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Gone With The Wind: Collector's Edition (1939)
Batten down the hatches: it's time for us to confront Gone With the Wind, the ultimate "chick flick". The movie is the most financially-successful picture ever; in figures adjusted for inflation, Wind's US gross surpasses one billion dollars. It also has many adherents who think it's the best film ever made as well. The American Film Institute almost agrees, as Wind winds up fourth on their list of the 100 greatest movies. This makes it difficult to view the flick without many prejudgments.
Actually, part of that job was already done for me, since I initially saw Wind more than a 15 years ago. I'd long resisted any urge to see the movie just because I couldn't imagine what pleasures it would hold for me, especially considering its extreme length. Almost four hours of melodramatic mush didn't sound too enticing.
However, when I was in college, I had a friend named Tara (really!) who adored the film. (Yes, I believe her parents named her after the movie’s house.) When the film played one night at the student union, I had nothing better to do so I finally consented to take in a showing.
To my surprise, I thought it was a pretty watchable movie. I can't say that it really boiled my potatoes, but it was much more entertaining and compelling than I'd expected. Sure, it went on too long, but it kept my interest for the most part.
Years down the road, I finally decided to see it again via its DVD release. Despite the success of my initial screening, I can't say I was too excited about this prospect. I kept a lingering memory of my enjoyable viewing from back in the Eighties, but not enough specific reasons for that attitude to make the idea truly exciting.
Once again, I found the film to be mildly pleasurable, though I can't say I fully appreciate its appeal. Wait - scratch that. I do think I know why this melodrama still wins so many hearts. It's pure soap opera from start to finish. We watch Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) toy with her many suitors as she pines for her one true love, Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard). However, Ashley cares for another woman, sickly-sweet do-gooder Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland), so she jumps on other beaus in pathetic attempts to provoke his jealousy. Not until she hooks up with manly-man Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) does Scarlett meet her match, but even then, she remains unhappy and longs for Ashley's bland charms.
All that and the Civil War, too! Clearly the audience for this flick is the same that goes after goopy tragedies, and I've never really understood their appeal. Maybe people just like to have a good cry now and then. Wind possesses more strengths than most of those, but it's still a melodrama at its heart, and a fairly shameless one at that.
At the risk of sounding sexist, I can't help but think that many women love this movie because it shows a flirty young babe who suffers and eventually gets her comeuppance. Without spoiling the plot, Wind ends somewhat ambiguously, but it doesn't conclude particularly happily. Scarlett pays for her sins.
Scarlett clearly has some positives, as she's a very determined and forceful woman who never gives up no matter how difficult the circumstances become. However, these are outweighed by the fact she's a whiny, nasty piece of work. She baldly uses men and even marries some suckers just to wheedle out them what she wants, whether money or status. She appears to possess absolutely no convictions whatsoever other than "Me, me, me" and she never displays any genuine regret for what she does. Sure, she's sorry by the end, but that seems more the result of her crummy situation than any sort of moral reckoning.
Leigh does a very good job in the role, as she nicely portrays Scarlett's journey from coquettish Southern belle to down-on-her-luck survivor and back again, but she can't make the character likable. Granted, I don't think anyone could, since Scarlett is such a bad person. However, I always felt as though we were supposed to care for Scarlett and worry about what happened to her. Not a chance - if anyone says they actually rooted for her success, they're lying, as we all wanted to see her get her just desserts.
Gable is strong as her opposite number. Rhett also seems like a jerk most of the time, but he's allowed a much greater degree of humanity than is Scarlett. Even when she has a daughter, Scarlett barely seems concerned with anything other than her own beauty, whereas Rhett fully gives his life over to his child. He also remains maddeningly in love with Scarlett, although she's too stupid to realize what a good thing she has. Gable portrays the different layers of the character adeptly and makes him more sympathetic than he probably should be.
As our two main supporting characters, Howard and de Havilland become sunk by the one-dimensional nature of their roles. De Havilland at least fights her way to bring some complexity to Melanie, though not much can rise to the surface in such a unilaterally good and pure personality. Melanie exists to show a contrast with the mercenary Scarlett, but the part goes too far and seems extremely unrealistic.
