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 (1939), and everything else!” What does – or rather, can – one say about ‘the movie of movies? It is an ancient flower of two civilizations gone with the wind: the gallant old south and the Hollywood of yore that spawned this fictionalized account of it. We get all the robust flavor and flourish of a master showman on his own manic quest to discover the glories authoress, Margaret Mitchell had wrought. Once seen, David O. Selznick’s magnum opus is unlikely to fade from memory; its supreme characterizations, beginning with Vivien Leigh’s fiery southern belle, Scarlett O’Hara and Clark Gable’s, wily scallywag, Rhett Butler, capped off by Hattie McDaniel’s peerlessly empathetic, Mammie; the only black actress to win the coveted Best Supporting Actress Oscar for many decades to follow. In between these bookends we get the South…or rather, an implausibly romanticized facsimile of it; sumptuously bathed in the eye-popping hues of 3-strip Technicolor and as full-bodied as the last of Aunt Pittypat’s fine Madeira. Unlike that alcoholic elixir, Gone With The Wind has proven an enduring vintage, perennially revived on the big screen and TV, each new generation rediscovering its land of cavaliers and cotton fields in their own way.
It’s often been said time does strange things to movies…or perhaps, only our collective memories and interpretations of them. Over the years, critics have tried to distill and analyze Gone With The Wind’s greatness but to no avail; the totality of this ‘Wind’ generating more than a respectable breeze in the annals of film-making. Co-star, Ann Rutherford once declared, “I almost feel as if I hadn’t seen a movie before it, and that I haven’t seen one since.” It’s a fairly illuminating statement. For, Gone With The Wind has not aged one iota in these 75 years since its outrageously monumental premiere in Atlanta, arguably, for reasons that have absolutely nothing at all to do with all of its aforementioned ‘qualities’. Perhaps the film’s only genuine strength remains the culmination of its film-making poise; its ability to immerse the audience so completely in this alternate universe of moonlight and magnolia; southern comforts aplenty – tinged with strife, heartache and romantic pathos too. We simply cannot help but fall under its spell. Indeed, in my own meager 43 years on this planet, I have been exposed to cinema art of every genre and style; kept an open mind and equally as vacant heart, ready to embrace the rest with the same beloved intensity. But in as much time, Gone With The Wind has never left that hallowed place of admiration, to paraphrase darling Rhett, “…dare I say it? Can it be love?”
Yes, I confess it, willingly and without apologizing for it. I adore this movie. Even so I frequently hesitate to pop it into my Blu-ray player. For I know instinctively I cannot simply watch just one scene. So, I elect to start at the beginning, convincing myself I’ll be able to pause or stop the show after just a few short moments; just enough to get my fix. And then, alas, I realize I’ve come to the ‘intermission’ already and, glancing at the clock on the wall, decide ‘oh, what the hell?…might as well see the rest!’ And so it goes – having seen Gone With the Wind more than 100 plus times from beginning to end in one lifetime, I sheepishly concede to being perpetually hoodwinked by its’ glamour; its’ lusty performances, its’ regal Max Steiner score, and Ernest Haller and Ray Renehan’s cinematography; marveling at the peerless, Victor Fleming, reminded too, he is responsible for that other cinema titan from 1939 – The Wizard of Oz. Fair enough, neither film was shot in its entirety by Fleming. In the days of Hollywood old, it was common practice for in-house directors to share their responsibilities. And, true confessions; another of my personal fav’s – George Cukor – had his turn in GWTW’s director’s chair first.
