Note: Throughout this review you'll see screencap comparisons between the "old" WB release from 1999, and the new "ultra-resolution" transfer found on both special editions released in October of 2005. (Old on the left, new on the right.) This is not to assert that one transfer is necessarily better than the other (although I think the new one's just about perfect) but to indicate the recent alterations to the film's color palette. Please also note that these screenshots, while handy and quite pretty, do not replicate what you might find via your own specific video settings.
My normal disposition is that of a cynic. I don't have a whole lot of tolerance for kitsch or schmaltz or overt cuteness ... but even I am completely enthralled by the cinematic magic that's spun by The Wizard of Oz. I'm of the opinion that this film well deserves every drop of praise and admiration it has received since 1939. The Wizard of Oz is often the very first step made on a lifetime filled with movie-love, and how could anyone knock a family classic that helps to instill a passion for movie-watching in even the tiniest tot?
Not even a cold-hearted bastard like myself can turn his nose up at The Wizard of Oz. It's a movie we all remember watching, curled in pajamas on the couch, eyes widening at the spectacle, mouth smiling at the silliness, and toes tappin' to the tunes. Basically, if you're hoping to raise a movie geek, be sure to feed that kid The Wizard of Oz at least once a year.
I honestly cannot imagine that anyone in the known universe would actually need a synopsis of the Wizard of Oz story, but here it is in a nutshell: A wide-eyed young girl from Kansas is caught up in a tornado and finds herself lost in the magical land of Oz. After taking the advice of a few very minuscule persons, Dorothy heads off on a quest down the yellow brick road, at the end of which is a legendary wizard who can perform amazing feats of magic. Over the course of her adventures, Dorothy makes several amazing new friends (a lion, a scarecrow, and a tin man!) and one horrible enemy: an evil witch who'll stop at nothing to steal Dorothy's ruby slippers. (Well, they're not actually Dot's slippers, but I'm trying to keep this synopsis as tight as possible.)
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It almost seems academic to "review" The Wizard of Oz as this point. I could explain that the performances are quaint and lovely, that the numerous songs are wonderfully sweet and completely memorable, that the directorial flourishes are clever and insightful (love those sepia tones!), that the subtext is wholesome and healthy (cuz there really is no place like home, after all), that the vibrant visual palette is literally unlike anything seen before 1939 (or since), and that there's laughs, scares, adventures, and lessons in equal doses...
But everyone in the civilized world already knows all this stuff! This is The Wizard of Oz we're talking about here! Just like a baby's first step or first word is always so special, this is usually baby's first "real" movie, and that's also something special. The fact that The Wizard of Oz holds up so amazingly well, for kids and adults alike, after more than 60 years of theatrical screenings, television broadcasts, and video releases, well, that's simply a testament to the fine art of quality filmmaking. Sometimes the cinematic cream really does rise to the top, and nowhere would that assertion be more accurate than in the case of The Wizard of Oz. It's a perfect example of what people mean when they talk about "movie magic," and it makes me happy to know that, 50 years from now, kids will sit down with The Wizard of Oz and fall madly in love with that magic.
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Video: The full-frame presentation is, well, it's freaking beautiful is what it is. I've read through several DVD fora in which the diehard techie-types argue about contrast, brightness, edge enhancement, etc., etc. All I can say is that this is the very best I've ever seen The Wizard of Oz look. (The now out-of-print single-discer from WB looked pretty stellar too, but this is something extra-special.) Scrubbed up to an "ultra-resolution" standard, the film still contains all of its matte-painted charm, but the colors absolutely pop off the screen. Some fans may prefer the earlier transfers for their own reasons, and that's great, but this is quite simply one of the loveliest DVD transfers I've ever seen.
Audio: The movie's been upgraded with an all-new 5.1 mix, and I think it sounds just great -- especially when the music starts up. The dialogue comes through crystal clear, and the frequent (and wonderfully effective) sound effects pipe through clearly but not too demandingly. The original mono audio track is included among the Disc 1 special features, but even the most serious Oz purist will appreciate the work done on the new audio mix.
