By Jon Herskovitz
AUSTIN Texas (Reuters) - Before "Gone with the Wind" hit the screen, it was a questionable investment that became a touchstone for race relations and was embroiled in moral questions ahead of Rhett Butler saying he did not give a damn.
The film went on to became the biggest box officer earner in U.S. movie history, according to figures adjusted for inflation by Box Office Mojo.
The backstory of the movie will be put on display to commemorate its 75th anniversary when the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas opens an exhibit on Sept. 9 called "The Making of Gone with the Wind" based on the massive collection of material it houses from the movie's producer David O. Selznick.
The 300 items picked to go on display follow the three-year journey in making the movie, relying on Selznick's document collection, movie stills, storyboards and thousands of letters from those who felt they had a personal stake in the movie that redefined U.S. cinema.
Selznick was on a cruise when his company purchased the screen rights to Margaret Mitchell's novel and was worried if he could turn a movie on the Civil War into a hit about 75 years after the fighting ended. The book quickly exceeded sales expectations and became a runaway best seller, increasing expectations for the movie.
"As time went on, Selznick starts to get this growing sense of responsibility," said Steve Wilson, curator of film at the Harry Ransom Center.
Within months of purchasing movie rights, Selznick's office was inundated with letters from people making suggestions for casting, seeking to audition for the role of Scarlett as well as protests from those telling him not to make the movie because of the racist overtones in Mitchell's novel.
For the racial issue, the exhibit documents how Selznick hears from the NAACP, prominent black newspapers and the Ku Klux Klan.
Selznick decides he has "no desire to produce an anti-Negro film," according to documents at the exhibit, and works to ensure the most vitriolic racial epithets are removed from the screenplay and that African-Americans do nothing illegal or immoral in the movie.
Selznick, for the most part, skillfully steered his way through the pressing racial issues of the day and Hattie McDaniel, who played the maid Mammy in the movie, became the first African-American to win an Academy Award.
But the movie has not aged well, many critics say, with African-Americans portrayed as menial labor, beholden to the slavery-era masters in roles that reinforced racial stereotypes.
The controversies came quick and fast in the making of the movie, which came under tight scrutiny from those enforcing the Motion Picture Production Code.
Code officials waged one of their staunchest battles over the scene where Melanie gives birth, firing off notes to have filmmakers portray the experience as pleasant, and calling for the removal of any depiction of the mother being in pain in a fly-infested room in the Georgia heat.
As with the novel and movie, the exhibit pays a great deal of attention to Scarlett and the nationwide casting to find the right person for the role, eventually landed by Vivien Leigh.
Selznick received thousands of letters from those aspiring to play the role. Many were from women who wrote that they identified with Scarlett through their experiences of being poor, hungry and desperate, according to Wilson.
"A lot of Scarlett’s concerns are concerns of the Depression," Wilson said.
The exhibit shows the tumultuous revisions to the screenplay, which include a handwritten page from novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald that did not make it to the final cut.
As one of the most elaborate and expensive productions neared its end, Selznick sent his business partner a triumphant telegram.
"Sound the siren, Scarlett O'Hara completed her performance at noon today," Selznick wrote, and rendered a line that could have been used as Rhett's parting words.
"I am going on the boat... and you can all go to the devil."
(This story has been refiled to add missing word in last paragraph)
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)