Actress Vivien Leigh on her career and playing Scarlett O’Hara in ‘Gone With the Wind’ (1940)

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Actress Vivien Leigh on her career and playing Scarlett O'Hara
What it felt like to play Scarlett O’Hara

by Vivien Leigh – The Daily Times-News (Burlington, NC) March 23, 1940

Appearing as Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With The Wind” at the Alamance Theatre

A year has gone by since the night we stood watching the first scenes being made for “Gone With The Wind.” It was an awesome spectacle — whole blocks of sets being consumed by flames as buildings in old Atlanta burned, and I was a little confused by the grandeur of it and by what seemed to be a frightening confusion. That was the night I met Mr David O Selznick, the man who was producing “Gone With The Wind,” and who had yet to select a Scarlett O’Hara for the film.

In retrospect, it seems to me that the fantastic quality of that tremendous fire, the confusion I felt and the feeling of loneliness in the midst of hundreds of people, was indicative of what was to come. I could not know then, of course, what lay ahead — and if someone had ventured to predict it, I probably would have passed it off as nonsense.

Vivien Leigh on the cover of Modern Screen 1940

Objective view

The unexpected happened; it made me, for these months at least, and whether I wished it so or not, into the character known as Scarlett O’Hara. Now the difficulty is to view that character objectively. That it was a great role for any actress was obvious, yet I can truthfully say that I looked on Mr Selznick’s request that I test for Scarlett as something of a joke. There were dozens of girls testing, and I did not seriously consider the likelihood of actually playing the part.

Yet once it was decided upon, I discovered that there was no joking about playing Scarlett. From then on, I was swept along as though by a powerful wave — it was Scarlett, Scarlett, Scarlett, night and day, month after month.

Perhaps the hardest days I spent, hard that is from the point of actual physical exertion, were during the time we made the scene where Scarlett struggles through the populace as it evacuates Atlanta.

Vivien Leigh - Gone with the Wind (1939)

Naturally, this could not be done all in one continuous “take,” and so for what seemed like an eternity I dodged through the maze of traffic on Peachtree Street, timing myself to avoid galloping horses and thundering wagons.

And between each shot, the makeup man — he seemed to be everywhere at once — came running to wash my face, then dirty it up again to just the right shade of Georgia clay dust. I think he washed my face about twenty times in one day, and dusted me over with red dust after each washing.

Oddly enough, the scenes of physical strain were not so wearing as the emotional ones. One night we worked at the studio until about eleven o’clock, then went out to the country for a shot against the sunrise, when Scarlett falls to her knees in the run down fields of Tara and vows she’ll never be hungry again. The sun rose shortly after two am and I could not sleep, although I had a dressing room in a trailer. We made the shot and I arrived at home at about 4:30 am, yet I do not recall that I was so terribly tired.

Instead, I think of the day that Scarlett shoots the deserter, and I recall that after that nerve-wracking episode, both Olivia de Havilland, the wonderful Melanie of the film, and myself were on the verge of hysterics — not alone from the tenseness of the scene, but from the too realistic fall as the “dead” man went down the stairs before us.

Wonderful experience

Yet when the day came that meant the film was completed, I could not help feeling some little regret that our parts were done and that the cast and the crew — who were all so thoughtful and kind throughout — were breaking up. Clark Gable, Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland, Tom Mitchell, Barbara O’Neil — fine players all. We should see each other again, of course — but never again would we have the experience of playing in “Gone With The Wind!”

Gone with the Wind study guide - vintage (9)


Vivien Leigh: The verve of that girl!

Her insatiable zest for acting is exceeded only by her unbounded zest for life

By George Benjamin – Modern Screen (May 1940)

THREE HUNDRED and sixty-five days ago, Vivien Leigh was the girl no one wanted to see as Scarlett O’Hara. Today, she is the girl everyone is feverishly paying to see. Paying so feverishly that already the staggering cost of “Gone With the Wind“— nearly $5,000,000— has been met. And the picture’s travels have hardly begun.

No other girl ever had such a triumph. Yesterday, the most unwelcome unknown in Hollywood history; today, not only Hollywood’s most sensational star, but the most famous girl alive!