Howard is probably the worst thing about Wind, at least in regard to its main characters. For one, I never could figure out why this son of the South spoke with a British accent, but Gable doesn't exactly sound like he's from Kentucky either, so I'll leave that problem alone. Of greater concern is the utter lack of charisma he displays. This is a guy so hot that he has two babes vying for him, and dopey Scarlett hangs onto the dream of him until almost the bitter end.
Why? He's not particularly handsome, he doesn't seem very bright or personable, and he has the charisma of a dirty sponge. Part of the problem comes from the writing, as the script could at least have offered some reasons for his appeal, but a lot of the confusion stems from Howard's exceedingly bland performance. His work creates a severe weakness in the film from which it never really recovers, at least when we look at the Ashley/Scarlett/Melanie triangle.
Although these flaws should have been obvious at the time of the film's release, some others appear that seem evident mainly to changing attitudes. I was rather startled to see the degree to which Wind glorified the Old South, and it didn't just praise the mint juleps. We're led to see the plantation lifestyle of gentility and elegance as the ultimate in living, until those dirty, thieving northerners came along and ruined it all.
I'm surprised the movie doesn't generate more attention for its backwards politics. Some condemn films like Birth of a Nation for their racism. You don't hear much of that talk about Wind even though it clearly espouses very anti-black and "status quo" viewpoints. The film presents the attitude that everyone was happy and all was well in the south under the slave system until emancipation ruined it all.
While I'm sure the Civil War did strongly alter the normal course of events for rich white people in the south, I'm not of the opinion this was a bad thing. In fact, I think it's pretty good. Sure, troubles existed for a while due to the upheaval, but that's inevitable; progress doesn't always come smoothly and without commotion. Never does the tone of Wind indicate that the changes were anything other than negative, though, and I find that attitude distasteful to say the least.
Obviously the portrayals of black characters aren't exactly positive either, though at least Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) musters some respect from her own strength. Many will be put off by the typical "yassum" and "massa" dialect of the black participants, but I won't strongly slam that, as it seems historically accurate. After all, it's not as if actual slaves in the 1860s spoke the Queen's English with perfect diction. The most unfortunate aspect of the portrayals stems from the fact these kinds of roles were all that was available for black actors of the day, but that doesn't make the work itself especially egregious, though Butterfly McQueen's shrieking really goes over the top.
If you can get past the backward politics of Gone With the Wind, you'll find it to be a more enjoyable picture. Of course, if you could get past the fascism of the Nazis, I'm sure you'd have found Germany in the 1930s to be a pleasant place to live. Perhaps it's unfair of me to place the attitudes of Wind in that same category, but I must acknowledge that I disliked the reactionary position it presents.
The attitudes don't ruin the movie, however, as they largely stay to the background. After all, Wind is mainly a sudsy melodrama about young people in love. The Civil War backdrop exists largely to give the plot a reason to make Scarlett sink to the depths of despair. I respect the art of Wind, as it's a solidly-made film that manages to remain fairly entertaining over nearly four hours, which is no mean feat. However, that doesn't mean I have to like it, and between the racial attitudes and the annoying characters, it becomes a less-than-scintillating experience.
The DVD Grades: Picture A/ Audio B+/ Bonus A+
Gone With the Wind appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on these single-sided, double-layered DVDs; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Though not without some very minor issues, the visuals of Wind looked radically superior to anything we’d expect from the 65-year-old movie.
Sharpness generally looked accurate and concise, with only a few scenes that showed some mild softness. Most of the film seemed quite precise and well-defined. A little lack of delineation occasionally interfered with a few shots, but not with any consistency. I noticed the slightest of moiré effects on a few occasions, but these were largely inconsequential, and I saw no signs of jagged edges.
The print itself appeared miraculously clean for such an old movie. Light grain could be seen at times but that was it. The quality of the print would seem fine for a recent movie, but for an elderly flick to look so fresh and free of faults seemed amazing.
For the most part, hues seemed wonderfully bold and brilliant. The colors of Wind were frequently a serious treat for the eyes as they virtually leapt off the screen. The movie offered a very broad palette and the film displayed these with stunning clarity and vividness. Black levels seemed terrifically deep and rich. Shadow detail looked clear and appropriately opaque. Gone With the Wind isn't the best-looking DVD I own, but it certainly looked fantastic, with or without consideration of its extremely advanced age.
