1939 has long been considered a mirabilis annus (miraculous year) in Hollywood history. There has never been a year like it for memorable films.
In 1939, Judy Garland took us over the rainbow in The Wizard of Oz. John Ford’s Stagecoach ride made John Wayne a star. James Stewart went to Washington as America’s Everyman, Mr. Smith. Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon loved on the moors in Wuthering Heights. Garbo laughed in Ninotchka. Lenny and George showed us what happens to the best-laid plans Of Mice and Men. We said goodbye to Mr. Chips, and hello to Ingrid Bergman in Intermezzo.
But of course, the crowning glory of 1939 was David O. Selznick’s Gone with the Wind.
It’s ironic that Hollywood’s golden era paid surprisingly little attention to the ever-so cinema-worthy life of Henry VIII, with 1933’s The Private Life of Henry VIII being its Tudor highlight. This may have had something to do with the 1934 onset of Hollywood’s moralistic Production Code, which did not deal gently with the adulterous and violent themes that were so much a part of Henry’s story.
What would it have been like if Charles Laughton’s grotesque 1933 Henry VIII had not been the final word on the Tudors during those epic years in filmmaking? What if Hollywood had chosen to make the story of Henry and his six wives, instead of Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War epic, as its Picture of a Lifetime in 1939?
To start with, we could work with the same movie title. Gone with the Wind will certainly do for the story of a man who saw four of his six wives cross the great divide before he did, and who annulled another to boot. The cast and crew of Gone with the Wind, its also-rans, and those with six-degrees-of-separation associations with the film are all we need for a dreamer’s Golden-Age-of-Hollywood Gone with the Tudor Wind extravaganza.
Our male lead: Laurence Olivier. Olivier was married to Vivien Leigh, who portrayed Scarlett O’Hara in GWTW. He was also of course a great actor in his own right. His dark-haired good looks are not what one thinks of at first blush for casting Henry VIII. However, Olivier memorably went blond when he portrayed Hamlet in the late 1940s, and would likely not have been above doing it to portray Henry.
To cast Katherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife, we need look no further than the second lead in GWTW: Olivia DeHavilland. She was made up to look plain for GWTW, but was in reality one of early Hollywood’s prettiest leading ladies. Olivia could handily have played Henry’s abandoned first wife, Katherine, both in her younger days as a beautiful Aragonese princess, and, properly made up, in her later years as a proud but cast-off dowager. DeHavilland did, after all, win an Oscar for portraying a plain, matronly and rejected woman, clinging to the shreds of her dignity, in The Heiress in 1949.
There can be no question as to who would play Ann Boleyn, Henry’s elusive and maddening second wife. Vivien Leigh had the looks and the English accent for it. Prone to bipolar ups and downs, she also had the nervous edge to bring Ann, the woman Henry upended a kingdom for and eventually decapitated, properly to life. Vivien appeared with hubby Larry Olivier in the 1937 Armada drama Fire over England, so she’d have been right at home in Renaissance period costume.
‘The Other Boleyn Girl’, as Mary Boleyn has come to be known, might also appear in our epic. We’ve pegged Paulette Goddard for that role.
Paulette went down to the wire as a potential Scarlett O’Hara, and in this author’s opinion should have gotten the part. Of course, she eventually lost the role to Vivien Leigh. Paulette had brunette good looks, up-front sexiness, and genuine likeability to her credit. She’d have been aces as Ann Boleyn’s sister and predecessor as Henry’s mistress.
Joan Fontaine was Olivia DeHavilland’s sister and a fine actress in her own right. She was classy and pretty, in a cool and appealing way. In Hitchcock’s 1940 Rebecca, Fontaine would write the book on bland and eager-to-please wives who pale in comparison to their husband’s earlier and more flamboyant, if not unnerving, consorts. There could be no better choice to play Henry’s short-lived third wife, Jane Seymour.
Before his brief time at the helm of GWTW, George Cukor directed Rosalind Russell (as a well as Paulette Goddard and Joan Fontaine) in a film called The Women. Russell was a quirky but attractive brunette. In 1937’s Night Must Fall, she played a spinsterish woman who becomes involved with a charming serial killer who keeps the heads of his victims in his luggage. Later on she found fame as Auntie Mame, the earthy woman who realized that ‘life’s a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death’. Russell had all the right stuff to portray Henry VIII’s 4th wife: Anne of Cleves, the one who walked away alive and with a settlement to boot, perfectly happy to have been found uncongenial by the gargantuan and head-lopping Henry.
Lana Turner was one of Hollywood’s great blond bombshells, known as the ‘Sweater Girl’ because of her buxom figure. She screen-tested for the role of Scarlett at the age of nineteen or twenty, the same age Catherine Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth wife, would have been when she married Henry. Lana also costarred with GWTW’s Clark Gable in 1941’s Honky Tonk, giving a creditable performance as a lovable good girl who goes bad. Lana would be a surely a shoe-in to play Henry VIII’s lubricious and eventually executed fifth wife, Catherine Howard. (In real life, Lana actually out-married Henry VIII!)
The Great Kate, Katharine Hepburn, wanted badly to play Scarlett O’Hara in GWTW. In fact, she felt that the part was written for her. Unfortunately, GWTW producer David O. Selznick did not agree, saying famously to Kate that ‘I can’t imagine Rhett Butler chasing you for twelve years.’ Well, Henry VIII was married to his last wife, Katherine Parr, for only four years, dying while still married to her. And he certainly did not chase her around for twelve years prior to the wedding. Parr’s stint as wife #6 was likely an uncontested command performance. Hepburn had all the credentials to play Parr; smart, sassy, reformist, edgy, and attractive in a bluestocking way. She’d had experience in Renaissance kit as well, having played Mary Queen of Scots in 1936.
And so we have it; a dream 1939 Gone with the Tudor Wind production. Wouldn’t a 1940 Tudor family sequel be wonderful?
Susan Hayward, a spirited redhead who was short-listed to play Scarlett, would have made a great Mary Queen of Scots. Hayward’s most famous role was in 1958’s I Want to Live. She played a woman who, like the Scottish queen, was imprisoned for a murder in which she may or may not have been complicit. (Mary was a Stuart, of course, but with Tudor roots.)
Barbara O’Neil played Ellen, Scarlett’s mother, in GWTW. Although she was cool as a cucumber in that role, she was anything but in her Academy Award-nominated performance as the Duchesse de Praslin in All This and Heaven, Too, portraying a depressed, neurotic woman of violent emotions. The part of ‘Bloody’ Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s eldest daughter, surely would not have been outside of her reach.
Bette Davis actually played the great Elizabeth I in 1939, in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex; we like to think that she wouldn’t have minded reprising the role for our Gone With the Tudor Wind sequel. Davis had coveted the part of Scarlett in GWTW, but studio politics kept her from it. It’s said that her role in Jezebel, which featured Davis as a fiery southern Belle, was developed for her in compensation for losing the lead in GWTW. And let’s face it–who wouldn’t see red over missing the opportunity to be Scarlett?