Packed in a velvet box filled with three discs full of bonus features, a 20-page reproduction of the original program, a 40-page book about the production, eight art prints, and a CD sampler, one might accuse Warner Home Video of gilding the lily for their premier release of Gone With the Wind on Blu-ray. Amazingly, however, the set manages to seem like exactly the amount of excess that would be necessary to properly celebrate one of American cinema's earliest masterpieces. Newly remastered in high definition and arriving with some eight hours of supplemental material, Gone With the Wind remains a classic by which all others should be judged, and now the same can be said of its home-entertainment iteration.
Initially I considered covering this film in Cinematical's "Shelf Life" column, but watching just a few of the film's opening scenes I knew it would be redundant to re-christen Gone With the Wind as amazing,and disingenuous to call it anything less. Vivien Leigh is at her fiercely unlikeable best as Scarlett O'Hara, the spoiled, obstinate and irresistible oldest daughter of the Southern O'Hara family. Discovering that her intended husband Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) has committed himself to the decidedly less fiery Melanie (Olivia De Havilland), Scarlett is apoplectic, but she has little time to lament her loss when the Civil War begins.
Passing from one suitor to the next in some ritualistic pretense of domesticity, Scarlett commits herself only to her family's financial success, only to realize that the money she earns comes at the price of the love of Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), a pragmatic and perfectly suited companion who falls head over heels for her firebrand charms.
There's virtually no part of the film that doesn't hold up today – although Scarlett is challenged over and over, she's never really punished for being strong and outspoken, at least not in the way that others from that time (and later) were humbled by their male counterparts. (Problematic as the film's racial stereotypes are, they're later acknowledged in the bonus materials as the film's one artistic obstacle as a classic in a contemporary context, and furthermore, Hattie McDaniel's Oscar-winning performance is no less nuanced or effective for being played through and with its unfortunate, imposed caricature.) At more than three hours, the story is as massive and dramatic as they come, but it doesn't waste time, and it offers almost any kind of thrill one could ask for, showing scenes of war, romance, heroism, comedy, and much more, all with equal fluidity and facility.
The 1080p high definition presentation preserves and restores the film in a way that it almost hasn't been seen before: even though prior releases boasted terrific picture and sound, they can't hold a candle to this Blu-ray, which features gloriously saturated, vivid, clean and clear colors, allowing audiences to see the fabrics in Scarlett's dresses in amazing detail. Meanwhile the score is loud and clean, with some careful channel separation for contemporary home theater systems, bringing the Old South of the film into your home better and brighter than ever before.
Admittedly, many of the bonus materials have been offered to fans on earlier editions of the film, including a terrific commentary track by Rudy Behlmer, documentaries and featurettes about the making of the movie and its primary cast members, supporting cast and crew profiles, and more. Thankfully, the vast, vast majority of them are substantial, in-depth looks at various aspects of the film, and not mere fluff pieces celebrating its greatness. But the new additions to this film's expansive landscape of extras are equally worthwhile, giving the film a greater historical context than was previously examined.
The first and most prominent of these additions is "1939: Hollywood's Greatest Year", a documentary narrated by Kenneth Branagh about the films and filmmakers that were prominent in the year that Gone With the Wind was released. What's amazing about this is that it reminds us that Hollywood always churned out tons and tons of movies every year, some good and some bad, but specifically reflects on the circumstances and creative alchemy that eventually made '39 one of the best years in American film history, if not the best.
Second, there's "Gone With the Wind: The Legend Lives On," which chronicles and deconstructs the film's incredible legacy since its initial release. Funnily enough, this featurette tips its hat a bit to reveal a sad truth about the film's success, and Hollywood's penchant for mining new profits from old properties. Specifically, the interviewees and commentators acknowledge that the studios would release or re-release the film both theatrically and on home video whenever they needed to scrounge up some cash. It's hard, however, to begrudge MGM and later Warner Brothers for capitalizing on the appetites of so many generations for this film, since so few others seem to linger in the memories or more than one or two; but as a portrait of the rich and varied reactions and receptions that film has enjoyed over the years, this is interesting stuff.
Third, there's "Moviola: The Scarlett O'Hara War," a 1980 television movie starring Tony Curtis about the search for an actress to play the ginger icon. Even on Blu-ray this doesn't look terrific – ironic given its relative youth compared to the materials of the film – but it's an interesting little fact-based drama that entertains, even if the documentaries describe the process more efficiently.
Finally, there's "MGM: When the Lion Roars," which was previously released with the Wizard of Oz box set, and which is exclusive to Blu-ray editions of the film. It's a seemingly comprehensive documentary about the earliest days of MGM and it's not directly related to the film, but cinephiles and fans of cinema's early days will thrill at the facts revealed in its six hours of content.
Again, there's the packaging and all of the physical extras – the program, the production booklet, and much more. Personally I could do without much of this because I've barely got enough space for all of the knick-knack materials I've gotten over the years with other DVDs and Blu-rays, but I understand that this film is truly special and unique, and the set wants to reward those folks who have followed it through every other iteration on VHS and standard-definition DVD and give them something special.
Ultimately, that's exactly what this set does: celebrate the film and its fans with a collection of materials that show what and why it's become so important and iconic. That said, of course, the movie by itself would certainly lose none of its impact, and requires almost no commentary or context to prove its mettle as a classic. But Gone With the Wind on Blu-ray is a bonanza of great presentation, great packaging and great content that isn't merely a celebration of one of the greatest films in history, but an embodiment of its quality and substance.