Not as strong but still relatively positive was the film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. Gone With the Wind came from a mix that was originally monaural, and though the new version livened up the action a bit, the sound designers didn't try to reinvent the wheel. The new track remained largely stuck to the center channel, and significant portions of it didn't differ from the mono mix in the least.
I was able to gauge that last fact because this DVD also included the original mono track, and I occasionally flipped between the two, although I listed to the 5.1 mix for the vast majority of the movie. It seemed as though very few parts of the track strayed far beyond the center speaker. At times the score branched out to the sides, and a few of the showier action scenes - such as attacks on Atlanta - featured moderate effects that also move to the surrounds. However, for the most part, this remained a monaural track. The ambition on the part of the sound designers was quite modest, and appropriately so, since an old film like this wouldn't hold up to intense remixing.
Quality seemed similar for both, though the 5.1 track displayed greater depth at times. Again, a lot of it sounded identical, but it's clear that the 5.1 mix showed more range, especially during the scenes that departed from the center channel. The explosions benefited the most from the added range, as they even sparked the subwoofer mildly on a few occasions, but some portions of the score also seemed cleaner on the remix.
Dialogue sounded clear and relatively natural on both tracks. Effects displayed some slight distortion during their louder moments but they generally seemed acceptably precise. Music featured the same moderately restricted range heard in the other components - and very typical of films from this era - but it came across as adequately smooth and listenable. Not for one second will you mistake the soundtrack of Gone With the Wind for one found on a more recent film, but it worked pretty well for the material and held up nicely under most scrutiny.
So how did the picture and sound of this new 2004 release compare to those of the original 1998 DVD? The audio appeared identical. I believe that both used similar 5.1 mixes, as I noticed little that differentiated the sound between the two discs. The new audio appeared a bit bolder and better defined, but the old one was fine for a movie of this vintage. I gave this track a B+ compared to the B of the previous one, as they sounded a lot alike. (Indeed, my comments for both are identical; I felt the new track sported a little more oomph but the remarks worked for the pair.)
On the other hand, the visuals of the special edition clearly improved upon those of the prior release. The new disc presented few concerns, while the old edition suffered from lots of edge enhancement and generally messy appearance. The 2004 mastering blows away the previous version.
Another area in which the 2004 special edition clearly trounces the original relates to supplements. On discs one and two, we find an audio commentary from film historian Rudy Behlmer. A frequent contributor to DVDs of this sort, Behlmer also appeared on discs such as The Adventures of Robin Hood and Casablanca.
Since Behlmer invariably provides useful, lively commentaries, I looked forward to his discussion of Wind. He starts with the score and how Max Steiner landed the gig and then goes through the opening credits, the history behind the tale, the creation of the book and changes from novel to screen, biographical notes about the main participants, a mix of controversies such as production difficulties, firing the original director and hiring a new one, and reshoots, sets and locations, production design and cinematic elements, cut sequences, the film’s reception, Margaret Mitchell’s lack of participation in the flick, and its legacy.
Whew! That’s a packed agenda, and Behlmer handles it all well. Inevitably, some dead air occurs, but not much given the extreme length of the film. At times I think Behlmer concentrates a little too heavily on biographical sketches of the participants, as I’d prefer some additional notes about the movie’s creation itself. Nonetheless, this doesn’t cause any real problems, and Behlmer cranks through the subjects well. It’s yet another informative and entertaining discussion.
Wind includes two full discs of supplements. On DVD Three, we open with The Making of a Legend: Gone with the Wind. This documentary runs two hours, three minutes and 18 seconds. It presents the expected mix of movie clips, archival materials, and interviews. In the latter category, we hear from Selznick executive assistant Marcella Rabwin, Eastern Story editor Katherine Brown, original director George Cukor (in 1968), Selznick secretary Silvia Schulman Lardner, associate film editor James Newcom, camera operator Arthur Arling, extra Johnny Albright, assistant director Arthur Fellows, production manager Ray Klune, assistant cameraman Harry Wolf, preview audience member William Ericson, Vivien Leigh’s secretary/friend Sunny Lash, and actors Butterfly McQueen, Ann Rutherford and Evelyn Keyes. We also find old recordings from Clark Gable, editor Hal Kern and writer Ben Hecht plus quotes from historical memos and recreated comments by folks like author Margaret Mitchell, producer David O. Selznick, and screenwriter Sidney Howard.
