Recently selected as the fourth best film of all time (according to the American Film Institute's 1998 survey) and originally released at the end of 1939, this cinematic adaption of Margaret Mitchell's 1936 best selling, Pulitzer prize winning novel went on to win eight Academy Awards (out of 13 nominations), including Best Picture, Director, Actress and Supporting Actress. As impressive as that is, if one uses adjusted figures to account for inflation, it has also yet to be beaten at the domestic box office in the intervening 59 years ("Titanic" comes up about $400 million short).
While various restored prints have made their way into theaters and on TV from time to time, this version is the first in more than a quarter of a century to feature the true three-color negative Technicolor process, as well as digital sound and the original 1.33 (width to height) aspect ratio. It's near four hour length (222 minutes) may test the resolve of some moviegoers' posteriors (making "Titanic" seem like a breeze to sit through), but if you get the chance and have the time, you should definitely try to catch this film during its big screen rerelease.
I'll readily admit that I hadn't seen the movie in twenty some years, and that was only on broadcast TV interrupted by commercials and most likely spread out over two nights. Thus, I was anxious to see the film the way it had been first intended, hoping and trusting that this most recent restoration would be as close to the original as possible.
While I obviously can't make such comparisons, I can assuredly state that the film looks wonderful. The colors, while not exactly vivid, are bright, the images are sharp, and few if any scratches or smudges are visible to detract from the overall viewing experience. Likewise, the sound is clean, and for the most part clear, enabling the moviegoer to enjoy the film without the annoying static and popping sounds so often found on such older pictures.
Modern day audiences may be surprised when they see the boxy, TV-like aspect ratio, especially when compared with today's normal 1.85 x 1 (width x height) screen dimensions. Although you initially may be disappointed by the lack of a wide screen treatment for this film -- it's indicative of the way movies were shot before the more common rectangular features of the 1950's and beyond -- the epic story easily diverts one's attention away from such small details.
And what a sweeping epic it is -- at a running length of more than four hours (including the intermission) -- the film superbly presents a completely involving story, well-written characters, and outstanding direction. Victor Fleming, who also directed "The Wizard of Oz" and some forty other features, was at times overwhelmed by the scope of the project (and quit for several weeks during it), but still managed to deliver an amazing picture with some amazing footage shot by co- cinematographers Ernest Haller and Lee Garmes (who shared an Oscar for their impressive efforts).
It's not at all surprising that this film has delighted audiences for decades or that it's still the biggest movie in history regarding pure ticket sales. While part of that can obviously be attributed to the story and Fleming's (and a few other mainly uncredited directors) work, for the most part it's the characters and the performers who inhabit them that have made this picture such a longstanding favorite.
Oscar winner Vivien Leigh (who later went on to win another Oscar for her performance in 1951's "A Streetcar Named Desire") was just twenty-six at the time and beat out many other more seasoned actresses who auditioned for the part. It's hard to imagine anyone else in this role, however, since Leigh so effortlessly makes it her own. Ranging from the flirtatious socialite who always attracts a surrounding horde of men, to her horrified reaction to the war, and finally to a successful businesswoman, Leigh easily commands any scene in which she appears.
Clark Gable (whose Oscar nomination for this film was his third after "It Happened One Night" -- for which he won -- and "Mutiny on the Bounty") plays the role that would inspire future adventurous and charming characters throughout the ensuing decades (such as "Star Wars'" Han Solo -- both only believe in themselves and run blockades of different sorts). Handsome and featuring a devilishly wicked sense of humor (and some great lines of dialogue courtesy of screenwriter Sidney Howard and others), Gable is extremely fun to watch.
It's a tremendous delight watching these two performers appear together. Much like the best romantic comedies featuring two "opposite" and bickering characters who can't stand each other -- who we know are ultimately destined to be together -- their scenes playing off each other are a cinematic treat and easily the most enjoyable for the audience.
Most of the remaining performances are also outstanding, including Hattie McDaniel (who won for Best Supporting Actress), five-time Oscar nominee Olivia De Havilland (with two victories for "The Heiress" and "To Each His Own"), Leslie Howard (a two-time Oscar nominee) and a host of others.
Only a few complaints can be registered concerning the film. For one, it's a bit too long, and while one might be hard pressed to pick out which scenes to omit, a few probably could have been shortened. One scene that uses rear projection special effects (where Gable and Leigh "ride" in a carriage in front of a movie screen upon which the background is projected) looks quite fake, and spoils the otherwise quite realistic and impressive shots found throughout the film.
The ending, as romantically tragic as it is, does push the boundaries of melodrama, what with the deaths, marital problems and other soap opera elements all quickly piling up at the end (including a double whammy death that shortchanges the believability of the reactions regarding the first).
Others may find some of the proceedings (acting styles, the music, etc...) a bit dated for their own tastes (remembering that this is a near sixty-year-old film). For example, at times the near constant orchestral score that echoes the emotions and sentiments of the scenes (heavy on the violins) may be a bit overbearing, annoying or even too quaint for some moviegoers.
Even so, those are just minor objections for an otherwise tremendously impressive cinematic experience. From the amazing performances to Fleming's incredible direction and awe-inspiring images -- who will ever forget the camera pulling back to show Scarlett standing amidst hundreds of injured soldiers, or her silhoutted carriage dwarfed by the burning of Atlanta -- this is a film that deserves to be experienced on the big screen. A time-tested favorite, we give "Gone With the Wind" a 9 out of 10.