Gone With the Wind was released back in 1939, but the enduring appeal of this epic movie about romance and war has ensured that it continues to find an audience. Even today, it still ranks as one of the highest-grossing films of all time.
That’s why the US state of Georgia, the setting for Gone With the Wind, is commemorating the film’s 70th anniversary this year.
The award-winning movie sees Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler having a passionate love affair during the Civil War. I went to Jonesboro, in Georgia, the official home of the movie to join in some of the birthday celebrations.
It’s hard to come to Georgia and not see a screening of the movie and we were lucky enough to watch it at Atlanta’s world famous Fox Theatre. As testament to the film’s popularity, almost 5,000 fans piled into the opulent theatre, some of whom were dressed in confederate uniforms and period costume.
The atmosphere was electric, with the crowd cheering at the first appearance of characters such as Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) and Mammy (Hattie McDaniel). The emotional audience even let out a big cheer in the scene where Miss O’Hara shoots a Yankee soldier.
I caught up with a few of the fans after the show to ask what they thought of the film. Grace Vernon, 80, from Virginia, remembers when Gone With the Wind was first released.
“In 1939, the film was very risqué because of the use of the word ‘damn’ at the end. My mother and grandmother didn’t want me to go and see it but I did anyway! I remember being completely blown away by it.”
Mum Marella Collins, from Alabama, took her seven-year-old daughter to see the movie for the first time. My daughter dressed up as Scarlett O’Hara for Halloween so she really wanted to see the film. She loved it. It’s a classic movie and easy to understand. It’s very funny too.
While in Atlanta, we stayed at the plush five-star Georgian Terrace Hotel in historic Peachtree Street, where Clark Gable spent the night after the premiere of Gone With the Wind.
The hotel has had a considerable facelift since 1939 but it still has its original Rocco-style ballroom where the movie premiere’s extravagant reception was held. The hotel still plays host to A-listers, counting George Clooney and Diana Ross among its recent guests.
A must-see sight for Gone With the Wind aficionados is the former apartment of the book’s author Margaret Mitchell. It was in this apartment (now a museum) that Mitchell penned the novel, although she never intended it to be published.
Mitchell started to write the book when she was recovering in bed from a broken ankle and it took 10 years before it was completed. Mitchell carefully researched the novel and much of it is based on true stories. She was eventually discovered by Macmillan editor Harold Latham who was touring the south looking for talented new authors.
He immediately spotted a bestseller, but it took some convincing before she agreed to publish her book. The novel is still one of the world’s best selling works of fiction, with a staggering 250,000 copies flying off the shelves every year.
Our museum tour guide revealed a surprising link between Martin Luther King and Gone With the Wind. In 1939, during the ball at Gone With the Wind’s premiere, a group of children from the Ebenezer Church Choir dressed in slave costumes and sang Negro Spirituals – and a 10-year-old King was among them. It was only 15 years later that King started a non-violent revolution that lifted people out of segregation.
Opposite the Margaret Mitchell House and Museum is the Gone With the Wind Movie Museum, where you can watch the film as well as learning an array of fascinating facts about it (see box The Filming of Gone With the Wind).
I learned more about the film and its ties to the small town of Jonesboro, in Clayton County, Georgia, during a new bus tour narrated by eccentric historian Peter Bonner, who carries out tours clad in period costume. Launched this year to celebrate Gone With the Wind’s 70th anniversary, the tour transports visitors back to a time of cotton, cavaliers and Southern belles.
Visitors can discover more about the film’s Civil War backdrop, where the Confederate Southern States fought the Unionists, a deadly war where 665,000 Americans lost their lives.
The Battle of Jonesboro in 1864 is billed one of the most decisive battles of the Civil War, as the victorious Union soldiers were able to cut off supplies to Atlanta, forcing the city to surrender. We visited the Patrick Cleburne Confederate Cemetery, which contains a mass grave of between 600 and 1,000 soldiers.
The unmarked headstones are laid out in the shape of the Confederate Battle Flag. Most people visiting Clayton County ask where’s Tara? Although Tara only exists in the pages of Mitchell’s novel, the author named a location near Jonesboro as the site for the O’Hara plantation.
During the tour, we visited the white-columned plantation house Stately Oaks, thought to be Mitchell’s inspiration for Tara. Built in 1939, the grand mansion housed soldiers during the Civil War.
The tour begins and ends at the new Road to Tara Museum, located in Jonesboro’s historic train depot. The museum features original props from the movie, costume reproductions and doll collections.
Gone With the Wind’s latest revival is guaranteed to give Atlanta a tourism boost, with devoted fans desperate to discover more about this celebrated blockbuster movie.
Georgia Tourism director Peter Hannaford said: “We’re promoting the 70th anniversary of Gone With the Wind as it’s an intrinsic part of the history of Georgia.”
- There’s more to Georgia than GWTW. Read US: Exploring Georgia for some tourism tips
The filming of Gone With the Wind
Although it was set in Georgia, the filming of Gone With the Wind was done in Hollywood.
The film’s premiere took place at Loew’s Grand Theatre in Atlanta on December 15 1939. The three-day event included a parade, a costume ball and numerous parties.
The premiere was dogged by politics. The segregation laws in the Southern states meant that African American stars such as Hattie McDaniel (Mammy) were not allowed to stay at the Georgian Terrace Hotel or be seated at Loew’s Grand Theatre.
Rather than cause problems for the cast and crew, McDaniel sent film producer David Oliver Selznick a letter saying she would be unavailable to attend the premiere. Clark Gable was great friends with McDaniel and he threatened to boycott the premiere in Atlanta, but McDaniel convinced him to attend.
The movie took three years to make, at the cost of $4.2 million.
Scarlett O’ Hara’s home, Tara, doesn’t exist.
Producer Selznick had to travel 3,000 miles from LA to New York to obtain permission for Rhett’s last words. He had to pay the censoring group a $5,000 fine for violating the Motion Picture Code of 1930, but it meant he was finally allowed to use the word damn. Selznick said these words forever established the relationship between Rhett and Scarlett.
The famous burning of Atlanta sequence was conceived by art director Lyle Wheeler. He decided to use the fire to help clear the studio for the construction of the Atlanta Train Depot and Tara Sets. The 90-minute blaze was performed by stunt actors, while fire crews stood poised for action as 300ft flames leapt to the sky. When the fire scene was shot, Vivien Leigh hadn’t even been cast as Scarlett.
The casting of Gone With the Wind took almost two years. Selznick wanted Clark Gable to play Rhett but as he was under contract to another studio, he had to make negotiations to borrow him. In order to buy time and generate exposure, a nationwide search was carried out to find an unknown actress to play Scarlett with three talent scouts conducting auditions all over the country.
Eventually, young British actress Vivien Leigh was cast in the leading role. The casting of Scarlett cost $93,000 while the total cost for casting all of the other characters came to $10,000.
It is estimated that 90% of Americans have seen Gone With the Wind.
Warner Home Video will release Gone With the Wind: 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition in Blu-ray later this year.
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