In a 1935 handwritten letter to Atlanta historian Wilbur G. Kurtz, Margaret Mitchell admitted, “in a weak moment, I have written a book.” Would Kurtz read a few chapters of her manuscript, she asked, to make sure she got the historical details right?
That book, whose importance Mitchell downplayed in her letter to Kurtz, was, of course, “Gone With the Wind.” That best-selling novel made Mitchell a literary star but also allowed Kurtz to make his own historic imprint as consultant on both Mitchell’s manuscript and, later, the Hollywood film version of the novel.
When film producer David O. Selznick began the production of the film adaptation of Mitchell’s novel, Kurtz was again called into service, recommended by Mitchell as an authority on Atlanta and the Civil War. His involvement with the film’s production as historical and technical adviser is documented in the insightful Atlanta History Center exhibition “Wilbur G. Kurtz: History in ‘Gone With the Wind,’” which coincides with the 75th anniversary of the premiere of the 1939 blockbuster. The exhibition features over 40 artifacts from the Atlanta History Center collection including telegraphs, letters, on-set photography, film stills, mementos and sketches surrounding the film production.
For his trouble advising on the accuracy of the film’s depiction of the Civil War, Reconstruction and Atlanta, Kurtz — accompanied by his wife, Annie Laurie Kurtz — received $225 a week and access to the front lines of the production as seen in photos like one of Kurtz interacting with actors in soldier’s garb.
Though not originally from the South (Kurtz hailed from the Midwest), his attention to detail and getting things right put him in good stead to represent Georgia: He was meticulous in his concern for the correct appearance of Atlanta buildings, the uniforms of Union and Confederate soldiers and the accurate depiction of Georgia clay (ground bricks were used to capture that distinctive red soil). His concern for authenticity was exhaustive. When practical, Kurtz fought to bring Georgia authenticity to this California re-creation of the South. When the gourds used to create the martin houses outside the slave quarters in the film could not be located on the West Coast, Kurtz had the dried gourds shipped from Georgia.
Uniquely attuned to how the smallest details could lend authenticity, Kurtz created elaborate sketches, notes and blueprints like one of a cotton press he based on a device at Ellison Plantation in Harris County, Ga. But Kurtz also lent his artistic abilities to “Gone With the Wind.” An accomplished artist, whose murals and paintings can be found throughout Georgia, Kurtz created lovely watercolor title cards to be used in the opening film credits. He at times seemed to blend the interests of a historian and the starry-eyed perspective of a fan, as when he collected and saved the broken shards of the vase Scarlett shatters during a temper tantrum at Twelve Oaks — mementos on view in this exhibit.
“Wilbur G. Kurtz” is a bonanza for students of film history and for devotees of “Gone With the Wind,” and those interested in the South’s depiction in film. It offers fascinating morsels surrounding the production, like the disparity between Vivien Leigh’s salary for the film ($25,000) and Clark Gable’s ($120,000), novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald’s involvement in the “Gone With the Wind” script and the sublime irony of a story so steeped in a romantic, misty-eyed vision of the American South shot on Culver City, Calif., backlots, at Busch Gardens in Pasadena, Calif., or a ranch in the San Fernando Valley, the stand-in for the iconic Tara mansion.