Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh brought blazing star power and sex appeal to Atlanta in 1939 to glam up the premiere of “Gone With the Wind.”
Spotlights swept the night sky and an estimated 300,000 people lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the actors riding in limos to the Loew’s Grand Theater.
“It was the biggest thing to happen in Atlanta,” declares Connie Sutherland, director of the Marietta Gone With the Wind Museum, giving it top billing over the Civil War and 1996 Summer Olympics.
On Saturday, Marietta will try to recapture a bit of that magic with the official 70th anniversary re-premiere of the movie.
A parade of 1930s cars will carry a half-dozen actors who were in the movie, along with other celebrities, to the renovated, 531-seat Strand Theatre on the Marietta square, where they’ll alight onto a red carpet.
Vivien Leigh died years ago, so gawkers this time around might hope for a glimpse of Ann Rutherford, who played Scarlett O’Hara’s little sister, Carreen, in the movie.
Many of the die-hard fans, called Windies, and all the actors are in the Social Security age group, but the event has been given a dose of 21st-century Hollywood hype.
Warner Home Video and Turner Classic Movies are using the event to kick off the first release of “Gone With the Wind” on Blu-ray. A new DVD box set will be put on the market, too.
But how is it that Marietta managed to become a Windie city when other spots have stronger claims to the “Gone With the Wind” legacy?
Atlanta, for instance, has the Margaret Mitchell House in Midtown, where most of the novel was written. Much of the novel and movie were set south of Atlanta in Jonesboro in Clayton County, which the Mitchell estate and the Georgia Legislature have declared the official home of “Gone With the Wind.”
Sutherland, a confessed Scarlett wannabe, says fiddle dee dee.
“Why not Marietta?” she asks. “We’re 18 miles north of Atlanta. … If you want to get technical, we are mentioned in the book. It’s a natural thing.”
(In the novel, Frank Kennedy did business in Marietta. He was engaged to Suellen O’Hara, but Scarlett stole him away to get money to pay the taxes on Tara.)
Based more on business than a fleeting mention, however, Marietta opened its Gone With the Wind Museum in 2002. A collector offered to lease his memorabilia to the city and the leaders “thought it would be a good tourist attraction,” Mayor Bill Dunaway said.
The Road to Tara Museum in Jonesboro plans a smaller celebration Dec. 11-12, closer to the actual anniversary date of the premiere Dec. 15, 1939. No movie stars, but museum attendance will be free and tour prices will be reduced.
The movie was shown at the Fox Theater in Atlanta back in April as part of the 70th anniversary, with TCM host Robert Osborne and other celebrities attending.
Sutherland had been planning a 70th anniversary celebration for a year but enlarged it when Warner executives called. The timing fit into their plans to release the new DVD box and Blu-ray version. Her coup came about three months ago when she received clearance to show the movie.
Warner will videotape the weekend's events to promote the new movie products, which will be for sale in the Marietta museum about a week before they are offered in the rest of the world.
The new technology emphasizes the advanced age of the Windies and the surviving cast members.
Some of the six actors in Marietta this weekend were infants in the movie, but they’re senior citizens now. Olivia de Havilland, 93, is the last surviving lead actor. She’s not reported to be coming to Marietta, by the way.
Herb Bridges of Sharpsburg, author of several books about the movie, will participate in the Marietta celebration. He said people don’t care about the movie like they used to.
“I think it's because the new generation is into ‘Star Wars’ and Harry Potter and stuff the older generation didn’t do,” he said. “I have three grown children and three grandchildren and they have little or no interest at all. If granddaddy is on TV they watch and laugh, but that’s about the extent of it.”
Still, Sutherland thinks “Gone With the Wind” will keep entertaining for years to come. She said its appeal is international, with most of the Windies in Marietta this weekend coming from out of state. Folks from Sweden and Poland are coming, too.
“The fandom is passed down from generation to generation,” she said. “If it was released today, I think it would still be a success. It’s timeless.”
Weekend events include:
--An attempt to set a world record for the Virginia reel, with 70 couples on the town square at noon Friday. Scarlett O’Hara, widowed and wearing black, swirled around the dance floor with Rhett Butler to this folk dance at a fund-raising ball for the Confederacy.
--A costume ball Friday night expected to draw 300 people.
--The sold-out Saturday re-premiere at the Strand, which will be decorated like the old Loew’s Grand Theater in Atlanta, with bunting on the windows and a large oval photo of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara dominating the facade. Robert Osborne, host of TCM, will be emcee for the night.
--Question-and-answer and autograph sessions with actors such as Cammie King Conlon, who played Bonnie Blue Butler, Rhett and Scarlett’s daughter who died in a riding accident; and writers including Molly Haskell, author of “Frankly, My Dear: ‘Gone with the Wind' Revisited.”
Attendance for most events is by ticket only. A weekend package costs $325 per person, with tickets available for individual events.
For information about the Marietta weekend events, call 770-794-5576 or go to mariettacalendar.com.
For information about the Road to Tara Museum in Jonesboro, go to atlantatruesouth.com.
For information about the Margaret Mitchell House, go to www.atlantahistorycenter.com.
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