Austin Rocks: Treasures at the Harry Ransom Center

Scarlett dress at Ransom Center Austin GWTW Gone With The Wind special exhibit (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Scarlett’s “harlot” dress at on display at the Harry Ransom Center special Gone With The Wind exhibit in Austin. The burning of Atlanta storyboard is on the wall opposite (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

(Part of the Austin Rocks series of posts by a local about things to do and see in Austin, Texas)

If you’ve had your fill of live music, yummy trailer food, or checking out my favorite Austin bar, maybe it’s time for more intellectual pursuits.

The Harry Ransom Center is a humanities research library and museum on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. It houses a couple of permanent exhibits that you can see anytime – one of the five complete Gutenberg Bibles in the U.S., and the world’s first photograph – but it is also home to some extraordinary literary and artifact collections donated by authors, artists and/or their families.

What’s exciting about the Ransom collections is that, after creating a research account and hearing a how-to presentation, any visitor can request time to see items in the research collections.

For example:

  • All the Watergate files from Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Mind-boggling! It consists of ….

“77 boxes (32.34 linear feet), 6 oversize boxes, 3 oversize folders, 3 galley folders, 21 bound volumes. [Includes] typed and handwritten manuscripts, interview notes, galley proofs, financial records, correspondence, audio and video tapes, clippings, research files, court documents, government publications, photographs, and memorabilia document the Watergate investigation and writings of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The bulk of the collection consists of drafts of Washington Post news stories, All The President’s Men, and The Final Days.”

  • (Just acquired) Archives of Nobel prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez.
  • Locks of famous people’s hair collected by poet and essayist Leigh Hunt, including George Washington’s and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s.
  • Robert de Niro’s costumes, props and papers; including about 8,000 items from 56 movies and two theater productions.
  • Harry Houdini’s scrapbooks.
  • Early editions of Shakespeare (including three First Folios.)
  • Photographs by Lewis Carroll (a special Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland exhibit is on tap for February – July 2015)

The Ransom is always drawing on its collections to create special exhibits. Because they own film producer David O. Selznick’s archives, the current exhibit (through January 4, 2015) is all about the making of the blockbuster 1939 movie Gone With The Wind.

Part of storyboard for burning of Atlanta scene GWTW special exhibit Ransom Center Austin (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Part of the storyboard that helped plan the “burning of Atlanta” scene in Gone With The Wind, from a GWTW special exhibit at the Ransom Center in Austin, Texas (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

300 items, including famous costumes, on-set photographs, letters, telegrams, and fan mail, tell the story of how the movie developed from Margaret Mitchell’s book, the drama involved in selecting an actress to play Scarlett, director changes, and other behind-the-scenes insights. On weekends at 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m., you can watch a whole series of screentests for different roles, and try to imagine another actress besides Vivien Leigh playing Scarlett.

Makeup still of Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara GWTW at Ransom Center Austin (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Makeup still of Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind, at the Ransom Center in Austin (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

I liked seeing all of the different makeup still shots of the various characters.

The exhibit tackles issues of racism both during and after filming, including how Hattie McDaniel and the other black actors were not allowed to be seen on the red carpet or anywhere in the publicity for the movie when it premiered in Atlanta in 1940.

The Ku Klux Klan got into the mix during filming, as shown by a letter from the “Grand Dragon and King Kleagle of the Realm of California” insisting that if the “Klan part of the picture were distorted or deleted the South would be insulted and that millions of Klanspeople would consider it a personal affront.” The same guy then offered his services as a technical advisor for the film.

There’s a telegram to Selznick in which Mrs. Raymond B. Bullock of Chapter 56 of the United Daughters of the Confederacy announced that they “vigorously protest any other than a native born Southern woman playing the part of Scarlett….we resolve to withhold our patronage if otherwise cast.” Too bad for them that Vivien Leigh was British. Apparently the movie’s success did not suffer from their withheld patronage.

Sheila Scarborough with Scarlett's famous curtains dress GWTW Ransom Center Austin

Spending some selfie time with Scarlett’s famous dress made from her mother’s curtains, Gone With The Wind at the Ransom Center in Austin, TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Admission is always free at the Ransom Center, but donations are accepted. There are free docent-led public tours of the exhibit every day at 12 noon, as well as Thursdays at 6 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m.

If you can’t get to Austin to see it in person, there’s an excellent online version of the Gone With The Wind exhibit.

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