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June 25, 2019

The Wild Heart


Gone to Earth
Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger - 1950

The Wild Heart
Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger - 1952
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

"He (David O. Selznick) never had the guts to direct a picture himself. He shunned the responsibility. He preferred to spend hours and days of his life dictating memos telling other people how to direct films. This made him a rather pathetic figure." - Michael Powell

Two perfect shots: First, Jennifer Jones as Hazel Woodus is introduced in a long shot, seen from a distance walking up a hill. The wind in blowing from the right of the screen. There are a row of trees all tilted leftwards that frame Hazel on the right side. Hazel walks leftward and then right, facing the wind. The shot establishes Hazel's character as being both part of the natural world but also fighting against it. As played by Jones, Hazel is connected to Pearl Chavez and Ruby Gentry, the woman as the perpetual outsider due to societal roles and her own rebellious nature.

The second perfect shot is a tilt-down at two pairs of feet. The recently married Hazel agrees to a rendezvous with Reddin, a local squire who previous tried to seduce Hazel, and has since pursued her, disregarding her status as the wife of a minister. The marriage has yet to be consummated. The two meet in the vicinity of the same area of the opening shot. Hazel is barefoot. Reddin is wearing brown boots. Hazel is carrying a handful of flowers. We see the two meet within the shot of the two pairs of feet coming closer. Hazel is standing on her toes. The flowers fall down onto the ground as the shot continues. We then see one of Reddin's boots trample the flowers as he picks up Hazel. The shot refers back to an earlier scene, with Hazel unaware of the connotations of the expression "pick up". Within that single shot is all we need to know about Hazel's infidelity.

For those who are not aware of the film's history, The Wild Heart is the re-edited version of Gone to Earth, supervised by Jones' husband, producer David O. Selznick. Kino Lorber has chosen to make The Wild Heart the main feature of the new blu-ray, with Gone to Earth listed as a bonus. Most cinephiles would probably have it the other way around. In any case, viewers can finally see both films and compare for themselves. This long awaited release may well be one of the more important blu-ray releases of the year.

That first shot of Hazel, a small figure among tall trees, was not part of The Wild Heart. David O. Selznick was reduced to co-production status in 1949 following Portrait of Jennie and a loss of $12,000,000. to his studio. Selznick recognized the directorial talent of the time with films by Carol Reed, Powell and Pressberger, and Vittorio De Sica. At the same time, Selznick was unable to leave the films alone, making his own versions for U.S distribution. Minor tinkering with The Third Man was followed by heavy editing and re-shoots on Powell and Pressburger's film. De Sica's Terminal Station was significantly abridged, re-edited, and given the lurid title of Indiscretion of an American Wife. I would guess that not a day went by when David O. Selznick would not remind someone within earshot that he had produced Gone with the Wind, at the time the biggest box office success ever. In terms of his relationship with filmmakers on his European co-productions, Selznick was the Harvey Weinstein of his day.

The basic story, adapted from a 1917 novel, takes place in Shropshire, a county in northern England that borders Wales, in 1897. Hazel Woodus lives in a remote part of the countryside with her father, a craftsman who makes coffins. Hazel's closest relationship is with her pet fox called Foxy. She also relies on a book of spells left by her mother, described as a gypsy, for her decision making. Hazel is emblematic of the tensions of British history, between its past as a Roman colony and identity more tightly defined as Christian. This is made more clear with the relationships with the hedonistic Jack Reddin and the chaste Edward Marston, complicated by Hazel's own mixed feelings about both men. Just as the pet fox can not be completely domesticated, neither can Hazel.

Even at age thirty, when Gone to Earth was produced, Jennifer Jones still looked youthful enough for her role as Hazel. She was able to speak with the appropriate accent to the approval of Michael Powell. The blu-ray is for me a quite beautiful rendering of the original Technicolor film.

There are also commentary tracks for each version that are largely complimentary with minimal duplication of information. Samm Deighan makes the connection of Gone to Earth with the earlier Powell and Pressburger film, A Canterbury Tale, as well as the novel's position as part of a history of gothic novels. On The Wild Heart, Troy Howarth provides more history on the cast and crew, as well as some discussion on David O. Selznick's revision of Gone to Earth which began as soon as he saw the first rough cut prior to the 1950 release.

What would have been more helpful, but would require deeper research, is details on who actually worked on the footage commissioned by Selznick. The film begins with a voice over spoken by Joseph Cotton, prose about Roman Britain and pagan beliefs. There are several scenes that are not in Gone to Earth, as well as more close-ups of Jones, and insert shots. One example is of Hazel standing over a sundial at Reddin's estate. In Gone To Earth, Hazel is seen in a long shot. Selznick has a cut so that the audience reads an adage on the sundial. There is some information to be gleaned from a website devoted to the films by Powell and Pressburger. While it has been acknowledged that Rouben Mamoulian directed the scenes per Selznick, based on the history of Selznick's other productions, there may have been other hands involved. Did Ben Hecht write the Selznick prologue, and who wrote those revised scenes? Troy Howarth tries to give a good defense of The Wild Heart. My own sense is that David O. Selznick was uncomfortable with letting the images speak for themselves, remaking the film to conform to his own idea of a star vehicle for wife Jennifer Jones, with underlining to eliminate any possible ambiguity. Selznick's odd grandiosity is also displayed by cutting the actual movie down to about 82 minutes, and then bookending the film with two minutes of music, an overture and exit music, on each end for a "Roadshow version".

For some film viewers, simply having Gone to Earth and The Wild Heart together may be more than enough. I would be surprise if this KL Studio Classics release was not among the nominations of significant home videos by Il Cinema Ritrovato.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at June 25, 2019 08:36 AM