How 'Gone with the Wind' became America's biggest blockbuster

gone with the wind poster
When accounting for inflation, "Gone with the Wind" has made $1.6 billion at the domestic box office.

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the biggest blockbuster in American history.

While many will give the all-time box office crown to the likes of "Avatar" or "Titanic," the actual highest-grossing film -- when accounting for inflation -- is Victor Fleming's 1939 war epic "Gone With the Wind."

"Gone With the Wind" is not just a classic of Hollywood's golden age -- it's a film that has spawned countless TV specials, tourist attractions, and enviable box office totals.

As we celebrate the film's diamond jubilee, here's how "Gone With the Wind" became one of America's favorite films.

"The greatest screen entertainment of all time!"

When "Gone With the Wind" premiered on December 15, 1939, those in attendance at Atlanta's Loews Grand Theater couldn't have predicted just how popular the film would go on to be.

When accounting for inflation, "Gone With the Wind" has made an incredible $1.6 billion at the domestic box office.

For John Wiley Jr., the author of "The Scarlett Letters: The Making of the Film Gone With the Wind," the film's popularity stemmed from its silver screen spectacle.

"It is Hollywood at its Hollywoodist," Wiley said. "The cinematography, the fact that it was in technicolor, the performances, the music, the costumes. It's the iconic film in Hollywood history."

vivian leigh
Vivien Leigh won an Academy Award for her performance as Scarlett O'Hara.

Wiley added that the popularity of Margaret Mitchell's best-selling 1936 book and the film's intimate Civil War love story between Clark Gable's Rhett Butler and Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara were other factors that brought audiences out in droves.

The film's $1.6 billion total outranks other classics on the all-time list like "Star Wars" and "The Sound of Music." It also tops the current #1 film, James Cameron's "Avatar," which comes in at #14 when adjusting for inflated ticket prices.

TV specials and Ted Turner

While its box office numbers may be staggering, the film's first television airing was also impressive.

When NBC first televised the film back in 1976, a record 47 percent of American households tuned in. Since the film's run time clocks in at nearly four hours, the network had to split it over two nights.

And on its second night, "Gone With the Wind" maintained its record ratings.

The film was eventually bought by CNN founder Ted Turner, who acquired the film's rights from CBS in 1987.

''This is terrific. We now have the television rights to the greatest movie ever made," Turner said at the time.

Turner, an avid fan of the film, would later make "Gone With the Wind" the first movie shown on his network "Turner Classic Movies" when it launched in 1994. (That channel is owned by Time Warner, which also owns this web site.)

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Over 33 million households tuned in to watch "Gone with the Wind" in 1976.

Frankly, we still give a damn

Over its 75 years, "Gone with the Wind" has seen both praise and controversy.

The film's portrayal of slavery, along with a scene that involves what many feel to be marital rape, have been scrutinized by critics and fans alike.

Yet it remains steadfastly popular. In fact, the movie has even become a tourist attraction of sorts. An estimated 33,000 visitors a year head to Atlanta's Margaret Mitchell House to see set pieces, memorabilia, and artifacts from the film.

The film has also become a generational event for families, film lovers, and fans, showing that even after three quarters of a century, many still give a damn about "Gone With the Wind."

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