Sun Valley Movie History: How Gone With The Wind Shaped Sun Valley’s Debut

This week the second annual Sun Valley Film Festival comes to town. In honor of the event and the enduring bond between Hollywood and Sun Valley it represents, The Valley Sun blog is running a series of movie history posts by guest blogger Jennifer Tuohy. For more on the festival, which ends tomorrow, March 17, visit sunvalleyfilmfestival.org.

“Sorry to hear you are still set on ‘Sun Valley.’ I am not sure whether Irene wired you her latest suggestion – ‘Ski Haven.’”
David O. Selznick to Averell Harriman, November 4, 1936

David O. Selznick was a unique figure in the golden Hollywood studio era. Producer of arguably some of the greatest movies ever made – from Hitchcock’s Hollywood debut, Rebecca, to the enduring classic, Gone With the Wind - Selznick was a force to be reckoned with. A close friend of Sun Valley’s founder Averell Harriman, Selznick responded with his usual gusto when his buddy asked him to help sprinkle a little star dust on the opening of his grand palace in the snow.

As reams of telegrams and letters between the two friends attest, Selznick set to work immediately, “producing” the arrival of a trainload of celebrities at the resort for New Year’s Eve. Varied reports from the time indicate that the “Sun Valley Special” carried with it an assembly of Hollywood’s shiniest stars. The celebrity choo choo was an inspired idea, agreed Harriman. “This expedition should have good publicity value and help to keep the place full for the rest of the season.”

Arguably the origin of the type-A-Hollywood-producer stereotype, Selznick was anxious to control tightly the publicity generated by his scheme, and consequently drove Harriman’s publicity guru Steve Hannagan slightly mad with his customary pages of memos, including this one sent in early December 1936:

Dear Steve, For the love of Pete please don’t let anyone send out anything about Sun Valley Special without my first seeing and initialling it for if wrong thing goes out I will have to leave town. Am confident wide publicity can be obtained indirectly counting on your good taste to see to it this isn’t handled like a Billy Rose special to the Dallas Exposition but rather as casual photographs of stars en route and at American St. Moritz etc. Not trying to tell you how to run your business but am trying arrange this as favor to Averell and I must be careful it doesn’t boomerang at me or Sun Valley.

Selznick had good reason to be careful about his image, as he was in the early stages of producing what was to be the defining motion picture of his career, a little movie named Gone With The Wind. Just a few months earlier he had picked up the rights to the sumptuous Southern novel set in the midst of the civil war, and it’s hard not to deduce that Selznick’s little trip had some business motivation behind it. In fact, many of the Hollywood power players he rounded up for the 26 hour train ride to central Idaho had key parts to play in his plan for Wind: Samuel Goldwyn, who “owned” Gary Cooper, the star strongly rumored to be Selznick’s first choice for the role of Rhett Butler; George Cukor, Selznick’s first director for the film; and Errol Flynn, also on the list to play the roguish Charlestonian Butler. In the end Goldwyn point blank refused to loan out Cooper, and Warner Brothers terms for the use of Flynn were unappetizing to Selznick. Perhaps to throw a bone to his disappointed pal however, Goldwyn sent the recently widowed Norma Shearer a request to come join them all at Sun Valley shortly after arriving. Shearer was one of many actresses considered for the role of the film’s heroine Scarlett O’Hara. Shearer eventually declined, joking, “Scarlett is a thankless role. The one I’d really like to play is Rhett Butler!” Shearer’s visit to Sun Valley was not fruitless however. She fell in love with the area and returned year after year, eventually marrying one of the resort’s ski instructors, Martin Arrouge.

In 1940, shortly after Wind was released featuring Clark Gable (another star to frequent Sun Valley) and Vivien Leigh in the lead roles, Selznick pulled hard on some strings to arrange to screen the movie at Sun Valley. “At my request,” he wrote to Harriman in February 1940, “[we will] work something out for Sun Valley on ‘Wind’ even though it is a complete violation of our policy.” Sun Valley was considered rather too small and too short an engagement to waste a print of what was fast becoming the biggest movie in Hollywood’s history.

