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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Happy 75th Anniversary, "Gone With The Wind"

This rare 1938 one-volume French translation
was the 269th edition by publisher Gallimard
barely two years after  the book was published
in the U.S. It became the blogger's property
when he inherited it from his grandmother
who had bought it in Paris in the late 1940s
In my early teen years I tried a couple of time to read GWTW since I had heard so much about it. Every time I failed to go through the first chapters as I quickly lost interest. Then, I must have been 13 or 14, I caught a bad cold and had to stay in bed for several days. I ransacked my parents' library for reading material, and again came across the 1,400-page, two-volume set of the French-language version of Margaret Mitchell's  Autant en emporte le vent. Third time lucky! The first 100 pages were a bit tough, full of descriptions and moving slowly but, suddenly, I was hooked. Scarlett and her beaux. The Cause. Rakish Rhett. Aunt Pittypat and her smelling salts. Mummy and Prissy. Tara surviving through war. Atlanta in flames. Damn Yankees and Carpetbaggers. No sooner had I finished the first volume than I rushed to pick up the second one and stayed glued to it until I finished it. Do I need to add I was drenched in tears when I reached the end? At that very moment my mother entered my room to check on me and seeing my tears she thought my condition had worsened and would have called the doctor if I hadn't told her there was no need, pointing at the book. "Oh, you've been reading GWTW!" she exclaimed.

Then I realized the movie was even more famous than the book and couldn't wait to see it re-released at a nearby theatre. When I first saw it, I was even more transported and fell under its Technicolor charm and the beauty and talent of Vivien Leigh. How many times had I watched it in movie theatres, on video, DVD, streamlined, pirated? Lost count, but must have been more than twenty. My whole family are big fans, even the bathroom in my mother's family home in Romania had a huge poster of Leigh and Gable's famous embrace splashed on the wall under the title, Per aripile vîntului.

The blogger in the lobby of the Fox Theatre, affectionately
known to Atlantans as the Fabulous Fox, on Dec. 15, 1989
exactly 50 years after the movie's premiere in the same city
I was particularly gratified to find myself studying towards my master's at the University of Georgia in December 1989 as the movie's 50th anniversary celebrations were being held nearby in the city where the premiere took place half a century ago. Now (then) in my twenties I found myself  equally impressed by watching GWTW again at the Fabulous Fox  in Atlanta. And gawking at the cast members still alive, getting autographs and taking pictures galore.

I always laugh when I read in the press, or hear the younger generation boast, that Titanic or Star Wars or Avatar are the top box-office hits of all time. If I remember correctly, the highest-grossing of these movies has not brought in more $1.5 bn when GWTW, in inflation-adjusted dollars, has brought in more than $6.5 bn. And  remember that in the late 30s the movie market was really limited to the wealthy parts of the world, that is North America and Western Europe. and the world's population was much smaller. Actually it took more than a decade for GWTW to come to France, because of the war, something unthinkable these days when blockbusters often open on the same day around the globe. GWTW's popular success is therefore quite stunning. I think that at one point in time half of the whole US public had seen the movie which, as far as I know, is unequaled.
The blogger's' autographed copy of the
book by Herb Bridges, the world's
leading auhority on  GWTW

Among the surviving cast members at the Atlanta "re-premiere",
Butterfly McQueen is fondly remembered for her "I don't know
nothin' 'bout birthin' babies" scene. And, yes, she's
wearing the very dress from the famous scene which she
reprised on the stage for us. 

An interesting piece of trivia  is that of the four main stars, only one is, as of today, still alive. Olivia de Havilland's longevity is a nice echo of the movie's enduring appeal and how it has stood the test of time. Ironically, she is the only one of the four main characters to die in the movie.

As a more mature adult now, and being able to compare it with other great movies I had seen since, what do I make of GWTW? Would I consider it as one of the top 10 movies of all time? As a tribute  to the great picture, which celebrated last week its 75th anniversary, I decided this week, after many years without watching it, to sit again through  its four hours.

Verdict? Still terrific, especially the first part. That wide-shot of the railroad tracks with the thousands of wounded ending with a torn Confederate battle flag flapping  pitifully remains as powerful as ever. I found Vivien Leigh's performance as the feisty Southern Belle as impressive as before. Present in almost every scene of the movie, the British actress is its heart and soul. I still feel, though, that the book is clearly superior, as so often happens with literary adaptations to to the silver screen. One major flaw is, toward the end, when Bonnie Blue and Melanie die in such quick succession giving the movie a soapish air. Always found that too melodramatic. And, sure, it romanticizes the Deep South too much, although I am not one of those who criticize the movie for its depiction of slavery. After all, it was written from the perspective of the plantation owners, and at that time slavery was the norm. Can't judge a story set in the 1860s with late 20th century eyes.

The blogger's admission ticket to the event. 

But the sets are great, some of the great lines made it into the movie, I can still hum Max Steiner' s score, most of the characters (to the notable exception of Leslie Howard's Ashley Wilkes) were exactly as I had imagined them when I read the book (Vivien Leigh, of course, but also Clark Gable and Hattie McDaniel). The cinematography is still brilliant in that gorgeous Technicolor, and it is impossible to believe that three different directors worked on the movie as it seems to be the work of just one single mind. Which it is, but not a director's. GWTW would, of course, not have existed without the single-minded obsession of David O.Selznick.

GWTW was not the only film masterpiece to be released in 1939, which may have marked the beginning of a dark chapter in human history, but is probably the best cinematic year ever. Audiences were regaled with an astonishing number of superb films: The Wizard of Oz (by one of the GWTW co-directors, Victor Fleming), Stagecoach, Lubitsch's Ninotchka ("Garbo Laughs" said the tagline), Wuthering Heights, Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game. Actually, there have been FULL decades where fewer quality movies were produced than in that single vintage year.

(2014 also saw two of my favorite movies celebrating a major anniversary. Both My Fair Lady -incidentally by George Cukor, one of the GWTW co-directors- and Mary Poppins turned 50. The former is undoubtedly the wittiest musical every produced, although Audrey Hepburn was miscast; the latter, the first movie appearance by Julie Andrews who had been bypassed for the My Fair Lady role which she had created onstage, is still my favorite Disney movie, and the first film to blend live animation with real movie characters. I keep watching both again and again, and never get tired or bored.)

NOTE: All the pictures were taken by the blogger except, obviously, the one he appears in (but taken with his Kodak camera). All rights reserved. No use of the photos can be made without express written agreement by the copyright holder.


  1. Happy 80th, GWTW, for your longevity matched only by that of my fellow-Paris resident, Olivia de Havilland, 103.

  2. Today HBO decided to remove from its library GWTW on the basis that it is a racist movie. The stupidity of the politically correct movement knows no bounds. The movie only describes what the Deep South was like in the 19th century. If we now cannot bear to see on the screen things we don't like, then we should ban movies that show rape, murder and robberies. We should rename Washington, D.C. because it bears the name of a slaveowner whose face should no longer adorn the $1 bill. This is the height of silliness: Are we going now to rewrite history? George Orwell was right: the 1984 new Inquisition is right here. Isn't ironic that GWTW is the first movie to give an African American an Oscar? Rather than spend our time and energy to censure the PAST, we should adopt policies that fix CURRENT racism-related issues. That's what is needed. But then maybe it's easier the change the past than the present.