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Savant Review:

The Wizard of OZ
Deluxe Edition

The Wizard of Oz Deluxe Edition
Turner / Warner Home Video
1939 / Color / 1:37 flat
Starring Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr, Billie Burke, Margaret Hamilton, Frank Morgan
Original Music Harold Arlen, Lyrics E.Y. Harburg
Writing credits Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf
Produced by Mervyn LeRoy
Directed by Victor Fleming

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Wizard of Oz has a permanent place in the hearts of the world and the imagination of dreamers everywhere. Its stature is such that a normal introduction would be like explaining the attraction of ice cream - if you don't know about this film, you're cut off from Western Civilization and due for a pleasant surprise.

There's no substitute for seeing Oz, so I'll forgo a plot synopsis. A perfectly good Oz Website is there for those seeking in-depth facts about the film. There are also numerous books, but with all the extras on Warner's new Deluxe Edition DVD, they may not be necessary. The DVD is also available as a disc-only release, foregoing the big box and the extras in it.

The Oz Deluxe Edition is a regrouping of the celebrated 1993 deluxe laserdisc boxed set from MGM Home Video, called The Ultimate Oz. A comparison of the two shows all the reasons why DVD has so completely overwhelmed the home video world, eclipsing lasers and making serious inroads on VHS. One dual-layered DVD contains virtually all the extras that once filled 3 or 4 laserdiscs. As good as the laser was, it was no fun juggling discs to find the bit of special content one wanted to see. Patience was required to navigate through the printed paper inserts, along with advanced reading skills and a lot of disc-flipping.

The picture quality of The Ultimate Oz laser was a revelation, but the new Warner DVD is a major improvement over it and even a slight improvement over the existing movie-only MGM DVD release that came out with the first DVD wave two years ago. More blemishes have been removed from the surface of the image, and the b&w bookends of the film have been restored to a satisfying sharpness. Previously the non-color scenes of Oz were a bit fuzzy - the original negative having been lost in a vault fire half a century ago.

The audio is a real treat for fans who want to get all those surround speakers working. When The Ultimate Oz came out, MGM's George Feltenstein made the pronouncement that the original mono track of Oz was sacred, that no attempt would be made to create a stereophonic remix. Special stereo remixes of individual songs, manipulating the multi-track (not stereophonic) original recordings, had appeared as extras on Gene Kelly and Judy Garland laser sets, but never was an entire film remixed in this manner. Following in the footsteps of Gone with the Wind, Turner appears to have had their way, and indeed the sound engineers have gone to town.

The English Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack was remixed from the original elements, and squeezes every possible bit of sound out the 1939-vintage recording. Of course, there is only so much dynamic range possible in a 60-year-old recording. Don't expect The Prince of Egypt. Dialog and effects are usually anchored on the center channel with occasional forays to the surrounds, particularly in the twister sequence and also when the Wicked Witch of the West makes her first fiery exit. The music is usually spread across the front channels with some ambience in the surrounds. While this takes some getting used to, it does not sound overly artificial.

There is a French monophonic soundtrack. But the English monophonic track is nowhere to be found, which establishes a troubling precedent for audio revision on DVDs. While undeniably making Oz more attractive to 1999 taste, there is a danger of the original being forgotten, and the film existing only in a revised state. MGM's 1997 Oz DVD has this original track, and should therefore be considered a unique collector's item, not obsolete. The DVD is also missing the Laserdisc's commentary tracks ... something to consider before jettisoning the Ultimate Oz laser.

The old MGM DVD also has a discrete Spanish audio track and subtitles; Warners retained the Francais but dropped the Espanol, a move clearly meant to lock out the millions of NTSC video fans South of the Rio Grande, who have been relegated to a far less fortunate region, release-wise. Also, the MGM disc comes in a nice plastic keepcase, whereas the new DVD has the usual Warners cardboard snapper.

The presentation couldn't be bettered. The bright gift box should attract a lot of Christmas shopping attention. Some glue holding a contents flyer marred the ruby slippers graphic on the back of the review copy, however. The box contains a nice set of lobby card reproductions and a continuity script identical to the one included with the laser. Some of the Witch's sadistic speeches were cut because they traumatized small children; this script is a great read because these dialogue deletions are italicised. Scan it while watching the movie and you'll suddenly notice several witch speeches clipped in mid-phrase by clever editors.

One of the inserts is a special primer on basic DVD operation, presumably to help Christmas morning button-fumblers get their gift players going. It's a nice touch, and indicative of DVD's move from videophile niche to household necessity.

The extras are well organized and accessible. The film chapters have been upped from 49 to 55. Attractive menus seque one to another with nifty animated storm clouds. A selection called 'Characters' brings up little essays on the casting of each major role. The bonus material appears to be identical to the earlier laser, with the difference that it all looks better and is far easier to access. The video for the deleted Scarecrow dance segment is fully restored, looking far better than the dupey copies seen before. The Harold Arlen home movies of the cut Jitterbug sequence seem longer than before, and give us a good look at one of the 'tree men' operating his rubber costume. Another notable item is the 'Over the Rainbow reprise', an audio deletion in which Dorothy tries to sing, but breaks down into fearful sobs. Keep some kleenex handy - it's a real tear-getter.

The exhaustive audio supplement to the laser disc has been included, a huge collection of original alternate takes and rehearsals for the background music and vocals, complete with baton-clacking and occasional laughter from the orchestra. They are accessible through the menu choice 'Jukebox,' with the help of an insert booklet. I quickly accessed a clean recording of my favorite cue, 'Optimistic Voices.' On the laser, finding that or any other bit of audio was like a trip to the library, followed by fifty clicks of the remote.

John Fricke is acknowledged for the detailed liner notes accompanying the audio, but no further credits are offered for the original MGM Home Video team who produced this Ultimate Oz content 6 years ago. Mastermind George Feltenstein is now with Turner, and characteristically takes no credit; but producer Alan Fisch, whose work is probably the most comprehensive 'added value' package ever released, goes unmentioned. Anonymous corporate logos came down from heaven and did this nice work, children.(Revision: Clearly, everytime Savant gets huffy about some imagined injustice, he's proved wrong. A friendly Turner executive has pointed out to me how to access a credits menu on the DVD: "Here's how to get to the frame: go to the "Cast & Crew" frame in Kansas (Judy's name heads the list). There's an arrow pointing right - highlight the arrow, push enter, and - voila - the full original credit list appears." And he's correct - it comes right up. A little hidden perhaps, but it IS there. GE 3/6/00)

The Wizard of Oz Deluxe Edition presents a dazzlingly superior fantasy, with an encyclopedia of fascinating goodies to make any DVD collector hum with contentment. Audio fans will love the remixed soundtrack; purists will not be pleased that the original English monaural track has been abandoned.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Wizard of Oz Deluxe Edition rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Good
Supplements: Excellent
Packaging: Snapper
Reviewed: November 6, 1999.

Thanks to Steve Tannehill for the audio evaluation in this review.

Text © Copyright 1999 Glenn Erickson

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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