You want Oz-related extras? Well then put that yellow cover down and snag the somewhat pricier (but worth it) green-cased set. It's there that you'll find a seemingly ceaseless flood of Wizard wonders. Let's start off on Disc 1, which is also where the main feature is housed.
First up is a seriously excellent audio commentary with moderator Sydney Pollack and film historian John Fricke, a fact-laden chat-track that includes archival interview segments from Barbara Freed-Saltzman, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Margaret Hamilton, John Lahr, Jane Lahr, Hamilton Meserve, Dona Massin, William Tuttle, Buddy Ebsen, Mervyn LeRoy and Jerry Maren. Simply put, this is a truly fantastic commentary, one that should appeal to Oz's armchair historians and devoted fans alike.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Storybook (10:25) features the comforting voice of good ol' Angela Lansbury as she reads a truncated version of L. Frank Baum's classic story, complete with original illustrations.
Prettier Than Ever: The Restoration of Oz (11:23) is a fascinating peek into the audio/visual ways in which The Wizard of Oz was gussied up for this new DVD package. Purists should rest comfortably after meeting the passionate film technicians who gave the Wizard his digital upgrade.
We Haven't Really Met Properly... (21:18) is a collection of informative cast introductions, complete with career highlights and movie clips narrated by Ms. Lansbury. Performers featured here include Frank Morgan (aka The Wizard of Oz & Professor Marvel), Ray Bolger (The Scarecrow & Hunk), Bert Lahr (The Cowardly Lion & Zeke), Jack Haley (The Tin Man & Hickory), Billie Burke (Glinda, The Good Witch of the North), Margaret Hamilton (The Wicked Witch of the West & Miss Gulch), Charley Grapewin (Uncle Henry), Clara Blandick (Auntie Em), and Terry (Toto). Each bio section can be accessed individually or by way of a Play All function.
Music and Effects Track allows you to watch the movie dialogue-free, while the original mono track is also included for comparison to the new 5.1 mix.
Moving on to Disc 2, we're greeted with the following goodies:
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: The Making of a Movie Classic (50:46) is an excellent documentary that was originally produced in 1990. Angela Lansbury returns to host and narrate the affair, which features more than enough Oz trivia to keep even the staunchest fans happy. (Indeed, most of those folks have already seen this 50-minute piece!) The film includes archival interview segments with producer Mervyn LeRoy, and actors Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Judy Garland, Margaret Hamilton, and about a dozen others. Topics range from production trouble to casting problems to theatrical release, with a heavy focus on the flick's impact over the following fifty years.
Memories of Oz (27:36) is a a special originally produced for the TCM network in 2001. Here you'll get a lot of memories and anecdotes from authors, historians, choreographers, filmmakers, actors, children of the Bert Lahr, and a few surviving Munchkins.
Narrated by Sydney Pollack, The Art of Imagination: A Tribute to Oz (29:43) features comments and perspectives from a wide array of filmmakers. Participants include (get this lineup!) composer Randy Newman, director Peter Jackson, actor Sean Astin, animator Tom Woodruff Jr., cinematographer Allen Daviau, composer Richard B. Sherman, musician Michael Feinstein, costume designer Colleen Atwood, cinematographer John Hora, production designer Henry Bumstead, composer Howard Shore, director Nicholas Meyer, composer Don Davis, editor Anne V. Coates, director Martha Coolidge, production designer Kevin Conran, artist Corey Hope Kaplan, production designer Gene Allen, director Rob Bowman, costume designer Albert Wolsky, effects artist Rick Baker, effects designer John Dykstra, editor Joel Cox, effects designer Alec Gillis, and effects designer Harrison Ellenshaw. As you can tell from the wide array of professionals gathered here, this fantastic (and all-new!) featurette covers a lot of yellow brick road.
