It was the first ever film to receive more than five Academy Awards, one of which was bought by Michael Jackson when he bid $1.5 million on the 1939 statue for Best Picture. Re-released in theatres in the US eight times, it raked in more than $400 million, which when adjusted for inflation is anywhere between $3 – $5 billion, making it the highest grossing film of all time. On the original Gone with the Wind poster, the lead actors were listed beginning with Clark Gable, Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland, and “presenting” Vivien Leigh at the bottom as Scarlett O’Hara, which had to be changed when Leigh won the Oscar. But there was one more lead in this classic Hollywood film that also stole the show, and that is of course, Tara, the beautiful southern house on a hill and the one true home of Miss O’Hara.
Seventy five years on however, perhaps the most iconic film set of all time has been long since forgotten by Hollywood, its whereabouts largely unknown, presumed lost forever.
In actual fact, it’s been hiding away for 30 years inside someone’s run-down backyard barn…
Yup. The centrepiece of the greatest movie ever produced has been stashed away here, out of sight inside this rather unsensational pile of concrete all the way on the other side of the country outside Atlanta, Georgia since 1979. Although in pieces and vulnerable to decay, some might find comfort in knowing that the Greek Revival style façade has found its resting place in the southern countryside just a few miles from Margaret Mitchell’s ancestral home where the author originally intended Tara to be set, as written in her 1936 novel.
But how did it end up here?
“In 1959, when Desi Arnaz looked out across the back lot of the former Selznick Studios [Hollywood, California] … he considered leaving the big house on the hill as it had stood since 1939. Visitors taking the back lot tours always lingered there, wanting to get a better look, taking one more photo, and spending a few more minutes contemplating the two story façade that had been the imaginary home of the O’Hara’s, and their daughter Scarlett. On that hill, in the midst of Desilu’s back lot stood Tara, the most iconic movie set of all time.”
But Tara’s future didn’t belong in Hollywood. After Gone with the Wind wrapped, the façade was supposedly used to film other Westerns before it was finally dismantled in 1960. For years the set was thought to have existed at a Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer studio in Culver City, CA where a southern mansion set which looked very similar to Tara could be visited by the public on backlot #2.
M.G.M. tour guides mislead tourists into thinking that the mansion set was indeed the same iconic Gone with the Wind plantation home of the O’Hara family. Even when the ‘fake’ M.G.M mansion was dismantled years later, the Los Angeles Times covered “the demolition of an iconic film set”– no thanks to the inaccurate information spread by the studio’s tour guides. This of course all led to great confusion over the true whereabouts of the actual Tara set or whether it even still existed.
But perhaps you’ll recognise those olive green shutters leaning against the walls of our backyard barn in Georgia…
The true Tara first came to Georgia soon after it was dismantled in Hollywood, purchased by a certain Southern Attractions, Inc. in 1959 and shipped to Atlanta with plans to use it as a tourist attraction. But the Margaret Mitchell estate wasn’t having any of it. Mitchell herself was known as an extremely private person. She had originally written Gone with the Wind for her own eyes only, and when a friend persuaded her to a give it to a reputable publisher, she sent a telegram soon after, asking for it back. Her request was refused, the book went on to sell almost 2 million copies in the first year and Mitchell never published another novel during her lifetime. The huge publicity that came from her novel and its subsequent film adaptation was most unwelcome by the solitary author.
The Margaret Mitchell estate refused to license anything that sought to capitalise on the novel’s fame, including the movie set (which Mitchell supposedly said did not resemble her novel’s description). Meanwhile, Southern Attractions, Inc. wasn’t about to spend the money restoring Tara unless they could make a buck out of it. And so twenty years after leaving Hollywood, the façade remained hidden. But still, Tara was still not in her final resting place…
In 1979, the wife of former governor of Georgia, Betty Talmadge bought Tara for $5,000 and moved it to her property. She had the front door restored and lent it for permanent display at the Margaret Mitchell House and Museum in 1989, where it remains today. The rest– windows, shutters, cornice, steps, the breezeway to the kitchen and elements of the kitchen itself, currently rest in an old dairy barn. This is where our local hero comes in to give us some hope for the iconic film set…
Local historian and storyteller, Peter Bonner became a close friend of Betty Talmadge before her death in 2005 and has worked closely ever since with her family in continuing to watch over, preserve and hopefully fully restore Tara’s facade. He is funding the ‘Saving Tara’ project on his own and with the help of volunteers so as not to worry about the disappointment of funding cuts. But Peter and his volunteers certainly have their work cut out for them in bringing this survivor of old Hollywood back to its former glory….
Not only has Tara’s façade been stored in unfavourable conditions for the last 75 years, but if you recall in the film, the O’Hara home was damaged by the ravages of war in the second act. Many of the pieces stored in the barn are in the same state they were in after Hollywood set dressers essentially “damaged the house” for it’s post-Civil War shots…
Gone with the Wind’s producer David O. Selznick spoke of Tara after filming, almost predicting her unfortunate fate…
“Nothing in Hollywood is permanent. Once photographed, life here is ended. It is almost symbolic of Hollywood. Tara had no rooms inside. It was just a façade. So much of Hollywood is a façade.”
Peter occasionally gives tours of the barn and the Tara inventory in its current state, which he refers to as one giant puzzle that he’s trying to piece together.
“I was asked what I hoped would happen to the façade and I really couldn’t answer it because all I can focus on is getting another piece set up and another piece put back together,” says Peter on his Saving Tara Facebook page. “Sure I would love to see it in an air-conditioned building near its current location. A building with enough height to build a copy of the façade as it was during filming (over 22 feet tall), with a place to show the original pieces near film of their moments in the movie.”
Critics often talked about Tara as a symbol of Scarlett O’Hara’s spirit;”Initially, she is a thing of pompous but shallow beauty, then a place of desolation but nevertheless still standing when the neighboring homes are not, and finally as beautiful as ever but bereft of life and happiness”.
Will Hollywood’s most iconic film set find new life? Can Peter and his volunteers put this broken puzzle back together? Much like Scarlett’s future in the final scene of Gone with the Wind, Tara’s is equally uncertain.
You can also see a video diary of Saving Tara’s progress on Youtube.