'GWTW': Is Brighter Better?

Bill Desowitz is a frequent contributor to Calendar

When "Gone With the Wind" returns to theaters June 26 in the splendor of Technicolor's new and improved dye transfer printing process, looking sharper and more vivid, there will be an outcry of revisionism over restoration.

After all, this is a cinematic treasure, and, imperfections and all, the epitome of bold and subtle Technicolor artistry from 1939. So it's no wonder that a few passions have already been stirred among those who care more about preserving our cultural heritage than pleasing contemporary tastes.

"This is not an accurate representation of 'Gone With the Wind,' " asserts Robert Harris, who, along with restoration partner James Katz, is familiar with original and reissue dye transfer prints of the film, and has glimpsed a test reel of the new version. (Harris and Katz are currently preparing the restored 'Rear Window" for dye transfer printing next year.)

"This is a distortion of the original three-strip Technicolor look, a hybrid of two processes [Technicolor and Eastmancolor] at their best and worst," Harris continues. "And the danger here is that the public will be deceived into believing it is seeing 'Gone With the Wind' the way [producer] David O. Selznick and [production designer] William Cameron Menzies intended it to be seen."

There are really two issues in dispute. The first is bypassing the original three-strip nitrate photographic elements (separate black and white silver records containing information for red, green and blue) and printing from a new duplicate color negative, which actually corrupts the integrity of the original colors. The second is transforming this multitextured Civil War epic into eye candy with dye transfer. Even though it yields greater color discrimination and tone scale (ranging from highlights to shadow), it's a new toy like digital sound that requires a certain amount of restraint and discrimination.

In the test footage, for instance, which Technicolor promises will be very close to the release version, the reds jump off the screen in the armory bazaar sequence. Elsewhere, the blacks and whites are overpowering. But this is not "Bulworth" or "Godzilla," the two initial releases in dye transfer, where you want high contrast and an explosion of primary colors.

Rather, you want the kind of subdued palette that can be glimpsed in a 1954 print (original 1939 nitrate prints are difficult to come by), the last version approved by Selznick. Here there's a creamy, luscious, candlelit warmth that was part of an experiment to tone down colors, according to Selznick and Menzies, except for dramatic emphasis in the costumes, illustrating how the Old South lost its beauty after the Civil War.

"We're not saying it's not pleasing to look at," Katz says, "but we want to see it done right. If you're going to spend all this money and use this wonderful new process, why not take full advantage of it with a restoration? The 60th anniversary isn't until next year. What's the rush? Take the time and let audiences enjoy its unique artistry while preserving the three-strip elements for posterity."

Evidently it's not that simple. Distributor New Line (a Ted Turner holding acquired in the Time Warner merger) imposed a summer dye transfer deadline, and Technicolor is neither equipped nor authorized right now to handle nitrate. Sources say there was also pressure from Warner Bros. home video to release a new tape and DVD in November. This will be followed by a Technicolor documentary tie-in on the TCM cable station in December. "They didn't want to do theatrical next year because they were worried about a millennium blitz in 2000," an insider adds.

"Who's to say what it should look like?" ponders Turner President Roger Mayer. "The test is the best color rendition I've ever seen of 'Gone With the Wind.' This far surpasses our 50th anniversary print in '89. The depth and clarity are astonishing--like 3D. We think audiences will be very pleased."

Certainly the reissue of this legendary classic was an ideal match for reintroducing dye transfer after nearly a 25-year absence, making "color an extension of the creative community once again," according to Technicolor president Ron Jarvis. "We have not yet explored all the possibilities for new and old films," Jarvis says, "but we plan on starting a preservation/restoration division in the next year or so, and I'd really like to do a test on 'Gone With the Wind's' nitrate and see what the results are like."

Also leaving open the possibility is Richard P. May, Warner Bros.' vice president of film preservation. "At some point, we'd like to make a comparison with this new version and see how much difference there really is," he says.

May supervised the 50th anniversary restoration for improved printing in Eastmancolor and claims the nitrate negatives are in excellent condition. Yet he's skeptical about re-creating "Gone With the Wind's" original desaturated, sepia look.

"We have no way of knowing if Selznick got what he wanted out of Technicolor back then or not because of the limitations. What's definitive? New advancements in '54 improved the contrast and sharpness. You can't go by release prints. They vary. Projection lighting was different too. You can only go by the negative, which contains the full color spectrum within it. We think we can make it look better than it was right now while adhering to the original style."

But making it look better is a risky judgment call. Where do you draw the line in using high-tech to sell retro as a filmgoing event? "There's a tendency today to want to use technology to improve everything," notes 'Gone With the Wind" authority Gavin Lambert.

"It's revisionism. It's like one step forward and two steps back."

Even the reigning dye transfer

alchemist, Dr. Richard Goldberg, agrees that "Gone With the Wind" would be best served by a three-strip restoration. In the meantime, though, he believes the current dye transfer compromise is still preferable to color positive printing. "The process we have today is far superior to anything we had in Technicolor in terms of the materials used, . . . ," says Dr. Goldberg, now a special advisor to Jarvis, and formerly the vice president of research and development during Technicolor's Eastmancolor transition in the '50s.

"The single strip multilayer color film has wonderful properties, but color separation is not one of them," Dr. Goldberg adds. "Color information tends to get interrupted between the layers. With silver there is no interruption. You have three separate channels. You only introduce color in the last step. This is the epitome of color rendition.

"Far be it for me to suggest that you should take a pristine nitrate negative and print matrices [for dye transfer]. Before long, after a year, that precious negative is no longer pristine. I would make instead fine grain separation positives and dupe from them, keeping the channels separate, without color having been introduced. In fact, I would make two sets, one to print from and one for posterity. In true restoration, isn't it necessary to follow exactly what it was before?"

But Warner Bros.' vice president of film preservation doubts whether today's audience would approve of "Gone With the Wind's" original look. "I think they would see that absence of color and ask what we did to the picture," May says.

"Few people realize anymore that 'Gone With the Wind' was way ahead of its time in its sophisticated use of color," says Lambert.

Who's "Gone With the Wind" is it, anyway? For now, there's the new look for our time, while we wait for that elusive restoration before it's too late, much like Scarlett waits for her beloved Rhett.

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