Gorgeously restored 'GWTW' stands the test of time beautifully
You want to know how visually stunning the digitally remastered prints of "Gone With the Wind" are? Did you know there are mortar shells flying overhead during some street scenes of Sherman's raid on Atlanta? Neither did I.
Just when I was starting to think technology was getting too big for its britches, something like this come along to change my mind.
I've seen "Gone With the Wind" three times on the big screen and half a dozen more on TV or video, and this re-release is a whole new experience -- a picture so crisp you can almost feel the ruffles on Scarlett's barbecue dress, Technicolor so flagrant and vivid that even the wheat fields are vibrantly alive, and sound so rich you can hear the buggy wheels creak.
But while I expected to be impressed with the restoration, as I screened this revival of Hollywood brightest jewel I had a question on my mind: Will 13-year-old girls who have heard it compared to "Titanic" (like, the greatest movie, like, ever) recognize "GWTW" as a masterpiece? Or will they latch on to the film's retrospective cheese factor (Ashley and Melanie's anemic dash to embrace across the worst sound stage backdrop in color film history), and dismiss it as some corny old movie that grandma won't shut up about?
My theory was that with this large-scale release, many teenie boppers would be seeing this film for the first time without the chaperoning of someone in the know to explain why, for instance, the movie isn't in wide-screen format.
My theory was that these girls would fail to see that while parts of "Gone With the Wind" might seem a little silly at age 59, it's certainly no sillier than "Titanic" will seem in 2056.
But you know what? The film stands up gloriously. I imagined myself a 13-year-old girl (no smart remarks, please) and I was completely swept up in its romance, its tragedy and its grandeur.
From those wonderful, Playbill-style opening credits, to the masterful boom shot of war casualties at the train station, from the melodramatic, almost surreal silhouetting to the melodramatic, fabulously egoist performance of Vivien Leigh, this is truly the defining epic of American cinema.
How could it help but be an epic with its story of a spoiled, self-absorbed plantation belle who has the perseverance to endure not only the inescapable tragedy of the Civil War, but seemingly endless personal misfortune?
At the film's center, of course, is Leigh's strikingly sympathetic portrayal as Scarlett O'Hara, the irascible, manipulative bitch.
Scarlett's petulant pout, the calculating yet irresistible spark in her gray-green eyes (man, that Technicolor!), her insolent pride and self-centeredness, not only engross the audience, but actually inspire longing and empathy. The audience can no more resist her than the beaux at Twelve Oaks.
She suffers through the death of both parents, two husbands (whom she didn't love) and a child, famine, pestilence, miscarriage, poverty, assault and the catty hatred of most everyone she knows. Yet at times we even want to be Scarlett. She is somehow universal.
Clark Gable's irrepressibly charming scoundrel Rhett Butler is the film's other era-proof character. Rhett is the template for every conspicuously charismatic hero/ anti-hero in the last 60 years (James Bond, Indiana Jones).
As most fans know, Gable initially didn't want anything to do with this "woman's movie," but it's the man's man swagger and the subtleties of the male heart he brings to the role that makes Rhett complex enough to share the screen with Scarlett without being trampled.
Complexity is what sets the best performances in "Gone With the Wind" apart from the simpletons, of which there are many, although even together they aren't enough to hurt this magnanimous film.
Hattie McDaniel (Mammie), Butterfly McQueen (Prissy), Harry Davenport (Dr. Meade) and Ona Munson (Belle Watling) give wonderful depth to their secondary characters and the film wouldn't be a classic without them.
Leslie Howard (Ashley), Olivia deHavilland (Melanie), Rand Brooks (Charles Hamilton, Scarlett's first husband) and Carroll Nye (Frank Kennedy, Scarlett's second husband) could all have been replaced with other actors and their characters would have been just as blase.
But even with a cynical modern perspective that finds us laughing at some of the flaccid players and asking legitimate questions (What does Scarlett see in the mousy Ashley Wilkes? Why can't Melanie, or anyone else be sides Mammy and Rhett for that matter, see Scarlett for the serpent she is?), and even with today's more equal-minded racial perspective, there is not denying the power and the magnificence of this film.
Especially on the big screen, where the sublteties of Leigh's and Gable's performances that are lost on a 20-inch Trinitron can come across with the depth they are meant to portray.
Historically and artistically "Gone With the Wind" is requisite viewing for every film fan and a one-of-a-kind, no matter how many "Titanics" future filmmakers produce.