WIZARD OF OZ, THE - Blu-ray review

The Blu-ray edition, with its newly restored print, remixed lossless sound, and multitude of extras, makes it better than ever before.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

"It's always best to start at the beginning."

And there's nothing like a restored and remastered high-definition transfer of a beloved motion picture to start with. Warner Bros. have given MGM's classic "The Wizard of Oz" a complete makeover--cleaning, polishing, and retexurizing every frame for this big Blu-ray gift-box set.

It's remarkable to think that the 1939 movie classic "The Wizard of Oz" we all know and love wasn't always as popular as it is today. At the film's opening, observers gave it mixed reviews. "As for the light touch of fantasy," wrote critic Otis Ferguson, "it weighs like a pound of fruitcake soaking wet." And critic Richard Mallett said, "I don't see why children shouldn't like it, but for adults there isn't very much except Bert Lahr."

Although the film enjoyed a profit at the box office after being re-released in the U.S. in 1949 and 1955, it would not realize its current status as a cultural icon until it began appearing as an annual special event on TV, premiering on network television in 1956 and beginning its historic run in 1959. After that, there was no stopping it. When MGM made the film, they had hoped it might achieve the success of Walt Disney's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." Little did they know it would take more than a quarter of a century to do so.

Now, after issuing several previous DVD editions, Warner Bros. have released the movie in their biggest and best set yet, the one reviewed here the "70th Anniversary Ultimate Collection Edition" on Blu-ray, with a totally restored picture, improved sound, and an absolute ton of extras.

"I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too."

It's a wonder "The Wizard of Oz" got made at all. Based largely on the first book (1900) in a long series of children's novels by L. Frank Baum and his successors, the 1939 movie followed a handful of silent versions that never achieved great distinction. To get the thing done, MGM went through a number of directors, including Richard Thorpe, George Cukor, and King Vidor, with Victor Fleming receiving the final credit. The studio had originally wanted W.C. Fields or Ed Wynn to play the Wizard, but they got Frank Morgan, who, coincidentally, wore the author's own coat in the film (somebody had discovered the coat in a used-clothing store). Also, the studio had wanted Shirley Temple to play Dorothy, Ms. Temple being the leading child actress of the time, but she was under contract to a rival studio, Fox, who wouldn't loan her out. Sixteen-year-old Judy Garland had to have her chest bound to look more like an eleven-year-old, a discomforting ordeal. Ray Bolger was unhappy as the Tin Man and asked to exchange roles with Buddy Ebsen, who was to have been the Scarecrow, but then Ebsen became allergic to the silver paint, and Jack Haley came in to replace him.

What more could go wrong? Well, the studio almost cut "Over the Rainbow," which won an Academy Award for composers Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, because they thought it slowed down the action. Thank heaven common sense prevailed. Then, some of the veteran troopers--Bolger, Haley, and Bert Lahr--were afraid Garland would upstage them, Garland later saying she was unhappy during the shooting because of the way her costars subtly snubbed her. Bolger always denied the fact. What they all agreed on, though, was that they suffocated in their costumes under the hot studio lights, and everyone was probably getting edgy. To add to the misery, Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch (who, amazingly, was only in her thirties at the time but looked older) was burned in an accident involving the fire and explosion in her scene leaving Munchinland, and she couldn't work for the next six weeks. Furthermore, gossips said that the little people playing the munchkins were partying extensively every night at a nearby hotel, and the studio was glad when they finished their roles in the film and left. The stories go on and on. Nor did the film stick entirely to the Baum classic, changing the Wicked Witch from an old crone afraid of the dark to the archetype we now recognize, Dorothy's adventure from a reality to a dream, her silver slippers to ruby, and so on. None of it mattered.

"Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore."

What was important was the result, and who can deny that the combination of stars, music, and fantasy in "The Wizard of Oz" doesn't still enchant almost everyone who watches it? Judy Garland elevated herself to the level of Shirley Temple as one of the world's best-loved movie youngsters; Ray Bolger endeared himself to audiences everywhere; Bert Lahr always made us laugh; Jack Haley was a commendable Tin Woodman; Frank Morgan, in all the parts he played as Professor Marvel, the Wizard, and various citizens of Emerald City, could hardly have been topped; Billie Burke as Glinda the Good Witch was beautiful and charming; Clara Blandick and Charley Grapwin as Aunt Em and Uncle Henry were as loveable as any kinfolk could be; Toto became everybody's favorite little dog (played by a girl dog, by the way; and, of course, dear Margaret Hamilton positively embodied the Wicked Witch of the West and would thereafter often be typecast as an old grump or gossip (in a career that lasted for the next forty years, all the way up until 1979).