But when all is said and done, it’s Fleming’s volatile energy, working behind the scenes with a non-compliant and frequently miserable Vivien Leigh (who adored and preferred Cukor to Fleming without a doubt) that we get up there on the screen; the tempo and mood of the piece far more in keeping with a typical Gable picture from the period than the conventional ‘woman’s weepie’. Even so, Gable wasn’t happy either; believing Walter Plunkett’s costuming made him look like the doorman at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel; upset too, the movie could never quite shape up to be ‘his kind’ of picture. Indeed, Gone With The Wind remains the only movie Gable ever made where he didn’t land the gal of his choice by the end. Nevertheless, Gable’s Rhett had his way with Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett, calling her out as the big cheat of men’s hearts she ultimately was and would always remain; unable to purge her influence from his blood – perhaps - but turning his back on her nonetheless with the perennially cheered “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Selznick was expressly banned from including ‘damn’ in the final cut by the Breen Office; the governing board of cinema censorship; fighting hammer and tong to have it remain, not as an oath or curse, but as an affirmation of the tenor in this tempestuous relationship. The censors relented – to a point – fining Selznick $5000 for keeping ‘that word’ in.
It’s difficult to assert whether the greatest movies of all time are born from chaos or harmony, although GWTW’s backstage milieu of gripes, groans and chronic indigestion seem to have kept the entire company on their toes, the momentum steady, if advancing at a snail’s pace; with a cantankerous Selznick (chronically bent of Benzedrine, no less) dictating endless memos to all concerned. Selznick, the brute – an opinion held for many decades afterward – the despicable potentate in search of some intangible perfection only he could clearly see after the dust, tears and conflict had settled on the back lot. GWTW is undeniably a producer’s movie; even the curmudgeonly Fleming – borrowed from MGM – mildly browbeaten into seeing things David’s way. And Fleming seems to have come around to Selznick’s thinking; whatever frustrations he endured taken out on Vivien Leigh, demanding her Scarlett O’Hara be the bitch so described by Margaret Mitchell, through fault and grievous deeds aplenty.
Lest we forget, Scarlett O’Hara is not a sympathetic character. Neither does Vivien Leigh play her as though she might have any such delusional afterthoughts to repent for her wicked ways. Even in the movie’s penultimate adieu, with Scarlett prostrated on the steps of her Atlanta mansion, rising to declare she’ll go home and figure out some way to reenter Rhett’s good graces “…because, after all – tomorrow is another day”, we sense the devious mind of that spoiled southern vixen at work again. She hasn’t changed and, arguably, never will – or perhaps, can. Yet, Vivien Leigh gives us something in her performance that is counterintuitive to the bitch; a lingering sense of sadness renewed, intermingled with flashes of hope and, of course, resolve; already making a promise to herself we absolutely know she damn well intends to break. Ah, me – this is Scarlett as written and then some…and yet, something more too. That ‘more’ unintentionally comes from Leigh’s impossible beauty; as flawless as a porcelain doll, stunningly framed in Walter Plunkett’s luscious costumes and vividly set in relief from Lyle R. Wheeler’s exemplary production design. Leigh gives us a terrible tease; heartless and utterly impure in her motives, and yet, tragic in all her misguidedness to excel by doing all the wrong things, though magnificently well.
In hindsight, there really was only one man for whom Scarlett could never be considered ‘too much’ woman and his name was Clark Gable. Although Selznick had briefly toyed with the likes of Errol Flynn and a few others, the public’s vote was unanimous for Gable, forcing Selznick to begrudgingly approach his father-in-law, Louis B. Mayer for Gable’s loan out from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. It was hardly a fair trade; Selznick getting Gable and a quarter of the money needed to shore up a production badly hemorrhaging funds; Mayer gaining distribution rights and the option for an outright purchase of the picture later on – after he had a cash-strapped Selznick over a barrel. The backroom politics by which such great art is conceived, and ultimately achieved, could not have been more intriguing. Co-star, Olivia de Havilland fought like hell with her boss, Jack L. Warner to play the part of the true heart, Melanie Hamilton-Wilkes; Warner still licking his wounds after Selznick had turned down his offer of a double loan out (Bette Davis and Errol Flynn, his two biggest stars) plus a money deal much sweeter than Metro’s. But only after de Havilland appealed to Warner’s wife, was Jack’s permission granted – and then, with even more hell to pay on the road back from Tara; de Havilland eventually suing Warner to get out of her indentured studio contract.