Vivien herself isn’t taking her triumph big. She sizes it up this way:

“No matter what I do, after Scarlett, it’s going to be difficult to startle anybody. I’ll try, naturally. But in case I don’t succeed, I want to have something to show for my efforts. I want to be sure that, meanwhile, I’m learning more about acting. That’s why I don’t care what roles I do, as long as they are assorted.

“I’m not going to start being afraid of the future, until I find a role that

doesn’t teach me something new.” Anyone capable of playing Gerald O’Hara’s daughter as Vivien Leigh played her should have nothing more to learn about acting, you think. Vivien doesn’t think so. That she doesn’t is a tip-off to a wide streak of modesty behind her self-assurance. It is also a tip-off to something else. She isn’t acting for what she can get out of it. If she were, she would leave well enough alone, with fame here and riches on the way. She’s acting for what she can get out of herself.

Here is no “accidental” actress, who landed on the stage because of her face or figure, made good by courtesy of the Great God Luck and now suddenly has acting ambitions. As long as she can remember, Vivien has wanted to act. Her entire fife has revolved around that one urge.

Her earliest memory is of taking part in charity shows staged by English exiles in India. “You know, the sort of thing given on the terrace of the country club on a Saturday afternoon. But I loved them. I said then that I was going to be an actress all my life. I couldn’t have been more than four or five years old.”

Gone With the Wind - vintage PR photo Rhett

She was born in Darjeeling, India, a resort town in the foothills of the Himalayas, whither her mother had gone to escape the seasonal heat of Calcutta, where her father was a stockbroker. The date was Novem- ber 5, 1913. According to the old jingle, Vivien should be “full of woe,” for she was born on a Wednesday.

The press-agents have broadcast that Vivien, like Scarlett, teems with French-Irish blood. Her mother, nee Gertrude Robinson, is Irish, right enough. She came from Connemara in the peat-bog country. “One of my father’s grandmothers was French, so that makes him one-quarter French, which isn’t enough to show. No one would ever take him for anything but a Briton. Especially when he has the name Ernest Richard Hartley.”

From neither parent did she inherit any theatrical blood. “My father wanted to be a singer when he was young. Both he and my mother were interested in the theatre as spectators. That was as far as it went. There’s a story out that they objected to my becoming an actress. That isn’t true. Rather, when they saw which way the wind was blowing, they encouraged the twig to bend that way.”

Vivien’s memories of India are hazy, for she didn’t live there long. She was six when her parents decided to get her out of the tropic sun and give her a chance to have an English complexion and an English education. Her mother took her to England and enrolled her in the Sacred Heart Convent at Roehampton, on the outskirts of London.

After that, for several years, she saw her parents but once a year, when they “came home” to be with her during summer vacations. She grew up pretty much by herself.

Perhaps you have a mental picture of Vivien, a spitfire of a child, rebelling against the strict discipline and the regimentation of the convent.

Vivien shakes her head. “I know it would make a better story if I had been a little more like Scarlett. But I wasn’t like her then, any more than I am now. I loved Roehampton. It was a very beautiful place with enormous gardens. And the most terrible punishment of all was to have to wear one’s own clothes, not be able to dress like the other girls.

“I know; it happened to me. What I had done, I don’t remember. I don’t remember, either, what I had done the year I wasn’t allowed to see the Passion Play, or the year my heart was practically broken because I wasn’t allowed to hear a lecture by a South Pole explorer. But I’m positive I wasn’t a rebel. I’m more inclined to believe I was just experimenting with some impulses.”

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At Roehampton at the same time was Maureen O’Sullivan. The press agents relate that both of them were in a school production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” at which time Vivien, aged eight, told Maureen, “I’m going to be an actress when I grow up.” Vivien doesn’t recall the incident. “I remember Maureen and I remember that production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” because it was my first play. It’s very possible I did say such a thing. I was always thinking it.”

No one at the convent encouraged her particularly. “I didn’t need encouragement,” she says. But something she did need, she decided at the age of fourteen, was more knowledge of foreign languages. Spending vacations in Switzerland and the South of France, she noticed that the French spoke more dramatically and more musically than the dignified British. She wanted the training of speaking French and persuaded her parents to transfer her to a French convent of the Sacred Heart in San Remo, Italy.

