10/09/2014

Blu-ray Review:Gone With the Wind (1939) -- 75th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition


Now Available to Own 
 


  
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Gone With the Wind die-hards take note: the film at the heart of the 75th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition is still technically the same lushly restored Blu-ray presentation released by Warner Brothers five years earlier, which my Sony player's Gracenote database verified by labeling the new disc in the same old way as my previous purchase.

So the difference it seems lies in the packaging and presentation of this oversized set that is not only given a limited edition numbered status but is also guaranteed to take up some serious real estate on the likewise limited shelf space in the home libraries of collectors.
Although it boasts novelties such as a small old fashioned musical paperweight made by the San Francisco Music Box Company, a prop replica of Rhett’s handkerchief, and an Ultraviolet Digital Copy code that comes with the special features loaded box set, two of the best bonuses of the collection lie in the box of films and the box itself.

Fans who relished in the wardrobe of the classic film as well as the timely Hollywood Costume Exhibit that’s been touring the country this past year will be thrilled to discover the beautiful thirty-six page hardback companion book that was penned by Project Runway’s own Austin Scarlett.

Additionally cineastes in general will appreciate not only new featurettes about the titular film but also the inclusion of the excellent six-hour award-winning documentary MGM: When the Lion Roars on its own double-sided DVD among the four-disc set.


Of course the main attraction is the ten-time Academy Award winning feature from Victor Fleming whose other masterpiece The Wizard of Oz was released the exact same year. Obviously film buffs can argue until kingdom come over which 1939 film from Fleming (taking over for Sam Wood and George Cukor) is better.

As a fan of both realism over fantasy and as someone with a soft spot for epics, my money’s on Wind which looks better now in Blu-ray high definition than it’s ever looked before, especially in the eyes of this reviewer who saw it for the last time (in its entirety) over twenty years ago back in the days of VHS.

Gone are all the old elements that previously revealed the film’s true age including the muted, overblown colors that softened around the edges and the tell-tale pops, hisses and scratch marks that have since been removed.


The joint TCM/WB restoration of Fleming’s film is a stunner following its musical overture from frame one as the flesh tones of its cast including Vivien Leigh are so lifelike that you can see the beads of perspiration trickle on her forehead in the Atlanta sunlight.

Obviously one of the biggest challenges in adapting Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel is the sheer size and scope of the work and it's here where Wind stumbles along the way and likewise shortchanges audience understanding of its phone book sized cast.

Yet regardless of the wild swings in tone from one act to the next to the point that everyone – including a horse – begins dropping like flies in the jarring last hour, it remains a landmark epic all-around.


A pop cultural touchstone for its many catch-phrases as well as its immeasurable impact on film history, the quadruple-hankie picture ushered in the upcoming World War II era of women’s weepies ‘40s films (frequently starring Bette Davis, who’d done her own “version” of a Gone With the Wind picture in William Wyler’s 1938 Jezebel).

Nonetheless, even if we do still wince at the racial stereotypes that abound in the work (that at the same time garnered Hattie McDaniel the first Academy Award to an African American for her moving performance), Wind still plays better than some of the sweeping period romances it inspired years later such as Doctor Zhivago and The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

For in that genre, it’s in a class by itself and one that like Zhivago helped lay the groundwork of the resurgence in the ‘80s and beyond for films featuring feisty heroines, love triangles, exotic locales, and sensuous cinematography matched in sync with a memorably driving score.


While musically and visually speaking Out of Africa, The Last of the Mohicans, The English Patient and others have come close, Wind’s “Tara’s Theme” from composer Max Steiner is pure sonic perfection.

Instantly recognizable and not only for Wind – for decades, “Tara’s Theme” has been played as the soundtrack to so many “best of” award show clip compilations.

And as such it’s taken on a whole life of its own as a soundtrack to the movies themselves and the musical realization of the same dream that brings so many people out to Hollywood year after year to claim the land for themselves like headstrong Scarlett promised to do with Tara when she realized it was all she had left.


A work that grows with time, it’s interesting to look back on the clever, textbook use of foreshadowing of not only Scarlett’s land legacy but also her fears of jumping fences on horseback – both of which occur within the opening ten minutes and pay off not once but twice with devastating results later on.

Additionally and despite the overt brutality and emotional abuse that complicates the Rhett Butler character in ways that make him a strong-armed bully (to put it crudely, he’s a double-edged sword of seducer at best and rapist at worst), in retrospect when you look back at what makes Rhett tick intriguingly, Mitchell employed a technique of gender role reversal way ahead of her time.


Typically it’s the woman at the heart of the oft-utilized Beauty and the Beast dynamic that believes she can change a beast into a prince. However in Wind, it’s Clark Gable’s Rhett who knows full well that he’s chosen a woman who is not only in love with someone else (Ashley Wilkes) but one whom he’s even said – in his own moment of foreshadowing that will pay off later – is only capable of causing men misery.

And while even those unfamiliar with the film know some of Gable’s last filmed lines by heart as they’ve become part of our own intertextual pop-culture language and landscape, it’s interesting to look back at Wind and realize the way that he truly ignored every ounce of intuition he had when it came to the woman who was his greatest weakness.


Although on the first viewing, Scarlett comes off the worst, it’s interesting as well to reevaluate it as an adult and realize that as manipulative she was early on, Leigh’s Scarlett was outmaneuvered every step of the way by Leslie Howard’s cowardly flirt Ashley who never took one of literally dozens of opportunities to let her down once and for all.

A cinematic as well as a literary classic in that Margaret Mitchell’s original novel (which has spawned numerous sequels and prequels) continues to sell fifty thousand copies a year, while there’s no substitute for the award-winning text, Fleming’s admittedly flawed if still utterly fabulous, multifaceted and endlessly debatable Wind remains as both a film and adaptation, one of the grandest of them all.

   

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