A rough cut of GWTW was screened 9 September 1939 at Riverside, California’s Fox Theatre, running four hours and twenty-five minutes. Moviegoers expected a double bill of Hawaiian Nights and Beau Geste, but when the first film ended, there was an announcement of a special preview. People could leave, but wouldn’t be readmitted after the film began and the theatre was sealed.
The audience was receptive from the moment the title appeared onscreen, and they gave a standing ovation at the end.
The grand première at Loew’s Grand Theatre in Atlanta on 15 December 1939 was attended by 300,000, and was the pinnacle of three days of festivities hosted by Mayor William B. Hartsfield (the city’s longest-serving mayor to date). Other celebratory events included a costume ball, a limo parade with the stars, and receptions. Gov. Eurith D. Rivers declared 15 December a state holiday.
Both residents and visitors lined the streets for seven miles to see the stars arriving in limos. Noticeably absent were Leslie Howard, who’d returned to his native England after the recent outbreak of war, and director Victor Fleming. Also painfully absent were all the African–American actors, prevented from attending due to Jim Crow.
Clark Gable threatened to boycott the event after learning about this racist exclusion, but Hattie McDaniel convinced him to go.
After the grand première in Atlanta, there followed premières in NYC and L.A. The latter was attended by some of the actors considered for Scarlett, such as Paulette Goddard, Joan Crawford, and Norma Shearer.
Until July 1940, the film only played at roadshows with tickets bought in advance, at a limited amount of theatres. Tickets were more than one dollar, over twice the normal price at that time. Also atypical of the era, MGM pocketed 70% of box office earnings instead of the usual 30–35%.
When GWTW reached its roadshow saturation point, MGM changed their cut to 50% and cut ticket prices in half. Finally, in 1941, it entered general release for normal prices. (I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen at a local indie theatre for just 35 cents!)
Producer David O. Selznick liquidated his company in 1942 for tax reasons and sold his GWTW share to his business partner John Whitney for $500,000. Whitney in turn sold it to MGM for $2.8 million, whereupon MGM rereleased it in spring 1942, 1947, and 1954.
The lattermost rerelease showed the film in widescreen, which sadly forever altered five shots. The widescreen process cut into the three-strip negative in the process of optical reframing.
Another rerelease followed in 1961 to mark the Civil War’s centennial, with a gala première by Loew’s Grand Theatre. Selznick and many of the stars attended.
The next rereleases were 1967, 1971, 1974, 1989, 1998, 2013 (in the U.K., to mark Vivien Leigh’s centenary), and 2014.
GWTW first appeared on TV on HBO on 11 June 1976, playing fourteen times during that month. Other cable channels also broadcast GWTW during June. In November, it made its network début on NBC. The station paid $5 million for the rights.
NBC split the film over two nights to great success. Their broadcast of GWTW was the highest-rated TV program in history to that date, and remains the highest-rated film ever broadcast on TV.
In 1978, CBS signed a deal for $35 million to broadcast GWTW twenty times in twenty years. The film’s rights have since been bought by TCM and TNT.
Critics by and large raved about the film upon its release, though some felt it too long and unconvincing. Though a lot of things in the book were left out, some critics felt there was still too much left in the screen adaptation.
GWTW smashed all records at the 12th Academy Awards, with thirteen nominations and eight wins. It collected awards for Best Screenplay, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Art Direction, Best Editing, Best Cinematography, and Best Picture. Additionally, it won honorary awards for usage of color and equipment.
Many consider 1939 the greatest year in cinematic history, but GWTW just blew all the worthy competition out of the water.
Hattie McDaniel was the first African–American to win an Academy, though she shamefully was forced to sit at a separate table at the back of the room and needed special permission to attend the ceremony in a segregated hotel.
Despite everything, she gave a very moving acceptance speech, one which many consider one of the finest in Academy history.
GWTW remains the highest-grossing film in history, earning millions upon millions of dollars each time it’s been theatrically released. It’s estimated to have sold over 200 million tickets in North America, 35 million in the U.K., and 16 million in France.
Many surveys into the present day rate it the most popular film of all time. It also routinely charts high on those incessant best-of lists.
In 1989, GWTW was among the freshman class inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”