Cinema: Popeye the Magnificent

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(See front cover)

One warm California afternoon, summer before last, every major Hollywood cinema producer put on his best double-dealing poker face and disclaimed to his colleagues any interest in Authoress Margaret Mitchell's magnum opus, Gone With the Wind. All knew only too well that any open move to bid for it would send the price kiting. Hence young Producer David O. Selznick was highly pleased with himself when three days later he was able to announce that for mere peanuts ($50,000) he had bought the film rights to the book that was becoming the best-selling best seller in a generation.

Before the news was very old the U. S. public was enjoying the zestful pastime of casting Producer Selznick's picture for him. Before very long Producer Selznick knew the people's choice for Rhett Butler to be cinema's No. 1 buckaroo—bold, woman-handling Actor Clark Gable. But the people's choice for Scarlett O'Hara was far from unanimous. It seemed to call for a blend of gusty Tallulah Bankhead, smoldering Miriam Hopkins, redheaded Erin O'Brien-Moore, flashing Paulette Goddard. For Scarlett, Producer Selznick scanned one after another of the public's suggestions, considered as well young Actresses Margaret Tallichet and Arlene Whalen, Mrs. John Hay Whitney, nee Mary Elizabeth ("Liz") Altemus (his backer's wife). On his problems Producer Selznick has for nearly two years been pondering. And other studios, expecting that the cinema Gone With the Wind would be a first-rate harbinger for a whopping cycle of Southern pictures, waited patiently for Producer Selznick to act.

Suddenly last fall one studio took the offensive. Dust-collecting for nearly a year on the shelves at Warner Brothers had been Owen Davis' play Jezebel, a drama of moss-hung New Orleans, spiced with the vixenry of a high-spirited, imperious Southern belle of 1850.

For the Warner publicity department, the fleeting points of similarity between Jezebel and Gone With the Wind were words to the wise. Before long Hollywood was buzzing with gossip that Warners were out to steal the wind from Producer Selznick's sails. Soon gossips had another theme:

Picked for Jezebel's heroine was an actress largely overlooked in Gone With the Wind's nationwide parlor-casting bees, but one who came close to what the public seemed to want in Scarlett. That actress was Bette Davis—tempestuous, intense, compact & casehardened, with diamond dust in her voice, bug eyes lit with a cold blue glitter, and as wide a dramatic range as any cinemactress in the business.

In the audience sat David Selznick when Jezebel had its Hollywood premiere early this month. As Actress Davis venomously kicked aside convention, twisted the code of Southern chivalry, bit her lips to make them kissable, patted her cheeks with a hairbrush to make them scarlet, the audience glanced toward Producer Selznick to see how he liked these things that smacked of Gone With the Wind. If he let fall any comments, they fell in private.

Hollywood called Jezebel "terrific," predicted it would slow Mr. Selznick's Wind down to a breeze. Some wag suggested that the only one who might play Scarlett O'Hara after Bette Davis' performance was Mr. Paul Muni. Fact was that Bette Davis had gone full sail before the wind.

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