Friday, May 4, 2012

GONE WITH THE WIND: 70TH ANNIVERSARY: Blu-ray (Selznick International 1939) Warner Home Video

Many years ago a critic at the New York Times astutely proclaimed, “There are really only two movies in the history of American cinema – Gone With The Wind, and everything else!”  And while this reviewer could argue that there have been many fine films produced in the interim to challenge Gone With The Wind’s status quo as the greatest motion picture ever made, I would probably have to concur that none of its rivals has managed to topple the perennial love audiences continue to have for David O. Selznick’s glorious epic.
There’s just something hypnotic and compelling about this film, from its opening titles sweeping across in vivid Technicolor to Scarlett’s final affirmation to win Rhett Butler back someday, Gone With The Wind is the reason I fell in love with movies in the first place. And in my one hundred plus viewings of the movie I have yet to grow weary of its spellbinding magic, its quaintly fictional depiction of ‘cavaliers and cotton fields, of knights and their ladies fair’ or of Rhett’s caustic “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
It all seems to fit so neatly together, so perfectly realized with not a scene or a nuance to spare, that in hindsight it’s quite easy to forget Gone With The Wind came out of an atmosphere of blind chaos and great good luck. For its time it was a movie unlike any other, and since that time it had transcended mere celluloid to become a much beloved snapshot of two ancient flowers; the old south, and the more sadly missed studio system that once belonged exclusively to Hollywood. As such viewing Gone With The Wind today is like sharing reminiscences with an old friend; historically flawed and overly sentimental – perhaps – but ultimately nourishing to the soul.
Had author Margaret Mitchell known how influential and lasting her one contribution to American literature would become she might not have written it at all. Mitchell was a recluse who enjoyed her modest career as a writer on the Atlanta Journal. But a fall from a horse made her an invalid for some time, during which she became bored and wrote the first draft of a novel she never intended to publish. It was just something to keep her busy, keep the mind keen for words. And truth be told, even after the book became the number one seller in the land nobody in Hollywood much cared to transpose it to film.
Perhaps it was the period – civil war pictures were ‘box office poison’ then…or so it was widely believed. And the material itself was little more than a flawed romance between two people. Worse, the very un-happy ending in the book was completely at odds with Hollywood’s idea of the ‘happy ending’ audiences craved. No - it was just too, too risky. Gone With The Wind was too long to be successfully brought to the screen in under two hours. It had too many frank depictions of slavery that could so easily be misconstrued by the black press as Uncle Tomism reborn. To do justice to the novel meant a rewrite of the narrative conventions that Hollywood had perfected on celluloid. It was a disaster waiting to happen should any filmmaker be so bold to try.
But David O. Selznick was just such a mogul; brash and fastidious. Yet, even he wanted no part of Gone With The Wind…at first. Thankfully, Selznick had an acquisitions secretary – Kay Brown – who, like the rest of the country, had fallen under the novel’s spell. Clinching the deal for $50,000 (the most ever paid to an author in that time), Selznick set about unravelling the immersive headache that would become his Gone With The Wind.
To hedge his bets, Selznick only hired the best: screen dramatist Sidney Howard to adapt the novel; William Cameron Menzies for production design, Max Steiner to underscore the drama with his inimitable genius. He even bargained with his father-in-law, Louis B. Mayer for the loan out of MGM’s top male star – Clark Gable – after it was unanimously agreed that the public would accept no other as their Rhett Butler.  But there was one hurdle yet to overcome – finding an actress to ‘be’ Scarlett O’Hara. Hundreds of actresses tried in an endless barrage of screen test. None impressed Selznick.
Ah, but then came the dark horse to save the day – Vivien Leigh – a transplant from Great Britain, moved into a fashionable bungalow with her lover, Laurence Olivier who was, in fact, signed on with Selznick’s brother, Myron as his Hollywood agent. Her timing could not have been more perfect.
