A reissue of 1939's Gone With the Wind looks better than ever
By Bill DeLapp
The South triumphantly rises again with the restored version of the 1939 Hollywood classic Gone With the Wind (New Line; 224 minutes, plus approximately 12 minutes of overture, intermission and exit music tracks; G). It's a painstaking digital reconstruction filled with new vibrant colors and a pumped-up stereo soundtrack that fits this old-style Hollywood extravaganza like a glove.
The reason why this 1939 wonder is turning up in multiplexes a year ahead of its 60th anniversary can be attributed to the June announcement of the American Film Institute's top 100 films of all time. Unfortunately for New Line and its head honcho Ted Turner, who acquired the film's rights in 1987 after buying the MGM movie catalog the previous year, GWTW placed fourth in the film-critic balloting, with Orson Welles' Citizen Kane scoring a No. 1 ranking. Nevertheless, GWTW's return to the nation's multiplexes has been celebrated with a detailed rejiggering of the film's aural and visual elements, recreating the cleanest-sounding and -looking print in decades.
This reissue refines the original's three-strip Technicolor look to rhapsodic effect, with deep, rich, luxurious hues that viewers can get lost in within seconds. Whorehouse madam Belle Watling (played by Ona Munson) looks more fabulous than ever, with eye-popping reds and yellows accompanying her garish outfits. And the full-sounding stereo effect adds resonance to Max Steiner's nonstop music compositions, with cannon fire at opposite sides of the theater enhancing the Atlanta siege sequence.
Of course, this version's compromise is that while it retains the original 1:33:1 format, a boxier look that Hollywood used until the widescreen frame took hold in the Fifties, the restorators had to put that image onto the rectangular 1:85:1 movie screen found in all multiplex theaters; thus, the left and right sides are masked so that the original image can be preserved. The effect looks miniaturized at times, especially in the long shots, and it's best to sit closer to the screen to take it all in; in fact, the frame jumps in several spots, owing to the ragged source materials that the preservationists had to work with.
Still, it's a vast improvement when compared to the 1967 reissue, which lopped off the tops and bottoms of every frame for a 70 mm widescreen treatment--a financially lucrative but artistically insulting injustice to this film's voluptuous images. And those visuals indeed heighten a daunting project that went through three directors (credited Victor Fleming, with sideline work from Sam Wood and George Cukor), numerous writers (credited Sidney Howard adapted Margaret Mitchell's best seller, but Ben Hecht and F. Scott Fitzgerald also took stabs at the script) and a domineering producer, David Selznick, who some credit as the real auteur of this undertaking.
From this chair, however, the real auteurs of this anti-war tract seem to be threefold: Clark Gable's commanding turn as "gentleman from Charleston" Rhett Butler, Vivien Leigh's dynamic work as the "fiddle-de-dee" flirtatious Scarlett O'Hara, and the throbbing, enormously detailed production designs from William Cameron Menzies, who contributed such an intoxicatingly Old South look that sustained this film no matter who was in the director's chair. It's also a backhanded testament to the old Hollywood system that somehow the scenes generated by workmanlike hacks such as Fleming and Wood, combined with the gay genius of a true auteur like Cukor, who coached the female players off the set, could all be stitched together to create a seamless final product.
This cotton-pickin' classic features the definitive Gable role, who winks through his repartee like an old smoothie ("You should be kissed and often," rapscallion Rhett tells soul mate Scarlett, "and by somehow who knows how."), yet summons up surprising depth when his macho gambler cries over the death of his daughter. And Leigh's dramatic range as Scarlett still amazes after all these years, in what is arguably the cinema's greatest female role. Leigh's in virtually every shot, yet her Scarlett holds the screen throughout, from the schemer who tries anything to rob her noble wanna-be lover Ashley Wilkes (earnestly underplayed by Leslie Howard) from his wife Melanie (Olivia de Havilland), to the postwar survivor who clings to her own self-delusional hope that Rhett didn't really mean to say his satisfying kiss-off, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."
Quite obviously, the preservationists do give a damn about the way Gone With the Wind looks these days, with a sparkling restored print adding luster to this grand soap opera about death, fate and lessons learned much too late. And besides, it's a real kick to see old-timer supporting players like Harry Davenport, Jane Darwell and Ward Bond sharing space alongside the current fare at your neighborhood 19-screen bijou.