No, aside from the oppressive heat of summer in Alabama, the shopping mall, school gym and suburban home where I grew up could have been found anywhere from Nebraska to New Jersey.
But while I may have looked like everyone else on the outside, on the inside was the soul of a sassy Southern belle. I knew it from the first moment I laid eyes on Gone with the Wind, when I was 12 years old.
In the opening scene of David O. Selznick’s 1939 cinematic classic, Scarlett O’Hara, draped on the noble steps of Tara with her swishing hoop skirt and lilting “fiddle-dee-dee,” effortlessly captivated her gentlemen callers, and me along with them.
Four breathtaking hours later, I sent a quick thank you up to heaven for the blessing of my Southern roots. No matter how little the suburbs of Mobile resembled the sprawling plantations of antebellum Georgia, I still shared something with that flawless and fiery raven-haired beauty. We were both Southern girls, Scarlett and me. The poor girls of Nebraska weren’t that lucky.
In the months and years that followed, I embraced my pop culture alter ego with the abandon and fierce dedication that only an adolescent girl can muster. I read Margaret Mitchell’s 1,000-page novel three times before graduating high school. The promotional poster from the film’s 1967 re-release hanging on my bedroom wall was my most prized possession.
When I was 14, I entered a summer camp talent show with my re-enactment of the pivotal scene in the library at Twelve Oaks, in which Scarlett boldly declares her love for the betrothed Ashley Wilkes and then becomes irate when she discovers the cad Rhett Butler eavesdropping on her display of unrequited love. The moment when Scarlett impulsively strikes the stoic Ashley across his face was a challenging task, especially since I was performing all three of the roles.
The judges never saw it coming. I won first place.
This summer marks the 75th anniversary of the publication of Margaret Mitchell’s enduring Southern saga. To commemorate the occasion, the Mary G. Hardin Center for Cultural Arts in Gadsden is exhibiting the largest collection of GWTW memorabilia ever amassed in the United States. “Gone with the Wind at 75: A Diamond Jubilee” will be on display through Dec. 23
Here are five things this diehard fan learned from the exhibit:
1. Lost in translation
Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is beloved the world over, and the Hardin Center has gathered at least one edition of the book in every language in which it has been published. GWTW was especially popular in Asia, and still is today. There are more than 100 Chinese editions on display, including one whose cover depicts … a blonde Scarlett O’Hara! Heavens, where are the smelling salts!
A little more scandalous might be the promotional poster of a Japanese stage version of GWTW, complete with the actors portraying the O’Haras’ slaves, Mammy and Prissy, in black face.
2. I’ve been looking for one of those
According to the Hardin Center’s deputy director, Tom Banks, GWTW was the first non-children’s film to be heavily promoted through merchandising. The studio authorized countless items of merchandise, from pajamas with the GWTW logo to a replica of Scarlett’s first wedding dress, both on display.
The exhibit also features fan-made merchandise of varying levels of eccentricity. A toilet seat with a vivid landscape of Tara hand-painted on its cover and a matching roll of toilet paper is the most bizarre fan tribute, thinly edging out three hand-knit sweaters depicting scenes from the film.
3. Frankly my dear, it’s a little snug
The highlight of the exhibit is its several original costume pieces and props from the film, including the green Parisian bonnet that Rhett brazenly offers a recently widowed Scarlett, as well as the carved mahogany chair she rises from before he sweeps her up the staircase in a drunken passion.
The hats the star-crossed lovers wore in the Atlanta bazaar scene, in which Scarlett shocks polite society by accepting Rhett’s invitation to lead the Virginia reel, are also on display. Well, the hat she wore, anyway.
Banks pointed out that Rhett is never actually seen wearing his hat in the scene, just holding it, perhaps because, as is clearly visible from the display case, the black top hat was much too small for actor Clark Gable’s rather sizeable head.
4. One man’s garbage
The Loew’s Grand Theater in Atlanta, where the film debuted on Dec. 15, 1939, was demolished after sustaining extensive damage in a 1978 fire. Many surviving items from the theater are on display in the exhibit, including an exit sign and several plush red seats.
There is also a square of the vibrant, multi-hued carpet that ran throughout the theater during the gala premiere. However, since the theater underwent renovations that included replacing the carpet before the 1978 fire, the original square should have been long gone. It was discovered in a remote section of the balcony that somehow missed out on the makeover.
“The majority of this collection shouldn’t even exist,” Banks commented. “Most are items that were supposed to be thrown away.”
5. Say hello to Beau
Of the film’s four stars – Gable, Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland and Leslie Howard – only de Havilland, 95, is still living, ironic because she is the only one of the four whose character, Melanie Hamilton, did not survive Mitchell’s story, dying in childbirth at the close of both the book and film.
The last surviving male cast member, Mickey Kuhn, who played Ashley and Melanie’s son, Beau Wilkes, is scheduled to attend a reception and autograph session at the Hardin Center the weekend of Aug. 5. Banks said that Cammie King Conlon, who played Scarlett and Rhett’s daughter, Bonnie Blue Butler, had planned to make an appearance as well, but sadly passed away in September of 2010.
If you go
What: “Gone with the Wind at 75: A Diamond Jubilee.”
When: Exhibition open through Dec. 23, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 1-5 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Mary G. Hardin Center for Cultural Arts, 501 Broad St., Gadsden.
Admission: Adults, $6; children, $5; members, free.
For more info: 256-543-2787, www.culturalarts.org.