The Wizard Of Oz Review
The following film review is by Eamonn McCusker and taken from his look at the 2005 Special Edition release. As it's a lovely piece of writing and echoes my own feelings exactly, I have reprinted it here
In this classic MGM fantasy, Judy Garland plays Dorothy Gale, a sixteen-year-old living a dull, black-and-white life on a farm in Kansas. Her only friend in the world is her small dog, Toto, but this world collapses when Ms Gulch (Margaret Hamilton), a wicked and spiteful spinster, accuses Toto of biting her and turns up at Dorothy's home to take the dog to be put down. As he Aunty Em (Clara Blandick) and Uncle Henry (Charley Grapewin) step aside to let the dog be taken, Dorothy resolves to run away and with Toto back in her arms, she does just that. She hasn't got far, though, when Marvel (Frank Morgan), a travelling medicine man, suggests, via a vision of Aunt Em falling on the bed, that Dorothy ought to go back home.
As she leaves Marvel, she sees a twister coming towards her across the dusty plain and, in a panic, runs back home. But when she arrives, everyone has already taken shelter, leaving Dorothy alone in the house, which, when the twister strikes, is lifted from the ground and off to the magical land of Oz. As Dorothy leaves the house and into the colourful Munchkinland, she finds that witches, both good and evil, are no longer things of her imagination. Dorothy first meets Glinda (Billie Burke), the Good Witch of the North, who shows her a pair of feet poking out from underneath her house. The feet belong to the Wicked Witch of the East, who's been killed by the weight of Dorothy's house falling on her and the magical ruby slippers on her feet disappear, only to reappear on Dorothy's. Soon, though, the Wicked Witch of the West arrives on her broom, the sister of the dead witch, and swears to take revenge on Dorothy both for the death of her sister and her theft of the slippers.
Shooed away by Glinda, the Wicked Witch leaves but as Dorothy, too, asks to go home, the Good Witch suggests to her that the only way she may get back to Kansas is to go to the Emerald City to see the great and powerful Wizard of Oz. Asking how she should get there, Glinda and the munchkins that surround her, tell Dorothy that she should follow the yellow brick road. As Dorothy does so, she meets some good friends - a Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), a Tin Woodsman (Jack Haley) and a Lion (Bert Lahr) - but also much more of the Wicked Witch of the West, who will stop at nothing to get the Ruby Slippers.
Had the makers of The Singing Ringing Tree known how frequently it would be mentioned in such shows as I Love The '70s, they might have thought twice about it. Even in the week that I write this review, it has been mentioned in Channel 4's The 100 Scariest Moments, in which it was described as a deeply strange and frightening show from the old East Germany. The brief glimpses of it - an odd creature that resembles a bear making eyes at a green-haired princess - suggests that those who were frightened of it may have had rather a sheltered childhood but the question can be asked of it, "Did they really intend for this to be shown to children?"
In some respects, one can ask much the same question about The Wizard Of Oz. Not that it's a particularly frightening film - only the flying monkeys and the Winkies could be described as being in the slightest bit scarey but, again, only the most delicate of children would dare turn away from it - but it is a remarkably bleak film in which nothing is as it first appears and Dorothy experiences little but disappointment. However, the most awful truth that one comes upon with The Wizard Of Oz is how its young lead was treated and how it left Judy Garland a star but also one that was left dependent on drugs, depressed and with a weight problem that remained with her until her death.
Of course, The Wizard Of Oz is unarguably a children's film with its bright colours, its remarkable sense of the fantastic and its natural sense of wonder, of comedy, of play and of good and evil. Everything about the film comes so easily that nothing of its troubled production appears to have made it onto the screen, least not the reactions that a number of the actors had to the makeup, the drunkenness that was rumoured to be widespread amongst those playing the Munchkins nor the various directors who worked on the project - Richard Thorpe, George Cukor, Victor Fleming and King Vidor all worked on the film at various times. Instead, the comedy, in particular, is exceedingly loose and charming despite it being a difficult thing to get right, with the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Lion all being naturally comic roles that, with the extensive makeup and exaggerated movements, could have gone badly wrong but don't.
