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Category:    Home > Reviews > Drama > Epic > Literature > Civil War > Gone With The Wind – Two-Disc 70th Anniversary Edition (1939/Warner Bros. DVD)

Gone With The Wind – Two-Disc 70th Anniversary Edition (1939/Warner Bros. DVD)


Picture: C+     Sound: C+     Extras: B-     Film: B-



I never thought I would see it happen, but after being considered one of the greatest films of all time, Gone With The Wind (1939) has lost some of its invincibility and luster.  This is not just because of politically correctness or its implied racism or because it is an older film, but because Hollywood’s obsession with blockbusters that are loud, fast and dumb have eclipsed doing an epic with a narrative.  But the situation with GWTW is a little more complicated than that, we’ll look at the film in several ways.


First, we’ll get the down side out of the way.  When it was being conceived, the NAACP protested the film and demanded that it not feature the ugly, explicit stereotypes Hollywood films were featuring since the silent era and especially since D.W. Griffith’s Birth Of A Nation (1915) featured an all white cast where the black characters were white actors in blackface.  By the end of that film, the Klu Klux Klan had risen again (the film revived the actual organization!) and defeated the killer enemy that happened to be its false brand of African Americans.  Another epic that bemoaned the fall of the Old South would offer the same opportunity again.


This time however, it would not be an epic propaganda film by Griffith but a more visionary work by David O. Selznick based on the best-selling book by Margaret Mitchell.  Selznick was on a role as one of Hollywood’s first independent producers and he believed he had the vision to bring a sizable book like this one to life in a way that had never been done before.  He would make it a long film, do it in color and that would require a big budget; one he did not have.  MGM stepped in and funded the rest of it, but Selznick retained creative control, went through several directors and was going to make this film if it was his last act on earth.


Sidney Howard (Dodsworth, Prisoner Of Zenda) adapted the novel (though some others added ideas uncredited) but sadly died before he got to see the film’s massive success.  Huge amounts of film had been shot and when all was said and done, Selznick was left to edit all of it by himself because he knew what he wanted.  Victor Fleming directed the film, though some work had been done by George Cukor (who al the women trusted in particular) and Sam Wood (A Night At The Opera, A Day At The Races), but it was what Selznick saw in the book and when all was said and done, he pulled it off.


It is not only amazing that he did this without the recent innovation do digital non-linear editing, but that he had a vision to do so and set a new high for what Hollywood was capable of bringing to the screen in the year that is considered Classic Hollywood’s peak of 1939.  Though MGM funded it (followed by some other sources), it looks much more like a product from his company than theirs and the irony is that they kept it, which kept them alive in leaner years before several mergers and acquisitions did to the studio what The Civil War did to The South.


The casting is some of the best in film history, with Vivien Leigh delivering one of the great female performances as Scarlet O’Hara and Clark Gable (in a role everyone wanted him to do) and Olivia de Havilland in the almost campy role of the angelic Melanie who is as naïve as she is lucky to keep dodging total tragedy. The more comic moments are among the features that date it, along with said stereotypes.  The NAACP got their way (including no mention of the KKK), but instead of dignified characters, the film inadvertently created new black stereotypes to replace the old ones refreshing negative portraits into the 1980s.


However, the film is a serio-comic love story with The Civil War in its background and all these years later, it holds up better than expected visually.  However, there are some odd choices in all this and when we switch from rear projection to large set pieces that cost serious money of the same shot, it is odd.  It almost creates an unintended dream-like sense of place, which might have helped the film all these years.  Add the matte painting work and three-strip Technicolor cinematography and it is a film with a one-of-a-kind look due to its unique production circumstances.


Then there are some darker scenes few people have discussed at length which give the film its weight.  After so many bright scenes early on showing the happy, vibrant high living that was The South, the visual look slowly turns darker and foreboding in subtle ways, than explicitly so.  It also represents death in The Burning of Atlanta sequence (where Selznick burned down al the sets at his studio to save money), Melanie’s near miscarriage and the search for and return to Tara.  The racial controversy and pop culture absorption (all the way to The Carol Burnett Show) has often eclipsed the more powerful cinematic elements that can be seen with much more clarity and effectiveness in this restored edition.


