There is much to be said about a film that reports on the basic human need to rediscover our hearts desires in our own backyards. What Frank L. Baum’s turn of the last century series of children's books did for the imagination, director Victor Fleming's The Wizard of Oz (1939) has recreated on a much broader canvas and for both the young and young in heart. Even by Hollywood’s colossal standards the production of Oz was a mammoth undertaking; compounded by the added expense of shooting almost the entire movie in the newly improved 3-strip Technicolor process. Arthur Freed’s assist on this Mervyn LeRoy produced glossy children’s fantasy/epic would elevate his stature to full-fledged producer at MGM – the purveyor of nearly three decades of the studio’s most memorable musicals. But Oz is more than the pluperfect example of MGM’s craftsmanship, and this in a year of such titanic achievements as Goodbye Mr. Chips, The Women and, of course, Gone With The Wind. In such distinguished company, Oz remains perhaps the most genuine, heartfelt, deliriously joyous – and occasionally frightening – fantasy movie ever made: an impeccable pedigree. Others have tried to duplicate its infectious compendium of song, story and artful dexterity – mostly to their own detriment by direct comparison.
Today, The Wizard of Oz seems like such an obvious classic that one tends to forget just how much of a long shot and gamble it truly was in 1939. Warner Bros. had attempted an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland (1933) and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) – costly flops, though arguably artistically sound. Oz also presented MGM’s special effects wizards with a litany of challenges: how to create a convincing tornado, as example; how to make a wicked witch and her winged monkeys fly. The ingenuity exhibited on Oz broke new ground and set standards for decades to follow. As for casting, MGM had desperately tried to persuade Fox’s Darryl F. Zanuck for a loan out of Shirley Temple. L.B. Mayer even arranged for the blond moppet to tour the studio back lot in a filmed press and promotional junket that was designed to garner public interest in Temple’s participation on the project. Zanuck, however, was no fool. Temple’s loan out would pale to the profits made on such a lavishly appointed spectacle. But if Oz failed, it could also considerably impact Temple’s future popularity with audiences. Zanuck wasn’t willing to wager with his most bankable star. No deal. Temple was out, and Mayer decided to stay close to home, casting Judy Garland as his Dorothy Gale instead.
Judy Garland’s star had been on the ascendance ever since she appeared in a little two-reel musical review: Every Sunday (1936) and, in the three short years that had passed since she had matured from what Mayer once referred to as ‘his little monkey’ into a popular ingénue who could act, deftly handle comedy and drama and sing the hell out of a spiritual, pop tune or romantic ballad with what at least appeared to be the greatest of ease and a staggeringly innate talent. Garland’s stardom would explode after 1939, not just for her appearance in Oz, but also for a pair of movies opposite Mickey Rooney (Babes in Arms, and Love Finds Andy Hardy – the latter, still the most popular installment in the Andy Hardy series). In retrospect, it is in Judy Garland that Oz truly takes flight; her sumptuous gifts as a performer able to tear our hearts out, and then, just as easily, warm them in the afterglow of her tender humanity. Viewing Oz today, and in light of Temple’s own formidable talents and popularity, it is virtually impossible to imagine her in the role.
At sixteen Garland was, in fact, much too old – and even the wrong type (at least in theory) for the part of the Kansas waif whisked away to the magical land beyond the rainbow. But in hindsight she absolutely exhibits the hallmarks of Baum’s precocious heroine – chiefly, gumption – and undeniably, the raw emotional content necessary to warble and cajole her way through the harrowing fantasy landscape. Dorothy Gale has since been interpreted as a feminist – her ability to enter and impact the world around her in a positive light against seemingly insurmountable odds viewed as very pro-woman, or at the very least, imbued with the moxie of ‘girl power’. Yet Garland is never demonstrative in her conquering; rather staunchly optimistic and forthright in her goal – namely, to see her journey through to the capital of Oz, the Emerald City, and make her demands (as well as those of her three cohorts) known to the fellow in charge. And Garland makes something more of the character than simply a young girl with the intuitive desire to go home. That she excels when she sings is a given – especially when looking back on her illustrious career. But to find Garland an actress on par with virtually any of the greats either of screen or stage for that matter, and at such a young age, is never anything less than a revelation.
I have seen The Wizard of Oz many, many times. Yet, Garland’s performance never fails to elicit unpretentious tears, joy, exuberance and – that most intangible of all movie qualities to conjure (much less consistently recreate) – magic. Arguably, Garland is the greatest illusionist of the 2oth century – the maker of myth and the giver of life to this fanciful never-never-land and the undisputed megastar of so many iconic movies from Hollywood’s golden age. As the only earthling inside Oz’s supernatural realm Garland becomes our goodwill ambassador to another world – spreading lightness and cheer, offering hope and perspective to virtually all whom she meets who otherwise might have surrendered themselves long ago to the status quo; thereupon at the occasional mercy of the Wicked Witch of the West.
