"Fiddle dee dee."
Despite Warner Bros. having restored and remastered this MGM classic just a few years earlier, for the 70th Anniversary Edition the studio went back and rescanned the entire movie at an even higher resolution, remastering it for DVD and the Blu-ray edition reviewed here. Needless to say, it looks better than ever, which for a film that already looked awfully good is saying a lot. Plus, the folks at the studio have put it all together in a package that is positively mouthwatering. Hard to pass by, unless you're a die-hard resister of the film.
"Gone with the Wind," David O. Selznick's 1939 production of Margaret Mitchell's epic story of the Civil War and the Old South, is probably the granddaddy of all blockbusters. "Birth of a Nation" may have preceded it as the first true superspectacular, and "Titanic" may have come after it as the biggest moneymaking film of all time, but I predict that fifty years from now, when most people have forgotten "Nation" and the waters of time have settled down around the big sinking boat, "Gone with the Wind" will still be most people's idea of THE big-scale movie. Understand, I'm not suggesting it's the best film ever made, or even my favorite film, but I have to rank it among the most deservedly popular films ever created. After all, it does continue to hold the record for being the best-attended movie of all time.
Besides, for good or for bad it's probably the film more people have talked about over the years than any other. The American Film Institute voted it the fourth best American movie ever made. "Entertainment Weekly" placed it eighth on their list of "The 100 Greatest Movies of All Time." "Variety" called it "One of the truly great films." Roger Ebert claims "it is still a great film, above all because it tells a great story." The "Daily Mirror" said it was "still pure gold." And Leonard Maltin asserted, "If not the greatest movie ever made, certainly one of the greatest examples of storytelling on film, maintaining interest for nearly four hours." On the other hand, critic Franz Hoellering wrote in "The Nation" that the film was "a major event in the history of the industry but only a minor event in motion picture art." The London "Sunday Times" drama critic James Agate said "Shakespeare's 'Taming of the Shrew' seems to have got mixed up with one of the novels of Ethel M. Dell." And "Time Out" magazine called it "perhaps the key plantation movie."
Maybe producer Irving Thalberg said it best when he remarked to Louis B. Mayer in 1936, "Forget it, Louis, no Civil War picture ever made a nickel." Controversy then; controversy now. Well, the movie did make over a nickel, but it's still got its detractors, most notably those who claim, not unjustifiably, that it's is the most glorified soap opera ever made.
I hardly need recount the story, based on novelist Mitchell's sprawling Civil War concoction, the on-again off-again love story of Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) and Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). Suffice it to say that the movie is melodrama at its best, with enough romance and adventure to have satisfied audiences for over seventy years. But it was not an easy production, and it's a wonder it came off as coherently as it did considering the number of directors called upon to complete it, among them George Cukor, Sam Wood, and production designer William Cameron Menzies. However, the director most credited for the film's success is Victor Fleming, whose name appears in the credits. He and the others managed to fashion a piece of timeless storytelling, aided by a fine supporting cast headed up by Olivia de Havilland, Leslie Howard, Thomas Mitchell, Hattie McDaniel, and Butterfly McQueen. Together, they tell a story of huge proportions, one that spans many years and encompasses spectacles like the siege and burning of Atlanta that continue to impress today.
Why has it remained so popular? I suspect that in addition to the film's spectacle--the picnic at Twelve Oaks, the lavish balls, the great crane shot of War victims sprawled for miles, the burning of Atlanta, the ravishing matte paintings--it's all about the cast and the casting. Clark Gable's Rhett Butler is among the screen's most enduring heroes, right up there with Humphrey Bogart's Rick Blaine, Sean Connery's James Bond, Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones, and the AFI's Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird."
"You should be kissed often, and by someone who knows how."
