Technicolor was a movie lover's aphrodisiac during Hollywood's Golden Age. It produced colors of astonishing depth, boldness, and subtlety via a complex beam-splitting camera that generated three separate negatives. Lab technicians built them into a photographic sandwich that was developed with a unique dye-transfer system called imbibition. Gone With the Wind (1939) epitomized Technicolor moviemaking. In 1940, even the black-and-white documentary pioneer Pare Lorentz, who chronicled the Depression and New Deal in films like The River, wrote that Gone With the Wind looked magnificent -- "for the first time, you have faces in color that are balanced and natural."
When the three-strip Technicolor gave way to color film that could be shot in regular cameras, the imbibition system still survived. But even that proved too unwieldy and expensive for the blockbuster moviemaking ironically inspired by Gone With the Wind. When in 1972 The Godfather heralded the age of saturation booking, and hundreds of prints had to be supplied on demand, the painstaking old Technicolor developing process began its exit. Indeed, the last American film to use imbibition was The Godfather, Part II in 1974. So the current reissue of Gone With the Wind is not only an attempt to woo new legions to the movie, but also to give Technicolor a new life.
Over the years, die-hard GWTW fans, accustomed to shoddy prints, have had a hard time believing that the colors of the characters' faces were ever "balanced and natural." As generations of new prints diluted and degraded its lush visuals, the film became known, and beloved, for ever-wilder contrasts -- the color equivalent of chiaroscuro. The turnaround started in 1989, when Turner Entertainment prepared golden-anniversary prints from a restored original negative; without access to imbibition, it achieved, in the estimation of the late film historian Ron Haver, "at least 90 percent" of the original color. Now New Line Cinema is rereleasing the film in a "new-and-improved 'Glorious Original Technicolor' dye transfer process" -- imbibition redux.
The advance screening I saw was exciting for its promise and frustrating for its inconsistency. Before intermission, the focus was wobbly and diffuse. After intermission, scratches and speckles marred the otherwise brilliant image. Let's hope New Line monitors the rest of its 200-plus prints and supplies proper instructions to the projectionist, because at its best this new release lets us savor the nuances of Technicolor's palette and the full range of its tingling spectrum. Few films have made more vivid use of the system's prodigious colors -- not just in scenes of spectacular destruction, but also in expressionist strokes like Clark Gable's Rhett Butler and Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara clinching in front of a tangerine sky, or Scarlett raising her fist as dawn breaks over the ground of her plantation, Tara.
In the AFI special that ranked GWTW No. 4 among all American films, Martin Scorsese spoke of its images' power to unlock the audience's imagination. That's partly because the moviemakers worked the central drama out in vibrant hues. Color doesn't decorate the characters -- it develops and completes them. When Scarlett outrages onlookers at a charity ball by dancing with Rhett in her black mourning clothes, or, later, faces down scandal by showing up at a party for Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) in a garish crimson gown, the red and the black convey the volcanic essence of one of the screen's great anti-heroines.
Despite its epic stature, GWTW, of course, is not a wide-screen movie. Laudably, New Line has sent the film out in its original boxlike dimensions, rather than crop it to fit today's standard wide screen. The old 1.33:1 ratio of width to height (compared to today's typical 1.85:1) was often called the "golden ratio." In Gone With the Wind you can see why. There's a satisfying balance between the actors and their surroundings, which makes the moments when history floods the screen and engulfs the characters all the more powerful. For filmmakers like James Cameron, Gone With the Wind turned the combination of artistic ambition and extravagance into the American movie dream. One reason for the film's rerelease now, a year before its 60th anniversary, is Cameron's reference to it as an inspiration for Titanic -- a line bought by fans like the New York Times' Janet Maslin. But Gone With the Wind boasts qualities painfully lacking in Titanic, including a host of cataclysmic incidents and take-charge characters, and a cascade of memorable lines: "Land's the only thing in the world that matters"; "As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again!"; "I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies"; "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn"; and "After all, tomorrow is another day!"