If Gable, Leigh and de Havilland seemed to be having a rough go of things, it was pittance compared to the reluctance Selznick faced from his black actors, nervous about returning to the roots of slavery. In particular, Butterfly McQueen, cast in the part of the dim-witted housemaid, Prissy, refused to play a scene with Vivien Leigh in which Scarlett beats Prissy for having disobeyed a direct order. Then director, George Cukor had asked Leigh to make the moment as real as possible; Leigh taking it to heart by violently striking her costar on the noggin with a clenched fist. It was more than McQueen could bear, walking off the set and standing her ground until the decision was made for Leigh to only pretend to raise her hands close to McQueen’s face and head. Selznick was, after all, deeply in tune with the mounting concerns being raised by the black press about the specter of Uncle Tom-ism rearing its ugly head. Already empathetic to the plight of Jews in Hitler’s Germany, Selznick could definitely relate to the racial prejudices depicted in the novel. To this end, all references to the Ku Klux Klan were omitted and the word ‘nigger’ changed to ‘simple-minded darkie’.
It could have all gone the other way for Selznick, the arduous journey from page to screen going through countless rewrites from a litany of famed authors, before Selznick settled on screen dramatist par excellence, Sidney Howard as the right man to write the screenplay. Howard worked long, but slowly; absolutely refusing to split his time between his beloved farm in Connecticut and Culver City, California. In the meantime, Selznick turned his attentions to construction of the various sets; historian, Wilbur Kurtz and production designer, William Cameron Menzies’ offering their input in tandem; staging an elaborate fire on Selznick International’s back lot to burn down existing outdoor facades and make room for the new plans. The torching would be photographed as the burning of Atlanta in the movie. However, as neither Rhett nor Scarlett had been cast, Selznick used a pair of stunt doubles for long shots of a carriage racing perilously in and out of these fire-ridden sets. In the midst of all this hellish confusion, Selznick received the greatest gift of surprise he could possibly ask for; his brother Myron introducing him to Vivien Leigh.
Selznick had, in fact, become embroiled in a nation-wide search for Scarlett; sending his assistant, Kay Brown on a train to interview any giddy young lass, already envisioning herself as a famous ingénue plucked from obscurity, and who would sit still long enough to be photographed. Part marketing PR and part legitimate search, the expensive tour had yielded no viable prospects; and neither had Selznick’s decision to screen test virtually every actress of stature in Hollywood; including Tallulah Bankhead (a sometimes ‘friend’ of Selznick’s partner, financier, Jock Whitney), and Paulette Goddard (Charlie Chaplin’s live-in) who almost had the part; except that something about Goddard kept bothering Selznick. Indeed, Vivien had been one of the hopefuls applying for the job – even recommended by a sole, observant young man from Wales in an opinion poll conducted by Variety; the showbiz Bible. Selznick had been coerced by Kay Brown into viewing a print of Leigh’s best effort on film to date, Fire Over England (1937), but couldn’t see the smoldering sensation of his disobedient belle beneath the Elizabethan collar and cuffs.
So, the search went on – and on – until that fateful eve when Myron and Leigh appeared and Scarlett – fully formed and full of the fiery disposition Margaret Mitchell had typified in her novel – suddenly appeared to assume the mantle of quality in the biggest southern spectacle to hit the screen since D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915). From the great advantage of viewing the completed movie, we can almost sincerely buy into Paulette Goddard as a viable – though hardly as good – alternative to Vivien Leigh. But others, whom Selznick willingly tested for the part, seem grotesquely inadequate. What could Selznick have been thinking; interviewing the likes of comedian, Zazu Pitts, glamor girl, Lucille Ball, MGM ingénue Lana Turner and, newly christened box office poison, Katharine Hepburn? It couldn’t have been Hollywood nepotism. For Selznick had zero compunction about telling any star off as propriety demanded.