The other characters are more problematical, starting with Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara, a selfish, greedy, spiteful, spoiled brat who nevertheless shows a determination that has been awe-inspiring for decades. Olivia de Havilland's saintly Melanie Hamilton is probably a character too good to be true, but, hey, she, too, has continued to be an inspiration for good. The weak point is Leslie Howard's Ashley Wilkes, a rather weak-kneed stuffed shirt and a wimp regarding Scarlett. Howard's mannered performance has always bothered me. Fortunately, there is Hattie McDaniel's strong-willed nursemaid, Mammy, a role that helped McDaniel become the first African-American to win an Academy Award; and there is Thomas Mitchell's convincing Pa, Gerald O'Hara, and Butterfly McQueen's endearingly harebrained house servant, Prissy.
It amazes me that the film continues to maintain my attention for nearly four hours, despite my having seen it a dozen times since childhood. Yes, I have to admit I always start to tire in the second half, but, thankfully, modern disc playback makes it easier than ever to come and go in the story. Has it dated at all? Not a bit. It's as fresh today as the night it premiered, thanks in part to its new restoration and remastering. The film won eight Academy Awards, for Best Picture, Director, Actress, Supporting Actress, Writing, Art Direction, Cinematography, and Film Editing. It was producer David O. Selznick's crowning achievement and a film that stands up as one of the screen's finest classics.
Certainly, I welcome the appearance of "Gone with the Wind" in all the splendor of its newly restored, remastered edition. The high-definition Blu-ray transfer of the film probably helps it look as good as it ever did in a first-run movie house.
Trivia notes, courtesy of John Eastman, "Retakes," Ballantine Books, 1989: "From the start, Gable was slated to play Butler--though the actor felt the role lay beyond his talents. Intimidated by a part that required more complex self-exploration than any of his previous (or later) roles, he strongly protested the scene that required him to cry after hearing of Scarlett's miscarriage. Shedding tears, he believed, would risk his carefully nurtured macho image. He even threatened to walk off the picture and give up his career. Only by subtle handling could director Victor Fleming persuade him to rehearse the scene both with and without the tears; then Fleming used the weeping scene after assuring Gable that it would enhance, not destroy, his image.
Twenty-eight-year-old Butterfly McQueen, playing Prissy, didn't like playing a slave, but the money helped her through U.C.L.A., and years later she made a part-time career of reminiscing to audiences about the film. Look for TV's first Superman, George Reeves, as Stuart Tarleton in the opening scene at Tara. Eddie Anderson, Jack Benny's longtime sidekick, appears as Uncle Peter. And the white horse ridden by Thomas Mitchell later became the Lone Ranger's Silver."
Warner Bros. have digitally restored and remastered the film, and it continues to be nothing short of astonishing for a movie of its age. This time out, the image is better than ever and transferred to a dual-layer BD50 in 1080p high-definition using a VC-1 codec. The color-aligned Technicolor is vivid and lifelike, now more than ever producing natural, realistic facial tones; rich, textured colors; and deep black contrasts, with delineation that at its worst is a little soft and at its best is near perfect.
There is really nothing about the picture that betrays its age save possibly the fact that the studio never produced it in widescreen (although for its 1967 theatrical rerelease, they matted it for 2.20:1 widescreen exhibition, cutting off huge chunks of the top and bottom of the image, destroying the visual composition of the scenes and enraging film buffs everywhere). Today, in high def, the whole movie radiates a freshness and beauty hard to imagine in a source so old. It would be loutish of me to complain about any part of the video presentation
With this new Blu-ray edition, you can play the soundtrack in Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround, in regular Dolby Digital 5.1 if you don't have the ability to play the lossless track, or in the film's original 1.0 monaural. The monaural is a quaint nod to historical accuracy, but the newer track, especially Max Steiner's magnificent music, is distinctly preferable in lossless 5.1 multichannel and will undoubtedly please everyone but purists. The surround mode does not provide the discrete five-channel sonics that a completely up-to-date soundtrack would afford, but it is pleasantly enveloping, and the added stereo effects like cannon shots and explosions are effectively convincing. The TrueHD is smoother than the regular DD 5.1, but, understandably, it's still not up to today's state-of-the-art audio standards, with a degree of veiling in the midrange that sometimes over modulates dialogue.
