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Category:    Home > Reviews > Fantasy > Literature > Musical > Comedy > Children > The Wizard Of Oz (1939/Warner 2-Disc Special Edition DVD Set/2009 70th Anniversary Edition)

The Wizard Of Oz (1939/Warner 2-Disc Special Edition DVD Set/2009 70th Anniversary Edition)

 

Picture: B-     Sound: C+     Extras: B     Film: B+

 

 

L. Frank Baum was one of the first independent producers of films and most of the films he made were based on his book series The Wizard Of Oz, but 12 film versions all bombed before the one we know of today became an all-time cinema classic.  Despite the fact that the film was not an immediate smash hit, especially because fantasy films were highly uncommon (versus now, where we get too many of them), there are so many reasons this one is the greatest adaptation we ever have or will get of Baum’s books and characters.  Why?  In part, it was 1939, the peak of the Hollywood Studio System and MGM, at the time the richest, largest and most powerful movie studio in the world, decided to make it into a big film and go all out to back it 100%.  The result is a classic that shows why they were #1 into the 1950s.

 

Though Victor Fleming gets the main credit for directing the film, Producer Mervyn LeRoy and King Vidor also directed sequences after Richard Thorpe’s work was jettisoned.  Fox turned MGM down to loan Shirley Temple for the film in one of the biggest mistakes they made at the time (if a hit, Temple would have returned to Fox and made money off of rival MGM’s success) and Louis B. Mayer was determined to push three technologies to new highs that were new to film that keeps the film a classic today: sound, visual effects and color.  As a matter of fact, he had the money to do the whole film in the then-expensive three-strip Technicolor, yet the Kansas sequences would be sepia-colored black and white.

 

The cast is legendary.  Judy Garland would replace Temple as Dorothy, Billie Burke played Glinda – The Good Witch and the other actors played multiple roles.  Frank Morgan would play no less than five characters, Ray Bolger would play The Scarecrow and his Kansas counterpart Hunk, Jack Haley (replacing Buddy Ebsen due to illness) would be The Tin Man (or Tin Woodsman to some) and Kansas counterpart Hickory, Bert Lahr became The Cowardly Lion and sepia equal Zeke and as one of the greatest villains in screen history, the great Margaret Hamilton would be the mean Elmira Gulch in the “real world” and Wicked Witch Of The West in what has become one of the most quoted and celebrated performances of all time among so many great ones just in this film.

 

If you don’t know the story, Dorothy lives in Kansas and has a potentially good life if she could just get it together and deal with distractions like Miss Gulch and (implied) The Great Depression.  If that were not bad enough in the Dust Bowl, the dust really kicks up when a storm hits town and she barely makes it to back to her house, which is picked up by the strong winds and suddenly, she’s been transported to another world.  As she goes outside to this colorful new world, it is so strange, yet so familiar, but new challenges lie ahead and the rest is history.

 

So why does it endure after seven decades where it is, like The Beatles, more popular than ever?  Is it from being quoted to endlessly in other films and pop culture?  Is it because the songs are so memorable?  Or that the actors were at their best all the time here?  Or that the money was really put in the film?  Or is it just because MGM had the resources to get it right until it worked?  That all helps, but it is the energy, comic timing, great script (primarily by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf, but many others also contributed) and energy that all meshes in some of the greatest big screen movie chemistry ever seen.

 

Though this was hard work, these people are having fun and know they are making something special and like nothing anyone had ever made or seen before or since, when you really think about it.  MGM added anything they could to make it exciting, even rejecting ideas that would become popular later (like the Jitterbug sequence) and everyone is charming.  The humor is truly funny throughout, combining the best of the Screwball Comedy cycle with the comedy style made famous at the time by the likes of Laurel & Hardy.  It plays to the audience’s common sense while having fun with it.

 

Also important are the famous Munchkins who have more than their share of screen time when they show up early.  It is an extravagant, generous gesture in the film that these otherworldly people (especially for 1939) would not be treated as the rejectable to-be-feared “other” but as friends and more important, embracing other who arte different as a good, positive thing.  Sadly, it is one way in which too many films have gone backwards since, but this aspect of the films remains one of its greatest triumphs.

 

But the greatest thing is how once the film gets going, it always has something new to offer, yet is able to keep its story going, the surprises always stay fresh after every viewing and appeals to everyone because unlike today’s precalculated blockbusters, is as authentic with the audience as it can be by treating them a people and not marketing targets.  This speaks volumes about what separates a classic from a cold, calculated franchise.  Like any great art or commercial film, The Wizard Of Oz is pure cinema that delivers the goods and will remain a classic as long as they make films.

 

 

 

The 1.33 X 1 image is clearer than the 1999 and 2005 DVD releases, but despite having much of the same color schemes based off of an original 1939 Technicolor dye-transfer print (reissued in three-strip Technicolor when the company revived the format from 1997 to 2001), red, white and black is still a little limited and there are still shots that look softer than expected.  Some of the limits in fidelity are likely the DVD format, so we’ll compare to the Blu-ray when we get it.  Director of Photography Harold Rosson is one of the unsung heroes of this film and I would like to personally like to single him out now as one of the biggest reasons it is a classic.  His work here, including moving that heavy Technicolor camera as well and as smoothly as he did was great on his part and had been a major cinematographer since the silent era.  Versed well in black and white, it turns out he knew how to make color work, light it when it was so new and helped put the format on the map permanently.  His later color work on Duel In The Sun, El Dorado and MGM musicals On The Town and Singin’ In The Rain confirm this.  He does not get enough credit and it is time that changed.

 

The Dolby Digital 5.1 remix is pretty good for a film this old, yet you can still hear some background hiss and the sound is a little dated.  However, if you switch to the Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo Music-and-Effects-Only track, you can hear that portion of the soundtrack better and we highly recommend seeing the film with that track only all the way through just to see how smart the sound design and great music (which so many worked on) really was and is here.  If you ever tried to sync up Pink Floyd’s classic album masterpiece Dark Side Of The Moon to the film, you’ll love this option.  A Sing-A-Long and original Dolby Mono track is also offered, but we’ll have to see how good the 5.1 is when we can hear a lossless version on the Blu-ray.

 

Extras are the same as the previous, now out-of-print DVD set and includes a restoration featurette of the 2005 restoration that is supposed to be here in 5.1 sound, but is only presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo.  Too bad there was not a newer restoration featurette.  You also get a feature length audio commentary track by John Fricke with guest voices and much vintage audio and an Illustrated Video Storybook on DVD 1.  DVD 2 adds a bunch of still sections, a trailers section, Harold Arlen’s Home Movies, audio jukebox of recording sessions, radio shows & promos, Outtakes & Deleted Scenes, The Wonderful World Of Oz: The Making Of A Movie Classic and Memories Of Oz TV special.

 

Though there are no new extras, we recommend the following link to the Mego Museum site.  There, you will find a nice collection of materials on the 1975 toy line from the now-defunct Mego Toy Company.  They produced amazing and now highly collectible action figure type characters from the film, including several of the Munchkins and a few nice playsets.  Among the amazing number of tie-ins to the film over the last 70 years, they remain some of the best and most desired Oz items ever made.  See more at this link:

 

http://www.megomuseum.com/woz/index.html

 

 

In the meantime, Oz is back and if you are a fan, the last thing you should be thinking is “goodbye yellow brick road”.

 

You’ll want to get it now!

 

 

-   Nicholas Sheffo


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