THE WIZARD OF OZ 70th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray Review

     October 15, 2009

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I had a friend who had done some jail time. I was always very curious about this because I knew that it would be hugely unlikely I would ever see the inside of a cell (knock on wood). He told that one of the most beloved movies by prisoners was Wizard of Oz. This made all the sense in the world. Wizard of Oz is the ultimate escapist fantasy, which betrays the film’s original message. My thoughts after the jump.

The Wizard of Oz movie image Blu-ray.jpgIronically, what people remember most is the vivid Technicolor of Oz more than the sepia toned world of Kansas. We love our family, but the imagination is stirred by everything that happens when not at home, when not in a safe place. And yet that simple message that there is no place like home, that desire to return to one’s family is pretty profound in the movie. Wizard of Oz, in that sense, encapsulates everything that is great about movie-going, as we are allowed to escape into fantasies but return home at the end, untouched, perhaps wiser for the effort.

Dorothy (Judy Garland) is a Kansas girl mad at her neighbor Elmira Gulch (Margaret Hamilton) because she wants to kill Dorothy’s dog Toto. Dorothy’s aunt Em (Clara Bandrick) and Uncle Henry (Charley Grapewin) are her custodians, but on the farm there’s also some hired hands (Roy Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley). Dorothy runs away, and runs into Professor Marvel (Frank Morgan), who reads her future, but then a tornado comes and Dorothy is sucked away to the land of Oz, where she accidentally kills the Wicked Witch of the East. This gets her some ruby slippers, and then midgets, the Lollipop Guild, Glenda the Good Witch (Billie Burke), the Scarecrow (Bolger), the Tin Man (Haley), the cowardly Lion (Lahr), the Wicked Witch of the West (Hamilton), the Wizard of Oz (Morgan), flying monkeys, torture, water, no place like home.

The Wizard of Oz movie image (11).jpgDirected by Victor Fleming the same year he also helmed Gone with the Wind, Wizard of Oz, moreso than Casablanca, suggests that the Hollywood system is transcendent of the auteur theory. Fleming was a solid if marginal talent, and yet here he directed one of the classics of modern cinema. He was a solid craftsman, but in that way it’s good that he never got in the way of the material. Does anyone think of the film as particularly well directed? And yet it’s one of the most influential movies ever made, if even just for its influence on David Lynch (those who borrow film Lynch often take from Oz as well). There’s also something magical about its almost blasé attitude. This isn’t showing off that there’s a tin man, though there is a big musical number for all of Dorothy’s special friends. It doesn’t stop to revel in its effects. And it also doesn’t question its magic. There is something to this that is often lost in all that is CGI, there is an element of honest fakery here. We see what things are, and we buy into them, because we must. And that is great

Warner Brother’s Blu-ray edition is meant to be the definitive version. With these three discs, it may very well be. The film is presented in full frame (1.33:1) and in Dolby Digital 5.1 TrueHD. The 1080 P transfer of this Technicolor film is everything you would hope it would be. The images pop off the screen, and when the film shifts to Technicolor – even though you see it coming – the detail and density of the image is bowl-you-over excellent, and almost as good as a film print. You can also watch the film in the original mono, or with a music and effects track. Then there’s also the film in sing-a-long mode, which is self explanatory. On the first disc there’s a commentary by John Fricke with archival comments by Barbara Freed-Saltzman (daughter of producer Arthur Freed), Wicked Witch Margaret Hamilton, Ray Bolger and Jack Haley, Bert Lahr’s kids John and Jane Lahr, Margaret’s son Hamilton Meserve, choreographer Dona Massin, make-up man William Tuttle, would-be Tin Man Buddy Ebsen, producer Mervyn LeRoy, and Lollipop Guild member Jerry Maren. This is hosted by Sydney Pollack, and the commentary is informative, and glowing.

