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'Gone With the Wind': II : Whatever happened to the sequel? : The attempts to continue Rhett and Scarlett's tale are a saga in themselves

December 10, 1989|DENNIS BROWN

Despite the current glut of movie sequels, they're hardly new. In 1939, the same year MGM distributed "Gone With the Wind," the studio also released its third "Thin Man," its second and third "Dr. Kildares," and its seventh, eighth and ninth "Andy Hardys."

Yet, for half a century, "GWTW"--the most successful movie of all time, based on the most popular American novel (more than 25 million copies sold since 1936)--has eluded sequelization.

But that may change.

As the 50th anniversary of the film's Atlanta premiere is observed on Friday, novelist Alexandra Ripley is writing an official continuation, scheduled for spring 1991 publication. Warner Books was anxious enough for hardcover and paperback rights to offer $4.94 million, winning a bidding war engineered by the William Morris Agency in early 1988.

Sanctioned by the estate of the late Margaret Mitchell, Ripley's novel will presumably pick up where Mitchell's Civil War saga left off, with Rhett Butler uttering, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," then striding off through foggy Atlanta, leaving lovely Scarlett behind. (It was producer David O. Selznick who added "frankly" to the line for the film adaptation.)

Producer David Brown, who has become nearly obsessed about filming "GWTW II," calls Mitchell's classic "a mesmerizingly good novel with an unconventional ending that cries for a sequel."

If Ripley's untitled work-in-progress does generate a movie, it will conclude a Hollywood saga almost as charged with melodrama as the story of Rhett and Scarlett itself.

Ripley is the fifth writer, and her impending novel the sixth attempt, to ponder the post-Civil War possibilities faced by the temptuous couple.

Between 1976 and 1981, roughly $200,000 was spent on writers trying to move a "GWTW II" film project forward. That figure does not include legal and related development costs. At one point, a noted author researched and wrote a 750-page novel that was discarded.

Such is the aura surrounding the book and the original movie that the thwarted writers remain spellbound by their transitory participation in the project.

" 'Gone With the Wind' is the great yummy, middlebrow American classic," said Diana Hammond, one of the unlucky writers, "but it's not a classic for no reason. And with such a provocative ending, how could you not want to know what came afterwards?

"As a writer, you know that Scarlett and Rhett should have another chance. They deserve a future.

"As a writer, you're drawn into that hope for a perfect ending in a perfect world. I wanted to give it to them, and I think James Goldman (another of the ill-fated writers) wanted to give it to them, and I still want to give it to them, and I always will."

That unresolved ending raised questions even before Mitchell signed a book contract with her publisher, the Macmillan Co., back in 1935. A Columbia University professor read the manuscript, and his otherwise-enthusiastic critique took issue with Rhett and Scarlett's ambivalent relationship at story's end.

On July 27, 1935, nearly a year prior to "GWTW's" official publication, Mitchell wrote to her publisher that she concurred with the criticism, adding: "I think she gets him in the end." But she left the conclusion as it was.

When the novel was published in June, 1936, Mitchell loathed her instant celebrity status. Likewise, although she sold the film rights to Selznick, she declined to participate in the making of the movie, even as an adviser. MGM got distribution rights to the picture for loaning the producers Clark Gable as the star. It was a blockbuster hit--grossing $24 million, an unprecedented sum for that time--but Mitchell would not hear of a sequel.

She died in 1949, struck by a taxi while crossing an Atlanta street. Her husband died three years later, and the estate fell into the control of her brother, Stephens Mitchell, an attorney who spent the ensuing decades as the tiger at the gates.

Now fast-forward to 1975: Forty years after she had first encountered "GWTW," Katherine Brown still worked on behalf of the novel. Now a nigh-legendary agent at ICM, her most enduring client was the Mitchell estate. Realizing that the novel's copyright would expire in 2011, at which point anyone could write an unauthorized spinoff, she persuaded the reluctant Stephens Mitchell that the estate should authorize its own movie sequelto have some control.

With Mitchell's approval, Kay Brown (as Katherine is known) selected the Zanuck-Brown Company, which at the time was allied with Universal Pictures. In 1975, producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown were riding the crest of success with the 1973 seven-Oscar-winning "The Sting" and the current monster hit "Jaws."

"I chose the boys mainly through my familiarity with David," explained Kay Brown, who is not related to the producer. "He's a very honorable person. There are not many people in the industry who would give it the personal attention all the way through that he would."

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