One of the most famous love stories to ever hit the silver screen made its debut on December 15, 1939 at Loew’s Grand Theater in Atlanta, Georgia. Coming in at just a few minutes shy of 4 hours, Gone with the Wind — the epic tale of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler — took the world by storm and remains one of the most beloved works in Hollywood history.
The story of the movie begins three years before, when Margaret Mitchell won the Pulitzer Prize for her sweeping novel built around a cast of diverse characters attempting to make a life as the American Civil War rages on. As the region attempts to get back on its feet after combat is over, romance, revenge and redemption play together to create a winding storyline.
Only a few weeks after the book was released, David O. Selznick approached Mitchell for the rights to adapt her work into a screenplay. Like many other studio executives at the time, Selznick passed on the draft at first, but the persistence of his staff forced him to table a $50,000 offer for rights to a film version — a record sum for the 1930s.
With Gone with the Wind secured for Selznick International Pictures, the next major task would be to sign a cast worthy of the story — names able to draw the novel’s rabid fans to the box office. A number of actors and actresses were recommended, but Selznick had no true stars under contract and would therefore be forced to “borrow” a cast in order to give the film top billing. This led to a series of negotiations with Warner Bros. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to see who might be able to provide the marquee performers. Ultimately, Selznick accepted the offer from MGM in order to play Clark Gable as Butler, the male lead.
Forced to hold off on filming until Gable became free, Selznick spent much of the two-year period between beginning the screenplay and shooting the first few scenes finding ways to get publicity. In a nationwide casting call, he interviewed more than 1,400 aspiring actresses for the role of Scarlett, a canny move to generate buzz without actually having to use any of the women he spoke with. (None of them close to making the cut, but it made people excited during the delay.) Katherine Hepburn, Lucille Ball, Joan Crawford and many others who would go on to achieve varying levels of fame were turned aside in late 1938 for Vivien Leigh, a relatively unknown British actress.
The cast gathered for the first six months of 1939 to film the movie, spreading out across open land on the Selznick International lot in Los Angeles County. With a production budget of nearly $4 million, Gone with the Wind ended up as the third most-expensive Hollywood project up to that point. In order to save money, many of the iconic external shots were done on buildings made of flimsy plywood and papier mache — a construction technique which made them all the more flammable for some of the movie’s scenes.
Well-received at a preview in September, Selznick had high hopes for the world premiere in Atlanta, Georgia on December 15, 1939. Coming at the end of a three-day celebration featuring parades and parties, it was by far the largest spectacle in the city’s history. Many of the stars showed up in fine Hollywood style, though the African-American actors were unable to attend due to Jim Crow laws forbidding their presence in the theater alongside their white counterparts.
When the Oscars rolled around the following year, Gone with the Wind received a record ten Academy Awards — a mark that would stand for 20 years. Marked for preservation by the National Film Registry in 1989, when ticket sales are adjusted for inflation, it remains the highest-grossing movie to hit theaters in history.
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1467 – Stephen III of Moldavia defeats Matthias Corvinus of Hungary at the Battle of Baia
1791 – The United States Bill of Rights becomes law
1917 – The Bolshevik government of the Soviet Union signs a treaty with the Central Powers, exiting World War I
1961 – Nazi SS leader Adolph Eichmann is sentenced to death at trial in Jerusalem, Israel