The red and the black

Restored to 'glorious Technicolor,' GWTW comes to woo new legions of fans

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. 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 over-refined 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 teenage 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.

Gone With the Wind.
Directed by Victor Fleming. Written by Sidney Howard, from the novel by Margaret Mitchell. Starring Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland, Hattie McDaniel, and Butterfly McQueen. Opens Friday.

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