By Anthony Costelloe
Margaret Mitchell’s epic novel of love, jealousy, loyalty and war, “Gone with the Wind” was published in June, 1936. Producer David O. Selznick, recognising its cinematic potential, bought the film rights from Mitchell for fifty thousand dollars in July of the same year. Vivien Leigh, whose real name was Vivian Mary Hartley, starred as Scarlett O’Hara, the heroine of this magnificent piece of fiction set against the American Civil War (1861-1865). Hartley had French and Irish roots, as did the character she portrayed. She won a well-deserved Oscar for best actress at the 1940 Academy Awards. The plantation and the state where Scarlett lived was known as ‘Tara.’ We’re all familiar with the ornate Tara brooch, and Tara in County Meath was the legendary hill where the High Kings of Ireland were crowned and the legendary birthplace of the warrior queen, Maeve of Connacht. The great Daniel O’Connell, aware of the impact Tara would make on the Irish consciousness as a venue for a mass meeting, planned one such for August, 1843. Almost one million people were making their way towards Tara when O’Connell, fearful of British reprisal, cancelled the meeting.
Composer Max Steiner, who was nominated for an Oscar for the musical score of “Gone with the Wind,” wrote ninety-nine pieces for the movie, including the melody for the tender moments between Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) and his angelic wife, Melanie (Olivia de Havilland), and there was the love theme for the passionate yet thwarted love scenes between Scarlett and Ashley. Strange as it may seem, Steiner did not compose any piece for the romantic scenes between Rhett Butler (Clarke Gable) and Scarlett. The musical score which is most associated with the movie is “Tara’s Theme.”
The talented actor, Thomas Mitchell, Oscar winner for best supporting actor as the hard-drinking Doc Boone in the John Ford western “Stagecoach,” was cast as Gerald O’Hara, the head of the Tara household, father to Scarlett and her two sisters, Suellen and Carreen. Mitchell had Irish blood coursing through his veins as both his parents were Irish immigrants who settled in New Jersey, where the actor was born in 1892. His Irish brogue is evident in all his scenes. When Scarlett is experiencing financial difficulties and is unable to pay the taxes on Tara, Gerald stresses the importance of land and advises her to cherish Tara and stay strong. He emphasises the love the Irish have for the land and reminds her that she is Irish. In the scenes with his wife, Ellen (Barbara O’Neil), he never addressed her as Ellen, he always used the surname, O’Hara. There was warmth in his tone and an Irish homeliness which reflected his deep affection for her. When Ellen passed away from typhoid fever, he was unable to cope and became delusional, and when family issues arose and Scarlett was seeking advice, Gerald wildly exclaimed, “We’ll ask Mrs O’Hara.” Then there is the scene where a vagabond speculator calls at Tara with an offer to purchase the plantation. Scarlett angrily sends him on his way, throwing earth in his face. Gerald’s Irish temper becomes white hot: he mounts his horse and hastily gallops after the speculator; scaling a fence, he falls from his horse and is fatally injured. The camera captures Gerald’s tombstone and the inscription, which reads:
Born June 2nd, 1801
Died 18th November, 1865”
Gerald O’Hara’s brogue was in sharp contrast with the southern drawl of some of the supporting cast, the Negro dialect and the tone of the leading characters, the Wilkes, Scarlett and Rhett Butler.
The renowned author, Margaret Mitchell, who penned that romantic tone for which she won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1937, had herself Irish connections. Her mother’s great-grandfather, Philip Fitzgerald, emigrated from Ireland and set his sights on a plantation near Jonesboro, Georgia. He had one son and seven daughters. Mitchell was born thirty-five years after the American Civil War ended, when General Lee, the Confederate leader, surrendered to the Union leader, Ulysses Grant, in 1865. She lived all her life in Atlanta in the southern state of Georgia and died tragically there in 1949.