhanced by flaming red hair – soon found an agent willing to take her on. With a canister containing her five-minute Scarlett test, her agent called on Warner talent executive Max Arnow. After screening Edythe’s test, Arnow said to the agent, “I can see why Selznick canned her. She’s terrible.” He paused, and then added, “But there’s potential there. Bring her in.” The very next day Arnow signed Edythe Marrener to Warner Bros for six months, as one of its $100-a-week contract players. He also supplied her with a new name – Susan Hayward. “You OK with that?” he asked her. Edythe replied, “If it’s a necessary step toward movie stardom, so be it”.
The potential Max Arnow saw in the now renamed Hayward would evolve into five Academy Award nominations and a Best Actress Oscar reality.
To be continued….