On Dec. 15, 1939, 300,000 people lined the streets in author Margaret Mitchell's hometown of Atlanta. At long last her incredibly successful novel of the Old South, "Gone With the Wind," would emblazon the screen in David O. Selznick's 220-minute Technicolor production.
The film's stars and dozens of luminaries gathered for the premiere and surrounding events. Georgia Gov. Eurith D. Rivers had declared it a holiday, it was a day the state and the South would never forget.After 50 years the world is still remembering, for the phenomenon continues. This month Ted Turner, Delta Airlines, Coca-Cola and the Atlanta Historical Society joined forces to recreate the original 1939 festivities and the Atlanta premiere of "Gone With the Wind."
"The interest shown in our anniversary celebration has been overwhelming," said Jack Petrik, president of Turner Home Entertain-ment. This was evidenced as fans and reporters from as far away as Australia, South America and Japan arrived in Atlanta.
Highlights of the week included a Scarlett and Rhett look-alike contest, conducted nationwide; a re-creation of the original Junior League Antebellum Ball; and the opening of a "Facts About the Fiction" exhibit of Margaret Mitchell and movie memorabilia at the Atlanta Historical Society. The exhibit will be open through June of 1990.
For the film's 50th anniversary re-premiere on Dec. 15, 1989, nearly 5,000 people jammed into the elegant Fox Theatre in downtown Atlanta. As in 1939, a festive cocktail party kicked off the historic evening. Once seated the audience heard popular radio host Larry King read a letter from Olivia de Havilland, who played Melanie Wilkes in the film and who now lives in Paris.
"I am very much with all of you in spirit as we celebrate this night, when 50 years ago `Gone With the Wind' was first premiered," de Havilland wrote. "And like you I'm thinking of those who were present then; of Margaret Mitchell and David Selznick, Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh. Those who with Leslie Howard, Hattie McDaniel, Thomas Mitchell and so many others are no longer with us. But I suspect that drawn by your love they have on this one night forsaken the great plantation in the sky and have silently and invisibly taken their places out there among you. And in a moment when this film flashes upon the screen you will see them once again in all their vibrant light and in joyful reunion - and I'll be with you, too."
Although de Havilland was unable to attend, 10 cast members were there, many of them having portrayed children in the film classic. They included Rand Brooks (who portrayed Charles Hamilton), Cammie King Conlon (Bonnie Blue Butler), Fred Crane (Brent Tarleton), Patrick Curtis (the infant Beau Wilkes), Gregg Giese (the infant Beau Wilkes), Ric Holt (Beau Wilkes at age 1), Micky Kuhn (Beau Wilkes at 6), Evelyn Keyes (Suellen O'Hara), Ann Rutherford (Carreen O'Hara) and Butterfly McQueen (Prissy). Producer David O. Selznick died in 1965, and his son Daniel represented the Selznick family.
After the introductions and applause the lights dimmed and, with fully restored color and sound, the titles rolled. As if Olivia de Havilland's prediction was true and all who had passed on were still present, the audience clapped for the successive names that appeared on screen. Scarlett and her associates are, after all, immortal. For over 50 years they have enjoyed mythical status throughout the world.
Within its first year of release David O. Selznick's "white elephant" grossed $14 million in box office receipts. In 1939 "GWTW" earned eight Academy Awards, two special awards for technical achievement and, for David O. Selznick, the Academy's coveted Irving G. Thalberg Award for "the most consistent high quality of production during 1939." Recently, in conjunction with Ted Turner, Daniel and Jeffrey Selznick completed "The Making of a Legend," an in-depth look at their father and the making of the film. It is available on video cassette.
It is estimated that 90 percent of all Americans have seen "Gone With the Wind" at least once. With its box office receipts translated into contemporary dollars, the film would have earned $2.1 billion. According to Turner Entertainment Co., the newly restored version in release this year has grossed $3,200,000 in box office receipts throughout the world, not including the television and home video markets.
Since publication of the novel, "Gone With the Wind" has been a merchandiser's dream. Collectable items of all descriptions, both old and new, bring high prices around the world, and new memorabilia are introduced constantly. Last year the Mitchell estate sold the rights to a literary sequel for $4.5 million. Attorneys for the estate concluded that the sequel was inevitable and would be best written while they had control. Author Alexandra Ripley was commissioned to write the novel due to be published in 1990.
As the figures continue to climb and "GWTW" maintains its legendary status in popular culture, perhaps among the most surprised are members of the original cast who were assembled recently in Atlanta.
Fred Crane, who played one of the Tarleton brothers, left acting 40 years ago for a career in radio. Although his part in "Gone With the Wind" was minor, he has been receiving fan mail consistently for years. He now travels across the country and abroad lecturing about the film.
Cammie King Conlon's only film role was as Scarlett and Rhett's daughter, Bonnie Blue. "No matter what I do in life or whatever success I achieve, I'm always known as the lady who played Bonnie Blue Butler," she said. "I peaked at the age of 4!"
Butterfly McQueen, who as Prissy had some of the more memorable lines in the film, commented, "I'm a product of America . . . I'm a product of many people." She now spends much of her time writing. "Most of all I enjoy answering my fans. They're the reason I'm here."
When asked to sum up his father, Daniel Selznick replied, "To me he was always a poet. I think of him as having that kind of sensitivity, to the sound of words, to the meaning of words. He lived a great deal of his life in metaphor."
If "GWTW" is a metaphor for David O. Selznick, it certainly proves his creative genius. Staying incredibly faithful to the book, his vision met with Margaret Mitchell's. In scene after scene their literary and cinematic masterpiece glides richly forward.
Sitting in the Fox Theatre in Atlanta 50 years later, the audience was spellbound. Scarlett runs through the mist, is rejected by Rhett and, with tears in her eyes, there is hope. She will survive and with her we will, too, for "after all, tomorrow is another day!"
There is silence, then thunderous applause. Selznick's commitment to excellence has once again paid off. And if history continues to prove itself, the dividends will continue for generations to come.