Because of the Wonderful Things It Does: The Legacy of Oz (25:01) is an all-new featurette that focuses on the film's powerfully intense staying power. Oz historian John Fricke shares his perspectives, as do USC Film Professor Drew Casper, bookseller Peter Glassman, author/illustrator Eric Shanower, filmmaker Lisa Henson, Jane & John (daughter & son of Bert) Lahr, historian Mark Evan Swartz, Gita Dorothy Morena (great granddaughter of L. Frank Baum), Oz impressionists Kurt S. Raymond & Elaine Horn, and former Munchkins Meinhardt Raabe, Margaret Pellegrini, and August Clarence Swenson. Aside from Brittany Murphy's over-syrupy narration, this is another excellent little retrospective piece on Oz's unsurpassed popularity over the decades.
Harold Arlen's Home Movies (4:38) is a reel of 16mm material captured by Oz composer Arlen. Footage consists mostly of actors posing for promotional photos, but there's a little bit of on-set material, too.
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Watched in one block or individually the Outtakes and Deleted Scenes are each preceded by brief Lansbury intro, and break down like so:
-If I Only Had a Brain (4:35) is an extended cut of Mr. Bolger's scarecrow dance.
-If I Only Had a Heart (1:35) consists of audio recordings by Buddy Ebsen (the actor originally cast as The Tin Man) accompanied by stills of the performer in full costume.
-Triumphal Return to Emerald City (1:53) is a musical number that was cut from the film, presented here in audio form with some still photos of its production.
-Over the Rainbow (2:07) was meant to be reprised late in the film when Dorothy was trapped by the witch. The audio recording is, again, accompanied by still photographs of the excised sequence.
-The Jitterbug (4:04) is a rather wacky sequence that was cut after the Oz preview and has since been lost to the sands of time. But we still have the audio recordings, and some home movie footage of the sequence as it was being shot. This one has to be considered the #1 deleted scene from The Wizard of Oz, and it makes for a bizarre little treat.
It's a Twister! It's a Twister! The Tornado Sets (8:12) is a very slick little reel of old-school FX footage, with an obvious emphasis on that terrifying ol' twister. Stick around until the end and get a gander of a truly fantastic sequence in which the Gale farm is engulfed by the tornado.
Off to See the Wizard (3:56) is a series of eight mini-cartoons from 1967 that were originally created as network interstitials, as directed by Chuck Jones. Cute enough to see the Oz characters in animated form, I s'pose, but let's just say this isn't Jones' best work.
From the Vault consists of three vintage featurettes:
-Another Romance of Celluloid: Electrical Power (10:28) is a 1938 newsreel piece about the Boulder Dam's electrical output that (briefly) visits the Oz set. Nice to see that corporate synergy and fluffy EPK featurettes were also around back in 1938.
-Cavalcade of the Academy Awards Excerpt (2:13) is a short promo film (by Frank Capra!) that compiles Oscar clips from 1939 and 1940. Watch for a presentation from Bob Hope and Mickey Rooney to Judy Garland.
-Texas Contest Winners (1:23) is another 1938 newsreel, this one focusing on some contest winners from Houston who were given a tour of the MGM lot. And if you think some of the Oz performers might just stop by for a visit, well, you're right. They do.
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The audio vault contains another impressive collection of treats:
-Jukebox features 18 separate audio clips, ranging from basic underscore tracks and alternate takes to deleted reprises and rehearsal recordings. Click the Play All feature and enjoy over three hours of Oz-related music!
-Leo Is on the Air Promo (12:04) is a pre-release radio piece that highlights some of the finest Oz tunes.
-Good News of 1939 Radio Show (1:00:47) is a Maxwell House-sponsored variety program that ended its 1939 season by delivering an Oz-centric review. Guests include Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, and Bert Lahr.
-12/25/1950 Lux Radio Theater Broadcast (1:00:43) is a rather dry radio adaptation of the film. It features Judy Garland as Dorothy, so it's certainly worthy of historical note.
You'll find a mega-stuffed archive of stills galleries under the headings Oz on Broadway, Pre-MGM, Sketches and Storyboards, Costume and Makeup Tests, Richard Thorpe's Oz, Buddy Ebsen, Oz Comes to Life, Behind the Scenes, Portraits, Special Effects, Post Production, Deleted Scenes, Original Publicity, 8/15/1939 Hollywood Premiere, 8/17/1939 New York Premiere, 2/29/1940 Academy Awards Ceremony, Oz Abroad, and Oz Revivals.
