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DVD SAVANT

The Wizard of Oz
Savant Blu-ray Review
70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition


The Wizard of Oz
Blu-ray
70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition
Warner Home Video
1939 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 101 min. / Street Date September 29, 2010 / 84.99
Starring Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Billie Burke, Margaret Hamilton, Charley Grapewin, Pat Walshe, Clara Blandick.
Cinematography
Harold Rosson
Original Music Harold Arlen
Lyrics E. Y. Harburg
Written by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, Edgar Allan Woolf from a novel by L. Frank Baum
Produced by Mervyn LeRoy
Directed by Victor Fleming


Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Savant didn't score a screener of The Wizard of Oz when it came out last Fall, but a copy of Warners' ginormous 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition has come my way after all. Freed from the immediate responsibility of reporting on every one of the goodies included in WHV's deluxe package, writing about this classic will be a fun experience. As a (primarily) DVD reviewer, I find it difficult to decide how to critically assess the nifty Oz wristwatch included in this goodie box ... do I dunk it in water and find out if it still works?

Oz is such a part of the collective unconscious that I'm also freed from the usual duties of a reviewer. This mixed-up girl in Kansas takes this twisted mind-trip into another dimension, see, that's populated by freaky midgets, battling witches and three friends, each with a personal handicap. The Kansas babe settles the hash of the bad witch, makes nice with her buddies and uncovers hypocrisy in high places. And keeps her corn-belt ethics intact.

I really haven't seen Oz much since 1993, when I worked for MGM and had the assignment of assembling some of the extras for the first home video "Ultimate Edition", which was then on the state-of-the-art Laserdisc format. I remember being shocked at how good the Laser looked compared to previous VHS versions and broadcasts on color TV ... Laserdiscs may not have penetrated deep into the home video market, but they raised the bar for video presentation and added-value content. Transferred on a Rank transfer machine (as opposed to older Telecine technology) the colors and textures of Oz really popped off our TV screens. I did a comparison just last night. Compared to today's DVDs the Laser image now looks like a view through a fine set of Venetian blinds. Made by digitally combining the film's original B&W Technicolor matrices and then applying a careful digital image polish, this new Blu-ray transfer looks more precise than old IB Tech 16mm prints. Oz was art-designed to exploit the gaudy range of Technicolor, and comes off as a wondrous optical feast.

I was a grown adult before I saw Oz in a quality presentation. I was four when my parents took us to the 1956 re-release at a drive-in theater. I remember a 'scope Tom & Jerry cartoon, the main titles, a girl on a farm, and then promptly fell asleep. It wasn't until 1963 or 1964 that I saw part of a network showing (the TV debut?) of Oz, and remember switching channels back and forth from the premiere of The Addams Family over on the ABC Network. On our B&W TV a number of jokes didn't come across, especially the famous "horse of a different color" gag. Why was Dorothy staring at the horse? Were they old friends?

Seen now, The Wizard of Oz is still a knockout. I can be pretty critical of MGM's politics and all-around orientation in the 1930s, as an anti-labor dream factory / slave enterprise that specialized in movies about people in tuxedoes and assumed everybody had a maid and a valet with names like Sunshine. The studio of course came through with many classy productions and can't be faulted (well, not too much) for endorsing the status quo. In terms of production capability Leo Land concentrated an enormous reservoir of talent into a small area -- musical, writing, art crafts -- and Oz was made by the best of the best. Almost none of the movie has dated. Just a few snippets of music seem rooted to orchestrations of the era, and wise heads eliminated songs like "The Jitterbug" that would have seemed antique just a few years later. There are no racially insensitive jokes (that I caught) and even a reference to swishy "Dandy Lions" is too charming to gripe about.

