There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields

Bob Hurst

To most people December 15th is simply a day that is ten days before Christmas. There are others, though, who have a very special feeling toward this day and what happened on this date many years ago. December 15, 1939, you see, was the date of the premiere of a motion picture unlike any that had come before or any that followed. This picture, often referred to as the finest movie ever made, is still the most popular motion picture of all time. The movie, of course, is the magnificent GONE WITH THE WIND and as I sit here on December 15, 2011, writing this piece I can truly say that my love and admiration for this film has not diminished one bit from the time I first viewed this epic more than fifty years ago.

This article will not, however,  deal only with the movie and its never-to-be-forgotten premiere but also with the book that made the movie possible and the Southern lady who made both possible – the wonderful Margaret Mitchell.

The premiere of GONE WITH THE WIND (GWTW) was actually a three day event in Atlanta. It extended from Wednesday, December 13, 1939, through Friday, December 15 with the first two days being dedicated to parties and other social functions and Friday night being the occasion of the initial presentation of the monumental movie. Governor E.D. Rivers even declared a three day holiday in Georgia.

And well he should have.

The holiday allowed many Georgians to meet the stars of the movie and there were many. Among those present was the biggest name in Hollywood at that time, the debonair Clark Gable.  Gable, of course, played the male lead – the rascally "Rhett Butler". Also in town for the premiere were two beautiful women, Vivien Leigh and Olivia De Havilland, who played "Scarlett O’Hara" and "Melanie Hamilton Wilkes", respectively. There were many other actors and behind-the-scenes individuals from the movie who were also in town.

While in Atlanta some of the cast visited Confederate veterans at the Old Soldiers Home on Confederate Avenue near Grant Park. Many also visited the famous Cyclorama. For the Friday night premiere of the movie, a group of Confederate veterans attended as guests of honor.

Altogether it was a time unlike any that had ever been seen before in Atlanta. Crowd size estimates for those outside in the street around the Loews Grand Theater was placed at 300,000 and the Loews was jammed to capacity. I’m sure no one inside the theater was disappointed as they were the first to see a movie which eventually garnered a total of eight Academy Awards and was nominated for a total of thirteen. Even though the movie ran for almost four hours (including intermissions), I seriously doubt that anyone considered leaving .

The only sad note about the premiere was that the outstanding writer, Sidney Howard, who wrote the screenplay for the movie, was killed about four months before the premiere in an accident at his New England farm. Also of note is that the fine British actor who portrayed the elegant Ashley Wilkes in GWTW, Leslie Howard, died a war hero about four years later when his plane was shot down over Europe.

Although the movie has been described as "the definitive Hollywood movie" and has proven to be still revered more than seventy years after its release, it cannot surpass the greatness of the book on which it is based or the outstanding Southern woman who penned it.

GONE WITH THE WIND, the book, went on sale in bookstores June 30, 1936.  By the end of December 1936 sales had already reached one million with fifty thousand of those sales being recorded on one remarkable day. To date, sales of this opus magnum of Margaret Mitchell have exceeded thirty million copies. I’m pleased to say that I have two of those thirty million.

Margaret Mitchell was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1937 for the book. In another interesting sidebar concerning GWTW, she wrote the last chapter of the book first and then built the story to lead into the ending.

So who exactly was this wonderful Southern writer who gave the world this monumental 1037 page epic?

Margaret Mitchell was born in Atlanta in 1900 to a well-to-do family.  Her father was a successful attorney who was also one of the founders of the Atlanta Historical Society. Margaret was a bit of a tomboy growing up and was even given the nickname "Jimmy". She was a skilled rider but sustained in a riding accident at a young age an injury to her left leg which would continue to bother her for years. Quite likely it was during the period of recuperation from this injury that she developed her fondness for reading and penchant for writing.

Margaret’s grandfather was a Confederate veteran who had been wounded at Sharpsburg (Antietam if you are from the North) and she heard many stories about the War as she was growing up. She also had ancestors on her mother’s side who had a cotton plantation and owned several dozen slaves.

Margaret grew up in a family and a time where the Old South and the War were both viable presences. She was apparently caught up in the family stories of the romance of that time and of the gallant men in gray who went to war to fight the yankee invaders. There was even a family joke that Margaret was twelve years old before she realized that the South had not won the War.