“I was there a year, spoke nothing but French and learned a lot, though I wasn’t as happy as I had been at Roehampton. I minded the clothes, especially the extraordinary bathing suits we had to wear, with long sleeves and skirts reaching down to our knees.”

Her next stop was Mile. Manileve’s School for Young Ladies in Paris, where the principal attraction (for Vivien) was Mile. Antoine, an actress at the Comedie Francaise who taught dramatics. At fifteen, Vivien, at last, had the chance to study acting.

THE only trouble was that, at sixteen, A she found herself a graduate of Mile. Manileve’s School for Young Ladies. She was too young to get into a regular dramatic school. Seventeen was the minimum age. She had to mark time, so she decided to pick up another language, while waiting. She enrolled in Baroness von Roeder’s finishing school in Bavaria and learned German.

She meant to stay only six months. She stayed eighteen. “It was a new experience for me. It wasn’t at all like school, as I had known it. We were allowed to feel grown up, taught to do womanly things, taught to enjoy the little things in life, as well as art in all its forms, given holidays in Vienna three times a year, and constant trips to Salz- burg, two hours away. I began to live. It was a marvelous experience. I don’t suppose anything will ever equal it.”

This zest for living convinced her then, more than ever, that she could be a dramatic actress. She won her parents’ permission to try to get into the Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. That involved a terrifying entrance test. “They give it to frighten away all but the determined,” she says. She came through it highly commended.

Today she says, “I was very lucky. I’ve always been very lucky. I haven’t had a bitter, discouraging struggle. My discouragements are all to come. When I was looking for my first job and didn’t find it, I thought, ‘This is dreadful.’ But I wasn’t down to my last meal or anything like that. It must be romantic to look back on a time when one went hungry, trying to make a dream come true. And it would make a beautiful story for the interviewers.”

At the Academy of Dramatic Arts, she had fencing, dancing, voice projection and the usual things. She was very intense about all of them. Every term the students put on one Greek play, one French play (in which her ability to speak French like a native was no handicap), two Shakespearean plays and two modern plays.

She is positive that anyone with the serious ambition to act must study Shakespeare. “No other plays will ever demand more variety of vocal expression from you.”

Very simply, she says, “While I was at the Academy, I married. And, after a three-week honeymoon, I went back to the Academy. My husband was always very kind and very interested in the theatre. He didn’t object to my trying to do something in it. The proof of that is my stage name, ‘Leigh.’ I took his Christian name for my last name.” His full name was Leigh Holman. His profession, law.”

Vivien was a wife at nineteen and, at twenty, the mother of a little girl named Suzanne. But she still hadn’t fulfilled her dream of the theatre. No one likes to give up a lifetime hope. Vivien was only human in not wanting to give up hers. Before she could be completely happy, she had to have a taste of the stage. Her husband realized this. Everyone who knew her realized it. And everyone understood.

Vivien Leigh - That southern gal from London 1940

So, when her baby was old enough to be entrusted to a nurse, Vivien set out anew. None of the London theatrical managers seemed interested. So she went around to the casting offices of the film studios just outside London. She landed two small roles. “I didn’t take them very seriously. I never meant to be a movie actress.”

But the two small picture roles got her an agent who, in turn, got her a role in a London play, “The Green Sash.” The critics noticed her. More important, a producer named Sydney Carroll noticed her and gave her one of the four parts in the play, “The Mask of Virtue,” in which she made an unexpected hit.

“That was when I was really discovered,” she says, amusedly, “despite what anyone has said since. It was the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me. It was also the most frightening thing. I was just starting out, and people were apt to expect more than I was qualified to deliver. I was afraid of the future then. I didn’t have experience to give me confidence.”

SHE had Hollywood offers then, but she turned them all down. She wasn’t afraid of Hollywood. She simply wasn’t interested. Hollywood had a habit of typing people, if it used them at all. “I had seen so many English girls come over and waste a whole year with nothing to do. I didn’t want to take the chance of having that happen to me. Time is too short in the acting profession to waste any of it.”

She did sign a contract with British producer Alexander Korda to do two pictures a year, which would still allow her six months on the stage. Several of the pictures she made were released here, but not widely. Americans didn’t notice her in the supporting roles she played until she almost snatched Robert Taylor away from her old Roehampton schoolmate, Maureen O’Sullivan, in “A Yank at Oxford.” Even then they didn’t see her as star material.