The Wizard of Oz movie image (2).jpgThe supplements hint that the midgets were having a gay old time, but the supplements also suggest that the rumors about the set were a bit exaggerated. There’s a making of (51 min.) from 1990 hosted by Angela Landsbury done for TV, it’s still got a number of living participants, and Liza Minelli, and must have been done for an earlier reissue. This thing has been a home video cash-cow for decades now. “A Tribute to Oz” (30 min.) is a new doc with appreciations by Randy Newman, Peter Jackson, Rick Baker, Howard Shore, Anne V. Coates, Nicholas Meyer, and a number of others who seemed to be grabbed at random, but most offer cogent thoughts about the appeal of the film. “Because of the Wonderful Things it Does: The Legacy of Oz” (25 min.) continues with the fawning, this time from scholars who talk about the film’s TV resurrection, with narration by Brittany Murphy. “Memories of Oz” (28 min.) finally gets John Waters to talk about the film and the impact it had, while also getting some of the same family members and most of the remaining midgets to talk about the film. These documentaries are scraping the barrel at times, and there’s some overlap, but nothing too bad. There’s a “Wizard of Oz Storybook” (10 min) that walks you through the book with narration by Landsbury. There’s a great piece on the “Restoration of Oz” (11 min.) which talks about how the film has been saved for the ages. “We Haven’t Really Met Properly” (21 min.) gives highlights from the careers of the supporting cast, which is one of my favorite supplements as most of the cast is best known for this movie.

The Wizard of Oz movie image (1).jpgThere’s three radio promos, a “Leo is on the Air” (12 min.), “Good News of 1939” (61 min.) and the Christmas broadcast from 1950 of the Lux Radio Theater (61 min.). “Another Romance of Celluloid: Electrical Power” (11 min.) offer behind the scenes footage from the making of the film when it had a different director and Garland had blond locks. “Calvalcade of Academy Awards” (2 min.) highlights the 1939’s Academy winners from the movie, while “Texas Contest Winners” (1 min.) offers promo footage featuring some brief Wizard behind the scenes. “Off to See the Wizard Excerpts” (4 min.) shows eight Chuck Jones animated segments for a TV show. Then there’s 18 still galleries, including one for deleted scenes, and one for Buddy Ebsen’s Tin Man, which is followed by six trailers, Harold Arlen’s home Movies from the portrait sittings (5 min.), five deleted/alternate scenes (14 min.) including the music for the famous Jitterbug sequence, along with some behind the scenes footage of it. Wrapping up disc one is “Tornado Tests” (8 min.) showing the preliminary effects work.

Ladies and Gentlemen, disc one.

The Wizard of Oz movie image (4).jpgNow onto Disc two. “Victor Fleming: Master Craftsman” (34 min.) gives the director his due with comments from Michael Sragow, William Friedkin, Rudy Belmer, David Stenn, and Francis Lawrence, among others, and offers some nice bits of Hollywood gossip. “L. Frank Baum: The Man Behind the Curtain” (28 min.) offers a biography of the author of Oz., while “Hollywood Celebrates Its Biggest Little Stars” (10 min.) shows the remain midgets getting a star on the Hollywood walk of fame.

Then there’s the movie variants included. “The Dreamer of Oz” (93 min.) is a TV movie about L. Frank Baum starring John Ritter and Annette O’Toole, along with Rue McClannaghan. The picture quality on it is terrible, and it’s a TV movie of the week that offer biography and recreations of the Oz world. 1910’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” (13 min.) is a silent two-reeler that recreates some of the book, while 1914’s “His Majesty, The Scarecrow of Oz” (59 min.) is actually written and directed by L. Frank Baum. Baum tried to get into the business of cinema, and so he must have not been that found of directing, and so “The Magic Cloak of Oz” (43 min.) was only written by Baum. It’s got stuffed animals. “The Patchwork Girl of Oz” (51 min.)  continues on this front from the pen of Baum. There’s also a 1925 version of Wizard  (72 min.) which features some offensive period imagery and a 1933 animated version (8 min.) that was scuttled for legal reasons. And that’s disc two. Disc three offers in standard def “When the Lion Roars” the six hour documentary on the history of MGM. It’s a very glossy look at their greatest hits, but it also talks to any of the stars who were still alive at the time, and is hosted by Patrick Stewart. It’s loving, but it does get Cyd Charise, Ernest Borgnine, Stanley Donen, Can Johnson, Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Ricardo Montalban, Debbie Reynolds, and Mickey Rooney to name a couple. Engaging, but skin deep.

Oh, but that’s not all. The deluxe edition set comes with a watch. Yes, a watch with all four leads off to see the wizard. And a digital copy. And the budget sheet. And the original campaign book, which offers color and black and white promo pieces for the theater manager to help sell the film. And finally, there’s the “Behind the Curtain of Production 1060” book, the 52 page glossy picture book that highlights the making of, and its stars. There’s only one word for a package like this: exhaustive.

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