STUDIO: Warner Home Video
MSRP: $49.92
RUNNING TIME: 101 Minutes

Commentary by John Fricke and archival interviews
"The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" storybook
"Prettier than Ever" restoration featurette
"Ultra-Resolution Process" restoration featurette
"We Haven’t Really Met Properly" cast profiles
"The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: The Making of a Movie Classic" featurette
"Memories of Oz" featurette
"The Art of Imagination: A Tribute to Oz" featurette
"Because of the Wonderful Things It Does: The Legacy of Oz" featurette
Harold Arlen’s home movies
Deleted scenes
"It’s a Twister! It’s a Twister!" tornado effect tests featurette
Short films from the vault
Stills gallery
Theatrical trailer gallery
6+ hours of audio-only bonuses
"Off to See the Wizard" short cartoons
"L. Frank Baum: The Man Behind the Curtain" biographical documentary
"The Wizard of Oz" 1910 silent film
"The Magic Cloak of Oz" 1914 silent film
"His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz" 1914 silent film
"The Wizard of Oz" restored 1925 silent film
"The Wizard of Oz" 1933 cartoon

These past couple of months have been great for DVD collectors. There was the massive and gorgeous Ben-Hur 4-disc set (which I got to review here) that came out a few weeks ago, the Greta Garbo box set absorbed Eileen into its embrace, from which she emerged only to be sucked up by The Thin Man collection. Now, add to all this cinematic delights this brand-new edition of The Wizard of Oz. Three discs, only a few features repeated from previous releases, a brand new transfer and sound mix, and more ambient love than you’ll find at a decent wedding, even if there is alcohol provided at that wedding.

The Flick

I’m not going to provide much of a synopsis or analysis here, because this film has entered into American folklore to such a degree that I suspect infants are born knowing the tune for "Somewhere Over the Rainbow". The Wizard of Oz, in any of its incarnations, is making a solid go at becoming timeless, if it’s not there already. It managed that by taking one of them universal longings we hear tell about, the quest for home, and populating the story with symbolic characters with immediate attraction and deep implication.

This film adaptation had, according to Oz historian John Fricke, fourteen writers take a crack at its screenplay, to varying degrees. That’s more writers than an X-Men flick, and, in today’s cinema climate, that usually means that a property is dead on its feet, and producers are getting ever more desperate to revive it. In this case, it was a matter of successive approximations which, in the end, reached a perfect compromise between remaining faithful to the spirit of L. Frank Baum’s original novel, and additions to make the book more cinematic. For example, the bookend scenes in Kansas are breezed right over in Baum’s novel — there is no Miss Gulch, no Professor Marvel. Just a dreary Americana landscape and a sudden visit from Mr. Twister. By incorporating this frame story, the filmmakers take advantage of the audience’s visual memory to exploit the connections between Oz and the real world and, interestingly enough, set their fantasy world up as just that much more fantastic.

The Wizard of Oz is about the quest for home and, like all good fantasies, it avoids being strictly allegorical. Dorothy’s experiences in Oz are not mirrors of her life in Kansas, but a series of stumbling blocks that provide more than revelation of her quest; they also provide movement of her character. By the time she gets to say, "There’s no place like home," the words come from a place of broadened horizons, rather than introspection. In this way, there structural similarities between The Wizard of Oz and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The difference is that where Alice is bombarded into submission by uncomfortable, maddening situations, Dorothy is given a clear purpose, a clear antagonist, and opportunities to grow. As a childrens’ story, it’s far less likely to screw with a child’s development; as a quest narrative, it’s the kind of resounding success that appeals to children and occasionally makes adults wish they were younger.

Have you ever heard people in passing mention that "Cliches are cliches for a reason"? Not the most critical of positions, but like most truisms it’s worth saying once in a while. My theory is that stereotypes enter into the vocabulary of cinema because of their intial effectiveness, because of the reactions they summoned the first time they appeared on the screen. A good trick works once, and then it becomes too familiar to carry much of an impact, even mutated or subverted. It’s a testament to the staying power of this film that, instead of borrowing the character types, more frequently another film will reference this one directly. "Cowardly Lion" has become a character type; Oz has become everywhere that isn’t home. (For a bit of extra fun, take a look at IMDB’s movie connections page, and try to count the number of films that reference this one directly without your eyes blurring over.)

If it has been a while since you last sat down to this story, you’re liable to find an awful lot new to love. This is a story with an alchemical success — and not just for the Technicolor process — with the combination of two different types of magic: that of film and that of storytelling. It’s very nearly a perfect film, and remains one of the best adaptations to have come out of Hollywood.

9.5 out of 10

"…and I shall sleep for a thousand yeahs!"

