Warner Bros. // 1939 // 238 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // November 30th, 2009
Frankly, my dear, you'll really give a damn about this amazing box set.
It's part of the pantheon of "must see" movies, those titles which supposedly represent the pinnacle of motion picture classicism. You know the drill -- all-time "greats" like Casablanca, Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz, and The Maltese Falcon, just to name a few. You are supposed to recognize their old school Hollywood brilliance, bow down to their acknowledged entertainment majesty, and forgive anything that seems dated, clichéd, or formulaic. Of course, in most cases, the "legendary" label is apt. You can't deny the candy-colored joys of Dorothy's journey to the Emerald City, or how the story of a newspaper magnate and his uncontrolled hubris helped forge the deep focus reinvention of the cinematic language.
Still, some of these revered efforts do have issues that need addressing, problems with the make-up and their material that no amount of misty-eyed absolution can compensate for. Birth of a Nation is one of these controversial choices, its overt racism clouding any originality director D.W. Griffith brought to the fledgling medium. Some say Gone with the Wind suffers the same myopic mannerisms. Luckily, this new 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition is here to change that perception. Oh sure, you can't argue with the awful ways Margaret Mitchell and her Tinseltown co-conspirators glamorize the pre-Civil War South, including numerous mentions of "the darkies." But if you look beyond that overall minor element in the film's nearly four hour narrative, you'll find a tragedy worthy of the ancient Greeks, and acting unsurpassed, even by today's post-Method standards.
Scarlett O'Hara (Vivian Leigh, A Streetcar Named Desire) is the spoiled brat daughter of Irish immigrant plantation owner Gerald and his distant wife Ellen. Long in love with neighboring well-to-do Georgian Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard, Of Human Bondage), the belle is devastated when she learns the man she adores plans on marrying another. Even though Melanie Hamilton (Olivia De Havilland, The Snake Pit) is salt of the Earth, Scarlett is convinced Ashley can still be hers. Rejected, she runs off and marries the first man who asks -- Melanie's brother Charles (Rand Brooks). Suddenly, the Civil War starts, putting everyone in peril. It is also at this time Scarlett meets the man who is destined to wander in and out of her life for the next few years -- Charleston dandy and all around he-man gadfly, Rhett Butler (Clark Gable, It Happened One Night). The battles both personal and sovereign begin, and Scarlett is soon a widow.
When Sherman finally reaches Atlanta, the O'Haras and Hamiltons must find a means of escape. Naturally, Capt. Butler finds a way of saving them. Returning to her home plantation, Tara, Scarlett discovers her mother dead and her father demented. Determined to "never be hungry again," she woos the interloping carpetbaggers who come to Georgia after the war, while taking up with older man Frank Kennedy (who just so happens to be one of her sister's beaus). When he dies in a skirmish with "the Yankees," Scarlett becomes a rich widow -- and an even wealthier business owner. Of course, Butler has never gotten over the wily little vixen. They soon marry and even have a child -- a young daughter named Bonnie Blue. But as Butler dotes on his offspring, Scarlett is still pining for Ashley. It's an obsession that will lead her down a path of personal ruin.
Let's get the initial questions out of the way right up front. Is Gone with the Wind still a great movie? You bet your sweet Southern belle it is. Does it still hold up even after seven decades of cinematic sophistication? Yes, indeed. Is the new box set a treasure trove of intriguing information, from the exhausting casting and preproduction process to the onset spats and post-release reactions? And HOW! If you don't already own this considered motion picture Mona Lisa, the latest red velvet covered collection will do quite nicely, thank you. It's so jam packed with added content you'll feel like you're getting several films in one package (and in a couple of cases, you are). If you already own a DVD version of the film, perhaps the better bet would be to run out and upgrade to the also available Blu-ray package. While the standard digital presentation is almost flawless, the HD remaster is simply amazing. It's not a significant difference (unless you own a 1080p TV) and the new bonus features make either presentation a necessary film fan purchase.