Interestingly, I used to show "The Wizard of Oz" to my film classes every year because most of the students hadn't seen it since they were children, and I wanted them to see it with older eyes. Afterwards, when they wrote about it and analyzed it, most of them expressed amazement at how different it was. For instance, many of them didn't realize that the characters at the beginning of the film--Professor Marvel (Frank Morgan), Miss Gulch (Margaret Hamilton), Hunk (Ray Bolger), Zeke (Bert Lahr), and Hickory (Jack Haley)--were the same people who would show up in Dorothy's adventure as the Wizard, the Wicked Witch, the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, and the Tin Man. Likewise, many of them had no idea the studio filmed the movie almost entirely in a studio (only the opening clouds were real). "Why, the Emerald City is just painted on a screen!" many of them would exclaim. "When I was little, I thought they were really in the Land of Oz!"

Yes, it's world of soundstages, backdrops, and matte paintings, even the celebrated tornado a muslin wind sock hooked to an overhead scaffold. But does it matter? No more so than knowing that the dinosaurs in "Jurassic Park" are computer animations. It's the magic of movies that the best of them force us willingly to suspend our disbelief and enjoy them in spite of themselves.

"Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain."

According to Warner Bros., their 1999 DVD video version of the MGM classic featured the first remastering of a new interpositive, yet it was still one step away from the original. Then in 2004-05 the studio went back and aligned each color of the Technicolor strips under an "Ultra-Resolution" process that created a 4K hi-def master, downsized to standard definition for DVD.

But Warner Bros. technical operations VP of mastering Ned Price said the studio was still using an inferior print in 2005. This time they found an original 1939 "answer print" to which restoration artists could match their work pixel-by-pixel, the work done using each of the original "Oz" nitrate Technicolor camera negatives scanned at an 8K resolution level, twice the definition of previous efforts, and then realigned on a frame-by-frame basis. Price said they did not alter film grain from the original and made no subjective "corrections" to colors or lighting or remove or replace anything except dirt and imperfections. They then downsized the restored images to a 4K master before converting them to 1080p.

This meticulously restored Blu-ray, high-definition version of the film now looks probably as good as it did at its 1939 première. Maybe better. The 1080p resolution, VC-1 encode on a two-layer BD50 helps clarify the picture, making for sharper image delineation and stronger contrasts, and, of course, the restoration engineers eliminated all signs of age--blemishes, scratches, specks, and the like.

The picture quality really is quite a joy to behold. It begins, of course, with those beautiful sepia tones, now almost as pleasant on the eyes as the Technicolor that follows. Deep blacks set off the colors, more lustrous, gleaming, and glistening than ever. The yellow brick road was never more radiant, the blues, greens, and reds never deeper or more luxuriant. Definition and detailing are as good as most new movies, and, as mentioned above, the video engineers retained the film's natural print grain for realistic added texture.

The big news in the BD audio department is that the engineers went a step beyond remixing the soundtrack in 5.1. They had already taken a restored mono track, two different orchestra tracks, and a specific, edited music-and-effects track and combined them judiciously. With this new Blu-ray edition, they go further and offer the results in lossless Dolby TrueHD.

The TrueHD 5.1 mix opens up the sound quite a bit, as in the tornado scene, but hardly draws attention to itself. It simply appears natural and realistic, although still a touch bright and forward. There are only some occasional effects in the rear channels, as one might expect, the surrounds mostly working subtly to reinforce the film's musical ambiance. One can also notice some small degree of background noise or hiss at times, especially during quieter passages, if you turn the gain up too high, but it's hardly an issue. The nice thing is that the new TrueHD is smoother than ever before and seems to provide slightly greater dynamics. The only minor glitch is that with the wider dynamic range, you have to turn the volume up higher than usual to hear the dialogue clearly, and then you might find some sound effects and musical passages a tad too loud. Whatever, the sound is better than ever.

Disc one contains the feature film and a host of extras in standard definition. First, it's got an audio commentary by historian John Fricke, hosted by director Sidney Pollack, with selected archival audio comments by Barbara Freed-Saltzman, daughter of associate producer Arthur Freed; stars Margaret Hamilton, Ray Bolger, and Jack Haley; actor Buddy Ebsen; orchestral and vocal arranger Ken Darby; Bert Lahr's son and daughter, John and Jane Lahr; Margaret Hamilton's son, Meserve Hamilton; make-up artist William Tuttle; producer Mervyn LeRoy; uncredited writer John Lee Mahin; and uncredited cast member Jerry Maren. The commentary reveals a wealth of background information and pure trivia, a delight of its kind.

