When Julie Crawford leaves Fort Wayne, Indiana for Hollywood, she never imagines she'll cross paths with Carole Lombard, the dazzling actress from Julie's provincial Midwestern hometown. Although the young woman has dreams of becoming a screenwriter, the only job Julie's able to find is one in the studio publicity office of the notoriously demanding producer David O. Selznick —who is busy burning through directors, writers and money as he begins filming Gone with the Wind.
Although tensions run high on the set, Julie finds she can step onto the back lot, take in the smell of smoky gunpowder and the soft rustle of hoop skirts, and feel the magical world of Gone with the Wind come to life. Julie's access to real-life magic comes when Carole Lombard hires her as an assistant and invites her into the glamorous world Carole shares with Clark Gable—who is about to move into movie history as the dashing Rhett Butler.
Carole Lombard, happily profane and uninhibited, makes no secret of her relationship with Gable, which poses something of a problem for the studio as Gable is technically still married—and the last thing the film needs is more negative publicity. Julie is there to fend off the overly curious reporters, hoping to prevent details about the affair from slipping out. But she can barely keep up with her blonde employer, let alone control what comes out of Carole's mouth, and--as their friendship grows - soon finds she doesn't want to. Carole, both wise and funny, becomes Julie's model for breaking free of the past.
In the ever-widening scope of this story, Julie is given a front-row seat to not one but two of the greatest love affairs of all time: the undeniable on-screen chemistry between Scarlett and Rhett, and off screen, the deepening love between Carole and Clark. Yet beneath the shiny façade, things in Hollywood are never quite what they seem, and Julie must learn to balance career aspirations and her own budding romance with outsized personalities and the overheated drama on set.
“Each morning, she pulled herself from bed and joined the cleaning ladies and the plumbers and other sleepy travelers on the 5:00 a.m. bus to get to the studio early. That way, she could step onto the back lot alone and be in the old South and feel the magical world of Gone with the Wind come to life….It didn’t matter that she walked in a landscape of glued plasterboard, a place of fake structures held together by little more than Selznick’s frenzied dreams. It was vividly real.”
Any fan of Gone with the Wind cannot help but be intrigued by the blurb for this book – an imagining of the behind-the-scenes goings on of one of the most beloved and iconic movies of all time – irresistible! And while some aspects of this novel bring that prospect vividly to life, others, sadly, fall woefully short.
From the very outset of this book certain occurrences seem rather unbelievable and contrived. Julie’s initial encounter and subsequent hiring by Carole Lombard, for instance, while setting the stage for the entire book, is a little too convenient and does not feel entirely plausible. There is also a fair amount of superfluous storytelling and inconsequential detail that becomes a distraction rather than an enhancement to the story. So many topics are addressed in this work – movie making, screenwriting, the difficulties of prospective actors, women’s struggles, racial issues, antisemitism, the burgeoning threat of WWII – that it seems the author gets a bit lost amongst all the various threads and fails to do any of them full justice. All are worthy ideas, but it seems a more focused approach may have yielded a more cohesive narrative and a better book overall.
That said, however, the passages detailing the effort involved in making such a groundbreaking motion picture – the casting, elaborate sets, wardrobe, challenges faced by the actors, Selznick’s obsessive attention to detail – are compelling and provide a fascinating window into Old Hollywood and movie making. Another huge highlight is Carole Lombard. While neither the main character nor an actress in GWTW, there is a reason her photo is on the cover of this book. SHE is the real star of this tale. While protagonist Julie is a bit flat and underwhelming, Lombard, on the other hand, virtually leaps off the page in vibrant and dynamic detail. Her vivacious spirit, frank honesty, and wise insight add to the story enormously, and her presence is sorely missed during sections she is not at the forefront. So much so, in fact, that I rushed to Google to learn more about the remarkable woman behind the Hollywood glamor, and I would love to read more about her in the future.
This is not a bad book, but I must admit to being somewhat disappointed because, especially given the subject matter, it had the potential to be so much more. Still, a worthy read for GWTW fans, if only for a glimpse into the magic behind that most legendary film.
“Nothing could soar, could become magical, without sweat and a touch of stardust.”