On Saturday I attended a screening of Gone with the Wind at the Guelph Galaxy with Andrew’s Mom, Mary, and sister, Jan. One-day-only event at a few venues, showing the film in HD. I’d only ever seen it on tape before, so I was totally looking forward to it. HD doesn’t really make a difference on a print shot 70 years ago, but it looked as good as it’s gonna get.

The theatre was pretty much full, which is kind of awesome. And, not uncommonly for such special events, there was a certain camaraderie in the air. I also found out later that an old high school friend of mine was at the same show.

Initially, I was struck at how differently they format movies now. Little things like there being an opening musical overture — no accompanying visuals, except for the titles backdrop. Just the original score for you to enjoy. Then the credits — before, rather than after the movie. And not just the main cast, everybody. That said, making movies required fewer people 70 years ago. No “14th special effects assistant’s best boy grip” or what have you.

I have to say, for a 70-year-old movie (it came out in 1939), it holds up really well. Certainly, the acting style in parts was a bit stylized and over the top. And certainly, the racial and gender attitudes of the time (or reflecting those of the Antebellum South) are uncomfortable to modern audiences. (But at the same time, there wouldn’t be much credibility in slaveowners referring to their workers as “African Americans”.) But it was, is, and shall remain an great epic tale. (Just FYI, Miss Melanie, not every woman wants a baby.) 🙂

Fascinating to think about it in context of the culture of the time. The Depression had been on for a decade, so going to see a movie at the theatre would have been pretty tough for a lot of people. World War II had just been declared in September. (The movie premiered in Atlanta on December 15th.) They were probably as optimistic about the outcome of WWII as the southerners in the film were about the outcome of the Civil War. Both would learn a whole lotta ugly lessons.

And hey, there are even elements worthy of Joss. They weren’t afraid to kill people off, the ending isn’t exactly overwhelmingly happy, and you know there are a million other adventures barely even hinted at. 🙂

Much as my butt, and, I’m sure, others’ bladders, were grateful for the all-too-brief intermission (built right into the film!) there’s no part of the four-hour running time that felt particularly draggy. I did somewhat regret being in a theatre for over four hours, though, given how gorgeous the weather was. But who expects sunny and warm in mid-November?

I thought of George Clooney a number of times while watching Clark Gable on screen. Really, for that classic combination of looks, charisma, and masculinity, he’s really the only actor who came immediately to mind (and who I could see in a remake). I mean, really. Of course, on screen you don’t get up-close experience of his false teeth, bad breath, and fondness for whiskey. (All things Vivien Leigh apparently complained about.)

I was also impressed with Vivien Leigh’s evolution from an immature teenager to a hard-nosed business woman “of a certain age”. She was 26 when the movie came out, so a bit younger than that while filming, and while her face per se doesn’t change (wrinkles, etc.), somehow she ages considerably. (Apparently she always considered her beauty a bit of a handicap in being taken seriously for her acting, and fair enough.)

Anthropologically, there were all manner of other things that were interesting. The ridiculously elaborate clothing and hair (hoopskirts? seriously?) of the time. The crushing burden of propriety, society, and reputation. And the glimpse of a world trying to reinvent itself after war and the only way of life it knows being swept away. (At this point, we’re basically two generations away from first-hand experience of war.)

It’s very telling when her sister Suellen exclaims her hatred of her sister after Scarlett marries Rhett Butler. This is, of course, not long after the death of Frank Kennedy, Scarlett’s second husband and the long-time beau of her sister Suellen (who Scarlett married for his money to pay off the taxes so they wouldn’t lose Tara). Suellen hates Scarlett because managed to snare herself three husbands (two of them wealthy), and Suellen fears she’ll die an old maid.

It reminded me of a scene in a book I read recently, where a young woman is complaining about there being no good men out there to date, and her great-aunt notes that they had the same problem in the 20s — because they lost so many in the war.

Of course, like many great works, really, when you look at the “heroes”, they’re fairly terrible people. Scarlett may be spirited and indomitable and whatnot, but she’s also self-centered, conniving, and manipulative — and those are among her better qualities. Rhett, somehow, is more forgivable because he’s 100% honest and open about his shortcomings. Even flaunts them at times.

I managed to muster more appreciation for them than I did for Heathcliff and Cathy in Wuthering Heights, for example. (Those people are just fucking nuts.) Of course, the formula for great couples and epic romances hasn’t changed much in 70 years. (Or, hell, ever.)

I did a little trivia hunting when I got home, catalyzed by Jan recounting how she’d noted to Mary during the movie that the girl who played Rhett and Scarlett’s daughter Bonnie would be 70 now. She’s 75, actually, and quit acting as a child after only three films. (She was one of the voices in Bambi.) Her career ended up being in PR. And thank goodness. Cripes, that kid was a bad actor.

Of the main cast, almost all of them died in their 50s. Clark Gable died of a heart attack following pulmonary thrombosis at 59 (and years of heavy smoking, drinking, and weight gains). Vivien Leigh died at 53 of tuberculosis, which she’d fought off and on for decades. Leslie Howard died at age 50 when his plane was shot down by the Germans during the war. (And it may have been partially Churchill’s fault!) And Hattie McDaniel died of breast cancer at age 57.

The only main cast member still alive is Olivia de Havilland, who is 93 and lives in Paris. Among that group they chalked up 16 marriages (or long-term domestic relationships), including the likes of Laurence Olivier and Carole Lombard. Busy! 🙂

Interestingly, as the civil rights movement got up steam, Hattie McDaniel (the first African American Oscar winner), was frequently criticized for playing stereotypical roles — maids, mammies, etc. Her response was that she’d rather make $700 a week playing a maid than $7 being one. Fair enough.

All in all, aside from wishing for worse weather outside, a thoroughly enjoyable cinematic experience. Though one that has left me wishing for a time machine to go back and experience it when it first came out. Now, with any luck the Galaxy will stage showings of other classic films. I vote they start with Citizen Kane (which I have also only ever seen on tape).

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