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Monday, October 6, 2014


(Stills used in this review are not taken from the Blu-ray disc.)

The year 1939, many believe, was the pinnacle of creativity in Hollywood, and MGM's super-production GONE WITH THE WIND is widely regarded as the finest film to come out of it. Unfortunately, I haven't had much luck over the years with trying to like it as much as I'm supposed to.

Watching the cut up, squeezed onto a small screen, interrupted by frequent commercials, and spread out over two nights version on network TV was underwhelming. Years later, my neighbor loaned me the 2-volume VHS version but I can't even remember if I watched it or not.

So I was determined that now, with the GONE WITH THE WIND 75TH ANNIVERSARY ULTIMATE COLLECTOR'S EDITION from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment in my hot little hands, I was going to sit down and, for the first time, really, really watch this undying classic. Like, definitively watch it, paying undivided attention to it and everything.

This time I think I finally got the most out of it that I'm ever going to get. The bottom line is that I find GONE WITH THE WIND not all that moving as drama, but as impressive as a movie can be when it comes to mind-boggling spectacle and sheer Hollywood movie-making magic--the quintessential "movie-movie."

Visually, it's simply one of the most gorgeous works of art ever concocted for the screen. Bold, impressionistic use of Technicolor coupled with exquisite special effects, set design, camerawork, and lighting combine to create an endless succession of stunning images.

Much of what we see in this recreation of the Old South before, during, and after the Civil War is purely the work of MGM's technical department, and watching these images unfold for close to four hours, especially in the first half before the intermission, almost felt like stuffing myself with some rich dessert.

The story, taken from Margaret Mitchell's wildly popular novel, takes place in an antebellum fairytale land ("Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow" the film's scrolling introduction tells us) of genteel, benevolent plantation masters, contented slaves, and a generation of young ladies and gentlemen whose leisure hours are filled with elegant parties and breathless romantic infatuations.

Probably the most breathless of them all is the Tara plantation's teenaged princess Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh), a spoiled, silly young girl who expects to get her own way even if that includes stealing handsome Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) away from his intended bride and 2nd cousin Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland).

But a chance meeting with dashing rogue Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) during a party at the Wilkes' family mansion Twelve Oaks will usher in a new era of turbulent romantic entanglements in Scarlett's young life, one which will be intertwined with the encroachment of the Civil War and its devastating effect on an entire civilization soon to be "gone with the wind."

When war comes, it's here that Scarlett's character finally gains some dimension after being thrust into a chaotic world of violence and terror. Caught in an Atlanta that's under attack, she helps tend wounded soldiers until the enormity of war's horror (a famous wide shot of hundreds of injured men is still staggering) drives her away. But then she must deal with a weakened Melanie's painful delivery of her child while Northern forces close in.

Her frantic flight from the burning city in Rhett's carriage along with Melanie, her baby, and young slave girl Prissy (an endearingly funny Butterfly McQueen) is a thrilling high point of the film as they're menaced by crazed scavengers as well as exploding munitions and collapsing ruins.

Fans of KING KONG can even watch the Great Wall from that film go up in a final blaze of glory in one specatacular sequence. Like much of GONE WITH THE WIND's visual splendor, it's the kind of dazzling imagery that you just can't get with CGI. The later scenes at the ruins of Twelve Oaks and Tara, where Scarlett discovers just how lost her former life is, have a bleak, haunting quality that's nightmarish.

It's shocking to see such an idyllic, "pretty" existence so ruthlessly destroyed. When GONE WITH THE WIND is dealing with things like war's destructive and pointless waste in such effectively graphic terms, its easier to accept the film's initial idealization of the Old South way of life. The fact that this involves something of an idealization of slavery itself remains problematic. And yet, I once knew a black woman who counted this as her all-time favorite movie.

It helps that the black characters are all sympathetic even though largely stereotypical, and that the funny but wise Mammy (Hattie McDaniel, who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress) is more of a caring maternal figure to Scarlett than the rather aloof Mrs. Ellen O'Hara (Barbara O'Neill).

At any rate, all of this changes after the war ravages Scarlett's world and forces her to scrounge in the dirt, figuratively and literally, for her very existence while carpetbaggers try to wrest Tara from her grasp. In desperation she begins using men such as family friend Mr. Kennedy (Carroll Nye), whom she seduces away from her own sister, and finally the wealthy Rhett Butler, who offers financial support in return for the pretense of a tempestuous romance.

The rest of the story is a maelstrom of torrid emotional conflicts, deceptions, and assorted tragedies, most of them resulting from Scarlett's undying selfishness. Even as she enters middle age she's still the coquettish belle of the ball in her own mind. She uses people like pawns to further her own ends and is hardly an admirable heroine save for her tenacity and, in some cases, a reckless kind of courage.

I've never been able to make myself care much about Scarlett and I still find her generally insufferable, although Vivien Leigh's performance is so utterly perfect that it's a wonder to behold. The same holds true for the stalwart Clark Gable, whose manly and mostly honorable Rhett Butler is the main reason for me to stick with the sometimes turgid second half of the story. I can't imagine any other actor being able to pull off the role as well--his delivery of Rhett's celebrated final line is an unparalleled moment in film.

GONE WITH THE WIND is dense, intoxicating, a one-time-only convergence of creative forces that's almost otherworldly. It's like a cinematic fever dream. Maybe that's why I've always had trouble remembering previous viewings--as do other dreams, it drifts back into the ether when I awaken from it.

Warner Bros. four-disc, limited and numbered GONE WITH THE WIND 75TH ANNIVERSARY ULTIMATE COLLECTOR'S EDITION set adds to the excitement of the movie itself with some fun extras. Upon opening the box you get a handsome, richly-illustrated book about the film's opulent costuming entitled "Forever Scarlett: The Immortal Style of Gone With the Wind." In addition to this there's a music box with a picture of Rhett and Scarlett, and one of Rhett's monogrammed handkerchiefs.

Disc one is the Blu-ray restoration of the movie itself, which also contains a commentary track by film historian Rudy Behlmer and the original mono soundtrack.

Disc two features the TV-movie "Moviola: The Scarlett O'Hara War" which we reviewed HERE. There are also numerous other extras including:

"The Making of a Legend: Gone With the Wind"
"1939: Hollywood's Greatest Year"
"Gone With the Wind: The Legend Lives On"
"Gable: The King Remembered"
"Vivien Leigh: Scarlett and Beyond"
"Melanie Remembers: Reflections by Olivia De Havilland"
Cast and production bios, trailers, newsreels, and more

Disc three contains a documentary entitled "Old South, New South" which addresses, in depth, the issue of race in the film and in reality. There's also more newsreel footage of the film's Atlanta premiere.

Disc four is a flipper featuring the lengthy and exhaustive documentary "MGM: When the Lion Roars", hosted by Patrick Stewart.

Finally, the keepcase contains instructions on how to obtain your own digital HD copy of the film.

GONE WITH THE WIND is presented in its original non-widescreen format with Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks in English, French, and Spanish, and subtitles in several languages.

Full coverage of the "Gone with the Wind 75th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition" can be found HERE.


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