From a child's point of view, though, it's a very approachable film that provides memorable moments of unsurpassed wonderment, including the sight of the twister approaching Aunt Em's dusty farmhouse, Dorothy's first steps in Oz, her entrance to the Emerald City with its 'horse of a different colour', the throne room of the wizard of Oz with its billowing flames and the sinister castle of the Wicked Witch with its flying monkeys and uniformed guards. As adults, we have such fond memories of this film and of those moments, in particular, that as soon as we become parents, we look to introduce it to our children and, thus, to pass it on to another generation. Children, though, need little prompting and take to it as easily as they do Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Snow White And The Seven Dwarves and Mary Poppins. Both the recurrence of characters - the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Lion are also the farm workers back in Kansas whilst Professor Marvel is not only the Wizard of Oz but also appears to fill most of the administrative roles in the Emerald City - as well as the move between sepia, Technicolor and back to sepia makes sense within the structure of Dorothy's adventures in Oz being no more than a dream and children become drawn into this, often without question. To them, a horse changing colour is as natural as we know it is not but catch a child at the right age and no amount of proof will convince them of a world without such magic.
And yet, at some point between childhood and adulthood, we begin to lose that feeling of the film making unquestioned sense and begin to look for meaning beyond the as-new surface sheen of Oz. In doing so, The Wizard Of Oz becomes a tale of self-sufficiency, of taking responsibility and of the importance of friendship but also of the disappointment that awaits us in adulthood. How else to explain the sixteen-year-old Dorothy becoming separated from her pet by the wiles of a spiteful adult and of her guardians standing idly by as Toto is taken. The farmhands are funny but, like Professor Marvel, of no use when she finds herself even more alone than usual, her hands empty when Toto would usually be with her. And when the twister comes, Dorothy doesn't even have a place in the storm shelter, finding that she's left alone in the house as the storm wreaks a terrible havoc. Disappointment and misery are piled atop one another even in Oz - Glinda, the good fairy can offer nothing more than words, the evil spinster really was a witch as Dorothy first thought and the powerful wizard is really a little man from back home who had, like Dorothy, just gotten lost. Even her best friends - the Lion, the Tin Man and the Scarecrow - are revealed as cowardly, rusting under his shiny suit and an old bag of straw without an ounce of sense.
There is, of course, hope within this, of Dorothy achieving something on her own, without her guardians, without help and without failure. As a parent, I often ask of my children to do things that I, being so much older, would think twice about - to go to ballet, to football, to swimming, to start a new school and make new friends, to talk to adults, to learn to read, write, learn a language and to do all of this, most often on their own, without complaint. And oftentimes, they do all these things and barring the occasional tear or two, they accomplish them on their own and come home. These may be minor successes but to a child, the trip back home is akin to that of a conquering hero. The sentiment may be sweet but it's an honest and a universal one - there is often no place like home - and both as children and as adults, we look forward to getting back home to be surrounded by our loved ones. In returning from Oz, Dorothy realises that and although it may not be a perfect home, few are, and Dorothy, like us all, will learn not to live with the disappointment but to take responsibility for those things that the adults either can or will not. Children learn from a young age that adults are often inadequate - mother or father won't be there when an older child deliberately trips them up in the playground - and The Wizard Of Oz succeeds by not only revealing that the future, that of adulthood, is bleak and often unforgiving but that there are rewards within it nonetheless. And the greatest reward is that of friendship.
Quite the saddest thing about this film, though, is the sight of Judy Garland in the role of Dorothy. Almost seventeen when cast by MGM, she existed, if you believe the stories, on a diet of uppers that began with breakfast and only ended with an injection to get her to sleep at night. There's something so troubled about her performance, so lost and so much of the outsider, that we, as the audience, really do feel for her. When she cries at the sight of her Aunt Em after the Wicked Witch has locked her in the tower of her castle, it's not only loneliness that she's crying for but also her own lost childhood. MGM may have strapped down her breasts, put her in pigtails and a smart blue gingham dress but there's little that's overtly childish in her performance, rather that she's a young woman who, you feel, has already seen too much of the hardships of adulthood. It is, therefore, a role that perfectly suited Garland and it's really little wonder that her Dorothy has become an icon for feelings of loneliness, of being and outsider and of feeling impossibly alone. When the gay community adopted her and Over The Rainbow, it was with an understanding of there being an undercurrent of hope, of companionship and of better times in a life that was otherwise spent alone.
These are universal hopes that we all have in our most lonely moments and it is for that reason, amongst others, that I believe we continue to come back to The Wizard Of Oz. It is, of course, simply a great film, perhaps amongst the very best, but it also something about us, being human beings, that I think we like. This viewer certainly does and I have showed this to my children on a number of occasions, as much because I know they'll enjoy as I know it's a good film for them to take a lesson from. As with my children, though, there's something in The Wizard Of Oz for everyone and, children or not, it deserves a place in every home.
Note: The version reviewed here is the 4-Disc HMV Exclusive. There is also a 4-Disc Harrods Exclusive which we understand offers the same disc content with slightly different packaging. Finally there is also a 1-Disc Sing-Along-Edition available through all retailers which offers the same content as Disc 1 of this release.