For Dorothy’s trio of cohorts MGM chose Buddy Ebsen, Bert Lahr and Ray Bolger – all veterans of the stage who had broken through to popular appeal in the movies. Early camera tests reveal Ebsen as a rather goony looking Tin Man – serviceable but hardly the ideal. Ebsen would suffer a near fatal accident during pre-production; inhaling so much aluminum dust used in his makeup applications that it literally coated his lungs, necessitating a prolonged recuperation in hospital. In his absence, MGM cast Jack Haley as his replacement, changing the makeup from aluminum dust to aluminum paste. As shooting progressed, another accident would befall- this time to Margaret Hamilton, nearly scorched when the fireball meant to conceal her disappearance through a drop floor on the Munchkinland stage misfired, melting the highly toxic green makeup on her face and hands worn as the Wicked Witch.
Adrian’s costume designs for Oz were exquisite with details as fine as rivets, applications of burlap and real yak hair, and a formidable array of ornate and colorful suits and dresses for the little people of Munchkinland. None were a joy to wear. Judy Garland’s gingham and calico ensemble came with the added restraint of having her bosom strapped down tightly with tissue and a modified corset. Bert Lahr’s cowardly lion suit weighed almost fifty pounds, while Ray Bolger’s makeup required painful applications of spirit gum, cloth and straw matted to his forehead, eyebrows and hair. Worse, working without the luxury of air conditioning, the huge arc lights necessary for Technicolor to register properly inside the vast and cavernous soundstages, caused temperatures inside to rise well over one hundred degrees. The lights also occasionally sparked, making loud noises that interrupted and delayed the shooting.
MGM spared no expense – both in making, and marketing The Wizard of Oz – the lineups outside Radio City Music Hall for tickets starting at five-thirty in the morning. Oz was an overnight sensation, but one that failed to recoup its initial outlay during its first theatrical run. MGM continued to reissue the movie, eventually making back its production costs. But Oz’s real longevity began in the mid-1950's when CBS elected to air it on national television. Those who had never seen Oz in its Technicolor and sepia splendor now could only experience it in fuzzy/grainy B&W. But that did not dissuade the millions of admirers from instantly falling under its spell. Still, the movie might just as easily have swung the other way; what with constant debate in the front offices over the inclusion of the Harold Arlen song ‘Over The Rainbow’ that some executives believed slowed down the Kansas sequence. Arthur Freed fought for it to remain in the film. Today, one cannot imagine Oz without this iconic and Oscar-winning song; the cornerstone of Judy Garland’s movie (and later concert) career. Translated into over 50 languages The Wizard of Oz remains the most widely seen and instantly recognizable motion picture ever made. There really is nothing comparable to the genuine love people continue to have for it.
When Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) is swept up by a cyclone and deposited into that magical land beyond the rainbow she meets three of its isolated inhabitants: a lonely scarecrow (Ray Bolger), perceptive tin man (Jack Haley) and cowardly lion (Bert Lahr).Each represents a piece of Dorothy’s inner quest to find her own true place within the world at large; the scarecrow is Dorothy’s thirst for knowledge; the tin man, her desire to be compassionate, and the lion, indicative of her own inner fear repeatedly tested and eventually conquered with genuine fortitude to see the journey through. Unfortunately, Dorothy makes rather a bad enemy of the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton). But together with the aid of her friends and a personal commitment to her safety made possible by Glinda; the Good Witch of the North’s (Billie Burke) kiss and gift of ruby slippers – Dorothy sets out to learn that the greatest adventure of all is in the realization that one can dictate their own destiny. The film’s prophetic introduction, that “time has been powerless to put its’ kindly philosophy out of fashion” has since served as the best summation of Oz’s enduring cultural impact; its reminder of the possible even under seemingly impossible conditions reinvigorates humanity's lasting idealism, mankind's progress and everlasting faith in the prospects of a brighter tomorrow.
The Wizard of Oz is a peerless achievement, and, like Gone With The Wind, the perfect flowering of that ancient and empirical dream factory where creative integrity and the corporate culture met on a common ground destined to produce truly great and lasting works of art. In the final hour, the proof in Oz’s purpose is clear; to remind us all that one’s place in the world does not come from the magical dabbling of some omnipotent power, but remains at the very heart and soul our own will to give form and life to our dreams. And even if the world at hand does not present itself under the most ideal of circumstances, the underlying message is pointed clear; there is still no place like home. The fantasy film has never been quite so honest or appealing.
