[30 September 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
There’s no true middle ground with The Wizard of Oz. Either you love its overflowing sentimentality and sugar-coded Technicolor dreamscape or you despise its sugary, saccharine schmaltz. You beam whenever champion child star Judy Garland belts out “Over the Rainbow” or run in terror during those ominous opening strains. It’s hard to be ambivalent, the movie’s moxie making it difficult to ignore its earnest desire to entertain and yet it’s that very hyperbolic happiness that drives many modern audiences to dismiss the movie as antique, artificial, and aggravating. Well, perhaps Blu-ray can help turn the tide. After seeing the sensational 70th Anniversary edition of the film, fully restored to a high gloss HD sheen, few will ever view it as an amiable artifact from a bygone era. Instead, it will be seen as the masterpiece it is.
Everyone knows (or should know) the story by now - little Dorothy Gale, desperate to save her dog Toto from the evil clutches of local busybody Miss Almira Gulch, runs away from home, leaving her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry and handyman Hunk, Hickory and Zeke to worry about her. Thanks to the wise words of flim flam man fortune teller, Professor Marvel, she decides to return. As a twister descends on her Kansas farm, she is caught up in the maelstrom. Her house is blown into the whirlwind, ending up in the merry old land of Oz.
There, she meets the Munchkins, learns that she’s killed the Wicked Witch of the East, and has to follow the Yellow Brick Road to find the local wizard and get back home. With advice from Glinda, The Good Witch of the North, she heads to the Emerald City. Along the way she meets a Scarecrow who’d like some brains, a Tin Man who lacks a heart, and a Cowardly Lion who’d love some courage. She also incurs the wrath of the Wicked Witch of the West, an equally evil woman who wants her sister’s magical ruby slippers. It just so happens that Gilda gave them to Dorothy for safe keeping.
So what if it doesn’t follow the classic L. Frank Baum book to the letter? Who cares if then superstar Shirley Temple lost the lead to up and coming MGM diva supreme Garland? Does it matter that Ray Bolger was originally cast as the Tin Man, but then begged producers to give him Buddy Epson’s role of the Scarecrow? Or that the future Jed Clampett would eagerly change parts with his co-star, only to suffer a severe allergic reaction to the aluminum dust in the make-up and have to leave the production permanently? Outside of what’s up on the screen, the missing musical numbers (including the oft cited “Jitterbug”) and multitude of creative coincidences only increase the films legacy and longevity.
Indeed, many of the stories surrounding the making of this amazing movie are just as compelling as the film itself, and Warner Brothers has seen fit to fill out this astonishing four disc set with as many of them as possible. There is so much added content here - early silent film versions of the Oz stories (including one helmed by Baum himself), TV movies based on the material, documentaries and full length features discussing the film’s creation and lasting impact, as well as numerous critical, scholarly, and specialty (F/X, music) overviews - that we get wrapped up in the history. About the only thing not addressed here are the numerous urban legends and conspiracy theory rumors surrounding the final product.
And what a magnificent movie it is, a true endeavor of the human spirit that seems to resonate through every pore of your being down deep into the very core of your sunny, sated soul. It’s almost impossible to watch Garland, in her first major starring role, and not fall in love with her cherub cheeked cheeriness. When she cries, it’s like Heaven itself is weeping, and when she sings, the angels step aside so that her gorgeous voice can eclipse the very power of song itself. She is matched well by Bolger, Jack Haley (as the Tin Man), Margaret Hamilton (as Gulch and the Wicked Witch) and Henry Morgan (as the kindly Wizard himself). Burt Lahr’s Lion might be a bit much for those not familiar with such scenery chewing vaudevillian shtick, but his buoyant personality is so pervasion you simply stop carrying and start laughing.
The look of the film is also a supporting superlative, a day-glo dimension of plastic, paint, and imaginative persuasion. The opening sequences with their sepia tone nostalgia set us up for the sudden explosion of rainbow brightness. Munchkinland is so eye-popping a spectacle that it’s almost impossible not to be moved to tears of happiness and the various locations created for the film resonate with real authority and artistic power. Though Victor Fleming finds his name on the top of the director’s credits, myth tells us that as many as five other filmmakers had a hand in the final cut. You’d never know by looking at the lyrical vistas and stunning production numbers offered. It’s all so perfect and cinematically sublime.
From a special effects standpoint, The Wizard of Oz was also ahead of its time. This is 1939 after all. Several scenes, including most with Margaret Hamilton’s Witch are wonderful in their sense of supernatural intrigue. The times when our intrepid heroes interact with the omniscient Oz also offer excitable “how’d-they-do-that?” eye candy. From the costumes and careful make-up designs to the overall Golden Age of Hollywood sheen, you would be hard pressed to truly age the film. Indeed, when they invented the term “timeless”, The Wizard of Oz was probably part of the defining determination. And now Blu-ray has turned it into something even more magnificent.
This new transfer is awe inspiring. You can actually see the carefully created burlap sack lines in Ray Bolger’s face, painted on in a slight suggestive manner so that the rest of the fabric façade blends right in. When a close-up captures Lahr’s lion head, you’d be hard pressed to find where the appliances end and the human being begins. From details so crisp you can read the wording on various Oz documents and decrees to a field of poppies so ripe and red you can also smell their poisoned pleasantness yourself, there has never been a better version of The Wizard of Oz available on home video ever. If The Matrix made VHS consumers beg to switch over to the new digital domain, the Blu-ray of this classic will convince to make the leap into the new 1080p format pronto.
Even better, seeing The Wizard of Oz this way, in the most flawless and fleshed out way possible, should provide enough ammunition to cynical and smug of their anti-Dorothy sentiments. Unlike other mandatory motion pictures declared treasures by time, unclear consensus, and endless obsessive tirades, Oz maintains its long term defensibility for one important reason - it works. It entertains. It soars. It splashes across the screen in big fat sugar frosted hugs and emotionally honest kisses. For nearly two hours, we are whisked away to a world where no one is unloved, everyone is caring, and the dreams of a little girl find their final resting place in a small Kansas farmhouse among family and friends. Who needs winged monkeys when you can discover that there’s no place like home? That’s why The Wizard of Oz endures. That’s why it is one of the greatest films of all time.