Getting a juicy part in a big movie can be equal parts propinquity and chops. Vivien Leigh had already been discounted – too British – for the Scarlett O'Hara part in Gone With the Wind at the time she traveled from England to California, mainly to be with future husband Laurence Olivier, who was enmeshed in his own film work. Leigh's agent brought her to the Culver City lot for the burning of the Atlanta depot and introduced her to producer David O. Selznick. Not long thereafter, the role was hers. That Leigh's agent was Selznick's brother is not incidental to the story, but what counts is that Leigh was given the chance of a lifetime.
Greg Giese's chance in Gone With the Wind was happenstance of a different stripe. It was Giese (sounds like “geese”) whom Selznick cast as both newborn babies in the picture – one Scarlett's; the other her frenemy Melanie's. One baby was female, the other was male. Less than 2 weeks old, Giese raised the bar for versatility.
There are one-shot wonders and then there are one-shot wonders; Giese never acted again. His dual role in GWTW didn't turn any heads, and besides, his parents' divorce took him to the Midwest while he was still in short pants. By the time he got back to California, in his mid-20s, any lingering desire to act was no longer practical. “I was a young married guy, with a young kid,” he says. “I had to get serious about a real job. I thought a little about it, but it was pretty much a pipe dream.”
Giese now lives in Corona, a retired insurance man who, at 74, is among the handful of cast members still alive and the youngest GWTW survivor. Olivia de Havilland, who played Melanie, is the oldest at 97. In June, Giese and a few of the others will travel to Georgia to celebrate the film's 75th anniversary.
“I'm not exaggerating when I say that I've been to maybe 40 of these things, in various shapes and forms, over the years,” Giese says. “Every time they show the film, it creates a new round of interest for another generation, and somebody will spring up with a celebration.”
The money varies. “Sometimes you get paid for these things I go to, sometimes you don't,” Giese says. “Sometimes you pay your own expenses and don't make anything. But once, in Stone Mountain, Ga., a guy with a lot of memorabilia, including some of the original costumes, set up shop. He kept me there for a month, talking about the film, signing autographs, and I made $11,000.”
It's the film's 21-gun Atlanta premiere being remembered this June, but it's an earlier sneak peek in Riverside that led to Giese's casting. On Sept. 9, 1939, Selznick and a few others drove out to Riverside with several cans of film in the trunk – a version of Gone With the Wind so rough that most of the music was missing and the running time was an unthinkable four-plus hours.
The second part of the double feature at the Fox Theatre was to be Gunga Din, but at intermission the manager of the movie house announced that instead, a new, untitled release would be shown. When Margaret Mitchell's name appeared on the screen, there were oohs and ahs all around.
When the film ended, it was past midnight, and Selznick and his party found a late-night pharmacy that still had a lunch counter open to discuss the hundreds of comment cards. The story goes that something seemingly minor bothered the persnickety Selznick: the babies. They were too big to be newborns. It was agreed that post-production would include reshooting the baby scenes.
A couple of weeks later, Selznick's lieutenants were dispatched to the Rice Maternity Hospital, where Gregory Giese, 7 pounds 8 ounces, had been born on Sept. 24. Much of the rest is urban legend, handed down by Giese's mother, Illinois-born registered nurse Cleo, then 21. Her husband, Gene Giese, had lost his right arm in an explosion during World War II. Unable to land work in the Midwest, he'd moved his young family to California.
Because Selznick was too rushed to find two new babies, Giese got the double part. At the film's 70th-anniversary celebration, in 2009 in Georgia, Giese was asked why the filmmakers picked him out of a nursery chockablock with babies. He smiled and said, “Because I was the best-looking one there.”
Giese's mother and studio executives signed a one-page contract on Oct. 4, 1939. Giese was told that he was taken to the set the same day, accompanied by a nurse and a social worker. His mother was politely informed that her presence might disrupt filming.
The contract, which Giese framed many years ago, calls for a payment of $75 for the first day, and $10 a day if they needed him beyond that. It stipulates that they couldn't shoot more than 20 seconds of film without a break. Giese still has the pay stub: He earned $95 for three days' work.
In 1946, 7-year-old Greg was taken to a revival screening of Gone With the Wind by his mother and grandmother in the Southern Illinois town of Murphysboro, where the family had relocated. He had never seen the picture, just grew up knowing he had been in it. Giese squirmed all the way through but says not once did he ask, “Is it over yet?” as the film reached its three-hour, 45-minute conclusion. Last year, Giese took his two young grandchildren to see the movie. One squirmed, the other fell asleep.
Now retired from the insurance business, Giese returns to his Illinois roots most summers, visiting classmates and working security at a horse-racing track. He's divorced but on good terms with his ex-wife: She drove him to the hospital recently when he had surgery for a hernia.
According to Connie Sutherland, director of the Gone With the Wind Museum in Georgia, there are just six cast members left: de Havilland and Mary Anderson (Maybelle Merriwether), plus four – Giese, Mickey Kuhn, Ric Holt and Patrick Curtis – who played children. Curtis, who continued in films as an actor-producer, was the second of Raquel Welch's four husbands. Kuhn appeared with Vivien Leigh as an adult in another landmark film, A Streetcar Named Desire, portraying the sailor who told her how to find a streetcar.
Kuhn also had a small part in Red River as a 16-year-old. “My second favorite movie of all time,” says Giese, who has met Kuhn several times at GWTW functions.
At the film's 50th anniversary, Giese helped Butterfly McQueen, then 78, pin on her corsage, and they became fast friends. McQueen, who died six years later, invited Giese to accompany her in her limousine. For many years, McQueen was conflicted about the way the blacks were portrayed in the film, but she told Giese that she swallowed her pride after Hattie McDaniel gave her a lecture.
“According to Butterfly,” Giese says, “Hattie said that it's 'better to be paid $1,200 to play a maid in a movie than to be paid $12 to be a real maid.'?”
McQueen played a slave named Prissy, and said a line that still resonates: “I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies!”
She was talking about Greg Giese, of course.
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