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The Wizard of Oz

(1939) **** G
101 min. MGM. Director: Victor Fleming. Cast: Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Charles Grapewin, Clara Blandick.

/content/films/3577/1.jpgFor seventy years now, the young—and the "Young in Heart"—have thrilled to The Wizard of Oz, MGM's deathless musical adaptation of L. Frank Baum's 1900 children's novel. No other movie has happily indoctrinated so many children to the language of cinema. It's more than a movie; it's an American rite of passage. Though a few slip by without seeing The Wizard of Oz, every child should be terrified by Miss Gulch, The Wicked Witch of the West, and her flying monkeys; every child should gasp when Dorothy steps from earthly sepia into otherworldy Technicolor; every child should share in Dorothy's dream of adventure, music, and friendship "somewhere over the rainbow" before returning to the non-creature comforts of home.

Despite the hard work and brilliance of director Victor Fleming, The Wizard of Oz bucks auteur theory: even putting aside the fact that Oz was partly directed by King Vidor and others, it is that truly magical movie that we must concede was made by committee, the studio system at its best. With apologies to Buddy Ebsen (sidelined as the Tin Man when the makeup nearly killed him), the cast of The Wizard of Oz is exactingly effective: Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale, the Kansas farmgirl who learns her lessons as a stranger in the strange land of Oz; Margaret Hamilton as the WIcked Witch of the West; Billie Burke as Glinda, the Good Witch of the North; Frank Morgan as the Wonderful Wizard of Oz; and Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, and Bert Lahr as Dorothy's companions the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion. Screenwriters Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf got final credit, though over a dozen others put their fingerprints on the script. The music of Harold Arlen and lyrics of E.Y. "Yip" Harburg are fantastically potent elements (met with brilliant orchestration and charming choreography), and then there's the astonishing technical contributions: photography, set design, costume, makeup...

The results are indelible, making The Wizard of Oz that rare perfect cinematic objet d'art that almost everyone can agree is a perfect movie. It is a sure-fire children's entertainment, with its visual wonderment, vivid characters, and propulsive story. And its charms remain evergreen into adulthood and timelessly over the decades. Part of the film's appeal comes from its careful adoption of what Joseph Campbell called the Monomyth: Dorothy's cyclical journey of discovery in an unknown world tests her and teaches her that she had it in her all along to be a hero. Unlike the book, the film hedges its bets by suggesting Oz is a dreamland (or perhaps, to those who'd rather watch the film while listening to Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon, a "head trip" made possible by blunt force head trauma and/or poppies). The conservative message that "there's no place like home" (therefore, be careful what you wish for, kids: the world out there may be exciting, but it's also dangerous) no doubt helps the film remain a perennial gift from parents to children.

All viewers have their own favorite characters, songs, and scenes (and it's impossible to pick just one). I respond to the supreme theatricality of the acting, the Broadway and Vaudeville stylings led by Morgan, Bolger, Haley and Lahr. Morgan's finely tuned comic babbling in five different roles mark his incredible talent. Though the actor was deeply unhappy in his makeup, Haley's performance is alchemical, turning tin into sweetness and heart. Carpeted in fur (under klieg lights, no less), Lahr is no less committed or inventive, going full bore with Brooklynese comic cat-erwauling. But it's hard not to love the Scarecrow "most of all": Bolger's "If I Only Had a Brain" song and dance is simply sublime, with the actor convincingly waggling his limbs in a simulation of magical boneless-ness. Of course, the iconic Garland never gave a more iconic performance: only a teenager at the time, she made a wholly convincing little girl, one also able to bust out with a knockout voice and inner reserves of love and strength.

In a sense, The Wizard of Oz is too good, having ruined the possibility of making an effective film series out of Baum's dazzlingly creative baker's dozen of successive Oz books. Walter Murch made a game try with 1985's Return to Oz—which introduced such other viable Baum characters as Ozma, Jack Pumpkinhead, Tik-Tok, Billina, Mombi and the Nome King—and word has it that John Boorman will attempt rebooting The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Even if the Oz series is successfully exploited for further films, the 1939 film will always be that shining Emerald City on a hill, at the end of a Yellow Brick Road joyously danced upon by ruby slippers: why would we ever want to return to our "black and white" world?

