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Gone With the Windy

[whitespace] Talkative screenwriter fills in the hidden history of 'Gone With the Wind'

An exclusive interview
by Richard von Busack

The name W.W. "Bob" Trowbridge isn't one that sets most filmgoers' eyes atwinkle. But Trowbridge, screenwriter on such B-movies as Three Weeks in Hell (1947), It Happened in Jail (1948), Melee in Malaysia (1949) and The Whoop-Dee-Doo Girl (1950, co-credited with Pat Hobby), was present at the creation. Trowbridge was a survivor of the "beige list"--one of those denied work for knowing people who associated with those who associated with Communists.

Trowbridge toiled under a number of pseudonyms; when queried, he didn't know the number himself. He was a rewrite man of such skill that he often likened himself to those invisible reweavers whose handiwork is best when no one knows about it.

No one, I think, will ever know how many scripts Trowbridge secretly rewrote. Even so, his reputation among film buffs is secure. What would a DGA screening be without Trowbridge's corpulent silhouette in a back row, taking apart a film's third act, bit by bit? Truly, Trowbridge was the one of the few entitled to crane his neck if one yelled, "Oh, Mr. Hollywood? Yoo hoo, Mr. Hollywood?" into the crowd at Musso and Frank's.

Many is the afternoon I spent at Trowbridge's Studio City townhouse, a cramped room full of cardboard boxes. We'd sit on resin lawn furniture in his living room, discussing the decline of the movies, and one afternoon, I interviewed him on a subject that has never been reported elsewhere. I bring this out now because of the national rerelease of Gone With the Wind. It is, for the first time in print, I believe, Trowbridge's own account of his labors on the much-rewritten script.

Richard Von Busack: There are rumors that you were one of the 20-odd writers who did an uncredited rewrite Gone With the Wind.

WW. "Bob" Trowbridge: It's true. As you know, they'd literally burnt the set of Atlanta before they found their Scarlett O'Hara: Vivien Leigh. I'm in the film as an extra--you can see me in the background of a scene, carrying one half of a stretcher. The next morning, after the big bonfire, Mr. Selznick hired me to do a rewrite on GWTW. I proposed that Scarlett needed a worthy adversary--someone as bad as she was. And that's when I came up with the idea of making Melanie Wilkes the villain. This would have been in fall '38 or '39, I believe.

Von Busack: Wait a minute! Melanie is a goodie-goodie! She's been boring generations of women since Gone With the Wind premiered.

Trowbridge: (Crossly) Yes, that was the final version, but I'm satisfied that my handiwork is still visible.

Von Busack: How so?

Trowbridge: My idea was that Melanie was well aware of Scarlett's interest in her husband, even before Ashley went off to the war. Thus she starts scheming against Miz Scarlett right about the time of the fundraising ball in Atlanta. Notice that this is about the time that bad things start to happen to Scarlett. Consider the scenes after the war. Who else would have known that Scarlett was in the custom of riding to the bad part of town?

Von Busack: Well, Ashley knew. In one scene, he warns Scarlett that unaccompanied ladies didn't go to that part of town, and it wasn't the first time he had warned her. As usual, Scarlett says, "Fiddle-dee-dee," or words to that effect, and goes anyway, and her buckboard is set upon by thugs. Thank god, a loyal ex-slave is there to save her.

Trowbridge: Who else would have mentioned to Ashley Scarlett's custom of riding alone in risky area? His wife, Melanie, of course. Life was cheap in those days; it was a simple matter to hire some ruffians to kill a woman and make it look like a robbery.

See, you have to read between the lines. This is, after all, an unusually rich movie. And Melanie had not just opportunity to knock off Scarlett--but motive too. Think of the resentment Melanie harbored. After all, it was Scarlett's inept midwifery that left her unable to conceive more children. She almost died of Scarlett's handiwork. Let's imagine that every time Melanie sat down, she thought of Miss O'Hara.

Von Busack: What are the other times Melanie strikes in your draft of GWTW?

Trowbridge: Two more times--a way of signaling to the audience through the law of threes. Remember Goldfinger's Law: Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action. Scarlett went up and down those grand stairs of hers many times, in many conditions. Why does she fall down them, miscarrying and almost breaking her neck, if not because Melanie loosened the carpet at the top of the stairs? Anyone less tempestuous than Scarlett would have died.

In Melanie's fury, she strikes for the third time, not at the mother but at the child. I had written a scene of Melanie slinking in the grass, in a sort of Civil War version of a black commando outfit, setting up a tripwire right in front of the stiles where Bonnie Blue customarily rode her pony.

Von Busack: And in the finished version, the pony still trips breaking the neck of Bonnie Blue, as a caution to careless, unfeeling mothers everywhere.

Trowbridge: Correct.

Von Busack: I suppose you're going to tell me next that the Tarleton twins are really gay.

Trowbridge: (Unintelligible)

Von Busack: In the end, though, Melanie pays for her crimes with the world's longest deathbed scene.

Trowbridge: Yes, she takes arsenic in a fit of pique from her plans being foiled, although in the film, they cut that explanation, and she just sort of wanes away for no apparent reason. But here was my twist: Melanie's deathbed is where her revenge comes home. You'll remember that Melanie begs Scarlett to take care of her son after her death. They left that in the film. In my version, Melanie's son, Beau--obviously a bad seed--fulfills his mother's revenge on Scarlett.

I had a wonderful ending, which was unfortunately cut. A coda. It's a scene in Atlanta years later, after Beau has been jailed for stuffing and mounting Scarlett under the delusion that she was a pheasant. Dr. Meade and his gossipy wife, much older but still living, are seen at their breakfast table, discussing the case, and shaking their heads saying, "What do you expect; the Wilkeses always marry their cousins." Which is a line that's still in the film, only at the beginning.

Von Busack: You do have to read between the lines to see this emphasis.

Trowbridge: My ideas for Melanie's character were judged too downbeat. I'm disappointed, because I think the audience would have been very surprised indeed. And I think having Melanie revealed as evil would have made Scarlett a more well-rounded character, removing the burden of being the nastiest person in the movie. Still, what a classic film Gone With the Wind is, isn't it; I get enormous satisfaction from having been connected in it in any small way.

This article is dedicated to my colleagues Patricia Smith and Steven Glass. Take courage, my friends--we are many, they are few.

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Web extra the July 2-8, 1998 issue of Metro.

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