The red earth of Tara that everyone carries on about looks ruddy-brown now. That dashing brute of a blockade runner, Rhett Butler, appears almost peaked in places, and Scarlett O’Hara’s famous party gowns look like they’ve been left in the sun too long.
Thank goodness, then, for Sherman’s backlot bonfire, those “dyed-hair” Atlanta floozies and Mammy’s red silk petticoat. They provide nostalgic glimpses of color in the latest “restoration” visited upon David O. Selznick’s “Gone With the Wind,” due to be re-released Friday by New Line Cinema. Much else in the 1939 Technicolor classic — this time struck from a dye-transfer copy rather than the original three-strip nitrate negative, and then gussied up digitally — is either too bright or faded and out-of-register.
A stickler for detail, Selznick, it’s painfully obvious, would not have approved of much that has befallen his beloved Tara, Scarlett (Vivien Leigh), Rhett (Clark Gable), Melanie (Olivia de Havilland) and Ashley (Leslie Howard). For this viewer (who has seen the Margaret Mitchell adaptation six times in various theatrical releases), it was as if someone had monkeyed with the contrast on TV, pushing it too far to the right. The resolution in some scenes is now sharper (we can see the beaded sweat on Scarlett’s forehead as she takes control of Melanie’s difficult birth), but the bulk of the nearly four hours has lost its visual resonance, its gradations of warm earth tones and soft flesh colors. Scarlett’s homemade dress, made from Tara’s green velvet curtains, is now closer to charcoal gray.
The good news: This incarnation has been restored to its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio (in contrast to bogus 70mm re-releases that lopped off heads), and a subtle remastering of the soundtrack allows one to hear the gentle rustle of hoop skirts. The bad news: The whites and blacks now hold no texture. They’re either blindingly white (as when Melanie, in luminescent white shawl, goes to a mourning Rhett) or globby-black (Scarlett in her final shot has been reduced to an ink stain on a staircase).
Those who have never seen the multiple-Oscar-winner will no doubt greet such carping from purists with a “Fiddle-dee-dee — tomorrow brings another restored epic.” Longtime devotees, however, will lament the desecration of a cinema masterpiece, directed by Victor Fleming (with major assists from George Cukor and Sam Wood) as a more bitter than sweet rumination on greed, loss and misplaced passion. Hence, cinematographer Ernest Haller and production designer William Cameron Menzies’ use of somber earth tones. In its day, “GWTW” was darn-near avant-garde: a Technicolor film that used swatches of color to foreshadow tragedy, suggest moral failings (Scarlett the plantation coquette favors red hair ribbons), and just plain shock, as when a tracking boom shot at a railway depot follows Scarlett (in red) wading through a sea of tattered gray bodies.
Befitting its mood, much of the sprawling melodrama unfolds in shadow, half-light and silhouette. These moments — including Scarlett’s rousing “As God is my witness” declaration — still pack an emotional wallop, but, again, the new “clarity” sacrifices detail and texture. The matte shots of Tara and bustling Atlanta fare worse: They look washed-out and transparent.
Of course the burning of Atlanta and the side trips to Belle Watling’s (Ona Munson) brothel don’t call for subtle shadings. Which explains why Scarlett and Rhett’s buckboard escape through a wall of flames and Belle’s shocking-pink ensemble leave the strongest impressions this time around. Their garish extravagance makes the latest color “revival” look positively reserved.