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Aspect ratios: 1.33:1

Number of discs: 4

Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.0, 1.0

Street date: 9/29/2009

Distributor: Warner Home Video

I know, I know: if you're like me, you've already bought The Wizard of Oz on VHS and more than once on DVD (not to mention laserdisc). But if you pony up for the new 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition Blu-ray, believe me: you won't be sorry. The picture-quality is downright astonishing, and while the difference is palpable on DVD, it leaps into a new realm in high-def Blu-ray. The new transfer derives from a remastering in "full film Resolution" using several original film elements (original Technicolor camera negatives) to ensure the very best quality. The digitally scanned and painstakingly cleaned-up image resulted in a 4K final "capture" master doubling the resolution of the master used in the previous DVD edition. Maximum sharpness reveals a new level of detail, exemplified by the realization of previously undiscernable rivets in the Tin Man's makeup. The movie retains its film-like appearance, but it shines like never before as colors pop off the screen and spot-on contrast contributes to dazzling depth. Oz fans know by now that Warner has taken great care with the audio elements as well, and the lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix here presents those elements at their very best; the original mono track is also available in Dolby Digital, but the surround mix has been crafted with such fidelity to the source—and with such an ear to preserving the original storytelling impact of the film—that it's hard to imagine anyone complaining about the state-of-the-art version.

It should go without saying that this package features a wealth of bonus features. The 2005 extras remain intact, and plenty of value has been added since then. The Ultimate Collector's Edition comes in a giant (and handsome) emerald-colored box that includes a numbered Limited Edition 70th-Anniversary Wristwatch (with genuine crystals!), a reproduction of the original 1939 publicity Campaign Book, a replica of the original movie budget, and a 52-page full-color hardcover commemorative book by leading Oz expert John Fricke: Behind the Curtain of Production 1060. The latter includes behind-the-scenes photographs, studio memos, and script pages for abandoned scenes and musical numbers.

The four-disc Blu-ray edition crams in just about everything an Oz fan could desire. The Music and Effects Track and a new Sing-Along Track are playback options, as is the fantastic commentary by John Fricke with Barbara Freed-Saltzman (daughter of Arthur Freed), Margaret Hamilton, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, John Lahr (son of Bert Lahr), Jane Lahr (daughter of Bert Lahr), Hamilton Meserve (son of Margaret Hamilton), Dona Massin (MGM choreographer), William Tuttle (make- up artist), Buddy Ebsen, Mervyn LeRoy, and Jerry Maren.

The 1990 TV special "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: The Making of a Movie Classic" (50:49, SD), narrated by Angela Lansbury and directed by Jack Haley, Jr, includes the reminiscences of LeRoy, Bolger, Haley, Judy Garland, Harold Arlen, Robert A. Baum, A. Arnold Gillespie, Margaret Hamilton, E.Y. Harburg, John Lahr, Joey Luft, Lorna Luft, Maren, Liza Minnelli, Meinhardt Raabe, King Vidor and Robert Young.

"The Art of Imagination: A Tribute to Oz"
(29:45, SD), narrated by Sydney Pollack, gathers top Hollywood talent of today--most of them Oscar winners--to explain the artistry of Oz. Participants include composers Randy Newman, Howard Shore and Don Davis; composer-lyricist Richard M. Sherman; writer-directors Peter Jackson, Nicholas Meyer, and Martha Coolidge; director Rob Bowman; actor Sean Astin; character effects designers Tom Woodruff, Jr and Alec Gillis; cinematographers Allen Daviau and John Hora; singer Michael Feinstein; costume designers Colleen Atwood and Albert Wolsky; production designer Henry Bumstead, Kevin Conran, Gene Allen and Corey Hope Kaplan; editors Anne V. Coates and Joel Cox; make-up effects artist Rick Baker; and visual effects designers John Dykstra and Harrison Ellenshaw.

"Because of the Wonderful Things it Does: The Legacy of Oz" (25:05, SD), narrated by Brittany Murphy, discusses the film's skyrocketing success and influence and offshoots following its initial TV airing in 1956, as well as thematic interpretations of the story and the film's obsessive collectors. Interviewed are Fricke, USC film professor Drew Casper, Books of Wonder owner Peter Glassman, cartoonist/Oz illustrator and author Eric Shanower, co-CEO of the Jim Henson Company Lisa Henson, Burt Lahr's daughter Jane Lahr and son John Lahr, theatre historian Mark Evan Swartz, filmmaker Willard Carroll, transpersonal psychotherapist/L. Frank Baum's great-granddaughter Gita Dorothy Morena, master Oz impressionist Kurt S. Raymond, Dorothy Gale impressionist Elaine Horn, Coroner Munchkin Meinhardt Raabe, Sleepyhead Munchkin Margaret Pellegrini, and Soldier Munchkin August Clarence Swenson.

The 2001 TCM documentary "Memories of Oz" (27:39, SD) gathers an assortment of fans and original talent to discuss various aspects of the film and its legacy. Director John Waters, Carroll, Jane Lahr, The Munchkins of Oz author Stephen Cox, Oz-ocologist Woolsey Ackerman, MGM contract player Buddy Ebsen, MGM choreographer Dona Massin, Munchkins Pellegrini, Raabe, Swensen, Mickey Carroll, Karl Slover, Ruth Duccini, and Jerry Maren add their comments; the doc also includes an intriguing montage demonstrating how the MGM studio re-employed Oz costumes, set pieces and props.

