Gone With the Wind (1939) Collector’s Edition
Dolby Digital 5.1, 2.0
Warner Home Video, $39.95

One of the great ironies in cinema history is that Gone With the Wind is widely perceived as studio filmmaking at its finest, when the film was actually an independent production. With its dazzling star power, sumptous three-strip Technicolor cinematography, and lush costume and production design, GWTW combined all of the elements that made the studio system great and took them to a level that hadn’t been seen before. Yet the production’s sheer scale and fanatical attention to detail would have made it an unlikely project at any cost-conscious studio. The success of the picture is due largely to the vision of legendary producer David O. Selznick, who brought together the finest talents in Hollywood to create what would become his greatest film.

Comprising four discs, Warner Home Video’s Collector’s Edition DVD is essential to any collection, thanks to its spectacular transfer and wealth of supplements. Like bonus materials on Criterion’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse and Contempt, the extras on this DVD make an academic approach to film appreciation both fun and enlightening. Taken together, the set’s commentary track, archival footage, and making-of documentaries present a crash course in the history, aesthetics and technical background of GWTW that realizes the fullest potential of the DVD format.

The splendid Technicolor cinematography by Ernest Haller, ASC, who replaced fellow ASC member Lee Garmes early in the production, has been meticulously remastered from restored picture and audio elements. Amazingly, GWTW was Haller’s first color picture, and he and Technicolor associate Ray Rennahan, ASC, who consulted on the film throughout its production, shared the Academy Award for their work. Using edge-detection technology to realign the three Technicolor strips frame by frame, the Warner Bros. team has created a transfer that is awe-inspiring in its level of detail and clarity. Haller’s lighting is stunning in its breadth; over the course of the picture, the look ranges from brightly lit party scenes to brutal noir chiaroscuro, and from exteriors featuring hundreds of extras to intense interior love scenes between two characters.

Haller’s eye never errs, and the synergy between his lighting and William Cameron Menzies’ elaborate production design has never looked better on home video than it does in this presentation. The use of color ranks alongside The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Red Shoes in its range and expressiveness, and the visual cohesion is all the more amazing given the film’s complicated production, which saw numerous writers and directors come and go over several years. The story of the film’s development, production and release is told by film historian Rudy Behlmer on the disc’s commentary track, which examines the epic from an array of perspectives. In remarks that are as entertaining as they are detailed, Behlmer provides biographical information on all the key collaborators, notes how the camera is used as an expressive tool, and analyzes the film’s reception.

Many of the other supplements have been released elsewhere, either in earlier home-video incarnations or on television, but the film’s fans will appreciate having all of the materials in one package. The informative 1988 documentary The Making of a Legend conveys how the chaotic production led to a surprisingly satisfying product, and the disc also showcases pristine newsreel footage of the picture’s Atlanta premiere in 1939 and its re-release premiere in 1961. Also included are a series of trailers spanning 50 years in the film’s release history, and a prologue filmed for international audiences that explains the movie’s historical context.

One of the most valuable supplements for film scholars is an early short by director Fred Zinnemann entitled The Old South. Though the short only mentions GWTW once, it was produced by MGM to prime audiences for the epic’s release by explaining the history of the South. The film’s racial attitudes are dated, to say the least, but as an early work by an important director, The Old South is worth viewing, and like all of the supplements on this DVD, it looks absolutely gorgeous.

We get an in-depth look at the restoration process in Restoring a Legend, a documentary detailing the painstaking work that went into preserving the film for future generations. There are some terrific stories in the featurette, including an anecdote about an MGM employee who disobeyed an order from an executive to destroy an audio element from the film, and then tracked the master’s location for decades to keep it from being trashed. That audio element was the primary source for the DVD’s superb monaural soundtrack, which gives the film’s dialogue, music and effects tracks a level of vibrancy and clarity worthy of the luminous images.

The supplementary materials are rounded out by documentaries of varying lengths on 19 of the actors in the cast. These featurettes complete a boxed set that is exhaustive but not exhausting; fans of classical Hollywood filmmaking will finish watching these DVDs in a state of euphoria and exhilaration.

— Jim Hemphill

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© 2005 American Cinematographer.