I’ve been a Gone With The Wind fan since I first saw the film in 1982 – since then, I’ve seen the film countless times (even have much of it memorized), I’ve read the book several times, and I have read many, many books on the subject of the film’s production and its behind-the-scenes stories. It’s one of the most fascinating films in all of cinema history, and the unforgettable performance of Vivien Leigh sculpted into character-defining costumes by Walter Plunkett has left generations permanently enraptured with the brazen, bitchy heroine, Scarlett O’Hara (Wilkes-Kennedy-Butler).
So it should come as no surprise I can be very vocal on the subject when someone so terribly fucks it up. If you are a Tonner or Mattel fan, read no further, you’re bound to be offended, although that is not my intention (not really, anyway).
This is the 75th Anniversary of Gone With The Wind as it was released into American cinemas nationwide in 1939 after a highly publicized search for its star, and numerous gossip reports fanning the flames of chatter over its egotistical director and the lavishness of its production. As history records it, the film stood up to the hype, and it is still one of the highest grossing films in history. As such, and its legacy for stunning costuming, makes it one of the greatest subject matters for dolls. And despite GWTW dolls being a bit overdone, there is always the hope that a maker will obtain the license – and do it well.
As a GWTW fan, I was thrilled when Robert Tonner obtained the license from Warner Bros. to make dolls based on characters from the movie – notably, Scarlett in the likeness of Vivien Leigh. As a Tonner employee and a fan, I figured if anyone could do it well, he could. But unfortunately, Robert didn’t do any of the dolls – the likeness sculpt was contracted to a portrait sculptor who has done work for the Franklin Mint, and the clothing was interpreted by the in-house design director. You would think embracing the detail-rich knowledge of a person who is also on your payroll (me) would have its advantages – well, some.
In early discussions here and here, I pointed out one of the most annoying things about the Franklin Mint or World Doll offerings was Scarlett with a big ol’ silly smile across her face. I suppose some brilliant executive felt that only dolls that smile sell – we can’t have a frowning Scarlett bride doll! Moron. Anyway, it was a well-received suggestion to make two heads for Scarlett – one that would represent a younger, happier girl – and another that would be more mature without a smile. The latter never happened, and the resulting head sculpt somewhat missed the mark in terms of spot-on likeness by making Scarlett so generically doll-like, in my opinion – it not only was noticed by the collectors, but they were fairly vocal about their opinions, too. Swap-outs of prototype (which had been heavily Photoshopped) and the production doll calmed some opinions…but at the end of the day, Tonner was left with an ambiguous ‘Vivien Leigh Portrait Sculpt’, thereby removing an opportunity to differentiate your product from previous versions. Well, hey…we still have the lavish costuming, don’t we? Well? Bueller…Bueller? Crickets can be deafening…
By comparison to previous attempts by other doll companies, Tonner did achieve success with many of its GWTW offerings. Constant comparison to the Franklin Mint’s 16inch vinyl Scarlett would be made and debated – but Tonner still out-performed the Mint in much of the collection – although the Franklin Mint did get high marks for its Vivien Leigh face sculpt and in its color choices in costuming.
As a coup however, Tonner produced costumes that had not been made before – most notably, the ‘lost’ costumes, or those designed for the film by Plunkett, but never appeared in the final cut. Among these outfits, there was a challenge determining at what point in the film Scarlett wore them. Historical costuming references helped to assess the costume silhouette, and then placing it within Scarlett’s age progression. When the infamous red velvet ballgown worn to Ashley’s birthday party hit the line-up – I just about shit myself with excitement. It is my favorite.
You see, there were some occasions where my input was embraced more out of the overall benefit to the company rather than the delicate balance of egos in the design room. When Tonner made its Kitty Collier Scarlett in the green velvet drapery dress, I offered up my original GWTW pattern by Pegee of Williamsburg that showed how the gown was constructed. I pointed out that no company had yet offered a version of the drapery gown that was film-accurate. Though the Mint’s porcelain version came close (I brought my doll in to show the design team), an intensive study of the design offered clues to the hat’s decoration. You can thank me that the produced design was complete with the gilded chicken foot, a detail many overlook. The Kitty version was wonderful – with an original pattern developed by the Tonner pattern maker – as was the subsequent 16inch Scarlett version. So you’d think they’d listen to me about my favorite of the costumes, right? Sadly…no.