Warner Home Video’s 75th Anniversary Blu-Ray is a red herring. Their home video division’s edict used to be that they neither augmented nor manipulated movie art in their meticulous remastering efforts, but rather made every possible effort to preserve and restore the original intent of the artists’ work. That ‘kindly philosophy’ has since gone out the window. The Wizard of Oz has been converted to 3D and slightly cropped to conform to the ‘crystal clear’ IMAX format. Thankfully, all logic hasn’t left the powers that be, because we’re also provided with a properly framed standard format release as well. I’ll just go on record here with a purist’s mentality and say that Warner had absolutely no business tinkering with Oz some five short years after the release of their 70th anniversary or, in fact, ever. This box set is a money grab at best – containing one ‘newly produced’ extra feature apart from the 3D conversion – another ‘making of’ documentary to replace the old one hosted by Angela Lansbury.
It doesn’t appear that Warner has re-remastered the movie for its 2D presentation either; but merely slapped out the old 70th anniversary transfer with new disc art. I tried watching Oz in 3D, but found myself genuinely bored by the experience. It isn’t that great pains haven’t been taken to present the film in 3D. They have. And the results are predictably on the nose; the witch comes flying off the screen, the letters spelling out ‘surrender Dorothy’ floating in the ether, Glinda’s bubble advancing into foreground, and so on and so forth. But Oz doesn’t need 3D to capture our hearts. Arguably, it doesn’t even work quite as well with its inclusion. Apart from the 3D effect, Oz in 3D appears sharper, cleaner and with a slight variation in colors and grain structure from its standard 2D counterpart – Dorothy’s gingham gown more vibrantly blue, the Munchkinland’s marching band yellow uniforms more textured and bright.
The 2D version utilizes the same 1080p 8k resolution. Is this bad? No, the 70th anniversary looked quite good to my eyes, save one glaring omission of dialogue, somehow flubbed in the mastering process. This absence persists in this 75th remastering – again, because the same transfer was used. The pluses are colors that are uniformly vibrant, bold and eye-popping. Contrast is bang on and fine detail has been stunningly realized. One noted exception comes in the brief long shot of the Emerald City where contrast remains slightly bumped. There is also some minor 'breathing' and built-in flicker along the right and left sides of the screen that ought to have been corrected for the 70th and should have been paid attention to for this 75th. Otherwise, this is a flawless visual presentation of a much beloved classic film. The audio has been remixed yet again to HD 7.1. The original mono, restored and remarkably resilient is also included for the film purist to enjoy.
Warner Home Video has basically reissued all of the extras from its 70th Anniversary edition of Oz with one exception: The Making of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It’s brand new but an overview at best, with vintage and new snippets and soundbytes from cast and crew and historians John Fricke, Sam Wasson, composers Stephen Schwartz, Marc Shaiman and film critics Leonard Maltin, Michael Sragow weighing in on the longevity of Oz. Bert Lahr’s son John is also featured. We lose the original documentary ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ hosted by Angela Lansbury and made for Oz’s 50th anniversary celebration. Otherwise, we get the same bio on director Victor Fleming, many of the silent Oz shorts that preceded the MGM film and the award-winning 6 hour documentary, MGM: When The Lion Roars still looking very careworn and in need of a remastering effort. This Turner Pictures produced compendium of MGM’s illustrious history deserves so much better! We also get the old audio commentary by John Fricke.
This time around the non-Blu-Ray extras include another hardcover book, a snow globe with ruby slippers, reproductions of the ‘heart’, ‘testimonial’ and ‘medal of honor’ bestowed upon the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Lion by the Wizard and a map of Oz. Personal opinion of course, but I wouldn’t have minded this release so much if it were not for the fact that there are so many other worthy movies in Warner’s back catalogue of Warner/MGM/RKO/Goldwyn and Paramount holdings still awaiting a first time release in hi-def. Add to this, the fact that the studio has done a complete about face in their philosophy about tampering with classic movie art simply because they can and I find the 75th anniversary of Oz politely disgusting: designed almost exclusively to rape the last dollar from the consumer – most of who probably already own the 70th and really shouldn’t feel the need for a repurchase of this box a scant five years later. Time will tell, but I can almost safely bet Warner is already hard at work churning out the spin for an 80th Anniversary. Bottom line: don’t waste your money unless, of course, you missed out on the 70th.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)