Legend starts with notes about the career of producer Selznick and then continues through a look at the life of author Mitchell and the writing of the novel. We find out how Selznick acquired the property and its move to production. We romp through the adaptation of the novel, casting and the mania about the search for Scarlett, the film’s look, visual and practical effects, costume design, issues connected to the actors and their approaches to the roles, Cukor’s departure and the hiring of Victor Fleming, rewrites, general production notes, various controversies and problems, editing and post-production, audience previews, the score, concerns with the production code, the Atlanta premiere, its success financially and at the Oscars, and its legacy.
Inevitably, some of Legend repeats information provided by Behlmer. However, it manages to take on a lot of different sides to the issues, and we learn quite a lot from it. Perhaps because his son L. Jeffrey produced it, Legend largely follows Selznick’s point of view, but that doesn’t make it myopic. Indeed, it covers the film’s creation in a broad manner that makes it very engaging. It pulls few punches as it lets us know all the problems that occurred before, during and after production.
Along the way, the archival materials really flesh things out well. The plethora of screen tests come as a terrific addition, especially when we see how close Paulette Goddard came to acquiring the role as Scarlett. Other historical elements add bite as well. The program adopts some really cheesy gimmicks such as silly recreations that put now-elderly participants in various period situations. Despite those goofy moments, however, Legend presents a detailed and consistently engrossing look at the flick.
For a look at bringing the movie up to snuff, we go to a featurette called Restoring a Legend. It fills 17 minutes and 40 seconds as we hear from Warner Bros. senior VP of Production Technologies Rob Hummel, cameraman Richard Edlund, WB telecine colorist Janet Wilson, WB VP of mastering Ned Price, restoration and remastering engineer James Young, and WB chief technology officer Chris Cookson. After a quick discussion of Technicolor, we learn of the various challenges caused by the material and find out what steps were taken to spiff up the flick. As with most programs of this sort, it often comes across as self-congratulatory; we get a lot of notes about how amazing the work was. Nonetheless, it can be interesting to see the obstacles and the ways they were overcome.
Next we see two Newsreels. Dixie Hails Gone With the Wind runs four minutes and shows elements of the December 1939 Atlanta premiere. A fair amount of it shows up in Legend, but it’s good to get the complete clip. The three-minute and 40-second Atlanta Civil War Centennial follows the 1961 celebration that included a reunion of the surviving main participants from Wind. Unfortunately, it presents no narration or other speech, but it offers a decent visual record of the occasion.
The Prologue from International Release goes for 75 seconds. It shows a text scroll that preceded non-US screenings of Wind to explain the Civil War. It’s another cool archival tidbit.
A staple of animated features, the Foreign Language Sample Scenes lets us see parts of Wind in various tongues. This segment shows three different scenes. We see the first in French, the second in Italian, and the third in German. Don’t expect anything exceptional, but it creates some fun.
To prepare audiences for the historical side of Wind, MGM produced a short called The Old South. It takes 11 minutes and 18 seconds to detail the impact of cotton on the southern economy and society. Directed by Fred Zinnemann - who’d later helm a couple of his own film classics - it doesn’t exactly vilify the slave-loving ways of the Old South, but it offers a tight and generally interesting artifact.
Inside the Trailer Gallery, we find five ads. We get a 1939 announcement trailer that serves the same purpose as many modern teasers: it creates awareness but doesn’t show any actual film snippets. There’s also a 1961 Civil War Centennial, the film’s first non-teaser, as well as the 1967 70mm widescreen version, the 1968 reissue, and the 1989 50th anniversary release. These create a good collection.
Finally, DVD Three presents an Awards section. This simply gives us a text listing of some honors taken home by the film.
As we shift to DVD Four, we begin with Melanie Remembers: Reflections by Olivia de Havilland. This presents 38 minutes and 40 seconds of comments from de Havilland, the sole surviving main cast member of Wind. Shot in 2004, she discusses why she liked the role of Melanie and how she got it, character choices and Melanie’s look, shooting the film, her co-stars, the change in directors, the premiere, and the 1961 reunion. De Havilland remains animated and engaging. Anecdotal in nature, the comments seem somewhat sugarcoated, but de Havilland nonetheless presents a good view of her perspective during this informative remembrance.