Such was the altercation between Selznick and Bette Davis, who had already won an Oscar for playing a southern spitfire in William Wyler’s Jezebel (1936). Reportedly, Davis coaxed Selznick into a luncheon to convince him she could do the part; the conversation quickly shifting from customary pleasantries to ultimatums when Davis began to sense her persuasiveness was not winning any browning points with the producer. Finally, beside herself, Davis demanded to know why she could not play Scarlett, Selznick frustratingly turning to her and exclaiming, “…because I cannot imagine any man chasing after a woman for so long and ultimately winding up with you!”
Apocryphal story, ‘legitimate’ folklore or simply legend passed on into fact: who can say? The legacy of Gone With the Wind has obscured the details of its lengthy gestation; has made the fanciful seem more richly divine than even history itself; the darker side to this wind coming too soon for dramatist, Sidney Howard; killed in a shocking tractor accident on his farm just as principle photography was about to get underway. And the GWTW family would endure yet another heartache not long after the movie’s triumphant Atlanta premiere when costar, Leslie Howard (Britain’s most popular matinee idol and the film’s Ashley Wilkes) was killed while on a secret service mission for his country during the war. But before these losses came the success, far more overwhelming than even Selznick could have anticipated. Although, at the onset he had neither the time nor budget to produce the sort of epic his heart desired, Selznick mortgaged his company to the hilt, tapping Jock Whitney for even more money than the tycoon was willing to spare. But Selznick bitterly resented the ‘hand out’ from L.B. Mayer, for it came with too many strings attached.
But by then, Selznick was too heavily invested to care, and too bent over in his chronic addiction to prescription pills that kept him pumped full of vigor until the wee hours of the morning. Story editor, Val Lewton (who would later become RKO’s sultan of shudders, elevating B-grade horror to A-list art) had forewarned Selznick of his folly, calling GWTW “ponderous trash”; a snap assessment, hardly enlightened by Fleming’s participation on the project when he rather unceremoniously informed Selznick he didn’t have “any fucking script” either. Typical of Selznick, he trudged on; too wrapped up in the particulars to see the proverbial forest for the trees, or perhaps merely confident enough he was precisely the sort of lumberjack required to do all the necessary clear-cutting. “Selznick’s folly!” the pundits declared; gambling two to three million dollars on a single picture seemingly only leading to one conclusion, particularly in an era when even the more lavish A-pictures cost one third to produce.
And Selznick, apart from taking a quantum leap of faith, was also gambling on ‘the road show’; a queer anomaly in the history of movies then, with limited ‘first run’ bookings in only the major theaters, and, at advanced prices. Somewhere along the road to Tara it must have dawned on Selznick he was making not one, but two massive movies melded together. Gone With The Wind would therefore include an intermission, and, something else to captivate; the added luxury of shooting the whole ‘damn thing’ in newly inaugurated 3-strip Technicolor. Strange as it may seem today, there was a natural aversion to photographing in color back then; not the least because the cost nearly doubled. Apart from having to tolerate Technicolor’s reigning maven, Natalie Kalmus – a minor nightmare – Technicolor also amplified the inhospitable conditions on set, by adding several thousand kilowatts from huge arcs, generating massive amounts of light and heat (and this in an era before air-conditioning) to get those fully saturated hues to register just right.
No, Gone With The Wind would either be an event or a catastrophe. There was no middle ground on which Selznick could maintain his footing. But those who had underestimated him and were already quick to judge the as yet unseen movie were in for a shocker when the Pasadena sneak preview garnered overwhelming praise from the audience. In the history of sneak peeks there has never been a production as unanimously embraced as GWTW; audience reaction ranging from modest approval to giddy excitement; and this before Selznick had even had the opportunity to marry Max Steiner’s immortal ‘Tara’s theme’ and underscore to the final edit. The official Atlanta premiere demanded no less consideration, and under Selznick’s carefully orchestrated PR, opening night became the sort of wild-eyed celebration old timer’s still talk about and today’s audiences can only guess at.