The transfer of the film on this 4-disc special edition is, quite simply, heart-stoppingly gorgeous. Although I haven't seen the Blu-Ray, which is apparently even better, I can't imagine that anyone who, like myself, is still faithful to DVD will be disappointed in this wondrous image. It's framed in the original Academy ratio and has masses of detail, superb contrast - particularly in the sepia-tinged bookends - and colours so rich and stunning they knock your eyes out.
There are choices of two soundtracks; Dolby Digital 5.1 and the restored mono. I much preferred the latter, as regular readers could have anticipated, but the 5.1 mix is quite cleverly done using the original music and effects track to open the sound out. Whichever option you choose, the dialogue and music sound lovely and clear. We also get the choice of a music and effects track.
The extra features are exhaustive and somewhat exhausting. I think it's fair to say that this and the Blu-Ray are as close to an ultimate edition as we will ever get.
Everything on this disc is ported over from the previous SE release with the exception of a new Singalong feature which will no doubt be more popular in some households than it was in mine.
Hosted by Sydney Pollack, this commentary track features excellent contributions from Oz historian John Fricke and also includes comments from various members of cast and crew. The variety of voices ensures that this is never boring, covering the entire running time with ease.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Storybook
Angela Lansbury tells the story of The Wizard of Oz with the assistance of some lovely colour plates from the first edition of the book. This is brisk and fun, being short enough to keep the attention of both kids and adults.
Prettier than ever: The Restoration of Oz
Various technical types from Warners discuss the restoration of the film and the use of the Ultra Resolution process for transferring three-strip Technicolor prints. This is all very interesting though my hackles were, as always, raised by the time and money spent pointlessly remixing perfectly good restored mono tracks into Dolby Digital 5.1.
We Haven't Really Met Properly - Supporting Cast Profiles
Rather like the feature on the Gone With The Wind special edition, this consists of short featurettes on the supporting cast. These are interesting but necessarily limited and although an effort is made to give a spin to each one through the use of a particularly esoteric trivia question, some items of curiosity value are missed; I particularly regret the absence of the information that Robert Altman chose Margaret Hamilton to sing the National Anthem in Brewster McCloud.
The contents of this disc are identical to those of Disc 2 from the 2005 Special Edition.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: The Making of a Movie Classic
This is a TV special dating from 1990 which has been on every DVD release of The Wizard Of Oz. It's a strong making-of piece, heavily reliant on archive interviews and clips, which is given a pleasing sheen through the contribution of Angela Lansbury as narrator. If you want to know the circumstances of production, the details of the shoot and the aftermath of the release then the information is here and can be relied upon.
Memories of Oz
A much looser documentary which concentrates on the lingering popularity of the film and the memories of those who love it. John Waters is the star contributor here and he's just as entertaining as you would expect him to be. There aren't many facts here but the anecdotes are often very entertaining.
The Art of Imagination: A Tribute to Oz
Sean Astin, for it is he, presents a 30 minute look at the innovatory aspects of Oz in terms of narrative and photography.
Because of the Wonderful Things it Does: The Legacy of Oz
A discussion of the cultural impact of the film and its various offspring.
Harold Arlen’s Home Movies
A collection of 16MM home movies made by the composer Harold Arlen on set visits. There are some particularly nice bits with Ray Bolger and Margaret Hamilton.
Outtakes And Deleted Scenes
There are five items included in this section. The best of them is the full Scarecrow dance to “If I Only Had A Brain” but it’s interesting to see the triumphal entry into the Emerald City and to hear a reprise of Judy Garland’s “Over The Rainbow” with piano accompaniment.
The Tornado Tests
Special Effects buffs will enjoy this test footage shot for the tornado sequence. It’s still an impressive effect seventy years later.
Off To See The Wizard
Extracts from a 1960s TV show which showed family movies accompanied by Oz characters drawn by Chuck Jones. The animation isn’t brilliant but it works effectively enough.
From The Vault
This section contains some short subjects from the MGM vault, including a film on the use of electricity in the making of movies which includes a tantalising glimpse of an unfinished earlier shoot of Oz in which Judy Garland is blonde. We also get a short collection of extracts from the 1940 Oscar ceremony and some footage of contest winners from Texas who were let loose on the Oz set.
There is so much in here that I haven’t had chance to devour all of it. However, the Jukebox contains the songs from the film, the underscoring and some rehearsal numbers while Leo On The Air is a promotional piece for the radio concentrating on the release of the film. Good News Of 1939 is a variety programme sponsored by various products which includes an interview with Judy Garland. Finally, there’s a Lux Radio Theatre broadcast of an adaptation of the film which was first transmitted on Christmas Day 1950. This is an interesting abridgement which benefits from the presence of Judy Garland – presumably somewhat addled given her personal problems at the time but still giving it good voice on a poignant version of “Over The Rainbow”.