GWTW may be, as Dwight Macdonald slyly wrote, the blowzy "slide trombone in the cinematic orchestra," but it's not a one-note (or one-iceberg) wonder. Its producer, David O. Selznick, tried to wed spectacle and star power with beautiful production design and literary flavor. He tackled Margaret Mitchell's mammoth, Georgia-set best seller in backbreaking, foursquare fashion, hiring about 20 writers (though Sidney Howard deserves his sole screen credit -- he did 85 percent of the work), giving craftsmen the money to create wonders, and enlisting production designer William Cameron Menzies to sketch out guides for each major shot, making it the first film to be totally "storyboarded." Selznick's main director, Victor Fleming, was hired after the ousting of George Cukor. With Sam Wood and others filling in, Fleming once again proved himself a master of robust, nimble narrative, as he had with classics like Red Dust (which established Gable's Rhett-like good-bad man persona). Together they forged the sort of spectacle that announces every peak it means to scale. This movie tells what it will do, then does it to a turn. You want the Old South? You get it, with picturesque tableaux of partygoers frolicking through graceful mansions or of slaves toiling away in the plantation fields. You want to see Atlanta burn? You see it, with Gable and Leigh moving in front of it. GWTW combines eye-popping flourishes with sure-footed storytelling. Throughout the single most breathtaking set piece in the film -- the crane shot that pulls up and back to reveal a railroad yard filled with wounded and dead Rebel soldiers, and ends on the tattered flag of the Confederacy -- you never lose sight of the stunned, groping Scarlett as she picks her way among the maimed men and corpses.
The filmmakers inject hefty amounts of ambivalence and irony into both the history and the romance. They knew that if you respect tradition you can challenge it from within -- that if you glorify the courtliness of the Old South, you can also savage its otherworldly dreaminess in the person of gentleman farmer Ashley. The movie takes its criticism of Dixie aristocracy so far that Rhett Butler -- the realist who gets rich running supplies past Union blockades -- is in effect a mustachioed Cassandra, predicting the fall of the Confederacy. With an array of workmanlike or corrupt Northerners pitted against gallant or trashy Southerners, the whole movie is built on matched opposites like Rhett and Ashley. There's the supremely competent Mammy (the superb Hattie McDaniel) and the hysterical maid girl Prissy (the hilarious Butterfly McQueen), and, juiciest of all, the aggressive, headstrong Scarlett, who can't shake her illusion that Ashley is her true love, and the sweet, domestic Melanie (Olivia de Havilland, a performer of admirable conviction), who becomes Ashley's wife.
Of course, Scarlett herself is a one-woman compendium of opposites. She's selfish and self-destructive, rock-hard and changeable, decisive and procrastinating. A whiz at putting food on the table or launching a business, she's a loser when it comes to resolving her deepest feeling: the alternately ridiculous and heartbreaking longing she retains for her childhood ideal Ashley. Brashly instinctive and confused, she's a 20th-century heroine stumbling through a decaying 19th-century civilization. By the time Sherman marches through Georgia and Scarlett returns to the ravaged Tara, audiences are geared to applaud when she raises her fist against the sky and vows never to be hungry again. But we don't cheer her on as an aristocratic "survivor" but as a slightly cracked Southern belle, with enough distance from the whole antebellum world to realize that it can't be saved. The moviemakers keep alive the audience's hope that, in this one case, Scarlett will realize that overrefined Ashley isn't for her. Swashbuckling Rhett is.
That renegade Rhett, as embodied by Gable, suffuses his sections of the film with a rakish spirit. Gable is at the apex of masculine self-confidence -- his grin and scowl were rarely more appealing and seductive. But Leigh's magnetism powers the whole movie. Scarlett is calculating and unconscious at the same time, and Leigh conveys her contradictions with lightning facial contortions. She's a virtuoso at knitting her forehead, and she makes unusual choices delivering her dialogue. As cavaliers encircle her chair at a barbecue she chatters to the brink of unintelligibility: "Now isn't this better than speaking at an old table? A girl has only two sides to her at a table." She's being as coquettish with the audience as the heroine is with her adoring beaux. Before long, she achieves a tragicomic blend of lyricism and tenseness. "I never liked Scarlett," Leigh once told the London Observer -- maybe that's why she doesn't sentimentalize her. Rhett walks out on Scarlett. But seconds afterward this indomitable dame returns to form, and lets the thought of Tara cheer her up: "I'll go home, and I'll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day!"
Writing in Esquire in 1961, the skeptical Macdonald praised the movie's liveliness and pace and its tough-mindedness. Comparing it favorably to a couple of Tennessee Williams misfires, Macdonald observed, "At least there is some doubt as to whether the heroine is a bitch -- or as to whether the heroine is only a bitch. That makes it more interesting, more grown-up. Adult entertainment, that's what I like about Gone With the Wind." Macdonald was right. If GWTW lures the same hordes of teen-age girls who made Titanic a phenomenon, this rerelease may not just renew interest in Old Hollywood and Technicolor. It may mark the coming-of-age -- and the wising-up -- of a new filmgoing generation.