While the opening months of World War II raged in Europe, in America it was the War Between the States that had everyone talking. On this date in 1939, Gone With the Wind had its world premiere in Atlanta, Georgia, which young Jimmy Carter later remembered as the “biggest event to happen in the South in [my] lifetime.”
The celebrations surrounding the premiere of the film stretched over three days and were attended by most of the film’s stars, including Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, who were treated by Atlanta’s celebrity-starved hordes as visiting royalty. The celebration included motorcades, elegant balls, and trips around the city. Normal life in Atlanta shut down as Governor E.D. Rivers declared a three-day holiday, asking Atlanta’s citizens to dress in costumes from the antebellum era.
Since GWTW takes place in the Civil War, it was only fitting that the stars met with some of the last surviving Confederate Civil War veterans and took a tour of the Cyclorama – the 360-degree depiction of the Battle of Atlanta. Clark Gable joked with the museum curators that the battle scene needed a soldier who looked like Rhett Butler. When I was at the Cyclorama earlier this year during a visit to Atlanta, the tour guide made sure to point out the Clark Gable mannequin that was added after his comment.
Friday, December 15 was the night of the premiere at Atlanta’s majestic Loew’s Grand Theatre, whose marquee was remodeled for the occasion to look like the Tara plantation. 300,000 people lined the freezing streets to cheer the film’s stars, as well as local celebrity Margaret Mitchell, who wrote the book the film was based on.
The celebration had everything you would expect from a party in the Deep South. Everything, that is, but African-Americans. No blacks were allowed to attend the events, including the film’s stars Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen who were barred from the premiere at the all-white theater. Clark Gable hated the way his co-stars were treated and threatened to boycott the event, but was talked in to attending by his friend McDaniel. (Incidentally, a young Martin Luther King Jr. did make it to the ball, but not as a guest. He was a member of the “negro boys choir” that performed for the all-white attendees.)
There was an earlier premiere of the film, though not an official one. On September 9, producer David Selznick and three others dropped in on the Fox Theatre in Riverside, California with the unfinished reels of the film and asked the theater’s manager if he would host an impromptu test screening. He agreed, and after the scheduled evening’s program concluded, the audience was invited to stay for the screening, but no one was told what they were about to see. When the crowd saw the title for the film and realized they were getting a sneak peek at the much-anticipated Gone With the Wind, the roar was described as “thunderous.” Selznick would later describe the response as the “greatest moment of his life.”
The Loew’s Theatre was razed many years ago and its former site is now occupied by the Georgia-Pacific headquarters building. After a major renovation, the Fox Theatre reopened this year as a performance hall.
Hattie McDaniel won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress that year for the role of “Mammy,” becoming the first African-American to win an Oscar. After she died in 1952 from breast cancer at the age of 57, she suffered a final indignity because of her race when she was denied her last request to be buried in Hollywood Cemetery, which didn’t accept blacks. In 1999, after Tyler Cassity purchased the grounds, now known as Hollywood Forever Cemetery, he offered to have McDaniel’s body reburied at the cemetery, but her family chose not to disturb her remains. Instead, the cemetery erected a marker next to the lake to honor Ms. McDaniel, and to right an old wrong.