Of course, you may still be asking yourself, what makes Gone with the Wind endure? Certainly, it can't be its love of plantation life and all things slavery. True, that material is a little tough to tolerate, even within its era-appropriate considerations. In fact, we've spent so many decades deprogramming ourselves from even contemplating the validity of the pre-struggle South that watching a movie that initially celebrates it seems like a slap in the face. Luckily, Lincoln opens up a 1860s can of whoop ass on General Lee, and it's not long before all the denizens of Tara and Twelve Oaks are running for their people-as-chattel lives. Indeed, the slightly hilarious defilement of Atlanta (with its slobbering Yankees and equally reprobate looters) provides enough of a moral payback to excuse most of the "Mammy-Pappy" malarkey. Even when Butterfly McQueen, Hattie McDaniel, and Oscar Polk come back to the main storyline, they are less Stephen Foster fodder and more fully realized characters. In fact, the last half of the film is so sobering and shocking it makes the effervescent opening and subsequent spectacle seem all the more arch.
No, the real reason we love Gone with the Wind to this very day is the amazing performances given by our three main leads. Forget Mr. Howard -- he is so wussed out and whiny that you'd mistake him for a Twilight fan, and the rest of Scarlett's male suitors provide the requisite plotpoint particulars before departing the planet (always off-camera). For all its visual flash and paintbox optics, Gone with the Wind is really a character study, a flamboyant, over the top look at the lives of three decidedly different individuals. Sure, we get the burning of Atlanta and a morbid tableau of endless Confederacy wounded. Certainly, life at both ends of the Southern social ladder is depicted by Victor Fleming (among others) in various stages of spectacle. But when he first stumbled upon the book, producer David O. Selsnick was obsessed with finding the right actors for the iconic roles. Perhaps that's why the casting turned into a literal free-for-all that saw many Tinseltown luminaries (Errol Flynn, Bette Davis) trying to take up residence on the studio's backlot.
Selznick somehow stumbled upon British unknown Vivian Leigh (amidst a who's who of available superstar talent) and the perfect tour de force was unleashed. Everything about the actress's portrayal is dead-on: Scarlett's conniving juvenilia; her unwilling stubbornness; her passion and drive; her flitty sexuality and untethered heart; the fiery jealousy and inherent weakness; the hubris that makes her think she can succeed at all costs; the blindness to unwittingly destroy the innocent; and the balls to break the strong. When she points a pistol at a Yankee soldier, determined to defend her birthright, you just know the man is getting a face full of lead. That it barely fazes her speaks volumes for what Leigh brings to Scarlett. Without a deft touch, the character would be hateful. The Oscar winner makes her truly epic.
The same goes with Gable. He is locked into a role as sideline to Scarlett, given a last act trifecta of moments to finally shine. But when he's standing there, moustache speaking volumes and squint substituting for libido, we can feel the sexual chemistry boiling in the broad shouldered hunk. Gable was only 37 when he took the role of Butler, but he comes across as a man more worldly-wise and school-of-hard-knocks-educated than individuals twice his age. When he tries to talk down the Southern "gentlemen" who are fired up to defend the honor of the South against Lincoln, you can see his smug resolve in every syllable. Similarly, when defending the madam who has helped both him and various Atlanta causes from behind the shadows of social scandal, you will never see a more fierce protector. Granted, he gets his blubbery bow when disaster hits a little too close to home, but for the most part, Gable's Butler is the cocksure calm within a halting historic maelstrom.
But perhaps the most underrated turn belongs to Olivia De Havilland as the Christ-like angel Melanie -- a woman Capt. Butler refers to as the only genuinely nice person he ever met. Again, Howard's Ashley is so weepy we hardly see what Scarlett wants with him, we get the connection between the wimp and his wondrous wife. She's non-judgmental (at least, not outwardly), finds the good in almost everyone, and even when she fails to fully disclose someone's better nature, she inherently realizes why they are hiding behind such vile hatefulness. Some have found her openly naïve (she never seems to "get" that Ashley and Scarlett are smitten with each other) and generous to a fault, but when she helps Scarlett dispose of a recently deceased intruder, you can tell the goody-goody act is covering up for a much stronger, much braver soul.
Together, this talented trio takes Gone with the Wind through its most unusual narrative structure. Indeed, this may be the first film that plays like its set-up and sequel all in one. Both stories are jumpstarted by Scarlett throwing herself at -- and being resoundingly rejected by -- Ashley. In the first half, she suffers through the Hells of war. Men dying. Brutal surgery and rampant disease. The destruction of her family and home. The loss of her social identity and heritage. The second part is more of a battle for individual valor. Scarlett gets rich, continues to ruin lives, and becomes a scandal. Her new husbands hand her money and prominence, but the unrequited love she feels for Ashley is destined to destroy her. She just can't help it. It's her nature...the core of her being...her fatal flaw. This is why Gone with the Wind is so much like a work by Aeschylus. Heck, even during those moments when Leigh and Gable conversationally spar like players in a screwball comedy, we think more of Shakespeare than Hawkes or Capra.