I can't imagine a kid's musical with more taste and judgment ... the dialogue and lyrics are some of the most clever in film history, keeping up a slight edge of self-parody. The movie doesn't spare the jeopardy, either. If the socko Kansas tornado doesn't terrorize kids, the nasty witch will. The sight of Dorothy Gale reduced to tears as time on the hourglass runs out is about as much tension as a five year-old can handle. In other words, the film has teeth. MGM was probably inspired by Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and went all out. I wouldn't be surprised to read that a number of physical effects and audio tricks were invented for the film. The Munchkins sped-up voices for dialogue and songs, for instance, must have been a challenge in those days of recording audio direct to film.

If you ever encounter Fox's 1940 The Blue Bird, give it a look-see. That studio's answer to Oz happily tied up Shirley Temple, giving Judy Garland the casting opportunity of a teenage lifetime. Despite a nice touch or two The Blue Bird is a lazy bore. The contrast between it and MGM's picture marks the difference between an ordinary production and a studio going all-out to create something that might last. It's shocking to learn that Oz wasn't an instant success on its first release.

I'm not qualifed to assess the movie's various musical contributions but it's clear that MGM's arrangers found a really special groove ... more than one later became a full-fledged credited composer. Looking at the expanded credits on IMDB, I see that old studio effects veterans I knew in the 1970s worked crew or rigged gags on Oz, including that great old FX supervisor A.D. Flowers. I had thought that his first job was on Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.

Seventy years is a long time for any film to still draw a mass audience. Old classics with period settings are frequently raked over the coals for historical inaccuracy, or worse, deliberate futzing of details. Fantasies like The Wizard of Oz are analyzed to death by pundits mining them for support for personal theories. The literary and filmic attention given the Oz books and movies is mostly benign. Plenty of critical reportage interprets Frank Baum's books as a social-economic criticism of his times, with references to the country going off the Gold Standard and whatnot. The 1939 movie makes multiple mentions and joke-asides to The Great Depression, starting with the decrepit state of the Gale farm. The professor has accepted employment as a bogus Wizard because, as he puts it, "... times being what they were", turning down a paying job was not an option.

My favorite line of analysis (although I've never really digested it all) compares Baum's Oz to Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. A product of a sheltered English society, Alice slips into a contrasting nonsense universe of chaos, where she's the only sane person to be seen. Politics, warfare, class issues and royal privilege -- none of it make sense. The adventurous Alice may drink and eat suspicious substances, but she's mostly a fly-on-the-wall to a lot of insanity that doesn't involve her. Wonderland is neither a nice place to visit nor any kind of Utopia; it's underground and literally subversive.

In The Wizard of Oz, the magic kingdom is a vague nowhere-land reached in a dream. It's a crazy-mirror representation of Dorothy Gale's real world, but a very particular one. Unlike Alice, Dorothy isn't self-assured and she isn't certain what she wants. Like a yokel caught in the big city, her mission is to get home, even though how she can accomplish that across an undefined dimension isn't clear. The crazy things Dorothy encounters directly mirror aspects of the country-city conflict. Politics is a corrupt swindle conducted in secret back rooms. Supernatural witches compete for power, using innocents like Dorothy as pawns.

Dorothy finds friends in Oz, but they all share a crucial American flaw, a theme that runs through our literature: Americans lack a defined sense of identity. Most of us do not trace our bloodlines to revered traditions; we have to create their own self-identity as best we can. We don't want to be pigeonholed but we often feel rootless and question who we are. The Scarecrow, Tin Woodsman and the Lion are very American characters -- all three of them feel like failures for the lack of essential qualities -- that they ironically already possess. They just need validation. Dorothy's love and the Wizard's BS pep talk close the gap -- note the importance of illusion to each individual's self-esteem.

Alice will probably return home slightly jaded and will surely be better prepared to handle illogical problems in the future. But we're not sure she's changed all that much. Dorothy has learned a "life lesson", mainly that strange foreign places are too dangerous ... staying home and feeding slops to the hogs is much safer. Loving friendship is more important than anything "out there" -- even though Dorothy had to go "out there" to find true friends of her own.