Sidney Howard’s screenplay kept the flavour of Margaret Mitchell’s novel without remaining literally faithful to it and that proved all the more successful as principle photography began. Selznick kept tight reigns on the production, though not its budget, spending lavishly to ensure that Gone With The Wind became a cinematic masterpiece to top all the rest that had gone before it. His unerring perfectionism is on display in virtually every scene.
But there was hell to pay along the road to Tara. Several weeks into the shoot, Selznick fired long-time friend and collaborator George Cukor, replacing him with director Victor Fleming, who would suffer a nervous breakdown midway through the lengthy shooting schedule. With mere weeks left in the schedule, Selznick was threatened with bankruptcy, and in order to meet the Atlanta world premiere he and his editor Hal Kern spent 23 hr. sessions in the editing room, chronically hopped up on Benzedrine to get the job done.   
Plot wise: Spoiled southern belle Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) is enamoured with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) – the son of a wealthier neighbouring plantation owner. Scarlett’s father, Gerald is unimpressed by his daughter’s choice in men. Moreover, he has been assured that Ashley will marry his cousin, Melanie Hamilton (Olivia De Havilland) by the end of summer, thus thwarting Scarlett’s infatuation once and for all.
At a party given at the Wilkes’ estate, Twelve Oaks, Scarlett meets Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), a playful scallywag who isn’t received by any descent family in Charleston – not even his own. After the ladies have retired to their boudoir, the men engage in a discussion about the possibility of a civil war.  Rhett encourages prudence and restraint; sentiments flying in the face of more garrulous gallantry, but firmly echoed by Ashley. War is declared and Ashley goes off to fight after marrying Melanie. To spite them both, Scarlett marries Melanie’s brother, Charles (Rand Brooks) who dies of fever shortly after the first battle.
Despite frequent admonishments from her housemaid, Mammie (Hattie McDaniel), Scarlett continues to defy the conventions of a widow. To comfort her daughter’s distress – and because she knows absolutely nothing about her passion for Ashley, Ellen O’Hara (Barbara O’Neill) sends Scarlett and a servant, Prissy (Butterfly McQueen) for an extended visit to the home of Melanie’s Aunt Pittypat (Laura Hope Crews) in Atlanta where Melanie is also staying, awaiting Ashley’s return.
At the Atlanta bazar Scarlet once again meets Rhett. His wily interests to possess her have not cooled.  After shocking the confederacy by asking a war widow to dance, Scarlett and Rhett develop a fair-weather friendship, mostly predicated on Rhett lavishing her with gifts. Scarlett, however, is still madly pining for Ashley and this creates monumental friction between her and Rhett. Eventually, Rhett becomes a frequent guest of Belle Watling (Ona Munson); an Atlanta madam who has come to admire the man as something more than just a paying customer.
On leave, Ashley breaks his silence and tells Scarlett that he loves her fiery passion, but that duty alone will never allow him to be unfaithful to Melanie. To ease her sexual frustrations – and quite simply pass the time while Ashley is away at war – Scarlett joins Melanie as a relief nurse at the hospital. But after a particularly gruesome amputation, performed without the benefit of chloroform, Scarlett declares that she has had enough of death and dying and vows to go back home to Tara.
Melanie has Ashley’s baby and Rhett suggests to Scarlett that she will never find true happiness if she chooses to wait in hope that Ashley will return to abandon them both for her. As the Yankee armies advance on Atlanta, the rebels torch the city forcing Rhett, Scarlett, Melanie, Prissy and the baby to flee by carriage through the burning streets. At the crossroads, Rhett informs Scarlett that he has decided to join the army, forcing Scarlett to make the journey back to Tara without him. She arrives to discover her mother dead from fever, the once vibrant fields and house ravaged by army deserters and her father hopelessly mad, lost in his memories of that gentile time before the war.