The next two pieces look at the film’s leads. Gable: The King Remembered lasts 65 minutes and uses the standard format for a piece of this sort. Created in the mid-Seventies and hosted by Peter Lawford, we get interview clips from actors Andy Devine, Yvonne DeCarlo, reporter/friend Adela Rogers St. Johns, and director William Wellman. We get a look at his film persona and then go back to his childhood and early development. We see how he got into acting, personal relationships, and professional growth and important roles.
King jumps from standard, narrated biography to sit-down interviews with the folks mentioned above. The program will bring in a subject for one segment and that’s it; the different people don’t pop up throughout the show, unlike a typical biography. This makes the flow of King disjointed. For example, we jump from basic biographical issues to Devine’s memories, and the two don’t neatly connect. Some stronger editing would have helped the show prosper.
While I didn’t like the construction, King merits a look due to some interesting remarks from the participants. Wellman and St. Johns prove especially intriguing. They pull few punches and give us surprisingly blunt appraisals of Gable. Devine and DeCarlo add some neat tidbits, but they don’t fare quite as well. King ends up as a frustrating program but one with some very good moments.
After this comes the 46-minute Vivien Leigh: Scarlett and Beyond. Hosted by Jessica Lange, it includes remarks from writer Garson Kanin, producer/director Stanley Kramer, actors Claire Bloom, Sir John Gielgud, Rachel Kempson, Kim Hunter, Elizabeth Ashley, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and journalist Radie Harris. Beyond follows the expected path for this sort of show. We learn of Leigh’s youth, her early career, her development as an actor and her relationships. The show progresses through the various areas succinctly, if without much flair. We get lots of shots from Leigh’s films, and those help flesh out the piece. It’s not a sizzling documentary, but it covers the requisite material in a decent fashion.
For brief featurettes about The Supporting Players, we head to that section. This area includes short programs for Thomas Mitchell (two minutes, 40 seconds), Barbara O’Neill (1:15), Evelyn Keyes (0:59), Ann Rutherford (1:17), Hattie McDaniel (2:59), Oscar Polk (0:52), Butterfly McQueen (2:07), Leslie Howard (5:24), Rand Brooks (1:09), Carroll Nye (1:36), Laura Hope Crews (1:27), Eddie Anderson (1:37), Harry Davenport (1:33), Jane Darwell (1:13), Ona Munson (1:31), and Cammie King (0:52). It’s a shame that Howard gets relegated to this category since he really acts as one of the four leads. Nonetheless, these shorts offer quick but useful glimpses of the actors’ careers.
Exit presents a quick valedictory note. The 43-second clip simply reminds us of the movie’s legacy. Incongruously, DVD Four concludes with a preview for the theatrical release of The Polar Express.
Lastly, Wind includes a nice booklet. This 20-page document reproduces the film’s original program. It’s a thoughtful and fun addition to the set.
Due to its status as a classic - perhaps even the classic - it's hard not to recommend Gone With the Wind, as I believe everyone should see it at least once. You can't consider yourself a literate film fan if you've never taken in this blockbuster. However, I think it's too flawed a movie to merit more than a screening or two. It's generally entertaining and moves well for a nearly four-hour program, but many of the characters are problematic and the attitudes dated and offensive. The DVD offers fantastic picture with solid audio and a terrific set of supplements.
Usually with reissued DVDs, I have to offer two recommendations: one for people who don’t own the movie already, and another for those who currently possess a copy. In this case, my advice is the same: buy the Collector’s Edition of Gone With the Wind. It feels odd to push a blind buy on anyone who’s not seen the flick, but given the movie’s stature, it’s a must-see piece, and this DVD is an amazing. It offers a great way to check out Wind.
For those with the old disc, turn it into a coaster, play Frisbee with it, or pawn it off on some sucker you’ll definitely never want to actually watch it again. The abundance of excellent supplements will please fans with an interest in the movie’s backstory, but the greatly improved picture quality will entice even those who couldn’t care less about extras. The new DVD’s visuals greatly improve upon the messy image of the old disc and make this version well worth a double dip. The Wind Collector’s Edition is arguably the best catalog release DVD ever go get it!