The Look

This new set has one of the most beautiful full-frame presentation you’re likely to see. There is a short documentary on the first disc, which I will talk about below, that introduces the viewer to the process by which the print was restored for this transfer. Whatever the arcane methods, or the viewer’s appreciation of them, the result is downright breathtaking, both in clarity and color. There’s not a scratch or skip to be seen. The sequence in which Dorothy emerges from her farmhouse into the blistering vibrancy of Munchkinland is as breathtaking now as it must have been in the first viewing, perhaps even more so thanks to the enhanced clarity.

9 out of 10

The Noise

The original mono soundtrack is preserved for the purists, but the work done on the Dolby 5.1 track is of a quality that shouldn’t offend even hardcore fans. Everything is preserved beautifully on the new track, with added clarity in all the ranges. It provides viewers with a new appreciation of all the wonderful music — both the original pieces and the classical tracks chosen, Merrie Melodies-esque, in a way that makes it difficult to untangle the visuals from the movie.

That said, in direct comparison to the visual aspects of this release, the sound has obviously not aged as gracefully.

8 out of 10

"Enough pink! I miss brown."

The Goodies

The bonus features are spread out evenly on the three discs, the first disc being the film and commentary, the second disc being all things Oz that predate the film, and the third being devoted to L. Frank Baum.

The first disc has a full-length feature commentary, which is dominated by film historian John Fricke. Other context-appropriate snippets of audio are thrown in, old interviews with the actors, observations by the progeny of the actors, et cetera. Fricke’s commentary is lively and fascinating; he has an evident love for the film and its history, and takes as much pleasure in pointing out pieces of trivia as he does dispelling some of the more prevalent urban legends (such as the famous "munchkin suicide" along the yellow brick road).

The archival contributions by cast and crewmembers, and relations, are sweet and funny. Margaret Hamilton is a lot of fun to listen to as she recounts the process by which she came to be cast in the film, and the children of Bert Lahr gleefully recount their father’s love for lampooning Broadway, as he did so wonderfully with "If I Were King of the Forest" in the film.

The first disc also includes a "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" storybook, essentially a Reading Rainbow storytime feature, with a picture book with illustrations by W.W. Denslow read aloud and animated. An eleven minute featurette on the eight month process undertaken to restore the negative rounds out the major features on the disc, supported by cast biographies, isolated music and effects tracks, and the original mono soundtrack.

He wants to chop you up this much.

In addition, I received a separately-packaged disc called "The Ultra Resolution Process" which features a five-minute, wordless tour of the processes used both to shoot the film and to restore it. It’s a nice supplement to the short feature above, but I wish that both of them added up to something more than fifteen minutes.

The massive second disc is dominated by a "making of" documentary, which covers much of the same territory that John Fricke visits in his commentary, but in greater and fascinating detail. In addition to the history of the film, it also covers the time directly after release, up to and including the Oscars of that year. It’s a loving treatment of the film, all the more so because of the admission of the slight blemishes that followed the release, and the occasional lapses in confidence from the filmmakers that their product would be successful, let alone timeless.

There’s a Turner Classic Movies feature called "Memories of Oz" devoted to the cast’s memories of the production. Like the documentary, many snippets of these memories were included in the commentary, but not in their entirety. The pride of everyone involved in the production, even the bit players and the Munchkins, is obvious and, if you’re like me, enviable.

A third featurette, "The Art of Imagination: A Tribute To Oz," is a somewhat more distant survey of the film and its context. It’s a half-hour of interviews with Hollywood historians, film critics, and entertainers, all explaining their own personal approach to the film, or their own nuggets of trivia (many of which, thanks to the exhaustive nature of the commentary and previous documentaries, are old news by now, if you’re watching these chronologically).

Moses was out of his mind, but he sure was good with flowers.

The fourth and final featurette on this disc is called "Because of the Wonderful Things it Does: The Legacy Of Oz". It follows the legacy not only of the film, but also of the books, discussing, through interviews with Baum family members and other film alchemists, the methods by which the land of Oz entered America‘s collective unconscious. For this reviewer, this was the most fascinating of the documentaries on the second disc, because of its modern relevance.

The cracks on this second disc are filled with a few smaller features. Harold Arlen, who composed the film, was an avid home cinematographer, and some of his 16mm reels are presented here. I haven’t done any research, but I’m almost certain this is one of the earliest, if not the earliest, example of behind-the-scenes footage. Arlen caught a lot of candid scenes: the scarecrow with birds on his head, the wicked witch grinning into the camera, Judy Garland practicing her songs. It’s a delightful, but short, bonus.

There are also a few deleted scenes and outtakes, but these aren’t your standard camera gaffes. Included are an excised scarecrow dance that’s a bit of physical comedy easily on par with "Make ‘em Laugh". Also included are extended versions of "If I Only Had A Heart", "Somewhere Over the Rainbow", and wholly deleted sequences "The Jitterbug" and "The Triumphant Return to the Emerald City".

