‘Gone With the Wind’ at 75: Book and film put Atlanta in the spotlight

GWTWBy Beth Clark

Swoons, haughty huffs, and indomitable spirits are in the forecast for 2014, and in Atlanta, that can only mean one thing: Gone With the Wind.

If you’re tempted to say fiddle-dee-dee to that forecast, just consider that this year is the 75th anniversary of the film based upon the epic novel that captured a bygone time in the history of the American South. In honor of the anniversary, I visited several of the attractions devoted to Gone With the Wind history and memorabilia, as well as attended the digitally-remastered screening of the film at the Fabulous Fox Theatre as part of the lineup of the Coca-Cola Summer Film Series.

Let me tell you, if there is a way to overdose on Gone With the Wind, this must be it. But even though I was filled to the gills with surging emotions, stories of survival, painful Southern history, and tales of triumph, I must admit, I had a ball.

For those of you who don’t know – which would be an amazing feat, living here in Atlanta – GWTW is a novel published by author Margaret Mitchell in 1936. It artfully tells the saga of the fiery Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara and the dashing “Yankee” Rhett Butler, set against the backdrop of the Civil War. Mitchell turned the stories she heard as a child while visiting her great grandparent’s home in Clayton County into a setting for GWTW.

Some of the memorabilia  at the Margaret Mitchell House.
Some of the memorabilia at the Road to Tara Museum in Jonesboro.

Though more than 1,000 pages long, the book sold over one million copies in six months, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937, has been translated into more than 30 languages, and reportedly sells 250,000 copies each year. The book that took Mitchell seven years to write stole the hearts of people from Georgia to Japan, and now, more than 75 years in print, it continues to do so.

But never did GWTW have bigger fanfare than during its theatrical release. Starring Hollywood heartthrob Clark Gable at Rhett and Vivien Leigh as Scarlett, the Technicolor screen adaptation of the book premiered in Atlanta  on Dec. 15, 1939, and was such a spectacle that there were three days devoted to the pomp, including a parade route with an estimated million spectators stretching from the airport to the Loew’s Grand Theater on Peachtree Street. The governor even declared a state holiday. The film went on to win 10 of the 13 Academy Awards it was nominated for, including Best Picture, Best Director (Victor Fleming), Best Actress (Vivien Leigh), and Best Supporting Actress (Hattie McDaniel, becoming the first African-American to win an Academy Award), to name a few.

For me, seeing the film on the big screen at the Fabulous Fox Theatre was really beautiful. More than 3,900 people attended the screening – the popularity of this film prompted the Fox to show it a second time that weekend. The film opened with a five-minute introduction from actress Sally Smith portraying Margaret Mitchell, who regaled the audience with tidbits from the film production, the experience in writing the novel, and points of interest around Atlanta, including Mitchell’s gravesite in Oakland Cemetery, as well as the Georgian Terrace Hotel where the film’s stars stayed during the 1939 premiere.

One of Scarlett's dresses from the film at The Road to Tara Museum.
One of Scarlett’s dresses from the film at the Gone With the Wind Museum in Marietta.

Of course, the film itself was a marvel. Seeing it on screen, I couldn’t help but imagine how fantastical it must’ve been back in 1939, when audiences weren’t desensitized by a Hollywood blockbuster every month; I can just picture how breathtaking and overwhelming and touching the story and its screen version must have been.

After the film, I went on a mission to immerse myself in more of the GWTW mystique. There is a guided tour at the Margaret Mitchell House on Peachtree Street, where Mitchell wrote the novel. There is also the Gone With the Wind Museum (18 Whitlock Ave, Marietta, GA), as well as the Road to Tara Museum (104 N Main St, Jonesboro, GA). Each museum has artifacts, unique memorabilia, and tchotchkes available to browse and purchase. At the latter two museums, you can also find reproductions of some of the most famous costumes from the film, as well as theatrical marquees, miniature models of Tara, exclusive artwork, and more.

The Atlanta History Center (130 West Paces Ferry Road, Buckhead) also has a fascinating display (for free) from the collection of Wilbur G. Kurtz, who was the historical advisor on the film. This exhibit features photographs, letters, blueprints, scripts, sketches, and more from his personal collection. The website Way Into Atlanta has a great interview with the Director of Exhibitions, Don Rooney, about the History Center’s Gone with the Wind exhibit, which you can read here.

If you’re keen to see what a 1939 plantation might’ve looked like, visit Stately Oaks, which is a mansion from that time period (100 Carriage Lane, Jonesboro, GA). Listed on the Nation Register of Historic Places, you can get a tour of this estate by actors in period costumes, who will give you a peek inside the world of Scarlett, Rhett, and the Old South, sharing the history of the house, its ties with the famous book and its author, and Jonesboro’s role in the Atlanta campaign during the Civil War.

As you see, Atlanta has many ways to experience the world of GWTW. If you’ve wanted to check out some of the guided tours, bus tours, and museums devoted to the novel, this year is a good time to do it, since there are likely to be special exhibits going on for the 75th anniversary. The Road to Tara Museum even has some special deals going on in honor of the premiere of the film: admission for 75 cents. Only on Dec. 15, though, so mark your calendar!

Beth Clark is a writer and dancer living in Atlanta. Curiosity is her compass, and this city has irrevocably stolen her heart. Find more of her explorations at thecitydweller.me.

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