I also owned the 21inch porcelain Franklin Mint ‘Shame’ Scarlett doll, which despite its doll-like facial sculpt rendering, it was a pretty damned good interpretation of Plunkett’s design. There are key design elements in this dress that set it apart from a real Victorian-era ball gown (some designs owned more 1930s ideals than that of the Civil War era – a critical element for anyone trying to reproduce them). First, there was no actual bustle – the design merely implied fullness at the rear using gathered velvet and ostrich feathers. Second, unlike all other doll renderings, the Franklin Mint actually got it right in selection of a darker red (though not dark enough). After all, the gown was described as the ‘burgundy ball gown’ by Plunkett’s own direction. Technicolor renderings would make the color brighter than it really was – but not that bright. It was also made of silk velvet, and in human scale, the velvet would drape gracefully from the body. Again, the Franklin Mint chose a velvet that did actually drape nicely, notwithstanding its shade choice.
To fully grasp why this is so important to fans, and why the details matter, you need to know a little about the history of Plunkett’s designing process for the movie. Margaret Mitchell described many of Scarlett’s costumes, including this dress, as green. Plunkett did actually design a green version of this dress, though it’s difficult to see in the sketch how closely he took into account Mitchell’s description.
Mitchell says, “He fumbled and drew out her new jade-green watered silk dress. It was cut so low over the bosom and the skirt was draped back over an enormous bustle and on the bustle was a huge bunch of pink velvet roses.”
The most prized jade is a emerald-green, and ‘watered’ silk means it had a moiré pattern. It had a bustle – to be accurate – probably a structured version, rather than the padded or ruffled varieties seeing how wealthy the Butlers were, and Rhett’s penchant for the latest fashion (or maybe he just liked big asses).
David O. Selznick wanted the dress to be red, to take advantage of the newly employed Technicolor cameras, and to establish a visual representation of Scarlett’s humiliation. Plunkett obtained permission from Mitchell to change the color, and the rest is history. The dress was re-designed – not re-colored, mind you – but completely re-designed into the iconic version we see in the film. The two designs are similar, but markedly different.
The Tonner version of this famous design was impressive, but for all the wrong reasons.
Yeah, okay…it was big, though the original dress was nowhere near as voluminous. But it was the color and the fabric choice that destroyed this interpretation. Cotton velveteen lacked the drape, and contributed to a huge amount of bulk that detracted from the elegant sleekness of the silhouette – and the color was bright red. I don’t know who actually made the call on the fabric choice and color, whether it was the designer, Tonner or Warner Bros. – but saying this was a bad call is putting it lightly. Hard words for just a doll, you say? You ask me if I could do better? Well…it just so happens I did…
In 1991, Alexandra Ripley penned the highly anticipated sequel to Gone With The Wind, Scarlett. It was not a good book, or story – destined for television rather than the big screen – considering I heard authors like Colleen McCullough had submitted treatments to the Mitchell Estate for consideration. Nevertheless, it was bound to be filmed, and a search for an unknown Scarlett was again deployed as a publicity device to aid book sales. A friend of mine wanted to audition in New York for one such casting call, and she was told that a costume would be optional.
Now…understand this – if you were going to an audition for a role, you’d want to look the part, right? Well, Marsha clearly did, and she wanted the costume to fit like a second skin. Using the timing of the sequel, it was pretty obvious that the hoop skirt was long gone in fashion, so we decided to make an opulent representation of Victorian attire – one that would stand out. You guessed it…
The gown remains as one of the grandest projects I have ever created. I only wished Pegee had this when I made mine – which shows a one-piece gown. Sewing velvet is a pain in the ass, but hand setting 144 Swarovski crystals in brass bezels proved to be just as daunting. For Marsha’s final fitting, the aureoles of her breasts were barely visible above the neckline as she wanted the dress to be just as low-cut as the original. Of course, Marsha had a more ample bosom than Vivien, so needless to say, we had to do a little tucking. The only thing that stood out was a zipper closure instead of what probably were hooks and eyes – I didn’t have any reference except my porcelain Franklin Mint doll. Creative license was taken, of course…but the result was nothing short of spectacular – as were Marsha’s boobs. When she arrived at the audition in full Scarlett attire, she was the only one of some 200 hopefuls that was not wearing a hoop-skirted costume. Details (and presentation) matter…
I will certainly give credit where it’s due – Tonner got the train right. I was under the impression the gown was one piece, pulling the fullness back to create the train. Many years later, I discovered the image of Leigh’s fittings, and the shape of the skirt was undeniable. Okay…I know when I’m wrong, and I’m not afraid to admit it. However, when you combine even the correct skirt with an incorrect fabric, the results can be horrific. And don’t tell me velvet is too bulky in and of itself…it was successfully used in other doll lines, and I know there were options available. So notwithstanding the skirt train, I did do it – and I did it in full scale, thank you very much – I know a little something about detail and what it means to the die-hard fans – potential customers you hope will lay down good money to buy your product.
