VAULTS: Warner finally catches ‘Wind’

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It’s amusing that Warner Bros., still a major movie production and distribution company almost 90 years after its incorporation, has ended up as the video custodian of the vintage Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film library.

This happened in a somewhat roundabout way, when Ted Turner’s holdings came into the Warner fold as part of the Time-Warner-AOL merger several years ago. That convergence proved less than inspired or enduring, but the consequences for the classic Hollywood titles acquired by Mr. Turner in his own broadcasting heyday have been salutary.

His prize possession, the 1939 MGM adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling historical romance, “Gone With the Wind,” has been fondly shepherded from the VHS period into the DVD and Blu-Ray period by technicians at Warner Home Video. If you’ve seen their handiwork, either in revivals on cable’s Turner Classic Movies — or in the DVD editions packaged for the film’s 65th and 70th anniversaries — it’s easy to understand the pride expressed in a featurette called “Restoring the Legend.”

I recommend watching it before your next sit-down with the movie itself. Both editions also incorporate a feature-length “Making of …” documentary about the production of “GWTW,” but that can wait for a separate occasion. It’s the restoration short that brings the movie’s exhibition history up to date and clarifies the evolution from a photochemical film past into an electronic present and future.

The Warner staff’s methods of restoring and enhancing original film material with modern computer and electronic aids evidently have resulted in a video edition that looks and sounds better than its predecessors. Moreover, it probably surpasses most of the theatrical copies that have circulated since the movie’s Atlanta premiere on Dec. 15, 1939. What meets the eye now is pictorially breathtaking, pretty much from sequence to sequence. The distortions that began to creep into theatrical prints after MGM inflated the images to 70mm in 1967, cropping the shots and magnifying graininess in the process, have been corrected and transcended in Generation 3 of the movie’s life span.

Ironically, studio boss Jack Warner had made producer David O. Selznick a tempting partnership offer on the “GWTW” project in the fall of 1938 during the extended months of pre-production and the search for an optimum Scarlett O’Hara among actresses known or unknown. The Warner terms were more generous than the bid Mr. Selznick felt obliged to accept from MGM’s Louis B. Mayer. Mr. Warner proposed lending three of his studio’s stars — Bette Davis, Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland — to play principal roles.

Although never a foolproof proposal, given Miss Davis’ stubborn resistance, it also left Mr. Selznick with a larger share of the potential profits. The fact that Mr. Selznick happened to be Louis B. Mayer’s son-in-law was incidental. The fact that MGM controlled the services of Clark Gable was decisive, because the moviegoing public regarded Mr. Gable as the indispensable embodiment of Rhett Butler, the disillusioned but dashing hero of “Gone With the Wind,” destined to spend the Civil War and the early Reconstruction years in romantic pursuit of the headstrong and selfish Scarlett, a Georgia belle.

This famously up-for-grabs role was eventually reserved for British actress Vivien Leigh. Supposedly, her mere presence trumped the competition on the literally flamboyant night when shooting began, with the torching of backlot facades at the Selznick studio in order to simulate the burning of Atlanta.

Miss de Havilland got to play the second female lead, Melanie Hamilton. Even though the Warner deal fell through, she cleverly went over the head of her boss to do so. That meant pleading her case to his wife. This was in keeping with an emerging “GWTW”tradition: Kay Brown, Mr. Selznick’s New York-based literary scout, had gone over his head to gain approval for purchase of the film rights to Mitchell’s novel, appealing to John Hay Whitney, the principal financial partner in Selznick-International.

The “Collector’s Edition” of “Gone With the Wind” issued in 2004 may be difficult to dislodge as an optimum possession. It reflected the state-of-the-art video upgrade while devoting two discs to the movie and another pair to the “extras” — ranging in length from the original trailer at about two minutes to the “Making of …” feature at two hours.

The so-called “Ultimate Collector’s Edition”of 2009 adds a fifth disc and a television feature, “Movieola: The Scarlett O’Hara War,” in which Tony Curtis plays Mr. Selznick during the great Scarlett hunt. This seems to teeter on the edge of superfluous scavenging for extras. It might be more diverting to encounter fragments of the failed theatrical adaptations — the musical “Scarlett” from 1972 that eventually starred the young Lesley Ann Warren or Trevor Nunn’s West End beau geste of 2008.

I’ll be grateful to pass on “interactive” doodling that may one day allow viewers to substitute their own faces for the original cast members. On the other hand, there’s so much screen test footage among the available “extras” that it’s kind of tempting to consider a form of electronic play in which video ghosts of the stars who were alive and eligible in 1939 might be matched up for a fleeting scene. So one might simulate test footage with Bette Davis and Errol Flynn or Gary Cooper and Paulette Goddard in the co-starring roles. I suspect about a minute of that would satisfy lingering curiosity about the more conspicuous alternatives to Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh.

In retrospect, it does seem odd that David O. Selznick fretted about a dark-textured movie or one that favored intimacy over spectacle. The dark color schemes in many sequences now look splendidly modulated, and the clash of personalities in the story — whether Miss Leigh with Mr. Gable or Leslie Howard or Hattie McDaniel or Olivia de Havilland — count for more than the interludes of mass spectacle. The romantic epic Mr. Selznick realized after three years of costly collaborative effort remains much better than the one he seems to have had in mind when brooding for the record in his memos.

TITLE: “Gone With the Wind”
RATING: No MPAA Rating (released in 1939-40, decades before the advent of the film rating system; occasional violence and scenes of wartime suffering)
CREDITS: Produced by David O. Selznick. Directed by Victor Fleming. Screenplay by Sidney Howard, based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell. Cinematography by Ernest Haller. Art direction by Lyle Wheeler. Costume design by Walter Plunkett. Matte paintings by Jack Cosgrove. Film editing by Hal C. Kern and James E. Newcom. Music by Max Steiner
RUNNING TIME: 222 minutes, plus extensive supplementary material
DVD EDITION: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment
WEB SITE: www.warnervideo.com

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