Selznick and his party arrived in Sun Valley on December 31st, 1936, himself and his closest friends occupying rooms 206, 207, 306 and 307 for just four days. According to the account of Felix Schaffgotsch to his boss Harriman (who was unable to attend the opening of his pet project due to the “coming out” of his eldest daughter Mary), the “Hollywood crowd” were “crazy about the place.” They spent their evenings dancing to the orchestra, being entertained by the Austrian ski instructors, playing ping pong, and frolicking in the pool. “Madeleine Carroll and party went swimming last night at six below,” reported Schaffgotsch.

“The warm water swimming pool is obviously a sensational success and quite a novelty,” wrote Selznick to Harriman in a lengthy letter following his stay. He did complain however, about “how easily pneumonia was obtained after hopping out of the pool and running indoors.” “It is pretty cold in Ketchum, believe it or not,” he wrote, “all your advertisement to the contrary notwithstanding, I believe we hit zero a couple of times.”

The much-publicized lack of snow at Sun Valley’s opening has long been proclaimed as a disaster, however for parties unaccustomed to the thrills of winter sports, it was barely an annoyance. With his accustomed foresight, Hannagan, who despised the cold, had arranged for a slew of entertainment and activities to be on hand, and these kept the celebrities and other guests happy. The ice-skating rink was a particular hit. Selznick actually lamented the fact there was any snow at all, “There wasn’t supposed to be enough snow but there was enough for me to make a monkey of myself on skis and skates, and enough for the rest of the party to go wild about winter sports and spend a fortune at the Saks shop…” he said in his letter to Harriman.

The only major blip in the Hollywood crowd’s Sun Valley vacation, where otherwise they had had “a perfectly magnificent time,” and were “simply heartbroken that we had to leave,” was at the big New Year’s Eve bash. Before Selznick left Hollywood for Ketchum, he had received a wire from screenwriter Sidney Howard, who was working on the script of Wind. Howard had wanted Selznick to meet a friend of his named Morgan during his stay at the resort. He duly accepted the introduction, and while Selznick would live to regret the meeting and its tarnishing of his precious image, for Sun Valley it led to the best publicity the resort could have hoped for.

Morgan insinuated himself into the Hollywood party, following them everywhere, stealing dances with the ladies and securing a spot at their table for the New Year’s Eve dinner. During the evening he brought over a banker from Chicago, Charles F. Glore. Presumably somewhat inebriated, Glore approached the table, pushing Selznick out of the way, and plopping himself down next to Lili Damita. When the producer protested, Glore stormed off, sweeping Selznick’s wife, Irene, out of the way, and swiping Selznick on the arm. Selznick, infuriated, demanded an explanation from Morgan as to his friend’s behaviour. Morgan, unruffled by the incident, ignored Selznick’s fury and calmly turned to Claudette Colbert requesting a dance. Selzinck, not known for his calm and restrained personality, screamed at Morgan that he “did not care to know him” and ordered him from the table. Morgan obliged, joining Glore at the adjoining table where the two started stage-whispering about Selznick, with heavy emphasis on the word Jewish. Enraged, Selznick abandoned all pretense at civility, walked over to the gentlemens’ table and planted a punch on the unsuspecting banker, leaving him with a split nose and two black eyes.

Lloyd Castagnetto, a bridge and building supervisor for the Union Pacific Railroad, later recalled “[there] was blood all over everything that night.” According to his account, the first person to throw a punch was Errol Flynn. Regardless of the facts, the story of Hollywood celebrities spilling blood in Sun Valley was too sensational to ignore. When an employee called Steve Hannagan lamenting the turn of events, he shouted back down the line, “What do you mean your party’s ruined? Not an editor in the country can resist this story!” Then he sat down and penned what became the memorable party headline for the ages: “Sun Valley Opens With a Bang.”

Jennifer Tuohy

For more from the Sun Valley Movie History series click here.


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