Vowing to live through this ordeal, Scarlett and her sisters, Sue Ellen (Evelyn Keyes) and Careen (Ann Rutherford) barely manage to keep body and soul together. Scarlett learns that Rhett has been imprisoned for blockade running and rushes off to the jail in the hopes of procuring badly needed funds necessary to save Tara. Instead, she decides to marry Sue Ellen’s beaux, Frank Kennedy (Carroll Nyes) after learning he has managed to establish himself as a moderately successful hardware salesman.  Lying to Frank that Sue Ellen has lost interest in him, Scarlett’s treason against her sister saves the farm. But her marriage is hardly a happy one.
After Scarlett is attacked while driving through a shanty town, Frank and Ashley resolve to uphold the gallantry of the old south by inflicting their own ‘southern’ justice on the rabble. In the conflict Frank is killed and Ashley severely wounded.  Only Rhett manages to save the day and shortly thereafter Scarlett reluctantly agrees to marry him. The two have a relatively peaceful honeymoon. Rhett lavishes every absurdity on his new wife, even building her an ostentatious new mansion in the heart of Atlanta. Still, Scarlett is not satisfied. She bears Rhett’s a daughter, Bonnie Blue (Cammie King), then quietly informs him that she will never sleep with him again.
More angry than distraught, Rhett turns to Belle Watling’s. But she sends him back to his wife with some heartfelt advice; that his life must be focused on raising his daughter. As the years pass Scarlett and Rhett grow apart, brought back together only after Bonnie develops homesickness while visiting London with her father.  Mammie is ecstatic to see them come home, and truth be told, Scarlett is also grateful for their return. But the years have dampened Rhett’s appreciation for his wife.
After Bonnie is killed in a horse riding accident, a distraught Rhett learns that Melanie is going to have another baby against her doctor’s advice. Throughout the story, Rhett has greatly admired Melanie, and, with her kindness recovers from his grief. But after Melanie dies from pregnancy complications Rhett witnesses Scarlett comforting Ashley and naturally assumes she will at long last ask him for a divorce.
Determined to beat Scarlett to the punch, Rhett goes home and packs. Although Scarlett has had a miraculous transference of her affections from Ashley to Rhett, his dreams of their life together are now truly dead. On the steps of their Atlanta mansion Scarlett vows to think of some way to reclaim her husband’s affections.
In lesser hands Gone With The Wind could so easily have degenerated into trite melodrama. But director Victor Fleming was not just any director. Nor, is GWTW just any story. The film is at once a magnificent tapestry interwoven by a committee of dedicated craftsmen in front of and behind the camera, and by a committee of one in the embodiment of producer David O. Selznick, whose tyrannical control over these vast resources brought cohesion from the chaos and artistry that transcends the artifice.
Without question, Gone With The Wind would not have endured without the ideal actress to play its heroine. Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett has become a cultural touchstone for the ages, the quintessence of that fiery, flawed and tragically human creature dismantling her own happiness while desperately in search of it. Matched to perfection by Gable’s Rhett Butler, an unrepentant paragon of manly grace, it is the sparring between these two central characters that jet propels GWTW through its lengthy three hour plus run time.  
But Selznick was not simply satisfied to give his public a central narrative with iconic stars, and as such, the character actors that populate Gone With The Wind’s backdrop are as integral to the film’s success as its principle leads. Who can forget Olivia De Havilland’s true spirit and ever faithful wife, or Leslie Howard’s complacently conflicted returning solider? These are portraits of quiet restraint and beauty etched in our collective memory for all time.
And then, of course, there is Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar worthy – and winning – turn as the defiantly human, compassionately clever house servant who is anything but subservient to her masters.  In all, Gone With The Wind excels because Sidney Howard’s screenplay offers each a moment to define their character for the ages, and this, they do without drawing attention to the fact.
With so much to admire and appreciate it really is no wonder Gone With The Wind endures as the world’s most beloved – and most profitable movie of all time (with inflation factored in). I suspect it’s the narrative audiences love best of all. Beyond the sheer size and elegance of the thing, Gone With the Wind is monumental storytelling at its finest. It complements the novel without being its direct descendent.