Nearly 2 million people gathered in Atlanta to see cast and crew arrive in planes, chaperoned by the mayor in open-top convertibles down the overcrowded streets to the Loewe’s Grand, redressed to resemble the outer façade of the movie’s Twelve Oaks; the city’s newspaper devoting its entire edition to coverage of the weekend long round of cotillions and parties; Selznick insisting on the attendance of the usually modest and reclusive, Margaret Mitchell who ultimately summarized her praise for the movie thus: “There’s not a dry eye in the house…and I want to congratulate Mr. Selznick for standing his ground and having the courage to wait until he had the right cast…and I think you’ll agree with me, he absolutely had the right cast!”
It all seems to fit so neatly together now, so perfectly realized with not a scene or 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 has transcended mere celluloid to become a much beloved snapshot of two ancient flowers; the Old South, and the more sadly missed studio system once capable of giving us such lavish entertainments of sheer quality. 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.
Plot wise: Spoiled southern belle, Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) is enamored with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) – the son of a wealthier neighboring plantation owner. Scarlett’s father, Gerald (Thomas Mitchell) is unimpressed by his daughter’s choice in men. Moreover, he has been assured 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 quell her daughter’s morbidly selfish distress – and because she knows absolutely nothing about her passion for Ashley – Scarlett’s mother, Ellen (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 sexual interests have hardly 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. In the meantime, Scarlett is appalled to learn Rhett is a frequent guest of Belle Watling (Ona Munson); an Atlanta madam who has come to admire Rhett as something more than just another paying customer.
On leave, Ashley breaks his silence and tells Scarlett he loves her fiery passion. Alas, duty and honor 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 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 she will never find true happiness if she chooses to wait in hope 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 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 from 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 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) as he has managed to establish himself as a moderately successful hardware salesman. Lying to Frank about Sue Ellen having 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 this 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), but then quietly informs him there will be no more sex in their relationship, as the results have ruined her eighteen and a half inch waistline.
More angry than distraught, Rhett turns to Belle Watling for consolation. But Belle is no fool. She sends Rhett back to his wife with some heartfelt advice; that his life must now be focused on raising their 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. She is, after all, pregnant once more with Rhett’s baby. But their time apart has dampened Rhett’s appreciation for his wife. He is cold and aloof. Scarlett suffers a horrendous fall and loses the baby; a horror compounded when Bonnie is killed during a horse riding accident. A distraught Rhett locks himself in the nursery with Bonnie’s body, learning Melanie is going to have another child against her own doctor’s advice. Throughout the story, Rhett has greatly admired Melanie, and, with her kindness, he 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 begs for her husband’s forgiveness. “Rhett,” she declares, “If you leave, where shall I go? What shall I do?” to which he authoritatively replies, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!” Distraught and left to her arctic isolation, Scarlett tearfully recoils on the stairs, rising anew with the promise of ‘another day’, electing to go home to Tara, but vowing to think up some way to reclaim her husband’s affections.
In lesser hands Gone With The Wind could so easily have degenerated into trite melodrama. Indeed, the final declaration from Scarlett was strictly Selznick’s concoction; reaching beyond the novel’s finite farewell to offer his audience something more substantially hopeful in the wake of the looming conflict brewing overseas. Yet, GWTW has gone on and ahead of these precepts; a movie continuing to ripen with age as a heartwarming cultural touchstone for the modern ages – whatever the changes in the times themselves and audiences’ tastes. GWTW is a perennial. On Oscar night, the film took home a record nine Academy Awards; ten if one counts the Irving G. Thalberg bust bestowed on Selznick, in part for his incredible determination. Earlier in the evening, Master of Ceremonies Bob Hope had set the tone by quipping “I think it’s splendid like this, the Academy having a benefit for David Selznick.” Perhaps it came as no surprise to anyone Vivien Leigh should take home the Best Actress honors. How could she not? But the audience must have drawn a hushed sigh when it was announced Hattie McDaniel beat out Olivia de Havilland for the Best Supporting Actress statuette; McDaniel adding to her heartwarming dissertation, “this is one of the happiest moments of my life…for your kindness, it has made me feel very, very humble. And I shall always hold it as a beacon for whatever I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry…may I say thank you, and God bless you.”
