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The original multitudes awed by the impact of Gone with the Wind are beginning to pass on now, leaving behind a younger population unaware of what a world-shaker the movie was when it premiered near Christmas of 1939. After orchestrating a three-year media frenzy, David O. Selznick surprised everyone by coming up with a major event that took traditional Hollywood filmmaking to its logical extreme. A million fans of Margaret Mitchell's wildly popular novel became instant fans of the film, which was shown in every country not yet overrun by Adolf Hitler. I'm reminded of Jean-Pierre Melville's 1970 movie Army of Shadows, which attests to the impact of GWTW. Melville's hard-bitten French underground agents take time out during a clandestine London visit to catch a matinee of the movie. The scene isn't unrealistic and it doesn't trivialize the French resistance. This particular movie was a big deal.
David Selznick certainly thought big with Gone with the Wind, which may be the first American Road Show epic of the sound era. Selznick was certainly trying to top D.W. Griffith's 1915 Birth of a Nation, then 25 years old and still considered an epic landmark. Selznick's gamble was probably bigger than that of the fifties' studios that risked all on Biblical Road Shows, using the new technology of giant screens and stereophonic sound. Selznick must have been an impossible personality -- the memos make him seem a megalomaniac -- but he had faith in his own taste and judgment. GWTW testifies to his greatness. Big pieces of the movie are genuinely grandiose and transcendently emotional, and even the film's unregenerate racial attitudes can't tarnish its essential worth.
Warners released an elaborate boxed set last fall, and followed it up with this single-disc, mostly extras-free Blu-ray edition, which is more than adequate for this reviewer. I was in Los Angeles when Ron Haver of the L.A. County Museum of Art gave a memorable in-depth presentation on the movie, and followed it up with an exhaustive making-of book. Thirty-five years later, this Blu-ray is the first presentation I've seen that fairly represents what Gone with the Wind looks like in a good Technicolor print, with rich, often dark colors and a contrast range that leaps off the screen.
The fashion with some today is to dismiss Gone with the Wind as racist trash, something that should be jettisoned as emblematic of an unenlightened past. If that rule were applied across the board we'd have very few classics left. Although the film expresses the racism of the antebellum South, it's blind to more progressive attitudes that existed in 1939. The racism is clearly there for more reasons than historical accuracy. Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara refer to darkies often enough to suggest the authors and Selznick like the sound of the word, and the movie's enthusiastic celebration of the murderous Klan isn't dulled by the fact that no white hoods appear. The general run of 30s literature had more than its share of screamingly hateful racist attitudes, but the movies usually dialed it down, at least to some degree. GWTW treats "Mammy" (the amazing Hattie McDaniel) with a troubling ambivalence. She's at first another source of comic relief but a source of powerful emotions later on, when the less well-structured second half of the movie relies on her to "explain" the grief in the Butler-O'Hara marriage. But the film still gives us the spectacle of sho 'nuff servants and a powerful but sexless Maciste-type "good" black (latest screen incarnation, The Blind Side). The bird-brained Prissy (Butterfly McQueen) is enormously entertaining -- what an original talent -- but not an image that modern black Americans will tolerate.
What can't be denied is that Gone with the Wind, or at least its first half, is wonderfully good storytelling on a grand scale. Scarlett O'Hara is a fascinating character, a willful spoiled brat who stubbornly endures a harrowing war experience. She's an original, tough character and certainly the equal of any man ... a brazen menace who steals the beaux of her sister and good friend, marries them out of selfish whim or practical connivance, and uses sex as a weapon without really understanding what it's all about until late in the game. I don't think American audiences had seen anything like Vivien Leigh before; it's a miraculous performance.
Scarlett is the equal of the marvelously virile Rhett Butler, a gentleman knave who claims to care only for himself yet shows an expected streak of nobility when his back's against the wall. Now that I've seen the majority of Clark Gable's performances, I'm impressed by how good he is as Butler, who does not really behave like Gable's other screen swains. The Savannah gunrunner shows the gravity and authority that Gable wouldn't display regularly until much later in his career.
Gone with the Wind is really a showcase for English acting talent. Four years into a fantastic "lucky break" acting career, Olivia de Havilland carries the emotional center of the movie. Her Melanie Hamilton character became so popular that audiences would later have difficulty accepting the actress in radically different roles. It's not just that Melanie provides an attractive contrast to Scarlett's selfish antics, but that she makes such a compelling case for Christian goodness. Melanie awes those around her (and us) with her benevolence and shows unyielding faith in Scarlett's good side no matter what crime her sister-in-law gets up to. Literally every character in the movie, including Rhett and the "tainted woman" Belle Watling (Ona Munson of The Shanghai Gesture) sets their moral compass by Melanie's temperament.
The only place where GWTW wears our patience is with the Ashley Wilkes character. The script and Leslie Howard's performance work so hard to make Ashley personify the Conscience and Honor of the South that he can't stand up as a fully realized character. Unlike Rhett, Scarlett and Melanie, Ashley faces hardship with resignation and regret, dragging himself from one scene to the next. Characters that don't demonstrate strength don't do well in epics. I don't know if Ashley makes more sense in the book, but I have a feeling that David O. Selznick saw himself as just such a romantic poet type. Female viewers in 1939 apparently swooned over Ashley, but face it, the guy's a pureblooded sap. Worse, he's more responsible for the story's main misery than anyone. Lacking the minimum of guts to tell the hussy Scarlett to scram when she throws herself at him, he allows our heroine's obsession to screw up everyone's life for the next ten years. They don't even have an affair, choosing instead to suffer like idiots.