As if that weren’t enough, how about a few screen tests for the special effects used for the tornado? The tornado was such a successful effect that it was reused in later MGM films, as you’ll hear in John Fricke’s commentary, and its easy to see why the MGM execs were impressed. A combination of miniatures, rear-projection, and creative stitchery, the tornado was the sort of proto-terrifying effect that took advantage of the materials of the time to build something no one expected to see.

In the 1967 television season, ABC had a prime time show called "Off To See The Wizard", on which the network would broadcast family movies. Animator Chuck Jones would draw segments introducing and concluding these films featuring characters from Oz. Four such introductions and conclusions are included on the disc, as a bit of a curiosity.

"It is tranya. I hope you relish it as much as I."

Concluding the second disc are four vault segments, one of short films ("Cavalcade of Academy Awards", a Frank Capra short compiling selections from the 1940 Academy Awards; "Another Romance of Culluloid: Electrical Power", a short subject regarding the use of electricity in the film’s creation; and "Texas Contest Winners", a promotional short edited together from footage of contest winners from Houston as they were let loose on the MGM studio lot), one of audio clips (seriously: lots of audio, here. Four-and-a-half hours of unedited bits left over from the film, loops, and discarded takes from the score; promotional radio clips and other radio broadcasts), one of publicity stills, and one of theatrical trailers.

That’s the second disc, folks. One whole disc remains.

The third disc focuses on material that predates the 1939 film. "L. Frank Baum: The Man Behind The Curtain" is a biographical documentary that offers some captivating insight into the man who combined cautionary themes so brilliantly with characters children would love, as well as fear. It’s a fascinating and even-handed, if a bit too brief, sketch of the author.

There are also five other Oz-to-screen adaptations, ranging in dates from 1910 to 1933. The first, "The Wizard of Oz" is essentially a filmed stage play, with actors in suits as the animals. It breezes through the story in about a reel-and-a-half (fifteen minutes), and has the fantastical quality that was obviously cribbed from Méliès.

The second, a 1914 silent called "The Magic Cloak of Oz", is much the same, but relies more heavily on title cards, and as a result is less cinematic. Also from 1914, and from the same studio, is "His Majesty, The Scarecrow of Oz", a good six-reeler. Both of these, from studio "Em Gee", are a lot of fun to peruse, but lack the momentum to sustain their excessive running times.

The 1925 silent version of "The Wizard of Oz", featuring Oliver Hardy, has had its print restored, and looks it. It features a lot of D.W. Griffith-style tinting to set different scenes apart, and a brand new score by Robert Israel. Story-wise, it’s a much closer adaptation of Baum’s novel, incorporating much of the quasi-sinister backstories of Dorothy’s friends. It’s a lot of fun, and features some impressive acro- and aerobatics.

Finally, there is the 1933 cartoon version, by Ted Eshbaugh of the original novel. According to the disc, legal difficulties prevented the short from screening at the time of its creation, but it was the first cinematic treatment to portray Kansas in black-and-white and Oz in color. There’s a lot of proto-Disney evidenced in the animation style: creatures with bandy-legs, women with exaggerated semi-circles for eyes. It’s only ten minutes long, and it doesn’t wear out its welcome, though the print is unfortunately unrestored.

Judy Garland was not their first choice.

In addition to all these interactive media, you also get the bonus of two slim portfolios. One of them contains ten postcard-sized reproductions of the Kodachrome stills and artwork used as publicity artwork in 1939. Each of these pictures is vivid and of a quality suitable for framing.

The second portfolio contains a selection of promotional material distributed by the studio in the months leading up to the film’s release. You get a program from the premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, facsimiles of the invitation to the premiere and the tickets used at the theater, a reproduction of a special MGM Studio News featuring news of the film’s production, a reproduction of an issue of Photoplay Studies featuring the film, and a postcard displaying all the theatrical posters used in promoting the film.

These last two bonuses serve as capstone to an excellent archival-quality release; as much history as could be possibly be included is present in this set. Thirteen hours’ worth.

My eyes hurt.

10 out of 10

In Oz, they know how to run a peep show.

The Artwork

I’m not really sold on this artwork. I prefer that of the previous DVD release, with Dorothy’s ruby slippers front and center, the Emerald City hanging in the distance down the yellow brick road. While the title text is classic, and looks as vintage as marketers will allow, the remaining elements aren’t arranged very pleasingly. The witch’s silhouette would have been fine by itself, but adding in her claw-like hands and the crystal ball with our heroes cowering within makes the gestalt a bit too busy. Add to that the fact that none of the lighting is consistent, and things fall apart. They should have gone either the route of minimalism for this, or of Ben-Hur and featured original theatrical art.

7 out of 10

The movie is a work of art; the treatment of this DVD release brings it so damn close to perfection. For my money (had I spent it) this is the best box set to have come out this year.

Overall: 9.8 out of 10