Augustans got an unexpected Christmas gift this week 72 years ago in having an unplanned visit by movie stars Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier and movie director Alfred Hitchcock.
The visit took place exactly one year after Leigh made movie history with her Oscar-winning portrayal of Georgia belle Scarlett O’Hara in the classic film Gone With the Wind.
Most GWTW fans know that the world premiere of the movie, which is based on the fictional book by Atlanta author Margaret Mitchell, took place at the Loew’s Grand theatre in Atlanta in December 1939.
But very few GWTW fans know there was an “anniversary premiere” held a year later on Dec. 12 at Loew’s Grand with the profits going to the British war relief fund.
Although she was born as Vivian Mary Hartley in Darjeeling, India, Leigh was a British subject because India then was a British colony. Her father was an English officer in the Indian Calvary.
Just as Leigh was becoming world famous as Scarlett O’Hara, her country was entering World War II, and so she most likely was proud that the “anniversary premiere” of GWTW would benefit her fellow citizens in their time of need.
Leigh and her famous, British-born husband Olivier (whom she had married in California on Aug. 30 that year) boarded a plane Dec. 11 in California bound for the Atlanta event due to take place the next day.
Along for the ride were British-born Hitchcock, who had directed Olivier in the movie Rebecca, and Hazel Rogers, Leigh’s hairdresser and cosmetician.
The plane, after flying cross country, made a stop in Nashville, Tenn., where it was delayed 14 hours from taking off because of bad weather. Finally, about 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 12, the plane took off from Nashville bound for Atlanta with Atlanta Journal columnist Ernie Rogers now along for the supposedly last leg of the Hollywood stars’ journey.
At the controls was Capt. C. H. Dolson, the chief pilot for Atlanta-based Delta Air Corp.
Rogers later would write that the pilot tried three times to land at Atlanta’s Candler Field but fog forced him back up three times.
The passengers, according to Rogers, could see the lights of downtown Atlanta and the theater where a huge crowd, including author Mitchell, were awaiting the screen version of Scarlett O’Hara. But after an hour of circling, the pilot was directed to Augusta’s Daniel Field airport.
Apparently, Daniel Field airport officials and the staff of the nearby Forest Hills Hotel were told about the world-famous guests’ impending arrival, and they apparently told their family members and friends. Because when the plane landed at 11:40 p.m. Dec. 12, there were an estimated 75 people awaiting them.
Hitchcock, whose film Psycho is the subject of the recently-released movie Hitchcock, reportedly got off the plane and jumped up and down and said, “This stuff feels good.”
In spite of the flight weariness, Leigh and Olivier graciously signed autographs for almost everyone there to greet them. Leigh was described as wearing a mink coat and a pilgrim-styled black felt hat over a royal purple wool dress.
At the Forest Hills Hotel, the passengers were treated to a midnight supper of steaks, lamb chops and cold lobster and stayed up talking with hotel officials and sipping champagne until they retired to their fourth-floor rooms about 3 a.m.
The Augusta Chronicle on Friday morning carried a front-page story about the stars’ arrival the night before, which led to several hundred fans being at Daniel Field for the stars’ departure that same day.
Then, in the days of almost no airport security, anyone could stand right next to the plane, which most of the fans did to get a close-up look especially of Leigh and handsome Olivier, who already had starred as Heathcliffe in Wuthering Heights.
They passed autograph books and copies of GWTW to stewardess Birdie Perkins of Atlanta, also along on the Nashville-to-Augusta trip, who passed them on to the stars to sign.
“Please don’t talk about our trip from the West Coast,” Olivier told a reporter. “It took 38 hours, and we haven’t got to Atlanta yet.”
Leigh was said to have remarked, “The trip was perfectly terrible, but we weren’t scared. We had faith in our pilot. We are going back to Hollywood just as soon as we can make connections. This is the most useless flight that has ever been made.”
Hitchcock, who was photographed reading the morning issue of The Chronicle with the story of his arrival, noted, “I have enjoyed my stay here, brief as it was.”
Among Augusta items Leigh took back to Hollywood was a box of candy named for Scarlett O’Hara. Julian Fiske, the sales manager of the Augusta candy company Nunnally’s, presented her the box with Leigh’s photograph on it. The company had the exclusive U.S. rights on gift candies commemorating the movie.
“Those who talked with Miss Leigh and her famous husband found them a charming couple, warm-hearted and eager to please,” The Chronicle noted in an editorial after the visit. “It can no longer be said that Augustans are inoculated against the germ of hero-worship. They respond, like everyone else, to the irresistible glamour of Hollywood.”