Gone with the Wind's first half moves from strength to strength, building enormous momentum before the impending invasion of Atlanta. The introduction of characters is exceptionally good, as is the dialogue; Selznick's battery of writers communicate a ton of exposition with ease, giving us plenty of detail about life and customs in the ritzy rural South. Buster Keaton said that any successful movie about the Civil War had to champion the side of the South, if only because they eventually became the underdogs. And one has to admit that the avoidance of a responsible Northern viewpoint doesn't hurt the movie one bit. I'd for once like to see a show like this with a respected Northern character that says that the South's slavery-supported feudal barbarism needs to be blasted off the face of the Earth. But the fact is that many movies that give us Abe Lincoln vignettes are a crashing bore.
The second half of GWTW really ought to be the first part of its own six-hour picture, as it shows a serious strain of covering too much material too quickly. All the scenes are good, even if the quality of the dialogue drops precipitously in two or three of the many "connective" scenes: I wonder if these are the work of David O. himself, because almost all of his later Duel in the Sun plays in the same awkward fashion. The rushed Bonnie Butler baby business and Scarlett and Rhett's annoyingly out of sync love / hate relationship grow tiresome, so much so that this part of the film could be called Bad Timing, A Confederate Obsession.
Reading Haver's book also taught me a lot about what a technical achievement Gone with the Wind was. Technicolor before GWTW could be hit-and-miss, quality-wise, and perfecting the film's enormously expressive potential was clearly a major effort, not only by the Technicolor Corporation but by Selznick, who effectively bankrolled a lot of experimentation. Haver's book also made me cognizant of the contribution of designer William Cameron Menzies, whose work ties together a lot of disparate styles. Those giant, perspectivized split-rail fences mark Menzies' work from Kings Row to Invaders from Mars. Look at GWTW and you'll soon realize that most wide interior views use matte paintings to finish walls and add ceilings, sometimes when just building a ceiling would have been easier. The mattes are used because of the enormous levels of light needed to get an exposure onto Technicolor's three negatives; behind every one of those painted ceilings is a battery of klieg lights blasting down on the actors, who were surely frying like bacon in a pan. Determined to make most every wide view look as Margaret Mitchell had imagined it, Selznick commissioned dozens of complicated mattes for shots of carriages approaching Tara, etc. In the clarity of Blu-ray, look for some really iffy work in the battle aftermath scenes, where painted corpses look like something out of a comic book.
Gone with the Wind is an epic that knows that an epic is more than a cast of thousands. A modern remake would doubtless feel required to present the Battle of Gettysburg, if only because modern CGI now makes it possible. The movie has plenty of shots with large crowds but much of the War is suggested by poetic special effects, such as Menzies' impressive montages of retreating troops marching in silhouette through burning skies, etc. These scenes are a refinement of montage designs seen in Menzies' earlier Sci-Fi epic Things to Come. The effects are especially good when one compares them to the laughable "industry standard" miniatures representing Manderley in Selznick's own Rebecca made the next year. When it comes down to it, GWTW's most memorable visuals are relatively simple designs by William Cameron Menzies -- the animated zoom-backs from silhouetted trees that mark major chapters in Scarlett's life, and the blazing orange-red scene on the bridge where Rhett and Scarlett part company after fleeing Atlanta. Gone with the Wind's dramatic visuals amplify its unforgettable dramatic scenes.
Warner Home Video's 70th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray of Gone with the Wind lets those of us who don't need deluxe gift boxes enjoy a remarkably good version of the film, much better than previous DVDs and wa-ay beyond the quality of older laserdiscs and VHS tapes. Don't let people fool you -- up-rezzed DVD doesn't look as good as Blu-ray on a screen bigger than forty inches and even cable HD can't match it. I'm serious when I say that a dermatologist could do a study of the actors' skin health by watching these clear images, and the revelation of new hues and delicate textures in what was once visual mush really adds to the experience. If you haven't seen this one lately, a purchase or a rental is not a bad idea -- the picture is still a powerful emotional experience.
So much for the Blu-ray plug. I also need to say that Turner / Warner Home Video is doing marvelous work with the crown jewels of their library. GWTW is that rare picture for which, I'm told, vaults of original elements were stored, allowing knowledgeable restorationists to take the movie apart and re-composite both picture and audio if they wanted to. That's exactly what MGM did for a late 1960s widescreen reissue, achieved by cropping the movie to wide screen and blowing it up to 70mm with a stereo track. I saw this as a teenager and remember it being a grainy, dull mess. I wasn't aware of aspect ratios and formatting at the time but taking a horizontal slice out of the original's careful compositions must have looked like hell. I doubt we'll see any special extras reviewing that particular filmic disaster.
The nearly four-hour movie fits nicely on one Blu-ray disc, with full overture, entr'acte and exit music. Warners offer the original mono mix. Because the bulk of the extras were on a second disc in the fancier set, the only goodie present here is Rudy Behlmer's exhaustive commentary. He must have recorded it over a couple of days.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Gone with the Wind
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