And rounding out the second disc is a collection of six theatrical trailers, each preceded by even more Lansbury tidbits:
-1939 What is Oz? Teaser (0:30)
-1940 Loews Cairo Theater Trailer (1:57)
-1949 Reissue Trailer (2:49)
-1949 Grownup Reissue Trailer (2:19)
-1970 Children's Matinee Reissue Trailer (1:33)
-1998 Warner Bros. Reissue Trailer (2:01)
Those who choose to purchase the 2-disc "yellow-case" edition will get everything I've already mentioned. The three-disc "green-case" set comes with a bonus disc and a bunch of nifty little collectibles. So let's focus on Disc 3 now!
L. Frank Baum: The Man Behind the Curtain (27:33) is another all-new featurette, and its one that gives the original Oz creator his fair share of attention after two full discs of movie-related material. This compelling piece gives us the full low-down on Mr. Baum's life, and features interview segments with two of the author's great-grandchildren, author Michael Patrick Hearn, professor Peter H. Hanff, and Oz historian John Fricke.
The Wizard of Oz (13:15) is a rather bizarre silent short from 1910 directed by Otis Turner that seems to have more in common with the Oz-inspired stage play than with the source material ... but it's a cool little collection piece.
The Magic Cloak of Oz (38:25) is a 1914 silent film from J. Farrell McDonald in which a group of fairies congregate in the moonlight to weave a magical cloak as a town prepares to name a new king and... well, it's all fairly complicated.
His Majesty, The Scarecrow of Oz (58:59) is another silent short from Mr. McDonald. It's another strange little antiquity, but not one bereft of merit. It has to do with a princess bring forced to marry an unpleasant courtier, and the inevitable craziness that often occurs in Oz.
The 1925 version of The Wizard of Oz (71:46) is included here, which is a sepia-toned silent film from director Larry Semon and starring Oliver Hardy as a farmhand/tin man/knight. (Yes, that Oliver Hardy.) The film suffers from some unfortunate racial and gender stereotypes, but hey, we weren't all that enlightened in 1925. Still, this one's the best silent feature yet.
Our last alternate rendition of Baum's classic comes in the form of a 1933 animated piece by Ted Eshbaugh entitled, not surprisingly, The Wizard of Oz (8:10). With music by "Looney Tunes" legend Carl Stalling and an adorable "Betty Boop"-ish animation style, this short (which was the subject of legal issues way back when) is quite the find -- despite the somewhat sketchy quality of the print.
Aside from three digital platters overloaded with Oz-tastic goodness, the Collector's Edition also comes with two envelopes filled with memorabilia reproductions. The 1939 Kodachrome Portfolio contains ten lovely publicity art photographs, while the 1939 Promotional Portfolio offers a souvenir program from the 1939 premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theatre, an issue of MGM Studio News specifically celebrating the release of The Wizard of Oz, a volume of Photoplay Studies in honor of Oz, a 1939 poster campaign booklet, and rather fancy-looking facsimiles of the original Oz premiere invitation and theatre ticket!
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Casual fans of The Wizard of Oz can safely stick with the 2-disc yellow-box edition; It's got lots of great extras and the same sterling A/V specs as the 3-discer. But if you're a hardcore fan of this classic film, I'd say splurge on the extra ten bucks and upgrade to the swankier package. The third disc is loaded with archival material that's quite fascinating, plus all the extra little doo-dads make for some sweet icing on a tasty cake. It took me a long time to dig through everything this set has to offer, and I came out feeling like I'd just spent a lovely week inside of a classy and well-curated Wizard of Oz museum.
Needless to say, and for numerous reasons, this Warner Bros. Collector's Edition is also a member of the DVD Talk Collector's Series. It's also one of 2005's very finest DVD releases.
(Special thanks DVDTalk editor Geoff Kleinman for putting together all the pics for me.)