Disc one of this three-disc 70th Anniversary Limited Collector's Edition Blu-ray giftset contains the feature film; a full-length audio commentary by film historian Rudy Behlmer; sixty-three scene selections; English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, and Portuguese spoken languages; French, Spanish, German, Italian, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Portuguese, and other subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Disc two, also a BD50 with plenty of room, contains the bulk of the extras. They begin with the 1988, two-hour documentary "The Making of a Legend: Gone With the Wind." It's written by David Thomson, directed by David Hinton, narrated by Christopher Plummer, and divided into thirty-two chapters for easy reference. Here you'll find everything from the early problems acquiring the book rights to the many screen tests to the film's actual production. It is a must-view for anyone vaguely interested in "GWTW" or Hollywood history.
Then, there is "Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Presents 1939: Hollywood's Greatest Year." It's a 2009 documentary, sixty-eight minutes long, narrated by Kenneth Branagh, reminding us that 1939 was, indeed, a banner year. Film historians Leonard Maltin and Rudy Behlmer and a host of other folks discuss not only "Gone with the Wind" but "The Wizard of Oz," "Drums Along the Mohawk," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Young Mr. Lincoln," "Son of Frankenstein," "Stagecoach," "Of Mice and Men," "The Roaring Twenties," "Ninotchka," "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex," "Goodbye, Mr. Chips," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," "The Women," and "Gunga Din," among others. Sure, the emphasis is on MGM and Warner Bros. films of the year, but what would you expect?
Following that, we get more documentaries and featurettes, starting with "Gone with the Wind: The Legend Lives On," thirty-two minutes of more reminiscences about the film. Moving on, we find more segments, each devoted to one or more of the film's stars. The first "Gable: The King Remembered," a 1975 biography of the actor, lasting over an hour and divided into fourteen chapters. After that is "Vivien Leigh: Scarlett and Beyond," a 1990 biography of the actress, lasting forty-six minutes and divided into sixteen chapters. Further, there's "Melanie Remembers: Reflections by Olivia de Havilland," a thirty-eight-minute set of memories by one of the film's few surviving cast members. She is a charming and gracious hostess and offers a wealth of insight. The fourth featurette is rather cumbersome, devoted to "The Supporting Players." It's awkward because it's divided into brief, one-to-four-minute snippets about a number of actors and actresses, separated into different categories. It means quite a lot of clicking around to watch them all.
Next come "Restoring a Legend," a seventeen-minute piece detailing the restoration of the film's picture and sound; "Dixie Hails Gone With the Wind," a four-minute vintage newsreel of the movie's 1939 Atlanta première; "The Old South," an eleven-minute historical short subject, meant to set the stage for the film's release in areas of the country unfamiliar with the film's subject matter; and, best of all, the 1980 TV film "The Scarlett O'Hara War," starring Tony Curtis as David O. Selznick, with Bill Macy as Myron Selznick and Harold Gould as Louis B. Mayer.
After that is footage of the 1961 Civil War Centennial, held in Atlanta for one of the film's numerous re-releases, and a one-minute prologue for the international release of the film, explaining the American Civil War to foreign audiences; plus three foreign-language versions of several famous scenes; and five different theatrical trailers from 1939 through 1989.
Disc three is a regular, dual-sided DVD containing "MGM: When the Lion Roars," a six-hour documentary from 1992, hosted by Patrick Stewart, that chronicles the history of the studio in three parts.
The discs come packaged in a heavy, foldout Digipak-type case, which collectors can place on their shelf if they don't want to display the entire giftset. The container itself is a rather elaborate affair, about the size and shape of a cigar box (about 8" x 11" x 3"), covered in red velvet and lavishly illustrated, housing a variety of additional goodies, including a fifty-two-page photo and production art book; ten 5" x 7" watercolor reproduction art prints; archival correspondence from producer David O. Selznick; a reproduction of the original 1939 program booklet; and a bonus CD soundtrack sampler.
OK, I sense that some of you out there still want to convince me that Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet make better romantic leads than Gable and Leigh. Well...
"Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."