Friday, April 29, 2011

Gone With the Wind on blu-ray

S
ome movies really are not improved by the blu-ray format. Most black and white films, for instance. But then there are the films where watching on blu-ray really changes and enhances thee film so much that I don't think I can ever watch them on DVD again. Gone With the Wind is one such film. It's available in various packages (a deluxe package, the three-dvd "Scarlett" edition which is the one I have, and a bare-bones just the movies version). Whichever version you decide to get, the remastering of the film is nothing short of astonishing. Colors are more vivid than ever, and for the first time you can see the tiny details, like the wrinkles on Vivien Leigh's face or the brocade on the ladies' dresses. The Technicolor print is restored to its full glory. The only negative is that the sound is not as good as it could be.


As for the movie itself, it's become fashionable to poo-poo it nowadays. Certainly the flaws are glaring -- the naive, picture-postcard view of the antebellum South, the condescending racial attitudes, the dull-as-dirt and miscast Leslie Howards as Ashley Wilkes, and the fact that so many different directors (there are three credited -- Victor Fleming, Sam Woods, and George Cukor) and screenwriters (one of them was F. Scott Fitzgerald) give the film a piecemeal quality, without the unity of style and script of, say, real masterpieces like Citizen Kane or Casablanca.



But I still love the film like oxygen. Every time I watch the film I'm amazed at how strong the performances are from the minor players to the stars. Vivien Leigh's Southern accent comes and goes, but her portrayal of the spitfire Scarlett is still one of the most memorable screen portrayals of all time. Scarlett is a villainess technically, but Leigh makes her a charming villainess, one that the audience can't help but love. She's spirited, she's smart, she's tough, and I think many women love the film because we love her strength of character. We understand why Rhett Butler would follow her around for years, just hoping that she'll return even a fraction of his love for her. There are small moments of her performance that I love. One is after she returns to Tara, and the slave Mammy needles her with questions. "I don't know," she says, her voice flat and exhausted. The scene that follows is one of the film's most famous -- as Scarlett stands in her garden and says "As God is my witness I'll never be hungry again." But I still think that small moment when she is too exhausted to even answer Mammy is more touching. I love the spunk with which she throws dirt at the former overseer and says "That's all of Tara you'll ever get." And of course who doesn't love the final scene of the film, when Scarlett swears she'll get Rhett back. "After all, tomorrow is another day!" she says, her face tearful but not broken. Leigh makes Scarlett so determined and yes, so lovable, that I don't doubt for a minute that tomorrow, she will set up a plan to get her man back.

To see how perfect Leigh was for the role, one only has to watch screen tests of other actresses in the part. Lana Turner is particularly unsuited:


What is well-known is that Leigh fought tooth and nail to make Scarlett a complex character, and not just a stock vixen. She fought with the director Victor Fleming, she fought with Gable, and in the end, we can see the wisdom of her approach. There's always a hint of vulnerability lurking behind Scarlett's cold, scheming smirk or heartless words and actions. In order for the movie to work, one has to understand why decent people like Rhett and Melanie and Ashley love Scarlett, even if she's manipulative, selfish, greedy, and at times just flat out mean. The scene where she stares down everyone at Ashley's birthday party with the biggest bitchface known to man is priceless. Leigh makes us understand the love. I cannot imagine the film with any other actress.


Clark Gable is also just about perfect as the tough/tender Rhett. In the very first scene he's leering at Scarlett, and seems like the typical rascal. But he gradually becomes the most lovable character of the film -- funny, tough, smart, and someone who actually understands the meaning of being a friend. In fact, Rhett and Scarlett might be one of the first screen portrayals of a long-standing male-female friendship. Of course one party is madly in love with the other, but ... well, that's typical of friends too. I like the small moments which show that despite what Scarlett says, it's Rhett that is her real friend. When she has to flee Atlanta with Melanie and the baby, Rhett is the one who supplies the horse and buggy. There's a moment of real tenderness between them when Scarlett finally screams, "I WANT TO GO HOME!!!" I always love the moment when after Rhett comforts her they walk arm in arm. The chemistry between Leigh and Gable is extremely strong, even though offscreen the actors rarely interacted and Leigh said later that she found Gable lazy, stubborn, and "his dentures smelled something awful." When Rhett says "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn," I actually feel Rhett's pain. After so many years of rejection, the parting between Scarlett and Rhett is inevitable, although in my heart, I don't think the estrangement is permanent.