Finally, the disc contains extensive stills galleries and a collection of promotional trailers from 1939, 1940, 1949, 1970 and 1998.
This packed disc contains a variety of features which veer wildly in quality, both in terms of content and presentation.
Victor Fleming: Master Craftsman
Victor Fleming is a legendary figure, as much for his organisational abilities as his actual achievements. Everyone knows that The Wizard Of Oz was largely the product of Arthur Freed and Mervyn Le Roy and that Gone With The Wind is the vision of David O. Selznick with significant contributions from Sam Wood and George Cukor. But it’s down to Fleming that these films ever got finished and that they are so good is a reflection of his professionalism. He also made some good movies away from his two signature films; Treasure Island, Captains Courageous and Red Dust would shine brightly in anyone’s filmography. This short featurette takes a long overdue look at Fleming’s career; his move from mechanic to movie-maker; his particular connection with Clark Gable; and his involvement with Oz and GWTW. His hubris during the 1940s which resulted in the disastrous Ingrid Bergman Joan of Arc is rather less fully documented – and A Guy Named Joe looks awful even in these short extracts. But Fleming is an important figure and this is well worth watching.
L. Frank Baum: The Man Behind The Curtain
A study of the author of the Oz books which gets across the information in a reliable and engaging form. His irresistible and infuriating romanticism is portrayed frankly and sympathetically and the interviewees, including his great-granddaughter, are good company.
Hollywood Celebrates Its Biggest Little Stars
A tribute to the Munchkins which contains wonderful interviews with the surviving actors and some quite astonishing headgear.
The Dreamer Of Oz
This is a TV movie from 1990 which purports to tell the story of L. Frank Baum’s life via some amateur psychologising and what may be the worst NTSC-PAL conversion job I have ever seen. John Ritter does his best to incarnate the central role but he’s ill supported by a second string supporting cast and a syrupy music score. Only the indomitable Rue McClanahan gives this anything resembling punch.
The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz
The earliest surviving film version of the Oz stories is this silent film from 1910. It’s thoroughly charming throughout its brief running time with some delightfully ingenious effects and costumes – the lion is particularly good. The set dressings and backgrounds are carefully thought out and the lively piano backing track keeps things moving. The picture quality is surprisingly clear.
The Wizard Of Oz
During the 1930s, this animated version was produced, and it’s interesting for the use of monochrome to represent Kansas and colour to display the splendours of Oz. The picture is windowboxed and, once again, surprisingly good. The soundtrack is a little bit tinny but certainly clear enough.
All of the features on this disc have optional subtitles.
This final disc contains four longer versions of the Oz stories.
His Majesty, The Scarecrow Of Oz
Dating from 1914, this has a rather nebulous plot and some incredibly melodramatic acting. The make-up and costumes are not as imaginative as the 1910 version and the whole thing looks a bit like an amateur medieval pageant. Once again, the picture quality is quite impressive considering the age of the film although, on this occasion, the piano accompaniment is irksomely distracting.
The Magic Cloak Of Oz
While the quality of the image on this 1914 film is generally very poor, the story is wildly imaginative and full of wit. The image of the Man in the Moon is highly reminiscent of Melies. Throughout the film, visual image is given precedence over narrative, despite the preponderance of intertitles, and the result is something which is often very dreamlike. No accompaniment to this one which didn’t bother me but may make it a bit of a trial for some modern viewers.
The Patchwork Girl Of Oz
This film has a slightly static feel at first but soon gets going to tell a truly deranged story which has a kind of Frankenstein edge to it. The Patchwork Girl herself is a thoroughly surreal concept and this adds a welcome taste of off-the-wall comedy. The picture quality is, as in the previous film, rather poor on the whole and once again there is no musical accompaniment, despite the promise made in the opening credits.
The Wizard Of Oz
A 73 minute long silent film of the story which has been beautifully preserved and is tinged in gorgeous sepia and purple. I’ve never heard of Larry Semon but he seems to be the man responsible for most of it. The narrative is a bit tedious but the Oz settings look lavish. For some reason, however, a vast amount of time is spent in Kansas. Oliver Hardy makes a welcome appearance while considerably less welcome is some dubious humour involving a black farmhand. There’s a full orchestral score accompanying this one.
The Wizard Of Oz remains, after seventy years, a truly magical experience and one of the first peaks in the history of Hollywood fantasy. This 4-disc special edition is a joy to behold and highly recommended.