There have been two major productions in the history of Hollywood: "Gone With the Wind" and every other movie.
When it was decided, with a shudder, that "Gone With the Wind" was coming to home video, the people at MGM, which first released it 46 years ago, decreed it would be treated more royally than any other film. They digitally remastered the sound track, they did frame-by-frame color correction of every scene in the film, they managed to discover a mint-condition internegative that had been stashed and forgotten in an underground vault in Kansas and made their new prints from that. And they launched the biggest promotional and publicity campaign in the short but burgeoning history of home video, one that will include a commercial on the Academy Awards telecast March 25.
But they also made a teeny-tiny error in reconstructing the musical sound track on the first reel. Just an iddo-bitty blip, really, a small deviation, a fleeting little blooper -- one that, arguably, ruins the whole film.
This weekend there was panic in Hollywood. Following a reporter's inquiry on Friday, Peter Anderson, vice president of technical operations for MGM/UA Home Entertainment, embarked on an investigation to learn why the music heard under the prologue to the film, just after "Tara's Theme" in the opening credits, is The Wrong Music. "I have a reason why, not a good one," Anderson said yesterday from Los Angeles. "It was simply because of an error in laboratory records."
Although the negative was found in Kansas, the optical sound track was one stored in Hollywood, and, because of mislabeling, the tender and florid prologue to the film, meant to be accompanied by Max Steiner's dreamily nostalgic 45-second arrangement of "Dixie" for orchestra and choir, is seen instead to a loud burst of raucous, martial bombast. This music was meant to be used only on foreign versions, where the flowery prologue was replaced with a prosaic scroll explaining the reasons for the Civil War.
The domestic prologue romanticizes the Old South as "no more than a dream remembered . . . a Civilization gone with the wind . . ."
Somehow a military band whacking out a march just doesn't go with it.
If this sounds like a small matter, it isn't to devotees of "Gone With the Wind," and there may be more of those than there are for any other film. Still the top-grossing picture of all time (in contemporary dollars, MGM points out), it is also commonly and with little dispute referred to as "the greatest" picture of all time. Film historian Ronald Haver, who wrote the majestic coffeetable movie book "David O. Selznick's Hollywood," about the film's fabled producer, was not pleased to hear of the snafu.
"Oh my God, that's awful!" he exclaimed. "Oh, you've ruined my day! That prologue is one of the most beautiful things about the film! This is practically akin to making the whole thing valueless!" He all but ran out onto Wilshire Boulevard waving his arms in the air.
Asked how other fans of the film would react to the mistake, he said, "Oh, they'd be furious."
Anderson feels bad about the mistake but doesn't think it makes this meticulously produced home video version of "Gone With the Wind" valueless. "It was a mistake, a very honest mistake, but you can't say we have impugned the integrity of 'Gone With the Wind,' " Anderson said. "This was a very honest effort to make as definitive and complete a version of the film as has ever existed.
"This is not a serious problem. I'm glad we discovered it now."
However, Anderson said, he would prefer to have discovered it two or three weeks ago. All 300,000 copies of "Gone With the Wind" in Beta and VHS two-tape deluxe packages are ready to be shipped to stores for sale beginning next month (list price a bargain $89.95). Already stores are selling gift certificates for the tapes as part of MGM's Valentine's Day promotional campaign: "Show Her You Do Give a Damn, Buy Her 'Gone With the Wind.' " There is no way to correct the sound track error on these tapes.
When the next pressings begin, Anderson said, the correct music will be inserted. "Ninety-nine point 44 percent of the people who buy 'Gone With the Wind' will not notice it," he said, but he conceded that for die-hard fans of the film, the error will seem grievous to the max. So, he said, "some accommodation" with those fans could be reached, whereby they would return unplayed the first tape in the set, on which the error occurs, for an exchange from MGM once the corrected version becomes available. Or return the whole set if it is still factory-sealed.
"We will make the correction as expeditiously as we can," Anderson said. "There is nothing I can do about it for the first release of the film."
Even though "Gone With the Wind" has been televised five times on network television (the first, on NBC, in 1976, the rest on CBS), and even though its ratings on the last telecast were not spectacular (the first airing broke ratings records), its arrival on home videotape is as big an event as the home video industry has experienced. And when, last year, the pristine internegative was found, the prospect of seeing "Gone With the Wind" in better condition, at home, than it had been seen in theaters since its first release tantalizingly arose.
In addition to all the legends and lore surrounding the film -- the casting of Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh as Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara, the spectacular torching of the Selznick lot to represent the burning of Atlanta -- it was a landmark in Technicolor photography and production design. Most audiences have seen it in inferior, unfaithful prints, including a monstrous wide-screen, recropped mutilation MGM released in the '50s, the mere mention of which still makes film buffs break out in anguished chills.
Actually, MGM had planned to hold off home video release until 1989, to comply with stipulations of the $35 million contract CBS signed to control television showings. But that contract was renegotiated because the film was licensed for home video distribution abroad, and Japanese copies began making their way into the United States. One video store on Sunset Boulevard was selling them for $250. Customers were advised they would have to endure Japanese subtitles dancing merrily along the bottom of the screen, but that didn't seem to bother them or impede sales.
So the domestic version was hurried along.
But lovingly hurried. MGM spent $50,000 just to bring the sound track up to modern standards, electronically eliminating pops, sputters and hiss and "spatially enhancing" it for the new breed of hi-fi Beta and VHS recorders. It cost another $75,000 just to turn the film negative into an electronic tape negative.
"We invented some technology for this film," Anderson says. "We used something called vector analysis; we revectored the sound track, to remove the ravages of time. Even though the rustle of a hoop skirt may sound something like the hiss of an optical track, we removed the hiss and left the rustle. We used digital technology to create true stereo imaging, true left-right imaging, not just that phony stereo they used to use on mono records."
Spatial enhancement of sound was precise to the last drawl, Anderson says. "We have a box that creates a room, the ambiance of whatever room in which the characters are talking. You can choose the size of that room, the shape of the room and the texture of what's on the walls, so that everything sounds right."
The tape version is so complete that it includes Max Steiner's overture, intermission music and the exit music that follows the finale.
Haver saw a few reels from the film as they had been transferred to laser video discs. "Gorgeous," he decreed. "The best looking 'Gone With the Wind' I have ever seen. They really broke their necks to do a great job on it."
Unfortunately, Haver didn't look at the opening of the film, or all this mess about the prologue might have been caught in time.
Once you get past that prologue, and provided it's being viewed on a better class of video equipment, this is the "Gone With the Wind" to answer every "Gone With the Wind" fan's prayers. And to convert those who aren't among them. The green in Scarlett's drapes, or gown, or drapes-turned-gown; the rose in her cheeks after she pinches them to impress a beau; the pink in the lips, the veil, the dress and the flower-in-the-hair of Belle, the town madam; the wild rainbow hues of the fund-raising ball; the red hair on the Tarleton twins; even the texture of a carpetbag -- all these little details contribute to a glistening visual pageant. Even poor old Frank Kennedy's hardware store looks great.
Incredible care was lavished on the original production and appropriately incredible care was lavished on the home video version.
"We were very careful," Anderson says. "This is our only 'Gone With the Wind.' "
There is only one "Gone With the Wind." This just isn't quite it.
Anderson sounds personally injured by the fact that after all that care and all that money, there's that glaring imperfection. But then, he should remember what often happens to best laid plans.
And besides, tomorrow is another day.