I never tire of The Wizard of Oz and I'm looking forward to someday seeing if it works the same spell on my future grandchildren that it did on my own kids. Even a four year-old can benefit from having their boundaries of perception stretched from time to time, and it was a delight to watch my kids wrap their minds around the fantastic barrier between sepia-toned Kansas and the utterly fantastic Land Beyond the Rainbow. This particular cultural delight will probably still be around two or three hundred years from now.

And now to offer the promised, official Savant The Wizard of Oz disc review:

It's really good!


Warners' 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition Blu-ray of The Wizard of Oz upgrades the familiar classic to HD, gracing its sparkling restored image with much beefier and dynamic audio than can be reproduced by a standard DVD with its compressed tracks. The prologue and epilogue are in sepia tone, the exact hue of which is sometimes debated on web forums. The only intentional revision I can see is completely appropriate. Just before Dorothy opens the door to Munchkin Land, there occurs a reel change, which in original theatrical prints presumably jumped between B&W film stock and Technicolor. For the video, this two seconds of darkened Gale house before the door opens has been matched closer to the previous sepia look, making the transition all the more ... well, magical.

The restored HD The Wizard of Oz would have been enough of a thrill on its own. I sampled the endless supply of extras in the big set. Lucky owners -- and it's important that recipients of the Ultimate Edition really want the goodies -- are presented with an attractive display box. I think this one will replace my delightful tin-lunchbox Forbidden Planet package on the shelf above my monitor. The shiny green cigar-box package opens to reveal more artwork and a hardbound book called "Behind the Curtain", which serves as a fancy, handsomely illustrated souvenir keepsake. Behind this is a copy of the original budget breakdown for production 1060, which if I read right tallies up to 1.7 million dollars. In 1939 dollars, that would buy a lot of cigars for The Singer Midgets. Further in is a reproduction of an original Oz campaign book, an exhibitor ballyhoo guide as elaborate as an old Sears mail-order catalog. The MGM marketers were certainly organized, although I never cared much for the studio's vintage poster art -- the rendering of Judy Garland doesn't even resemble her.

The actual disc holder (that's right, there's a movie in there) is a shiny green and silver foldout with two Blu-ray discs. The movie disc carries plenty of extras both new and old, starting with the perennial making-of docu hosted by Angela Lansbury and progressing through film tests, home movies and featurettes on the art direction and restoration. A new (ish?) extra I did watch is We Haven't Really Met Properly, a series of vignettes on the film's main actors that utilizes a wealth of clips from other MGM and Warners pictures. The piece on the beloved Margaret Hamilton is particularly pleasant.

Disc two has a new docu on Victor Fleming, longer-form pieces on L. Frank Baum and the Munchkin players, plus six separate movie versions of the story, live-action and animated, from 1910 to 1990. A third double-sided DVD contains the entire six hours of the giant MGM studio history docu When the Lion Roars.

Deeper into the box is a digital copy of the movie and a number of Warners flyers, merchandise offers and BD-Live instructions. Finally, in a special receptacle is a tin box containing a genuine Oz wristwatch, complete with an emerald strap. It'll be just the thing to wear on St. Patrick's Day.

I certainly haven't described all the extras; all in all there are 16 hours of them. Like most Warners' Blu-rays, the feature disc loads fairly quickly and goes right to the main show without excursions into promos or disclaimers ("O joy! O rapture!"). Viewers sick of endless menus will be pleased to know that a single giant HD menu lists everything on each disc, with enough description to let a viewer pick and choose with some intelligence. This disc merits Savant's Better Housekeeping Disc of Approval status.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Wizard of Oz 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: see above.
Packaging: Large emerald box packed with keepsakes, booklets, a fancy book, a commemorative watch and two discs ... see above.
Reviewed: March 5, 2010

Footnotes:

1. DVD Savant started up in 1997; one of the earliest articles that built up the site's readership was my response to letters that reflected a crazy delusion about something in one of the scenes of Oz. I exploited the silliness with a pair of follow-up articles. Travel back with me, if you dare, to review the notorious Hanging Munchkin controversy!



DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2010 Glenn Erickson

See more exclusive reviews on the Savant Main Page.
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics. Also, don't forget the
2010 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.

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