Next, we get a "Sing-Along" track that shows color-changing words under the movie's ten musical numbers. You can choose "All" or individual titles with which to sing along. After that are "Prettier Than Ever: The Restoration of Oz," eleven minutes on the work done to bring the picture up to today's best standards; "We Haven't Really Met Properly...Supporting Cast Profile Gallery," twenty-one minutes, narrated by Angela Lansbury; "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" storybook, a ten-minute story adaptation read by Angela Lansbury; "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: The Making of a Movie Classic," a fifty-minute, twenty-five chapter documentary hosted by Angela Lansbury, made for Turner Entertainment in 1990; and "Memories of Oz," a twenty-seven-minute, 2001 TCM television special. Both documentaries use surviving cast members and filmmakers along with vintage and archival footage. After those come a pair of 2005 documentaries, "The Art of Imagination: A Tribute to Oz," twenty-nine minutes, narrated by Sidney Pollack and including comments from any number of today's composers, actors, directors, and production designers praising the film; and "Because of the Wonderful Things It Does: The Legacy of Oz," twenty-five minutes on the film as a pop-culture phenomenon.

Further, we have four minutes of on-set home movies taken by the film's composer, Harold Arlen, followed by about fourteen minutes of outtakes and deleted scenes, five them in all, including "If I Only Had a Brain" in completed form, and "If I Only Had a Heart," "Triumphal Return to Emerald City," a reprise of "Over the Rainbow," and "The Jitterbug," supplemented by production stills and rough footage. After those items are "It's a Twister! It's a Twister!," eight minutes of tornado special-effects tests, and three vintage featurettes: "Another Romance of Celluloid: Electrical Power," ten minutes of studio news from 1938; "Cavalcade of Academy Awards," two minutes from the 1939 and 1940 Oscar ceremonies; and "Texas Contest Winners," made as part of a studio promotional.

Then, there are audio-only items, like an "Oz Jukebox" of recording session materials, underscoring, and promos, and several complete radio shows like a 1950 "Lux Radio Theater" broadcast. And, finally on disc one, there is an extensive stills gallery, six trailers covering the years 1939-1998; optional music-and-effects and original mono tracks; and about four minutes of cartoon segments from a 1967 television series called "Off to See the Wizard."

Accompanying the movie, we find English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, and Portuguese spoken languages; French, Spanish, Chinese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, and Swedish subtitles; English and German captions for the hearing impaired; BD-Live; and an extraordinary fifty-five scene selections.

Disc two is also a Blu-ray disc, so it has plenty of room for even more material, much of it newly made. To begin, let's talk about the all-new items. First is "Victor Fleming: Master Craftsman," thirty-four minutes on the director who not only brought "Oz" to the screen but "Gone With the Wind" the same year. Next is "Hollywood Celebrates the Biggest Little Stars," ten minutes and featuring seven of the original Munchkins from the movie. After that is "The Dreamer of Oz," a ninety-two-minute film about author Baum made for television in 1990 with John Ritter and Annette O'Toole. And then, there is "The Patchwork Girl of Oz," a 1914 feature-length silent film produced by Baum.

Among the items on disc two previously released are, first, the documentary "L. Frank Baum: The Man Behind the Curtain," twenty-seven minutes long, featuring interviews with some of Baum's grandchildren, U.C. Berkeley's Bancroft librarian, and assorted "Oz" historians and authors. Then, there are some additional early "Oz" movies: "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," a thirteen-minute, 1910, live-action silent movie with piano accompaniment; "The Magic Cloak of Oz," a 1914 live-action silent movie with organ accompaniment (bearing only a passing resemblance to the "Oz" we know but including new footage in this edition); "His Majesty, The Scarecrow of Oz," a fifty-nine minute, 1914, live-action silent movie that L. Frank Baum himself wrote and directed; "The Wizard of Oz," a seventy-one minute, 1925, live-action, restored silent movie featuring Oliver Hardy and Larry Semon, with a new, fully orchestrated score by Robert Israel; and "The Wizard of Oz," an eight-minute, 1933 cartoon that was the first dramatic treatment of the story to show Kansas in black-and-white and Oz in color (Technicolor).

Disc three is a regular, dual-sided DVD containing "MGM: When the Lion Roars," a six-hour documentary from 1992, hosted by Patrick Stewart, that chronicles the history of the studio in three parts.

A large gift box encloses all the materials in the set, which also include a limited-edition 70th anniversary wristwatch; an original 1939 campaign book reproduction; a fifty-two page commemorative book called "Behind the Curtain of Production"; a replica of the movie's budget; and a fourth disc, a bonus digital copy of the movie in standard def, compatible with iTunes and Windows Media.

For those folks like me who don't have the room to store or display the entire gift box, a foldout, plastic-and-cardboard Digipak holds the three main discs and lists the contents of each, with the package further housed in a handsome cardboard slipcase.

Parting Thoughts:
"The Wizard of Oz" remains one of the most enduring musical fantasies of all time, and the Blu-ray edition, with its newly restored print, remixed lossless sound, and multitude of extras, makes it better than ever before. How much do I like it, personally? When DVDs appeared on the scene in 1997, the very first three discs I bought were "Batman," "Blade Runner," and "The Wizard of Oz," and I've bought every version of them since. I couldn't be happier than to see "The Wizard of Oz" with its new, improved high-definition trappings.

"There's no place like home. There's no place like home. There's no place like home."


Film Value