"The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Storybook" (10:27, SD) is an abridged narration of the story by Angela Lansbury.

"Prettier Than Ever: The Restoration of Oz" (11:27, SD) details the amazing work done by interviewees VP Technical Operations Rob Hummell; VP Mastering Ned Price; lead technical director Paul Klamer; telecine colorist Janet Wilson; digital restoration supervisor Steve Sanchez; digital restoration operators Sheila MacMullan, Cathy Quiroz and Steven G. Banks; and restoration and remastering engineer James Young.

"We Haven't Really Met Properly..." (21:23 with "Play All" option, SD) is a collection of nine actor profiles that explore the character casting. Included are Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Billie Burke, Margaret Hamilton, Charley Grapewin, Clara Blandick and Terry (Toto).

The Jukebox is a menu of and player for the film's myriad music cues.

Other audio available includes the "'Leo Is on the Air' Radio Promo" (12:10, HD), "Good News of 1939 Radio Show" (1:00:57, HD), and the "12/25/1950 Lux Radio Theater Broadcast" (1:00:49, HD).

The 1938 MGM short subject "Another Romance of Celluloid: Electrical Power" (10:31, SD) is here, as is an excerpt from the promotional short subject "Cavalcade of the Academy Awards" (2:14, SD); the newsreel excerpt "Texas Contest Winners" (1:26, SD), showing Buddy Ebsen during the rehearsal period before his ailment and recasting; and some of the Oz segments animated by Chuck Jones for the 1967 TV program "Off to See the Wizard" (3:57, SD).

Eighteen Stills Galleries cover pre-production, production, premieres and more. You'll find six Trailers (11:23, SD) and the invaluable collection of "Harold Arlen's Home Movies" (4:40, SD), color 16mm footage of a photo shoot and set visits.

Outtakes and Deleted Scenes (with "Play All" option) include "If I Only Had a Brain" (4:37, SD), Buddy Ebsen's vocals for "If I Only Had a Heart" (1:36, SD), cut music cue "Triumphal Return to Emerald City" (1:54, SD), the cut reprise of "Over the Rainbow" (2:08, SD) and infamous cut number "The Jitterbug" (4:05, SD). The sequences lacking footage are illustrated by production stills.

"It's a Twister! It's a Twister! The Tornado Tests"
(8:17, SD) features raw special effects footage.

Disc Two kicks off with the new documentary "Victor Fleming: Master Craftsman" (34:08, SD), which gathers comments from William Friedkin, Leonard Maltin, Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master author Michael Sragow, author & film historian Rudy Behlmer, Bombshell: The Life and Death of Jean Harlow author David Stenn, director Francis Lawrence, William Wellman, Jr. and actor Gene Reynolds.

The profile "L. Frank Baum: The Man Behind the Curtain" (27:45, SD) hears from Morena, Baum's great-grandson Robert A. Baum, Fricke, The Annotated Wizard of Oz author Michael Patrick Hearn, deputy director of U.C. Berkeley's Bancroft Library Peter E. Hanff, director of heritage programs for Hotel Del Coronado Christine Donovan, and theater historian David Maxine.

New featurette "Hollywood Celebrates Its Biggest Little Stars!" (10:23, SD) covers the event at which the Munchkins receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Participants include Robert & Clare Baum, Pellegrini, Maren, Raabe, Slover, organizer Ted Bulthaup, Carroll, Judy Garland's son Joe Luft, and Swensen.

The next section comprises seven feature films related to Oz. First, the 1990 TV-movie The Dreamer of Oz (1:32:48, SD) makes its home-video debut. The teleplay by Richard Matheson (The Twilight Zone) and direction by Jack Bender (Lost) buoy a charming account of Baum's life starring John Ritter (as Baum), Annette O'Toole, Rue McClanahan, Charles Haid, John Cameron Mitchell, Jerry Maren and Jason Ritter. Unfortunately, the picture quality is atrocious. Also new to WB's Wizard of Oz releases are the 1914 silents The Magic Cloak of Oz (43:15, SD) and The Patchwork Girl of Oz (50:43, SD).

Making return appearances are the 1910 short "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" (13:18, SD); the 1933 Technicolor cartoon short "The Wizard of Oz" (8:13, SD), with music by Carl Stalling and a historic shift from black-and-white to color; the 1914 feature His Majesty, The Scarecrow of Oz (59:07, SD), written and directed by L. Frank Baum; and the 1925 feature The Wizard of Oz (1:11:53, SD).

Exclusive to the Blu-ray release is the six-hour documentary MGM: When The Lion Roars, presented on a flipper DVD.

Against the odds, this 70-year-old movie has survived to become an event again, and the Blu-ray upgrade will pay back every penny in years of enjoyment.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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