The doll had mixed reviews; among them were the bulkiness of the train and the hair style as top offenders – that and the little smirk seen in Scarlett’s sculpt did no favors for the mood of such a pivotal moment in the character’s storyline. As I sat on the photography set trying to figure some way to style the doll for the official company photograph, I tried every scheme I could muster to make the doll worthy of the original. And I thought to myself, what a waste…
There would be other disappointments offered up in the GWTW collection by Tonner – after the red gown and after my departure in 2010. But it wasn’t until 2014, and Tonner’s Gone With The Wind 75th Anniversary luncheon in Atlanta that I remained quiet. With the event’s description, many folks knew that the souvenir would be: “Scarlett (…) dressed in a costume from the film, but not in this original color, which was rejected for use on camera. The interesting part was the tidbit that it was ‘rejected for use on camera’ – I doubt this is accurate when all writings and evidence teeter toward Selznick rejecting the design sketch in favor of a racier red gown with more opulent detail. It is highly unlikely a green version was ever made and screen tested – but in Tonner’s defense, they don’t say that it was really made. I could be wrong, and there may be some bit of intel on this I missed in all my readings. Regardless, it does imply the costumes were the same, differing only in color…
Plunkett originally designed the ‘birthday party dress’ in green, and it was supposed draw inspiration from the book, but without bustle or pink velvet roses (though it’s hard to interpret the absence of the roses in the sketch’s colors). But collectors tossed around the sketch, hopeful Tonner would rise to the occasion, and take an opportunity to stand out in a sea of Scarlett hopefuls.
During the event, guests were treated to a centerpiece Scarlett wearing a ‘lost’ costume – not one of the standout dresses, mind you…but one if properly executed, would be a good centerpiece, I suppose. The lampshade doll adorning each table garishly sported faux fur, in a heavy proportion to the design, across the neckline and hem.
Why they decided against something more showy and desired like the ‘waist up’ dinner dress Scarlett wears in New Orleans, gluttonously shoveling food into her mouth demanding merengue and keeping the decorative birds away from her mouth is unknown. But then again, so is most of Tonner’s recent decision making when it comes to new products, collector events, and The Big Bang Theory. Why…even that bitch, Ellowyne Wilde, had to boss her way into the event wearing leftover fabric from Sydney Chase’s Love is Blue (how old is that fabric, really? How old is Ellowyne now, really?).
But I knew. Even before the doll was unveiled…I knew what the collectors were getting. Call it deduction based on experience. Let’s see…original costume from the film…not this color. Yup! They’re getting a green version of the exact same dress, bulky velveteen, smirk and all.
It’s easy to see from a company perspective why this was so: The sample could be made in China, freeing a sample maker in the local design room for another product. The design was made before, so a pattern already exists. Cotton velveteen is really cheap. Many would actually love the color variation, despite its offensive interpretation to others. And everyone just loves Scarlett in green, right Ms. Mitchell? Even Madame Alexander’s original interpretation of the novel’s gown was better.
Is this the way you treat an Icon’s 75th Anniversary? Nothing modest or matronly will do for this occasion…and certainly nothing that’s just a re-colored copy. Is there no desire to stand out amongst your competitors and make something that is unique and newsworthy? Who uses cotton velveteen that isn’t suitable for wiping one’s ass, let alone one to substitute for silk velvet? When will Tonner let the GWTW license go, and let someone else have a crack? He certainly gave up on Disney Princess fast enough before Frozen became the largest grossing animated film of all time – timing is everything. Questions, questions, questions – the world may never know. I suppose the answer is coming from decreased convention support and increased factory sales – but that’s their business, not mine.
I understand some of you liked the doll – and I’m thrilled you do. At least you don’t feel your money was wasted, and that’s what it’s all about – loving your doll. I happen to love Gone With The Wind almost as much, if not more than dolls – so it’s hard for me to not step up on a subject of which I own strong emotions. Many of you would happily do the same for redheaded Sydney’s, squishy heads or microsequins.
And so, yet another opportunity for another company is completely and unforgivably blown. Mattel also gets thumb down for its version of the red gown; but to their credit, the doll isn’t smirking. When differentiation sets you apart from your competitors, and high-end renditions should be synonymous with high price tags – you would think someone who is paying tens of thousands of dollars in licensing fees/royalties would make the license work for their brand rather than against. The makers of previous GWTW dolls like World Doll had the advantage of being new – a seasoned maker like Tonner should be able to set the doll world on fire with its offerings – rather than the other way around – particularly one rich with some of the most celebrated costume designs in motion pictures. It’s time to pay your taxes on Tara, and go with the wind.
I have no apologies for anyone who is a staunch Tonner supporter – this is how I feel – just as strongly as many of you feel about passions of your own. It simply saddens me to see this happen to a good doll maker, when its outcome could have been clearly different.
“Waste always makes me angry, and that’s what all this is, sheer waste.”