Scarlett Fever

 

It’s been 75 years since the world first fell in love with Scarlett O’Hara. To mark the occasion, a new exhibition at the Harry Ransom Center takes a behind-the-scenes look at one of Hollywood’s greatest epics.

Scarlett Fever

What’s the top-grossing film of all time? Nope, it’s not James Cameron’s Avatar or Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, or any recent mega-blockbuster for that matter. Adjusted for inflation, Gone with the Wind, the ever-popular 1939 epic historical romance starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, takes the top slot—garnering a present-day box office haul of $1.6 billion and selling more than 200 million tickets worldwide.

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind tells the story of the complicated love triangle between characters Scarlett O’Hara, Ashley Wilkes, and Rhett Butler, set against the backdrop the American Civil War and Reconstruction in Georgia. Produced by David O. Selznick and directed by Victor Fleming, the movie swept the 12th-annual Academy Awards with a record-setting 10 Oscars, and has since permeated all areas of pop culture: from references in The Simpsons to depictions on postage stamps and now, a commemorative exhibition at UT’s Harry Ransom Center.

Featuring more than 300 on-set photographs, storyboards, fan letters, and more, “The Making of Gone with the Wind” draws entirely from the Ransom Center’s extensive David O. Selznick collection, which was donated by the producer in 1980. In anticipation of Gone with the Wind’s 75th anniversary this year, Ransom Center film curator Steve Wilson recruited students from the School of Information and Department of Radio-Television-Film in 2012 to sift through Selznick’s archive—more than 4,500 document boxes worth of material—and identify never-before-seen content worthy of fans’ enduring fascination with the story.

“I’ve been saying since we started the research that, although Gone with the Wind was set in the Civil War, it’s really a story of the Great Depression,” Wilson says. “The story really touched on what was of big concern for people during the Depression—food and security, men and women going off to war and maybe not coming back. Themes like that have resonated with many generations since the film’s debut, and I think that’s why Gone with the Wind remains so ingrained in our culture today.”

What emerged from Wilson and the students’ winnowing is a little-known dramatic tale that rivals even Gone with the Wind’s powerful screenplay. Before a single frame was shot, Gone with the Wind found itself entrenched in a multitude of controversies, including the questioning of its portrayal of race and the drawn-out search for the perfect Scarlett, which took nearly two and a half years and upward of 1,400 auditions. Thousands of letters from fans convey the public’s utter obsession with the upcoming film, and expressed its desire to weigh in on everything from casting decisions to the proper accent the Southern heroine should have.

“A lot of women wrote in, saying, ‘I am Scarlett! I want to play her,’” Wilson says. “There are a lot of qualities about Scarlett that people were drawn to. After all, she did what she had to to survive and save her home. We uncovered this really interesting story of how closely readers identified with that character.”

With the guidance of a faculty committee, Wilson and his team culled together the largest and most extensive exhibition of Gone with the Wind memorabilia ever created, including three original dresses worn by Vivien Leigh in the film. When “The Making of Gone with the Wind” opens this month, it will mark the first time in 25 years that the costumes, which include Scarlett’s iconic green curtain dress, will be on display together.

Organized chronologically, the exhibition will provide visitors with a rare insider’s perspective into what became one of the most influential and controversial films of all time.

“I’m hoping visitors walk away with a deeper understanding of the story,” Wilson says. “A tremendous number of people wanted to be part of it. The phenomenon was much bigger than just the movie or the novel.”

“The Making of Gone with the Wind” will be on display at the Harry Ransom Center starting Sept. 9, 2014 through Jan. 4, 2015, and an accompanying book authored by Wilson will be published by UT Press in September. Frankly, my dears, I wouldn’t miss them.

Note to Hays

Censorship Woes: Using the word “damn” on film would’ve elicited a hefty fine from the Motion Picture Association of America, so Selznick had to get creative when it came to Rhett Butler’s exit line. Luckily, the MPAA board passed an amendment allowing its usage “when required for portrayal in proper historical context” just in time. The now-famous line sits atop the American Film Institute’s list of the most memorable quotes in American cinema history.

Hattie McDaniel Makeup Still

Racial Tensions: Hattie McDaniel, pictured above, became the first African-American woman to win an Academy Award when she took home Best Supporting Actress for the film in 1940. However, McDaniel and her fellow African-American actors were not able to attend the film’s premiere due to Jim Crow laws, and she was relegated to a different section at the awards ceremony.

Loews

A Huge Hit: One million people flooded to Atlanta’s Loew’s Grand Theater on Dec. 15, 1939 for the film’s premiere, the culmination of a three-day celebration hosted by the city’s mayor. The theater was decorated to resemble Tara, Scarlett’s home plantation, and a huge portrait of Vivien Leigh as Scarlett was hung over the entrance.

Images courtesy the Harry Ransom Center.

 

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