The Wind That's Now A Breeze --- Part One
I can’t believe Greenbriar’s run over four years with so little mention of Gone With The Wind. Well, here’s where I make up for it. Warners is recently out with a Blu-Ray that hopefully represents the best this show will ever look. There’s also a book called Frankly My Dear in which Molly Haskell claims GWTW is still running strong. I agree it’s still running, though not nearly at strength once had. Those days are as past as cavaliers and cotton fields. Look for Gone With The Wind only on TCM, for no other outlet uses it to my knowledge. This was for years the one you never thought would play television. Now it’s just another TV movie. The fade began in 1976 when NBC scored a bicentennial run. Pretty soon GWTW limped out of theatres, even in the South where we figured it would never die. Turner headquarters in Atlanta used to play Wind on a loop in a dedicated on-site theatre. We peeked in once and saw pinkish 35mm that looked to have survived the 1967 reissue where blow-ups for 70mm first-runs gave new meaning to desecration of art (but not commerce, as that round was MGM’s most successful GWTW revival). February 3, 1968 was when I saw it first, and here’s the stub to prove same. My mother drove me to Greensboro’s Terrace Theatre (practically new at the time, torn down since). We had reserved seats. There was no bigger deal than going to see Gone With The Wind, even as it was closing on thirty years old. I brought my Tommy Traveler suitcase to sit on in event someone taller occupied seats in front of us (everyone towered over me then). Consider four hours astride a suitcase. That’s wanting to see GWTW bad. It hardly mattered our watching a 70mm aberration where tops and bottoms were clipped amidst grain the size of meteorites. Still, I was enraptured. Here was a 1939 movie in a big theatre. You could even buy a souvenir book with color stills for a dollar. Mom asked coming back how I’d enjoyed GWTW. The best, I replied, nothing ever so great. She’d seen it first run, probably late 1940 or early 1941, so I figured we were in agreement. Actually, I thought it was a little old-fashioned, came her devastating rejoinder. Miles after that found me in stunned silence. It seemed almost a betrayal to turn on a movie that (she always said) meant so much over the years. Shouldn’t I have been the one to call Gone With the Wind old-fashioned?
From there, I seized every opportunity to watch it. There were plenty. Gone With The Wind remained as sure fire in a late sixties South as ever. I tagged a ride at fourteen to Winston-Salem's Carolina Theatre, a downtown palace on wobbly legs. Entering their virtually empty auditorium for a matinee made me appreciate how pointless reserving a seat had been, though for at least the first few minutes, I dutifully sat in my assigned row. Later I campaigned our eighth grade teacher to arrange a Greensboro field trip based on GWTW’s historical value, and to my gratified amazement, she managed it. That day off school to watch Gone With The Wind was indeed one to savor. I was even put wise to the bottom line of a particular scene in the film by a wordly boy sitting next to me. Larry had been around and done things I’d only imagined from seeing movies like Goldfinger and The Sandpiper. So far as I understood from previous viewings, Scarlett waking up so cheerfully the morning after being carried upstairs by Rhett amounted to nothing other than having had a refreshing sleep, but my friend set me straight. Boy, he really gave it to her last night, was Larry’s whispered assurance. Here was a window toward maturity suddenly thrust open, even if I still had many miles to go. I’d write Larry now and thank him for said enlightenment but for fact that, last I heard, he was still imprisoned at an undisclosed location.
A quick break here for GWTW trivia you might not know. According to trades, Clark Gable accepted MGM’s invitation to attend the Atlanta 1961 premiere of Gone With The Wind’s centennial revival. This was announced but weeks before his death on November 16, 1960. How many thousand such GWTW factoids are out there? I’ve met people who memorized them all. One friend saw the film over 150 times theatrically. Drove to Charlotte every weekend through the whole of 1968 and ‘69. I toted up ten auditorium rounds, which for me was a record (guess it still stands). Why then, do I now have a tough time getting through a start-to-finish look, even on Blu-Ray? Maybe it’s diminished special-ness of GWTW. When I was at college, it was still Number One in everybody’s book, especially the girls. You could always break ice with that subject. A freshman crush spoke of how she’d gladly submit to a Rhett Butler, launching me upon a mercifully brief period of emulating Clark Gable around campus (I do still maintain that purposeful stride he used in the opening scene of Mutiny On The Bounty). GWTW’s leads were persuasive role models. Impressionable girls wanted to be Scarlett and cuter ones managed it. Boys like me who longed to be Rhett probably ended up more like Charles Hamilton. I always sympathized with Charles and was glad to tell Rand Brooks so when we met at an Asheville cowboy show back in the early nineties. Rand did a great impersonation of Gable as he recited both Charles and Rhett’s dialogue from their Twelve Oaks confrontation (Apologies aren’t enough, sir!). Surviving GWTW cast members developed callused fingers signing for fans. One who shunned them was/is the very holdout I’d like most to meet. Alicia Rhett played India Wilkes and still lives in Charleston. She made her living as a portrait painter and would slam the door on anyone mentioning Gone With The Wind. The imdb says Alicia’s ninety-four and the oldest cast member still alive. A guy I once met had a friend who was a friend of Alicia Rhett. He managed to wangle her autograph on several GWTW stills. Those must be rarities indeed.
The big moment at college came when Films Inc. finally made Gone With The Wind available for 16mm rental. I believe that was 1974. They wanted something like $400 for a non-theatrical booking. I’d been showing movies at Lenoir-Rhyne since arriving there in 1972, mostly stuff I’d collected. Offering GWTW at our P.E. Monroe Auditorium would crown my preeminence as resident classic movie geek, but where would the four hundred come from? A rival programmer was Dr. Ellis G. Boatman, history professor, lifetime film buff, and my nemesis. He and I never really hit it off, in part because of my childish determination to prove I knew more about old movies than he did (never mind his having seen the best of them growing up during the 30’s and 40’s). Dr. Boatman jumped on GWTW (with his own cash?) and sold it like the Atlanta premiere. I was pea green with envy. Everyone attended who could take a seat or stand beside one. Here was further opportunity to study audience reaction, something I’d taken up from the first time seeing GWTW in 1968. Clocking laughs has always been a major joy of sharing this film with an audience. There are so many throughout, more so than in most comedies. In fact, I think humor is primarily what makes GWTW wear so well as it has. The biggest reaction then? There were two in particular I remember. The most appreciative laugh came with Gable’s line when Scarlett donates her wedding band to the cause: And you, Mrs. Hamilton, I know just how much that means to you. The audience is in on his joke even as characters surrounding Rhett aren’t, and that always flatters as well as amuses a viewing crowd. The next, and probably most explosive guffaw, came with the cutaway to Aunt Pittypat fainting after Scarlett yells Oh Yes, I Will! at the Atlanta bazaar. It was fun sitting in wait for these moments. Too bad Gone With The Wind is gone out of theatres, for watcher's reaction really makes a difference in how it plays.