Bob Taylor did. He came back from England, raving about “this girl, Vivien Leigh,” and said it was too bad she wouldn’t come to Hollywood. Charles Laughton also saw her possibilities and, two years ago, gave her that colorful role in “Sidewalks of London.”

How did she happen, then, to come to Hollywood if she had a prejudice against the place? “I came over to see friends. I had no intention of working here. I was going to be here a week, then going back to do “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” on the London stage. If it had been a new play I was going to do, rather than one I had already done two or three times (playing a different role each time), I would have gone back. I wouldn’t have stayed to test for the part of Scarlett.”

The story of how she won the role needs no repeating here. Neither does the story of the staggering amount of work demanded by the role, nor how, during the last month of shooting, she had to live on tonics to keep going. Enough has been said about Scarlett, as far as Vivien is concerned. “Right now, I’m busy trying to be as different from her as possible.”

GWTW movie

SHE looks different, certainly. In “Waterloo Bridge,” in which she has Robert Taylor (with a brand-new mustache) as her co-star, she isn’t wearing Civil War crinolines. She is wearing the styles of the World War era and sacrificing glamor to realism, even to the extent of encasing her shapely legs in black cotton hose. She talks with a crisp English accent, not a crisp Southern one. She doesn’t look like a temperamental vixen, but like a war-worried girl very much in love.

Off the screen, she looks like an alert young modern — nearer seventeen than twenty-seven. She is small; no more than five feet three. She is slight; she can’t weigh much more than a hundred pounds. She dresses simply, preferring sports frocks that either button all the way up or zip all the way down. She likes them better than slacks because they’re easier to get into in a hurry.

She’s always in a hurry in the morning; she stays abed “till the last possible minute.” You wouldn’t expect someone like that to have such lively eyes. They’re officially described as green, but when she wears blue, they look blue. Her hair, which she wears in a loose bob, is a natural dark brown.

Waterloo Bridge movie still

She has a talent for naturalness, off the screen as well as on. This surprises people. They expect her to be deliberately provocative, a conceited charmer. She isn’t. The other day a well-known press agent, who has met them all, met Vivien for the first time. Afterward, he said privately and appreciatively, “Now there’s a girl who has all kinds of sex appeal, without throwing it at you.”

To hear her tell it, she is “the world’s worst” girl athlete. She swims like a rock and can’t hit any kind of ball. She’s better at party games, the question-and-answer sort of thing. She’s wild about American football; a demon fan. She refused to go to the Rose Bowl game last New Year’s Day, because her favorite team, UCLA, which she thought deserved to represent the West, didn’t get the chance.

For a Briton, she has a strange aversion — tea. She has no use for salads and she can’t understand why people will eat pies. She thinks both British and American foods are too heavy. Her English cook has instructions to cook everything French style.

The thing that has impressed Vivien most in America? “People here work much harder than people anywhere else. And they’re open-minded people; they’re willing to change their viewpoints They’re not hide-bound. I had a fine opportunity to find that out. People here hated me at first; now they are very pleasant and very kind.”

She lives in a modest bungalow in Brentwood — a house much too small for her collection of books. She has thousands. She reads constantly. This doesn’t mean that she doesn’t like dancing. She does, but she can’t stand nigh clubs. “I’m oppressed in them by the feeling of time being wasted.”

Vivien Leigh in Waterloo Bridge movie (1940)

As this is written, she isn’t wasting her evenings. She is rehearsing “Romeo and Juliet” with Laurence Olivier and company, preparatory to their taking it to San Francisco, Chicago and New York. The project isn’t some bright manager’s idea. “It’s something Mr. Olivier and I have wanted to do for quite some time.”

Her sense of good taste won’t let her tell how or when she and Leigh Holman drifted apart, or how or when she and Laurence Olivier drifted together. It is no secret that she and “Mr. Olivier” are deeply in love. They have no immediate wedding plans, however. “We can’t make any wedding plans until August, when our absolute decrees will come through.”

Vivien Leigh has no far-reaching future plans. She’s going to live life as she finds it. “And,” she says with a smile, “not be afraid of the future — unless something happens to keep me from acting. I don’t ask to do bigger and better things. Only different things.”

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