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THE WIZARD OF OZ
Three Disc Collector's Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr, Margaret Hamilton, Frank Morgan
Director:  Victor Fleming
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Mono
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Features:  See Review
Length:  101 Minutes
Release Date: 
October 25, 2005

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

Film ****

It’s hard to write about The Wizard of Oz.  Considering it’s been seen by more people than any other movie in film history, what can be said that hasn’t been said before?  This film is a timeless classic that consistently wins and re-wins the hearts of each generation.  Many of us grew up watching the yearly CBS telecast, and now, with this glorious DVD, we can enjoy it more than ever.

L. Frank Baum created the most successful series of children’s stories ever with his Oz series.  So popular were they, in fact, that MGM’s landmark movie was not the first filmed version of his work…not by a long shot.  Many films cropped up during the silent film era…the most significant being Laurel and Hardy’s movie Patchwork Girl of Oz…but it was clear that this was a tale begging to be told with as much lavish production as possible, and in full color glory.

Credit producer Mervyn LeRoy with the vision and the drive to make this film version.  Finding himself in the position of Louis B. Mayer’s right hand man after the death of Irving Thalberg, LeRoy was given the green light to make The Wizard of Oz.  Like the other landmark film of 1939, Gone With the Wind, it was not without its share of troubles. 

There were two near-fatalities involving make-up on the set…the aluminum dusting on the original Tin Man costume sent star Buddy Ebsen to the hospital, to be replaced in the role by Jack Haley, and of course, Margaret Hamilton’s terrible burn episode, where she was forced to scream in pain as an aide scraped the green copper-based make-up from her burned flesh for fear of poisoning.  She would return.

Then there were other casting issues.  Young Judy Garland was considered a risk by a studio head who wanted Shirley Temple (a bigger name, but not as good a voice).  Co-stars Bolger, Haley and Lahr had to endure terrible discomfort from their costumes and make up…Bolger would often reach points were he couldn’t even breath from his pores being so clogged.  There was Billie Burke, the original diva, who played Glinda, whose delicate nature made cast and crew walk on eggshells around her.  And there were the famed “Singer Midgets”, of whom so many stories have been told about drunkenness and other mischief that it’s impossible in this day and age to separate the fact from the fiction.

But even though not everything was rosy on the set, what this cast and crew created was pure magic.  So much so that the movie-only touches have truly become part of the legacy of the story, from the “no place like home” mantra, to the fact that Dorothy’s real life friends and mates were actually her Oz counterpoints…and of course, who could ever forget “Over the Rainbow”, a number that was almost cut from the film but remains today synonymous with both the film and Judy Garland.

Oddly enough, The Wizard of Oz was considered a failure in its first run.  It didn’t make back its production costs, for many reasons.  One is the fact that many of the tickets purchased for the film had been reduced price children’s’ tickets, and two, 1939 was perhaps the greatest year in Hollywood history, forcing Oz to compete at the box office with other classics like Gone With the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Gunga Din and more.  But The Wizard of Oz would of course eventually find its fortune and place in cinema history…just a little further down the Yellow Brick Road.  

The story is timeless...how a young Kansas farm girl named Dorothy (Garland) gets whisked away by a cyclone to the land of Oz, befriends a scarecrow without a brain (Bolger), a tin man without a heart (Haley), and a lion with no nerve (Lahr).  Hoping the great and powerful Wizard of Oz (Morgan) can help them, they set off for the Emerald City.  But Dorothy makes an untimely enemy of the Wicked Witch of the West (Hamilton), so every step of the journey through this wondrous land will be fraught with danger!

We all know the tale, yet we succumb to the beauty of the production, the unforgettable songs, the rich and loveable characters (and even the frightening ones), the terrific actors and more time and time again.  No matter how many generations pass, there's always a new one waiting to discover the magic and music of this greatest of all family classics.  Even in our age of CGI and limitless special effects, The Wizard of Oz continues to capture the imaginations of the young and live in the hearts of the not-so-young.

Perhaps more than any other Hollywood offering, this is the movie that feels like home.  And there really is no place like it.

Video ****

Wow, wow, WOW.  Calling all adjectives.  Whether you’ve only seen the movie on TV, or owned a VHS copy, or even the original MGM release on disc, you’ve not seen anything like this remastered version from Warner.  Truthfully, I was expecting this disc to be the same transfer as before, just with the extra features.  I was wrong.  This picture is glorious, and as close to perfection as a 66 year old film can get, which apparently, is pretty close.  The print is cleaner, and sharper, the colors are even more lively and beautiful, and of course, no evidence of grain or break up.  I could tell in the opening sepia scenes that there was a noticeable increase in clarity, but when Dorothy opens the door to Oz, my bottom jaw almost fell to my lap. 

Audio ****

The new 5.1 soundtrack mix is better than any version you've yet heard.  Warner really went all out for this remix.  I couldn't believe how much bass was present during some of the bigger action scenes, or the early storm...you really feel the power!  There is much more use of the surround speakers this time around, giving depth to the twister, the chase scenes, and others.  It's especially cool when the group approaches the Wizard for the first time...you'll be looking all around for him!  

The original mono is also included for those who prefer.  In a word, extraordinary!

Features ****

Everything you could want is on this disc, which includes many of the features from MGM’s 50th anniversary VHS tape and much more.  For starters, there's a terrific commentary track hosted by Sydney Pollack and featuring film historian John Fricke and vintage audio clips of stars Margaret Hamilton,  Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Buddy Ebson, and Mervyn LeRoy.  What an absolute treat for classic film fans!  There is also a music and effects-only track., a restoration featurette, a profile gallery for the supporting cast, and a storybook for the youngsters.

But there are still TWO discs' worth of more extras.  There is a 50 minute informative documentary "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" hosted by Angela Lansbury, the "Memories of Oz" TV special, a documentary on L. Frank Baum, plus the featurettes "The Art of Imagination" and "Because of the Wonderful Things it Does", a look at how the movie became a legend through television, narrated by Brittany Murphy.  There are five deleted scenes and outtakes, including the Scarecrow’s dance, the Jitterbug number, and Buddy Ebsen singing “If I Only Had a Heart”.  You will also see "The Tornado Tests" and some of Harold Arlen's home movies...how sweet!

There is a collection of original audio recordings of the cast members singing their tunes (dig those Munchkins!), plus three vintage radio broadcasts.  For silent film buffs, there are no less than FIVE classic takes on Oz, including an early animated one, which actually had the early farm scenes in black and white and the Oz ones in color!  There are three classic "From the Vault" featurettes, six trailers, newsreel excerpts, multiple photo galleries, cast bios, interviews and more, all with some nicely done menu screens to accompany the presentation.  

Rounding out is two folders containing reproductions of all kinds of 1939 memorabilia, including the program from the original Grauman's premiere, a photoplay studies guide, and MGM Studio News.  I know I've probably left something out with all this wonderful material to peruse, but if I have, consider it a surprise when you go through these treasure troves for yourself!

Summary:

This is one of the greatest DVDs ever released, and worth every penny.  Not only is it a timeless classic film that you and your children will no doubt enjoy time and time again, it is absolutely reference quality in terms of features and transfer quality.  You’ve never seen the movie like this, I promise you.  This disc is an absolute and unquestionable MUST OWN.

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