Of course, no old fashioned film exists in a vacuum. For as long as there have been fans (and apologists) for Gone With the Wind, there's been scholarship and discussion in abundance. Part of the value in this new limited edition DVD set is the ability to revisit and analyze the various elements of the film. First and foremost is the new image -- pristine and potent, the pictures almost leaping off the screen. Some may balk at the original 1.33:1 full screen treatment given to the transfer, but that was the 1939 original aspect ratio (OAR), so you'll have to learn to live with it. As colorful and clear as it is, there should be little to complain about. The sound also suffers from ancient recording technology tenets. Still, the Dolby Digital 5.1 update sounds excellent and the original Mono is equally spiffed up. Because of its length and the attention to video detail, Gone with the Wind itself takes up Discs 1 and 2. The remaining three provide the bonus content.
The commentary track from historian Rudy Behlmer is verloaded with trivia and intimate detail; slightly dry, but definitely worth checking out. Disc 3 discusses "The Movie," and offers the wonderful 1988 documentary The Making of a Legend: Gone with the Wind. Narrated by Christopher Plummer, it's one of the best behind-the-scenes exposés ever. We then get a look at the restoration process, a peek at both the 1939 and 1961 Atlanta premiere newsreels, the prologue from the international version, some sample scenes from the various foreign language adaptations, and a hackneyed historical short subject on "The Old South." Toss in a trailer gallery and you've got just one third of the overall extras.
Disc 4 takes on "The Cast," where we get profiles of Vivian Leigh, Clark Gable, and several of the supporting cast. The best bit, however, is Melanie Remembered: Reflections by Olivia De Havilland. As one of the last remaining members of the Gone with the Wind family left alive, the accomplished actress provides some intriguing reminiscences about her accomplished co-stars, the crew, and the overall production.
Disc 5 houses all the "new" material exclusive to this set. This includes a Kenneth Branagh narrated chronicle called 1939: Hollywood's Greatest Year; a stunning trip back through what it arguably a seminal 12 months in the history of cinema. There's also a featurette focused on Gone with the Wind's enduring appeal, as well as a true oddity -- a 1980 TV movie entitled Moviola: The Scarlett O'Hara War. Featuring Tony Curtis as Selznick, this Emmy Winning effort chronicles the producer's struggle to find the right leading lady for this proposed epic. There's even a CD sampler with eight selections from the Gone with the Wind soundtrack. About the only thing missing from this otherwise near definitive collection is the amazing six hour documentary MGM: When the Lion Roared. Offered as part of the Blu-ray release, it provides an added sense of how important this film was to the studio, and to Hollywood in general. True film fans would gladly trade the table top booklet, memo reproductions, and reprint of the souvenir premiere program for such contextual heft.
For all its ballyhoo and cleverly marketed merchandising, it's the characters of Gone with the Wind who continue to stir our imagination. Sure, the slaves Mammy, Pork, and Prissy are about as close to an all-out hate crime as Golden Era Hollywood has ever come, but they aren't completely demoralized by their human chattel challenges. Similarly, for all his lily-livered laments, Ashley Wilkes loves his wife and son. Rhett Butler may be a cad, a rogue, a scallywag, and any number of additional outdated epithets you want to hurl, but he's also suave and smooth -- and a savior when situations demand it. As two sides of the strong Southern Belle symbol, Melanie and Scarlett stand as pillars in a sea of quicksand, women willing to use their guile and their wits to work wonders on an antebellum arena torn between two conflicting ideologies (and too much male pride). Naturally, it's that fatal flaw which keeps coming to the fore, leading to only one creative conclusion -- tragedy. That's why Scarlett O'Hara is so put upon, and powerful. That's why Gone with the Wind remains a certified cinematic gem.
Not Guilty -- not by a long shot. A definitive box set for a true film
Review content copyright © 2009 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 238 Minutes
Release Year: 1939
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Archival Content
* Bonus Film
* Short Film
* CD Sampler
* Art Prints
* Vintage Program
* Production Book
* IMDb: Gone with the Wind
* IMDb: The Scarlett O'Hara War
* IMDb: 1939: Hollywood's Greatest Year