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Follow the high-def Yellow Brick Road to Emerald City

Steve Rothaus
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

"The Wizard of Oz" in high definition: That's a horse of a different color!

MGM's 1939 Technicolor classic, with dozens of network television airings beginning in 1956, has already been marketed at least 17 times since 1980 in home video formats including Beta, VHS, RCA SelectaVision videodisc, LaserDisc and DVD.

Now, for the film's 70th anniversary, comes "Oz" on Blu-ray, the high-def format with more than twice the resolution of standard DVD.

The high-def "Oz" transfer will be digitally screened — just once — Wednesday night in about 440 theaters nationwide. In addition to the feature, moviegoers will see outtakes, a documentary and vintage cast interviews.

George Feltenstein, Warner Home Video's senior vice president for theatrical catalog marketing, calls the new "Oz" "an utter revelation."

"There's mosaic tile under the magic crystal ball, the carvings in the witch's coven. Toto has fur that's discernable," he says. "It seems like 3D, yet it still retains that MGM magic."

Feltenstein — the man behind the curtain responsible for all classic MGM home video and soundtrack releases since the late '80s — isn't overstating the increased quality. A preview disc reveals sharp differences from the video master used for "Oz's" last major home video release in 2005, as well as high-def clips from the film inserted in the 2007 Blu-ray release of the MGM documentary, "That's Entertainment!"

Back in 2005, Warner spent "an obscene amount of money" in restoring the film, Feltenstein says. "We're not allowed to say, but over a million dollars," he added. Seventy years ago, MGM spent $2.77 million to make the entire movie — and it was $1 million over budget.

To restore "Oz" in 2005, Warner used a patented process called Ultra-Resolution, in which the three-strip Technicolor negative was joined by computer, creating a sharpness not even seen in 1939. A high-def transfer was made, but Warner held off on releasing it to consumers.

Four years later, Feltenstein decided that the '05 transfer wasn't good enough for a Blu-ray anniversary release. The negatives were cleaned again and computer-scanned at a higher resolution than what was possible four years ago.

Then, someone at Warner found the original print used by the studio for duplication purposes, Feltenstein says, "exactly as approved by Oz producer Mervyn LeRoy and director Victor Fleming and everyone at MGM. A perfect 1939 color reference."

The 2009 high-def release was then color-adjusted to match the newly found 1939 print, Feltenstein says.

Despite the technological magic behind the new Blu-ray, Feltenstein reverentially reminds us of the main reason why "Oz" remains popular going into its eighth decade: Judy Garland, who'll forever be tied to the film and its Oscar-winning Best Song, "Over the Rainbow."

The high-def transfer enhances Garland's presence, Feltenstein says.

"I was able to become more enthralled by, and interested in, her performance," he says. "And I've seen this movie 400 times."

"Oz" historian John Fricke, who wrote and assembled a 52-page coffee-table book included in the box set, "Behind the Curtain," says three components make the film work so well.

"You've got MGM, which was the only studio that would have taken the time and money to make 'The Wizard of Oz.' You've got 'Oz' author L. Frank Baum, who created all those characters and locations. And you've got Judy Garland, the great pop entertainment communicator of all time," says Fricke, who last week emceed the 28th annual Wizard of Oz Festival in Chesterton, Ind.

"The important word there is 'entertainer,'" Fricke says. "MGM, Baum and Garland were all in the business of entertaining, and they did it better than anybody else."

Warner, which now controls the pre-1986 MGM film library, will release two other studio classics on Blu-ray in November: Fleming's other 1939 masterpiece, "Gone with the Wind"; and Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" (1959).

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