In the past, Rhett Butler didn’t give a damn.
In the present, Leonard Cassuto does give a damn about Butler, Scarlett O’Hara and the 1939 movie classic “Gone With the Wind.”
Cassuto, an English literature professor at Fordham University in New York City, first saw the film about romance and hardship during the Civil War era at a drive-in theater during the late 1960s. He was 8 years old.
Cassuto would like to see it again — and he’ll get the chance next week. Turner Classic Movies, television’s home for vintage films, and Fathom Entertainment are bringing “Gone With the Wind” to movie theaters across the nation on Sunday and Wednesday.
In the Capital Region, the film will be shown at Crossgates Cinema 18. Showtimes are 2 and 7 p.m. both days.
Turner and Fathom have pulled this gag before, booking theaters to show movies such as “The Wizard of Oz,” “West Side Story,” “Casablanca” and “Singin’ in the Rain.” The “GWTW” nights will celebrate the film’s 75th anniversary.
Cassuto and other scholars expect people will want to toast the film. He believes the story has always succeeded with audiences because top American best sellers have always combined historical sweep and sentiment.
“Gone With the Wind” has those things in abundance,” said Cassuto, general editor of the Cambridge History of the American Novel. “The historical scope is some of the most charismatic times in American history, the period that draws the most attention from historians. The Civil War doesn’t just have buffs, it has obsessionists.”
It’s also a time people want to revisit — even if the visit takes place in a darkened theater and lasts nearly four hours, including extras such as overture, intermission and exit music.
“It’s not that it was a joyful period, but it’s a period that there’s a tremendous interest in and a continuing interest in,” Cassuto said. “And if anything, the interest in Civil War scholarship has increased since ‘Gone With the Wind’ came out, not decreased.”
The film has always scored with audiences, Cassuto believes, because of the two lead characters and the actors who portray them.
“You have a female character of almost unfathomable strength — first of Scarlett O’Hara and second of the performance Vivien Leigh gives,” he said. “You forget she doesn’t even do the accent very well. She’s able to capture the strength and vitality of that character and translate it into an enduring image.
“Gable, he doesn’t even try to do a southern accent,” Cassuto added. “Yet, it works.”
There is also power in the film itself. Cassuto said the scene in which war wounded are brought out on the streets of Atlanta is worth seeing on the big screen.
“That’s an unbelievable scene that works so well as a way of conveying the national trauma of the Civil War,” he said. “Those makeshift battle hospitals, the amputation scenes without anesthesia. The movie evokes those things so beautifully.”
In some respects, the movie is a double dose of history. There’s the era portrayed on screen, says Liz Richards, and also attitudes toward that era felt by people during the late 1930s.
“While I think narratively what occurs in the movie in some respect is accurate with the post-Civil War South, what it says to me more accurately is what people thought of that time when the film is set,” said Richards, a filmmaker and visiting instructor of communications at the College of Saint Rose in Albany. “It says more about the 20th century and the way we view that time more than that time itself.”
Richard Hansen, associate professor of theatre history at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, appreciates big movies on big screens.
“At the time ‘Gone With the Wind’ was shot, there was no real concept of the home market for movies or, for that matter, television,” Hansen said. “These films were shot and made to be shown on the big theater screen, and audiences today have no real concept of the size of many cinemas back then. Your neighborhood cinema could easily seat over 1,000 people, close to 2,000 people. Maybe today we have multiplexes that are full of shoeboxes. Your biggest theater seats under 300 and your smallest theater may seat like 120. It’s still nice to see it on a big screen, but these films were meant to be seen in cavernous spaces.”
People who have seen “GWTW” on television may see a different film at Crossgates.
“You may see some details in the frames, some information that may have been cropped out,” Hansen said. “When movies are shown on TV, many times there’s a disclaimer on the front that says the image has been cropped to fit your screen. To me, personally and philosophically, that is totally incongruent with the filmmaker’s originally intended wishes.”
Hansen also noted that re-releases for the big screen are not new ideas. Walt Disney’s animated productions often return to theaters, he said, so every generation can see what parents and grandparents experienced decades before. Five Alfred Hitchcock movies, including Jimmy Stewart vehicles “Rear Window” and “Vertigo,” returned to movie houses during the early 1980s.
“Gone With the Wind” is not the right movie for everyone.
“Both the book and the movie have gotten beat up over the years for a rightly perceived insensitivity to the horrors of slavery, that ‘Gone With the Wind’ whitewashes what made slavery America’s original sin,” said Fordham’s Cassuto.
“That’s the warning. You wouldn’t just say ‘Gone With the Wind’ hasn’t aged well. It was born badly aged in that area.”
The story will attract some people. Cinema atmosphere — with no distractions during an “event” movie — will attract others.
“For me, I love being in a theater, it’s almost like a religion for me,” Richards said. “You can sit by yourself or maybe with somebody you came with. You’re in this large space, the screen is huge, it’s dark and you’re sharing this experience with other people.
“It’s all about the experience. If you’re at home, you’re distracted by the telephone, by everything else. Here, just by design, you are focusing on what is so broadly in front of you.”
Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at [email protected]