The fifth and final movie in Warner’s Blu-ray box set “The Golden Year: 1939” is arguably the most famous, even among those who have never seen it.
For decades “Gone With the Wind” ranked as the all-time box office champion as well as the winner of the most Oscars, eight in competitive categories plus two honorary awards, including Picture, Director and Screenplay. It was surpassed in number of Academy Awards by “Ben-Hur” in 1959, but with ticket sales adjusted for inflation it is still the highest-grossing film of all time, just ahead of “Avatar,” “Titanic,” “Star Wars” and “The Sound of Music.” After its premiere in December 1939 and its general release in January 1940, “Gone With the Wind” was regularly re-issued to commercial theatres for the rest of the 20th century with special event and repertory showings continuing into the 21st century.
Like “The Wizard of Oz” and classic Disney animated features, “Gone With the Wind” has a timelessness – it is able to enthrall, entertain and even touch viewers in successive generations. This is due in large part to the compelling performances and characterizations of Vivien Leigh (Best Actress winner) and Clark Gable in the lead roles of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler as they gain experience and modify their attitudes throughout the story. It’s also due to the film’s epic scale, superlative production values, outstanding art direction and meticulous Technicolor cinematography, not to mention the evocative Max Steiner music score.
Despite the nearly four-hour running time and the epic scope covering events from the day before the 1861 outbreak of the Civil War until sometime in the 1870s, the film rarely if ever feels long, and may even feel too short. The plot focuses on the adventures of Scarlett, a spoiled and self-centered but fiercely determined daughter of a plantation owner, her interactions with her family and, later, her stormy romance with Rhett Butler.
Though presented from a nostalgic Southern point of view, the characters are timeless and largely unconcerned with politics other than an eagerness to support the cause of their state, a cause they gradually realize to be doomed after the devastation of war has touched everyone. This also likely has subtext aimed at the European war that had broken out before the film was finished.
However, the numerous historical events play out as a background to their experiences, enriching their characters without becoming a historical docudrama. All of these are presented in brief, well-edited and easily digested episodes that keep the film moving and the attention on the leading characters. The editing earned one of the film’s many Oscars. The film maintains a unity even though much of the novel was eliminated and three major directors were involved. Victor Fleming handled most of it but George Cukor and Sam Wood each contributed substantial portions.
The cast of major or rising stars and veteran character actors helps bring the entire film to life. Leigh and Gable, as noted, stand out, but whenever Hattie McDaniel, who plays the faithful and strongly opinionated Mammy, is on the screen she steals every scene, providing both dramatic intensity and comic relief that is ironic and smart rather than demeaning. The Mammy character may come across as a stereotype to uninformed modern viewers, but in actuality she undercuts the stereotypes of the period and is actually the most practical, knowledgeable and supportive character in the entire movie, as well as the most likeable and sympathetic. McDaniel definitely deserved her surprise Oscar win for supporting actress over co-star Olivia DeHavilland’s moving but less colorful performance as Melanie Hamilton, or any of the other nominees.
The film’s vividly detailed, dramatic and esthetic use of color, silhouettes and frame compositions are also memorable contributors to its impact, and were all recognized with Oscars. And then there’s the ambiguous, rather un-Hollywood-like ending, which may disappoint some viewers’ immediate desires but gives the film an uplifting sense of hope that makes the previous four hours of melodrama, pain and deprivation seem like a trial by fire successfully accomplished.
Warner’s Blu-ray has extremely good picture quality, often excellent and looking like a brand-new film, as it was scanned from the original three-strip Technicolor camera negatives. Most of it is worth an A-plus rating. Very few shots seem to exhibit a video-processed and/or duped look. Several shots were permanently cropped for widescreen at the time of the film’s 1954 re-release and spliced back into the negative with the original footage sadly discarded. These brief segments have been zoomed in just enough to remove the black bars, and as a result appear slightly grainier, while cutting off a bit of the sides, but this is hardly noticeable unless you’re looking for it.
Audio is very good for the most part, with a few sections of the nicely remixed Dolby TrueHD 5.1 stereo track having a slightly tinny echo, but most of the track is pretty robust with effective use of stereo and surrounds for music and explosion effects. The disc also includes the original mono mix in a Dolby Digital format, as well as six additional language dubs that make for interesting viewing with the English subtitles turned on.
The only bonus feature on the stand-alone disc of “Gone With the Wind,” or the single disc included in box sets like “The Golden Year: 1939” is the fine audio commentary by film historian Rudy Behlmer. The 68-minute documentary “1939: Hollywood’s Greatest Year” (2009), which was included on the bonus features Blu-ray in the 70th and 75th anniversary box sets of “Gone With the Wind,” is now on the separate DVD that comes in “The Golden Year: 1939” box set, which also includes a trailer to “Gone With the Wind.”
“GONE WITH THE WIND” on Blu-ray – Movie: A+ / Video: A / Audio: A- / Extras: C+
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