It should be noted that at the time, the Technicolor Company (and especially Natalie Kalmus) only wanted their format only be used on upbeat, happy and fantasy sequences to keep it distinctive and in a class by itself versus so many other color formats at the time.  This was the first film where the format was used in any kind of darker way.  That there is no digital work suddenly gives the film another distinction that makes it more effective than anyone could have imagined when it was first released.


But the better parts of the story, the casting, the better writing and the actors are the reason to see the film.  Leslie Howard, Ann Rutherford, Evelyn Keyes, Thomas Mitchell, Victor Jory, Fred Crane, George Reeves, Ward Bond, Cliff Edwards, and others did some of the best work of their career here.  Considering what they had to work with, Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen and Everett Brown managed to deliver distinct performances as remembered as the rest of the cast.


No, the film has not always aged well and to me was always a little uneven for all of its commercial and critical success, but it is still a classic with all of that and increasingly reminds us of how much more ambitious Hollywood once was.  Here was a film about something that was one of the biggest hits in history, still is and is not dumbed-down with junky tie-ins.  In that respect, it deserves new credit.



The 1.33 X 1 image is a little soft and some shots do not look as good as others beyond the obvious use of rear-projection with its lower definition.  Under Ted Turner’s ownership, the film received top rate attention for restoration, yet there is footage here that does not look as good as it should.  In 1998, Warner issued the film in three-strip Technicolor prints for the first time in decades and the film had been looking more and more faded in its reissues.  While the color was fixed, a bad decision was made to stick the 1.33 X 1 frame in the middle of a 2.35 X 1 anamorphic print and the results were very disappointing and on the level of 16mm prints.


Color is consistent, but in this case, not always as good as it should be.  The Burning of Atlanta looks like the fire has been tamed for whatever reason, some shots look a bit darker than they should and others look a little more muted than it should be.  That is better than faded, but we’ll have to see the Blu-ray to see how good this really is, but this is fine for DVD.  Director of Photography Ernest Haller (Jezebel, Dark Victory, Rebel Without A Cause) did pull off some amazing shots he does not always get credit for, but Lee Garmes (Portrait Of Jennie, The Paradine Case, Lady In A Cage) did additional cinematography and the great visual effects innovator and cinematographer/director in his own right, William Cameron Menzies also designed the film for Technicolor.  Selznick invented the term Production Designer for him and his work here.  When later catching up with the Blu-ray (unreviewed), the transfer was a mix of great shots and some that did not look as good, specifically matte work and transitions that both need more work.  It shares all the same good and bad aspects of the DVD as it is the same print/transfer, but the DVD cannot compete with the sharpest shots on the Blu-ray.  Also, was the film this dark or is it one f-stop darker here than intended?


The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is included along with Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono and the two are not that much different, but I liked the 5.1 a little more, though the 5.1 might sound better in a lossless format so we’ll see if it does with the Blu-ray.  The sound has been cleaned well, but shows its age and the score by Max Steiner (King Kong (1933), A Star Is Born (1937), Penguin Pool Murders, Casablanca, Of Human Bondage) created an effective score with one of the most famous instrumental themes of all time, yet it too is uneven because it veers between serving the book-like needs of the production and other more effective moments that really deliver the film.  There is some debate about the music and unfortunately, Warner did not add an isolated music track.  Catching up with the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix on the Blu-ray later, it was not much of an improvement, though better than CD soundtracks of the original recording, including a sampler of one in the Limited Edition box set.


The only extra in this basic edition is a very detailed feature length audio commentary by Rudy Behlmer, though the deluxe editions have (and repeat) extras from the previous special editions.



-   Nicholas Sheffo


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