Margaret grew into an attractive, and diminutive, young woman. At eighteen she weighed but one hundred pounds spread over a petite frame that didn’t quite reach five feet. Whenever I think of this I’m reminded of the old adage about dynamite coming in small packages. She also was a bit of a free spirit with something of a wild side which caused many of her family’s acquaintances to consider her a bit rebellious.

She enrolled as a freshman at Smith College in 1918 but returned home at the end of her first year to manage affairs for the family after the death of her mother. In 1922 she made an unwise decision and married a man who proved to be both abusive and unable to support her financially.  In a classic example of making lemonade when served lemons, Margaret (who now went by "Peggy", a name she adopted while at Smith) had to get a job to support herself and was able to convince the editor of the "Sunday Magazine" at the ATLANTA JOURNAL that she would be a good hire.  Thus began the writing career of the woman who would eventually write one of the most celebrated books ever written.

Over the next few years she wrote countless feature stories, advice columns, book reviews and celebrity profiles. She also found time to remarry and this time her judgment was far better than in her first attempt at matrimony. She married a solid citizen named John Marsh who stayed by her side for the rest of her life. John also gave her a gift for which the world should be forever grateful. He gave her a typewriter and his best wishes toward the beginning of a new career. He had great confidence in her writing ability and a desire for her to write a book of her own. Boy, did she!

Margaret (Peggy) began her novel in 1926 by writing the last chapter first. In fact, she wrote the entire book out of sequence. The entire novel was written in the small apartment on Peachtree Street where the couple lived. Margaret wrote each morning in pencil and would later in the day transcribe her efforts using her typewriter. It took her until 1929 to finish the first draft. She stored her completed pages in labeled envelopes which she stowed away in various places throughout the small apartment.

It was not until 1935 that she summoned the courage to present her manuscript to a publisher. It was given to an executive of Macmillan Publishing who was in Atlanta scouting for talent. He was completely blown away by what he read and within weeks had signed a contract with Margaret. By the middle of the next year GWTW was in bookstores and the rest is history.

Surprisingly, GONE WITH THE WIND was the only novel that Margaret Mitchell ever wrote. With what, though, do you follow perfection?

Margaret Mitchell died in 1949 several days after being struck by an automobile while attempting to cross Peachtree Street near the apartment. At her own request all of her personal papers and manuscript materials were destroyed after her death. Her continuing legacy will always be her wonderful, monumental story of the Old South which has thrilled, inspired and enthralled generations, and especially Southerners, with its message of hope and survival.

God Bless You, wonderful Southern lady!

In closing, I would like to share with you a few of my personal thoughts and questions about the book and the movie. First, I have always chuckled about what seems to be a disconnect between the book and the motion picture. The opening sentence of the book begins, "Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm…"  And yet, David O. Selznick selected the absolutely gorgeous Vivien Leigh to play the role of "Scarlett".

I’m sure glad he did.

Secondly, the most famous line from the movie occurs when Rhett Butler is leaving Scarlett and she asks in sadness what she will do if he leaves and he replies, "Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn." In the book, however, on page 1035 the exact quote is: "My dear, I don’t give a damn." I have often wondered why the word "Frankly" was added in the movie script.

Thirdly, I first saw the movie GWTW for the first time in 1960 at the fine old Ritz Theater which was on the square in my hometown of Talladega, Alabama. I saw it for the second time in 1972 at the elegant old Alabama Theater in downtown Birmingham. Both venues were so fitting for the viewing of such a masterpiece and added to the enjoyment. I have viewed the movie other times in venues not so elegant. I rarely attend movies anymore but on the few occasions I have been in movie theaters in recent years the setting always seems so utilitarian and functional. It seems sad that we no longer have those marvelous old theaters where just being in that setting added to the experience of the movie. It seems, though, that in recent years there have been few motion pictures that actually required an elegant setting. How sad.

And finally, the introductory foreword to the movie, written by the wonderful Sidney Howard, moved me so much the first time I read it (and still does) and I’m sure it played a role in influencing my interest in and affection for the Old South and the Confederacy. I will close with it.

"There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South.  Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies fair, of Master and Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind…"

I am so proud of my Southern heritage and so glad that I am a Southerner!