Indeed, there was quite enough of Margaret Mitchell’s literary south in the film to satisfy the author and literary purists then and now. But Selznick understood that Gone With The Wind was – beyond everything else that had, and has been written about it since, - a good show. He never cheated the audience of these expectations, but tweaked them to suit his own artistic sentiments and the convention of the times.
Perhaps this is the real reason why Gone With The Wind has lasted all these years: because it remains faithful to the human condition. Like life itself, the film is a renewable, revisited by each generation who continue to find something new and revitalizing in its artistry. It speaks to us. It always has. My sincerest hope is that it always will. For a world without Gone With The Wind is quite simply one I wouldn’t want to live in.     
Warner Home Video has remastered the film for its 70th Anniversary. The results are spectacular to say the least. This 1080p transfer sparkles, its vintage – fully restored – Technicolor dye transfer shimmering with a refinement of colours and textures.  We can, as example – recognize for the first time that the dress Scarlett makes from her mother’s old drapes is not simply green, but velvet as well. Fine details pop as never before. My one complaint – and it is an extremely minor one – is that some of the transfer seems a tad too dark.
Take the iconic moment when Scarlett approaches the weary dawn after returning home to Tara to declare she will ‘never go hungry again’. Her face is obliterated by the darkness. We can’t really see her acting at all. I am not entirely certain this is, as it was intended by the original film makers, but I can most certainly attest to the fact that this scene did not look this way on Warner’s previously issued DVD where Scarlett’s face, particularly her eyes, were very visible.
Otherwise, there’s no comparing the two transfers. The Blu-ray is preferred. The audio has been remixed to 5.1 DTS with extraordinary fidelity emerging in the Max Steiner score. We hear chords and refrains once thought lost through inferior recording technologies and lax preservation efforts. But no, it’s all there and marvellously restored for future generations.
Extras are top heavy indeed.  We get the superior ‘The Making of A Legend’ 2 hour documentary hosted by Christopher Plummer and an audio commentary that covers much of the same ground. There are also brief featurettes from 2004 like Melanie Remembers – in which Olivia De Havilland (the only surviving cast member) affectionately waxes about her participation on the film. We also get two ancient TV bios on Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable. Warner adds two additional documentaries not included on the original DVD collector’s set.
First up is 1939: Hollywood’s Greatest Year – hosted by Kenneth Branagh but scant on providing movie clips from film’s produced at other studios. There’s also Moviola: The Scarlett O’Hara Wars – a rather laughable dramatization with Tony Curtis as David Selznick in search of his perfect Scarlett O’Hara. Finally, Warner has included the 6 hour comprehensive documentary MGM: When The Lion Roars.
Warner also pads out this set with a CD sampler and some lovingly reproduced vintage junkets in full colour. These are scant on information and heavy on artwork, booklets good for a brief thumbing through but not much else. I would have preferred to read some literary essays by film scholars or perhaps had some thought-provoking reflections by admirers like Leonard Maltin or Roger Ebert. Oh well – can’t have everything.
Personally, I would like to go on record with a complaint that I consider most valid. None of the aforementioned extras are in a condition worthy of their content. The ‘MGM’ and ‘Making of’ docs look horrible, presented in 480i. This short shrift is most unacceptable. I think the approach Warner ought to have gone for is, if these extras are worthy of inclusion for a 70th anniversary (and believe me, they are) then they are equally worthy of an upgraded 1080p presentation.
Warner gets very high marks for the way they’ve remastered the film. I’ve heard internet grumblings that the presentation ought to have been spread across two Blu-ray discs split at the intermission to improve the overall bitrate. But truthfully, I can’t see where this compression has compromised the quality of the 1080p transfer. It’s dreamy and – at least to my eyes – flawless.
Bottom line: highly recommended.  
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Feature 4.5
Extras 2.5



1 comment:

ufacat said...

"Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett has become a cultural touchstone for the ages, the quintessence of that fiery, flawed and tragically human creature dismantling her own happiness while desperately in search of it. "
What a wonderfully articulate summation!