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THE WIZARD OF OZ
70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition: Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr, Margaret Hamilton, Frank Morgan
Director:  Victor Fleming
Audio:  Dolby True HD 5.1, Dolby Mono
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Features:  See Review
Length:  101 Minutes
Release Date:  September 29, 2009

"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 and thoroughly amazing 70th Anniversary Blu-ray edition, 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  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 ****

Regular readers of our site know how much this movie means to me, so believe me when I say, I almost reached tears watching it on this terrific new Blu-ray disc.  Every issue of The Wizard of Oz has gotten better and better, and now, with high definition and restoration, the look of this movie is cleaner, crisper, and more gorgeous than ever before.  When Dorothy opens the door from her sepia toned world of Kansas to the Technicolor triumph of Oz, just sit back and don't bother looking for your jaw; it's safe on the floor.  Every detail is clearer and more pronounced than ever, and the wide color palate is beautiful and rich and well balanced and contained.  I never noticed that the Tin Man had a bolt right between his eyes...isn't it cool when you can see a movie you've seen hundreds of times and find new touches in it?  This is absolute perfection! 

Audio ****

The TrueHD soundtrack is quite an amazing revelation...you might be surprised at just how much so.  The orchestration gets the best efforts; the musical arrangements sound more live and more intricate.  You can pick out the orchestral sections much easier; everything is distinctive.  And the subwoofer gets plenty of action, whether it's the twister, the witch's appearances, or the thunderous presentation of Oz, which also really opens up the front and rear stages.

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

Features ****

This has got to be THE most loaded special edition ever put on the market for a classic film.  This three disc Blu-ray set offers so much, you will gladly and gleefully allow many hours of your life to be sucked away just to experience it all.

On the first disc, 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 and a new 5.1 sing-along feature for your listening pleasure.

There is a 50 minute informative documentary "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" hosted by Angela Lansbury, the "Memories of Oz" TV special, plus the featurettes "A Tribute to Oz", "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!  "We Haven't Met Properly" is a collection of short pieces on the supporting stars of the movie, hosted by Lansbury, and each offering a delightful piece of trivia.  For example...what did Margaret Hamilton have in common with The Termintor?  You'll have to hear it for yourself!

There is a collection of original audio recordings of the cast members singing their tunes (dig those Munchkins!), plus three vintage radio broadcasts.  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.   "Prettier Than Ever" is a nice look at how a 70 year old film can look so good after so much time...a lot of work, believe me! 

You can also take a look back at an Oscar Cavalcade short film compiled by Frank Capra with clips of 1939's biggest films, or check out shorts on MGM and their use of electricity, or a film of some 1938 contest winners visiting the set of MGM...one little girl even gets a dance with original Tin Man Buddy Ebsen!  "Off to See the Wizard" remembers a family television night from the 80s hosted by Oz characters animated by the legendary Chuck Jones.  Six trailers from 1939 and beyond are also included.  And finally, your youngsters will also enjoy The Wonderful Wizard of Oz storybook feature, read by Angela Lansbury.

Ha, ha...you thought I was done, right?  Not even close.  We're just getting to the second disc, which has two terrific new documentaries.  One is a look at author L. Frank Baum, and the other examines the craftsmanship of director Victor Fleming.  And as I said, this version of the movie, while definitive, was not the first.  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! 

The television movie The Dreamer of Oz is also included on this disc, which starred the late John Ritter as L. Frank Baum.  And lastly, there is a look at the stars who were small in stature but big in screen presence in the 2007 Hollywood Walk of Fame salute "Hollywood Celebrates Its Biggest Little Stars".

You thought I was done again?  Not quite...there is a third DVD disc which contains the entire award-winning series MGM: When the Lion Roars, hosted by Patrick Stewart.  It's a 'flipper' disc, but come one...what complaint can there possibly be at this point?

Almost finished, I promised...this limited edition set also can lay claim to the most beautiful packaging I've seen.  Limited and numbered, the box resembles a classic volume of literature that opens up into a treasure trove of extras.  You get a hardbound 52 page 70th anniversary commemorative book, filled with information and beautiful full-color photos.  There are reproductions of both the original movie budget (how cool!) and the 1939 campaign book selling the movie to theatre owners (even cooler!). 

And finally, this set gives you an extra gift:  a beautiful limited edition watch with genuine crystals commemorating the seven decades of this movie's success, and nicely mounted in a metal case.  And NOW I'm fin...wait, there's also a bonus digital copy for your portable device.  DONE!!

Summary:

This is a landmark for both Blu-ray and home video in general.  The Wizard Of Oz:  70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition is the most beautiful and generous packaging of a true classic that I've ever seen.  The movie has never looked and sounded so beautiful, and that's barely the tip of the iceberg with all of these generous features and tactile extras.  If you've made it with me to the end of this rather extensive cataloging of the set, I'm very thankful...now, why are you still sitting at your computer?   This is a limited edition set, so get it while you can!

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