I absolutely love the scene where Rhett proposes. The sarcasm with which he masks his deep feelings melts my heart every time. This is a painful contrast to the finale of the movie, when Rhett doesn't give a damn anymore.




Olivia de Havilland also gives a wonderful performance as Melanie Hamilton, the Southern lady made of fine steel. Her soft doe-eyes, her gentle manner,and mousier appearance make her a perfect foil for Scarlett. The only major miscast is Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes. Howard is way too old for the part, and although the Ashley in the book is a milquetoast, he's also a charming, dignified, lovable milquetoast. Howard drains all color from the character, and frankly is dull as dirt every time he's onscreen.

The supporting characters are all cast from strength. MGM in those days really had such a stable of excellent character actors, who gave the film vitality and humor. Of course one has to mention Hattie MacDaniel as Mammy, who gives this stereotypical role such strength and dignity that she almost single-handedly saves the film from seeming incredibly racist. Butterfly McQueen as Prissy provides some of the film's best comic relief, although I know many people find the stereotype of the ditzy "darky" as offensive. Laura Hope Crewes as the interminably silly Aunt Pittypat and Jane Darwell as the gossipy Mrs. Merriwether are also very funny. As Scarlett's sister SueEllen, Evelyn Keyes is properly prissy and sour. Alicia Rhett is another standout as the bitter India Wilkes, and Thomas Mitchell as Gerald O'Hara. Ona Wilkes manages to make the most cloying stereotypical character (the hooker with a heart of gold) endearing.

GWTW's strongest moments of the film come in the first three quarters, when Scarlett goes from Southern belle to picking cotton in the fields of Tara to remaking her fortune during Reconstruction. There are so many iconic moments in the first half of the film. The scene at the train station, when Scarlett is walking among a screen of dead or wounded soldiers is one. Scarlett, Rhett, Melanie and the baby frantically fleeing from the Siege of Atlanta is still seat-of-your-pants thrilling. Scarlett standing in the fields of Tara, swearing that she'll never be hungry again, is another iconic moment. But my favorite moment is when Scarlett shoots the robber. The way she stares down the robber is priceless, as is the picture of Melanie, still weak from giving birth, rushing downstairs with her sword. GWTW in those scenes is really a feminist movie, as Scarlett and Melanie (and Mammy) will their way through the worst of the Civil War.


After Rhett and Scarlett marry, the film drops off in quality. It's not that these scenes are badly directed or acted, but my mom and I always talk about how irritated we are with Scarlett after she marries Rhett. "Such a good husband, and she treats him like shit," is what my mom says. (And no she doesn't use those kinds of words often.) It becomes a soap opera. The ending is depressing, with Bonnie's death, Melanie's death, and the final parting between Rhett and Scarlett. The romantic in me always thinks (or hopes) that tomorrow is another day, and Rhett and Scarlett will get back together though.

Yet none of this detracts from the overall quality of the film. The film is four hours long, but it's amazing how it maintains audience interest. GWTW is the story of one remarkable woman's survival, but it's also become etched in popular culture as the image of the Old South. I know many people who talk about the Old South and immediately say, "Don't you remember how in GWTW they said ..." And despite some deletions of characters and events, the movie remains an incredibly faithful adaptation of the novel. If you haven't seen this movie in a long time, buy the blu-ray and rewatch this classic.

The "Scarlett Edition" comes with three discs, the first being the movie itself. The second disc has 8 hours of extras, from documentaries about the making of the movie, Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable, to a made-for-TV movie about the famous "search for Scarlett" by producing David O. Selznick. The making of the movie documentary is the most fascinating, as it shows, for instance, a revolving floor when Clark Gable "dances" with Vivien Leigh. Or the endless costume tests, in which Gable is visibly impatient. The third disc is a 6 hour documentary about MGM. This package is a bargain. Don't think about it tomorrow -- get it today.

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