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Hibernian Chronicle 62 years ago: ‘Gone with the Wind’ wins 10 Oscars

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Edward T. O’Donnell

Sixty-two years ago this week, on Feb. 29, 1940, “Gone with the Wind” swept the Academy Awards. The blockbuster film, one of several classics to come out in the remarkable year of 1939 (which also included “Stagecoach” and “The Wizard of Oz”), was based on the best-selling book by Margaret Mitchell. Together the film and book catapulted the Irish-American author to both fame and considerable fortune.

Mitchell was born in Atlanta in 1900. Her parents imparted to her very different influences. From her father, a prominent lawyer and president of the Atlanta Historical Society, she grew up listening to stories about old Atlanta and glories of the Confederacy. From her mother, a women of more radical leanings who was active in the suffragist movement, Mitchell developed her independent personality. First she thought she wanted to be a doctor and studied at Smith College in Massachusetts before returning to Atlanta. Next she became one of the first women to win a job as a journalist for the Atlanta Journal. In 1925, she married John Marsh and one year later, while recovering from an ankle injury, began writing a book of fiction that became “Gone with the Wind.”

Mitchell actually finished the 1,000-page manuscript in 1926 but had trouble finding a publisher. The book was finally published in 1935 and became an instant hit, selling a million copies within six months. The following year it won the Pulitzer Prize. By the time of her death in 1949, more than 8 million copies had been sold in 40 different countries.

The essential story is by now familiar to most. In the beginning the reader is immersed in an idyllic world of the antebellum South, replete with happy slaves and noble plantation owners. But when the Civil War breaks out, the brave sons of the South march off to fight the Yanks and the old South begins to crumble. Within this drama is the story of the tempestuous Scarlett O’Hara and her fight both to save her family plantation, the much-loved Tara, and to win the heart of the strong and dashing Rhett Butler.

At several points in the novel and subsequent film, Mitchell makes reference to her Irish heritage. That the O’Hara’s were Irish, Mitchell makes clear: “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm. . . . In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father.”

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Scarlett O’Hara’s father, modeled after Mitchell’s plantation-owning grandfather Thomas Fitzgerald, emigrated from County Meath and named his plantation Tara, the ancient seat of Ireland’s high kings. In the film we see Scarlett and her family saying the rosary. Later, after Scarlett teases her father for talking “like an Irishman,” he admits he’s proud to be Irish and imparts to her an Irish love of the land, saying: “Why, land’s the only thing in the world worth working for, worth fighting for, worth dying for, because it’s the only thing that lasts.”

With the success of the book, a film adaptation was inevitable. Mitchell sold the film rights to the producer David O. Selznick for $50,000, and later received another $50,000 in royalties. The film premiered on Dec. 15, 1939 in Atlanta and quickly broke all box office records. At the Academy Award ceremonies in 1940, “Gone with the Wind” won Best Picture. Its director, Victor Fleming, earned Best Director honors, while Vivien Leigh won Best Actress. Hattie McDaniel won Best Supporting Actress, becoming the first African American to win an Academy Award. In all the film copped 10 Oscars that night.

Mitchell never wrote another novel (hence the expression, “that’s all she wrote”) and despite her fame, lived a quiet life with her husband. She died in Atlanta on Aug. 16, 1949, struck by a speeding car while crossing Peachtree Street.

“Gone with the Wind,” however, lived on. Audiences never tired of the book and it remained in print year after year through countless editions. The film likewise enjoyed several revivals. In the wake of the civil rights movement of 1960s and ’70s, however, both came under attack for being racist. African Americans and others found the romantic depiction of the slave South deeply offensive. Still, neither book nor film quite disappeared, and in the early ’90s the Mitchell estate authorized a sequel to the book. “Scarlett” written by Alexandra Ripley, appeared in 1992 and enjoyed a brief stay on the best-seller list. In the story, Scarlett travels to Ireland, where she again meets Rhett Butler. Three years later, “Lost Layson,” a small novella written by Mitchell when she was only 16, was discovered and published.

HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK

Feb. 28, 1935: Ireland bans the importation and sale of contraceptives.

March 4, 1943: James Cagney wins an Academy Award for Best Actor for his depiction of George M. Cohan in “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

March 5, 1770: Patrick Carr, an Irish-born leatherworker, is one of five men to die at the hands of British soldiers in the Boston Massacre.

HIBERNIAN BIRTHDATES

March 1, 1954: Actor and director Ron Howard is born in Duncan, Okla.

March 2, 1793: The founding father of Texas, Sam Houston, is born in Rockbridge County, Va.

March 4, 1778: Patriot Robert Emmet is born in Dublin.

Read about Ed O’Donnell’s new book, “1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History,” or contact him at www.EdwardTODonnell.com.

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