One hundred and fifty years ago, during the final months of the Civil War, Lt. Gen. William T. Sherman ordered the torching of Atlanta, and much of the city was reduced to ashes. Seventy-five years later, on the evening of December 15, 1939, the city was again ablaze; searchlights swept the night sky and lit the façade of Loew’s Grand Theatre on Peachtree Street, as Atlanta welcomed the world premiere of Gone With the Wind.
The three-day celebration surrounding the premiere of the Technicolor epic of love, loss and resilience, based on Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize–winning 1936 novel, was unlike anything the city had ever seen. Mayor William B. Hartsfield declared a citywide holiday, and on the night of the premiere 18,000 people gathered outside the theater hoping to catch a glimpse of the film’s stars. Former U.S. president and Georgia governor Jimmy Carter, a teenager at the time, would remember it as “the biggest event to happen in the South in my lifetime.”
Like the novel, the movie became an international sensation, playing in theaters for more than two years and winning eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture—a record at the time. In addition to the 25 million moviegoers who saw it during its original release, tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions more watched it during rereleases and on home video, arguably making Gone With the Wind the most viewed movie of all time.
Celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, the movie Gone With the Wind continues to attract visitors to the Atlanta area, and three outstanding museums—the Road to Tara Museum, the Marietta Gone With the Wind Museum: Scarlett on the Square and the Margaret Mitchell House—offer fans a treasure trove of props, costumes, memorabilia and collectibles, as well as an impressive selection of movie-themed souvenirs and gifts. A Gone With the Wind Trail Pass (gwtwtrail.com), available at all three locations, includes vouchers to these and other related sites, along with special offers.
Begin your journey at Jonesboro’s Road to Tara Museum (visitscarlett.com/roadtotaramuseum.html) in Clayton County, the Official Home of Gone With the Wind, ancestral home of Margaret Mitchell and site of the fictional O’Hara estate Tara. Located in the city’s historic 1867 train depot, the museum showcases an incredible array of movie props and wardrobe items. Of particular note are the four massive roundels featuring the film’s stars, which hung opposite the Loew’s on the night of the premiere and have not been seen in Georgia since 1939, as well as one of the original brass marquees containing a hand-cut movie premiere poster.
The Marietta Gone With the Wind Museum (gwtwmarietta.com), situated in a former cotton warehouse and carriage house built in 1875, boasts an equally impressive collection of artifacts, including the original bengaline honeymoon gown worn by Vivien Leigh in her role as Scarlett; the mourning bonnet worn by Olivia de Havilland, who portrayed Melanie Wilkes; and a number of items from the estate of Clark Gable, who played Rhett Butler.
Both museums enjoyed longstanding relationships with other actors from the film—most notably Cammie King Conlon, who played Bonnie Blue Butler, and Ann Rutherford, who played Scarlett’s youngest sister Careen—and received a number of historic items from each. The museums also maintain special exhibitions about the actress Hattie McDaniel, whose portrayal of Mammy earned her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, the first Academy Award presented to an African American. While the film has come under fire in recent decades for its stereotypical portrayals of black characters and its nostalgic view of the Old South, which ignores the wrongs of slavery, it afforded black actors unprecedented professional opportunities, and both museums share their stories of struggle and success.
Visitors will also want to make the pilgrimage to the Margaret Mitchell House (margaretmitchellhouse.com) in Midtown Atlanta, where they can tour the apartment where Mitchell penned the novel and see the original façade of Tara and the life-size portrait of Scarlett that hung in Rhett’s bedroom. Opening in December, the exhibition Stars Fall on Atlanta: The Premiere of Gone With the Wind will highlight the events and people surrounding the movie’s world premiere. Just a few miles south of the museum, fans can pay their respects to Mitchell at her gravesite in Historic Oakland Cemetery (oaklandcemetery.com).
As engaging as any of the props or posters, costumes or collectibles, are the stories associated with them, and visitors to the museums can count on coming away with plenty. And that’s fitting, for ultimately the continuing appeal of Gone With the Wind rests upon Mitchell’s masterful storytelling and the universal themes of endurance and survival personified in her heroine, Scarlett O’Hara, and symbolized in the postwar rise of Atlanta from its ashes.