“There was really a lot riding on it,” Kay Brown would reflect years later, “It took time. It really took time. And Mr. Selznick was not always the most patient man one worked for…but I remember Mr. Selznick crying. I cried. Margaret Mitchell too. We were just all so involved.” This level of investment proved exhaustive for all concerned. At one point, even the stalwart Victor Fleming left the shoot, citing a nervous breakdown; Selznick redoubling his efforts with another Metro loan out, director, Sam Woods, who stayed on even after Fleming came back to continue. In the end, GWTW was not Selznick’s folly, though it proved to be his undoing nonetheless. He had scaled the pinnacle of his profession despite the odds. But whatever endeavor he undertook afterward would never quite rival the public’s impossible expectations for another Gone With The Wind. To be sure there were some very fine – and equally as profitable – films made at Selznick International afterward; Rebecca (1940) and Since You Went Away (1944) among them.
But in 1946, Selznick made his first costly blunder; Duel in the Sun – a sprawling melodrama that attempted to do for the Hollywood western what Gone With The Wind had done for the southern epic. The film, spectacular on its own merits, was judged by the critics as a wan ghost flower and shabby attempt by Selznick to recapture the glories of GWTW. By 1949, barely a decade after those heady times had passed, Selznick was frustrated, broke and forced to sell off his interests in GWTW to Louis B. Mayer; some have since argued, restitution Mayer greedily reclaimed, partly as retribution for Selznick having divorced his daughter, Irene to marry actress, Jennifer Jones.
On June 22, 1965, David O. Selznick died of a coronary occlusion at the age of 65. Ironically, the biggest obstacle he had faced in his waning years as a producer was his own legacy. Unable to cast off the high-polished romanticism that had served him so consistently throughout the 1930s and early 40s, Selznick’s later films increasingly fell out of touch with audience expectations. In hindsight, Selznick seemed almost unable to comprehend how the world of movie-making had dramatically changed all around him while his attitude toward the movies had not…could not, and finally…did not. For David O. Selznick – his was a final act of looking back on these happier times, all too brief, but perhaps best summed up in a speech he delivered to eager young minds at the University of Rochester in 1940: “To you who feel the burning urge to influence the modes and manners, the social and political ideologies of the future through the medium of the motion picture, I say, here is a challenge. Here is a frontier that is and always will be crying for the courage and the energy and the initiative and the genius of American youth. Here is the Southwest Passage to fame and fortune and influence! Here is the El Dorado of the heart, the soul and the mind.” The man and the world that he occupied have passed…but his legacy, and Gone With The Wind in particular, lives on.
Perhaps the real reason why Gone With The Wind has lasted all these many years is because it remains faithful to the human condition. Like life itself, the film is a renewable; rediscovered and revisited by each new generation, who continue to find something fresh 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 would not want to live in.
Warner Home Video gives us Gone With The Wind on Blu-ray – again – repackaged for its 75th Anniversary. I’m not altogether certain such a tribute was necessary. Warner has padded out the extras with some fairly disposable swag. Regrettably, they have done absolutely nothing to correct the minor anomalies in the 70th Anniversary transfer, simply ported over with the same menus as before. I have to say, I think this 75th anniversary edition pales to its predecessor on several levels; the handsome red velvet box of yore traded in for this rather unappealing plain white box with ‘Oz’ green lettering – weird. I mean, Warner hasn’t even attempted to remain faithful to the emblematic poster art of the original film. Gone too are the reproductions of copies of archival correspondence and original program and art work that accompanied the 70th. Instead, we get a Rhett Butler white handkerchief and a gold-rimmed music box paperweight that tinkles Tara’s theme. Interestingly, Warner seems to have wisely downgraded the number of limited edition sets for this reissue. While the 70th was numbered at 150,000, this reissue only seems to have been given 62,700. The other superfluous extra is Forever Scarlett - The Immortal Style of Gone With the Wind: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow – a 40 page book bursting at the seams with gorgeous full-color photos and a gushing tribute by Austin Scarlett.
