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Gone With the Wind

"If we cannot get artistry and clarity," declared David O. Selznick midway through production on Gone With the Wind (1939), "let's forget about artistry." So they did, and so a classic, perhaps the most beloved Hollywood film ever made, was born. Indeed, clarity is everything in Selznick's nearly four-hour adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's equally beloved novel because it is close to the only thing that keeps it from collapse. Artlessly scurrying from one scene to the next, this production, so fervently anticipated by the American public that they essentially forced en masse the casting of Clark Gable as the charismatic Charleston rogue, Rhett Butler, had many captains — George Cukor, Victor Fleming (the credited director), and, by virtue of his evocative production design, William Cameron Menzies — and one dictator, Selznick, who was more perfectionist than auteur. The sensitive Cukor would be fired for his slow, exacting pace that knocked the picture well behind schedule, while the macho taskmaster Fleming would be forced to take a temporary leave of absence due to exhaustion. But the cameras rarely stopped rolling, which is the triumph of Selznick, who would never more indelibly leave his mark on any of his productions. Gone With the Wind is an epic with its chest puffed out, cocky with a gambler's moxie, and unafraid of failure. The novel, the production, and the film it spawned typify so much about America's can-do mentality that its status as the quintessential American movie was practically manifest — despite its frenetic aesthetic and infuriating racial politics (toned down heavily from the novel). Or maybe that's just another troubling part of the bargain.

As with so many undisputed American classics — e.g. The Godfather, Citizen Kane and Casablanca — the protagonist of Gone With the Wind, Scarlett O'Hara (a justifiably iconic performance by Vivien Leigh), is an anti-hero — in this case, a cunningly selfish creature preoccupied with her own advancement and affluence at the expense of her family and friends. But while she is driven by her transforming determination to "never go hungry again," even if she has to commit all manner of sin to ensure this, Scarlett is primarily fixed on winning the hand of her lifelong flame, Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard). Ashley, however, chooses instead to marry his cousin Melanie (Olivia de Havilland), who is the antithesis of Scarlett — generous and kind-hearted to a fault. Indignant, the desirable Scarlett impulsively runs through a succession of cuckolds who have the unfortunate habit of getting killed soon after the vows are exchanged (marrying Scarlett, it seems, is as perilous as drumming for Spinal Tap), but none of these men truly enthrall her. Only the profligate lothario Rhett Butler stands a chance at challenging the obstinate southern belle, for he is the scoundrel she richly deserves. Adroitly courting favor with both the Yankee conquerors and his fellow Confederates, Rhett is a supreme schemer with an admirable sentimental streak. Whether it's saving Scarlett's life as Atlanta burns spectacularly to the ground, or rescuing Ashley after a shantytown roust gets broken up by Union soldiers, Rhett has the heart that Scarlett lacks, although he also is quite capable of sinking to her base level of emotional cruelty. This capacity burrows to a particularly nasty low point in the infamous "rape" scene, where, against her wishes, Rhett gives Scarlett the rowdy roll in the hay she so badly needs. Rhett's unforgivable transgression is sparked by his frustration at Scarlett's stubborn pining away for Ashley, which is the overriding goal that drives the narrative forward. It is also her hamartia; a defect that will lead to her eventual spiritual ruin belied by her final, shallow self-assuagement that "tomorrow is another day".

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If Scarlett is devastated at the end of Gone With the Wind, the fact that she apparently has been shaken of her obsession with Ashley Wilkes in favor of winning back the true love of her life is meant to give audiences a measure of hope as they stream out of the theater sobbing into their handkerchiefs. For Americans scraping out of the Great Depression, yet facing an uncertain future with war breaking out in Europe, this message, along with Scarlett's "gumption," as Mitchell called it, was tremendously reassuring, particularly for women who would soon be heading off to work while their husbands enlisted to save the world from Fascism. This explains how an entire country could fall so madly in love with the film even as its heroine behaved so dishonorably. Perseverance isn't pretty, but it is essential, and Reconstruction offered a heightened picture of survival under desperate circumstances. The extent to which this describes the behind-the-scenes turmoil also explains how the film achieves greatness in spite of its many rough edges. Visually, it's inconsistent and sometimes shoddy, occasionally succumbing to the aforementioned "artistry" in awkward half-measures, as in the dreamlike, silhouetted birthing of Melanie's child that's ridiculously ostentatious when placed against the rest of the picture's blunt visual style. And the narrative, slavish to the novel so as not to upset the legion of demanding fans for whom it could be argued the film was made in the first place, barrels forward with such furious momentum that one is often entertained without being terribly captivated. Still, the damn thing works. It's an ode to audaciousness forged in the very spirit it celebrates — easy to nitpick, but impossible to resist.

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Warner presents Gone With the Wind in a remarkably gorgeous full-frame transfer (1.33:1) that, like the studio's recent Technicolor releases on DVD, is utterly eye-popping. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is crisp; Atlanta has never blazed with such aural texture. This four disc "Collector's Edition" is packed with supplements, beginning with a literally exhaustive feature-length commentary by the always engaging Rudy Behlmer. Moving over to Disc Three, "The Making of a Legend" (123 min.), is, even at its generous length, only a primer into the intrigue of the picture's contentious production. "Restoring a Legend" (17 min.) explores the film's digital clean-up, while "The Old South" (11 min.), is a vintage (and racially insensitive) short directed by Fred Zinnemann to better explain the movie's milieu. Disc Four boasts "Melanie Remembers" (37 min.), featuring the still-lucid Olivia de Havilland doing just that, while "Gable: The King Remembered" (65 min.) and "Vivien Leigh: Scarlett and Beyond" (46 min.) dig further into the background of the actors immortalized by their respective characters. Also included are two newsreels reporting the 1939 and 1961 Atlanta premieres, the prologue scroll from the international release, bios for the supporting cast, snippets from the foreign language versions, and five theatrical trailers. Four-DVD digipak in paperboard slipcase.
—Clarence Beaks

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