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Star-Ledger Review

'Gone With the Wind' back in all its Civil War glory

By Kenneth M. Chanko Star-Ledger Staff

It seems as good a time as any to re-release that grand old Civil War era soap opera epic, "Gone With the Wind"


Well, for one, the hugely popular and much beloved 1939 Oscar-winner just placed fourth in the American Film Institute's list of the Top 100 Movies of all time. Earlier this year, "Titanic," now the highest-grossing box-office movie of all time, won 11 Oscars, including best picture. At least one New York critic called James Cameron's period romance the best state-of-the-art movie spectacle since "GWTW." And both movies are set against the backdrop of major historical events -- with up-front love stories featuring characters from radically different backgrounds -- that take place about 85 years before the respective movies were released.

Though I've never been a huge fan of this sweeping, melodramatic Hollywood sudser, even I have to admit the sumptuously mounted production (it cost a record-for-its-day $4 million to make) still looks great. (Purists might bemoan the generally toned-down, more realistic coloring of this latest restored Technicolor print for theatrical release, which also includes a new digitally remastered soundtrack.)

''GWTW" is, of course, about a young, Tara-sheltered, self-involved Southern woman, Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh), who's transformed by the cataclysmic events of the Civil War into a tough, wily survivor. She longs for retiring Southern gentleman Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), but her true soul-mate is really the roguish Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), though, naturally, it takes practically the entire four hours (including intermission) for her to realize it.

Scarlett remains a fascinating character, perhaps easier to appreciate today. She -- along with Rhett -- is a pragmatically modern personality, a woman living amongst quaint relics. Scarlett and Rhett know -- or think they know -- what they want, and they have no qualms about going after it, no matter what the consequences. Leigh, more so than Gable, was the movie's casting coup. It's impossible to imagine Joan Fontaine, Margaret Sullavan, Susan Hayward or even Katharine Hepburn -- all considered, among others -- in the role of Scarlett.

Subtlety isn't one of the movie's strengths, which is why one of the film's best moments comes when Melanie (Olivia de Havilland) gives birth before the intermission. It's shot in restrained, moody silhouette, and is generally credited to George Cukor (the great "woman's director"), who was fired as director when Gable began to think that his role was becoming secondary to that of Leigh, and even de Havilland. (Victor Fleming, who also directed "The Wizard of Oz" that same year, took over.)

One of the big misconceptions about this massive David O. Selznick production, based on Margaret Mitchell's bestseller, is that it was greeted with unanimous praise upon its release nearly 60 years ago and that only over time have the critics been carping. A handful of prominent critics of the day weren't overly impressed, most calling attention to the misguided elevation of the personal stories over social themes. To be sure, the caricatured vocal and eye- popping antics of the two main black characters ("darkies," as they're referred to in the film), Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) and Prissy (Butterfly McQueen), aren't easy to take.

Nevertheless, "Gone With the Wind" still holds sway because of its eventful wide-screen storytelling, dramatic historical backdrop and its ever-resourceful "thoroughly modern" Old Southern Belle protagonist. And even if Scarlett doesn't get Rhett back, there's always the promise of lucrative real estate in her future.

Rating note: Atlanta burns, Vivien Leigh shoots a Yankee "invader," Clark Gable says "damn"; by 1998 standards, it's quite tame.

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