More about the transfer: it’s identical to the previously released 70th anniversary Blu-ray and mostly spectacular to say the least. This 1080p rendering sparkles, its’ vintage – fully restored – Technicolor dye shimmering with a refinement of colors and textures. We can, as example, recognize for the first time 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 in 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 this scene did not look this way on Warner’s previously issued DVD where Scarlett’s face, particularly her eyes, were very visible.
There’s also a pair of minor anomalies worth noting; a fleeting glimpse of edge enhancement in the matte painting long shot of the carriages arriving at Twelve Oaks, and a queer strobe effect as the letters spelling out ‘Gone With The Wind’ as they track from left to right across the screen during the opening credits. Forgivable? Hmmmm. It would have been prudent of Warner to go back and fix these two minor blemishes for this reissue. Alas, no. The audio has been remixed to 5.1 DTS with extraordinary fidelity emerging in the Max Steiner score. We hear chords and orchestral refrains once thought lost through the limitations of recording technologies back then and lax preservation efforts since. But it’s all there and marvelously restored for future generations to admire, Warner having cleaned up the subtle hiss and pop for an impeccably smooth aural experience.
Extras are all ported over from the 70th – save two new and all too brief featurettes: Old South/New South, a tangential, if impassioned critique of how films like GWTW inaccurately portray the South then, and how much has changed in the 150 years since the Civil War. Warner has also delved into the archives for 13 extra minutes of the Atlanta premiere. Aside: it would have been prudent to also have the entire Oscar broadcast, also the original screen tests included herein. As before, the very best supplements from the 70th anniversary make their reappearance herein. I want to pause here and say ‘bravo and thank you’ for this – particularly when other studios like Disney seem intent on lopping off previously available extras, simply to make their current reissues ‘different’ though hardly ‘better’ than what’s come before.
We get the superior ‘The Making of A Legend’: a 2 hour documentary hosted by Christopher Plummer and an audio commentary from Rudy Behlmer that basically covers the same ground. There are also brief featurettes from 2009 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, plus, 1939: Hollywood’s Greatest Year – hosted by Kenneth Branagh, a biography on that incredible year in film-making. Alas, it’s too scant on providing us with movie clips from films produced at other studios. There’s also Moviola: The Scarlett O’Hara Wars – a rather laughable dramatization with Tony Curtis playing David O. Selznick in search of his perfect Scarlett O’Hara. Finally, Warner has included the 6 hour comprehensive documentary MGM: When The Lion Roars.
I will go on record here with a complaint I consider extremely valid. MGM: When The Lion Roars is one of the greatest documentaries ever produced. Moreover, it is an intricate portrait of that bygone and fabled kingdom: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Unceremoniously dumping in on a flipper disc without the benefit of being properly remastered is rather shabby to say the least. I mean, part II is cut in half: Part II/part ‘A’ on side ‘A’ of this flipper, and Part II/part ‘B’ on side ‘B’. This is ridiculous! What? Warner couldn’t shell out for the extras six cents it would have cost to keep each episode of this monumental documentary separate on its own disc?!?! Dumb! Really dumb!!! Okay, I’m calm again.
Bottom line: we could have easily done without this reissued 75th anniversary. Particularly if you already own the 70th, there’s little here to get the juices flowing. Warner gets very high marks for the remastered film and including all of the aforementioned extras. But the film is already available in a nauseating spectrum of hi-def options. Perhaps for its 80th we’ll finally get GWTW properly spread across two Blu-rays – split at the intermission – and remastered in 8K with the aforementioned minor tweaks made to its transfer. If you already own GWTW on Blu-ray, my best advice is to skip this one entirely and wait in the hope of better things.
Bottom line: highly recommended only if you don’t already own the 70th anniversary.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)