Acolytes at the Alter of Oz

By Stuart J. Kobak

     Does it matter how many times we have walked that yellow brick road? We keep returning to the magical pathway that continues to captivate audiences, entranced by this land of intense color. And now MGM has devised a new stimulation for another flight of fancy over the rainbow with the latest incarnation of The Wizard of Oz on laser disc, The Ultimate Oz.
     The success of the film of The Wizard of Oz for audiences ranging from age three to eighty has a lot to do with its exploration of primordial truths. In a "paint by the numbers" of color intensity, childhood fears are depicted in this merry old land of Oz through a fairy tale mask fashioned of revealing gauze. Examine the incredible number of horrors that face Dorothy and her friends, not to mention the already persecuted cupie dolls bounding happily about Munchkinland under the oppressive shadows and malevolent whims of not one, but two witches. And do you really think Glinda is up to the task of defending the "little guy:" it seems to me that this portrait of benevolent mental vacuity is lucky enough that her bubble hasn't burst in a mid flight misfire.
     To begin with, the very idea of taking away one's pet is an agonizing concept to impressionable youngsters. The failure of Auntie Em and Uncle Henry to adequately protect Dorothy from the righteous fangs of Miss Gulch, not only adds to the impact of insecurity in child viewers, it plays upon the strings of adult guilt stemming from the almost always conflicting navigation of successfully sailing children through a world of "unfair" rules.
     The greatest horror that Dorothy faces is loss of home. Have you ever asked where Dorothy's parents are? This suggests that Dorothy's fear of loss may even be greater than normal. The final lesson that Dorothy learns from this Ozian nightmare is her repeated refrain "There's no place like home."
     The twister that rips Dorothy from her world into Oz represents the universal fear of the power of nature. There is little attempt at subtlety in the fear invoked by the leering performance of Margaret Hamilton as Wicked Witch. Trees come to nasty life in this nightmare world and grotesquely garbed monkeys fly the skies. The fear of fire for the Scarecrow is milked for menace with each burning strand of straw. Picture the exaggerated size of the ominous hour glass.
     While the city of Oz represents safety, it too is not immune from the wrath of witches, as exhibited by the collective fear of Oz's inhabitants resulting from airborne demand to surrender Dorothy.
     Friendship is the great redeeming quality of The Wizard of Oz. True, the march to Oz initiates as a self-serving journey for each of the travelers down the yellow brick road, but in the end the bond of togetherness that Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tinman and Lion build is more important than their individual needs. We watch as a genuine love develops that rewards each of Dorothy's new friends by allowing them to earn that which they wanted most. The Scarecrow proves the existence of his brain through the facility of its use. The Tinman's concern for his friends brings him to realize that the functions of love and caring define the properties of "heart" more clearly than the pulsating beat of physical reality echoing in an otherwise empty shell devoid of love. The Lion, despite the quaking antics of Bert Lahr, proves to himself that he is fearless in his concern for others, while when his focus remains on the narrow existence of his own well being he is devoid of the inspiration for heroism. Much of the fascination with Oz , beginning with childhood and lasting through the ritual passing on of the tradition of watching this film is based on the fear of the unknown and vision of the horror that stays with the acolytes of Oz for all of their lives.
     The visual splendor of the set design and the execution and integration of fantastic matte paintings are a feast created to titillate the appetites of the most jaded critics. The colors of fantasy can easily spill over into the garishness of horror, though in the realization of Oz, this is usually not the case. The Wizard of Oz can be enjoyed on the primal level of pure visual stimulation. The bold use of primary colors is mesmerizing. The set designers have been given the freedom to create a vision unencumbered by the restraints of reality and realized through the richness of three strip Technicolor photography.
     Adults and children together can share in the delight of the infectious songs and staging of the dances in The Wizard of Oz. "Over the Rainbow," which we learn from disc second audio commentary, came perilously close to being cut from Oz after its first preview, captures perfectly the universal dream that lives inside both young and old. Can you imagine an Oz without the wonderful sentiment of the reassuring lyrics by Harburg. In the new biography of Harburg by Harold Meyerson and Ernie Harburg, Harburg remembered director Victor Fleming telling him: "I'm sorry to say the whole first part of the show is awful slow because of that number, "Over the Rainbow." We gotta take it out." Harburg and Arlen pleaded, and finally Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM, intervened, saying "Let the boys have the damned song....It can't hurt." The entire Munchkinland celebration commencing with the embodiment of innocence in Billie Burke's rendition of "Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are" to the exuberant strains of "You're Off to See the Wizard," is an eye-popping exercise in sensorial jubilation. Ray Bolger's dancing Scarecrow is the poetic embodiment of the physical nature of that creation. Even the minor detail of the turning over of the Scarecrow's feet during his prancing adds to this definitive picture. Jack Haley is stiffly beguiling in "whiling away the hours" and Bert Lahr's slapstick postures and roars complete the successful trio of Dorothy's musical companions. The major production number "The Merry Old Land of Oz" is pure Hollywood joy.
     Ultimately, while the elements of psychological pretension may exist as an added stimulation and the songs and dances are wonderfully integrated into the story, Oz triumphs because it is an uplifting and exciting adventure and it is Judy Garland's incandescent performance as Dorothy Gale that captures "little girl" innocence perfectly, cementing an audience's involvement in this tale.
     So the question is, does this new luxury edition of The Wizard of Oz earn its declared title The Ultimate Oz.? There is no question that it is brim full of Ozamania. In addition to the feature presented on 4 CAV sides, side four also includes the complete outtake of "If I Only Had a Brain;" a third disc includes one CLV side containing the made for television documentary The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: The Making of a Movie Classic , plus two trailers and more; and a final CAV side is packed with a wealth of supplemental materials. The analog left channel accompanying the feature film is provided with a running historical commentary on The Wizard of Oz by John Fricke; a multitude of audio only musical takes has been encoded on varying audio channels.
     Included in the sturdy and elegantly simple box is the Continuity Script for The Wizard of Oz which can add another dimension to the enjoyment of following the enthralling images. The script italicizes scenes and dialogue deleted from the final film for easy identification. Five 8 x 10 black and white publicity photos are a bonus suitable for a framing treatment. A postcard also offers a free($3.00 postage and handling charge, ugh.)24 x 36 The Wizard of Oz Certified Collector's Edition poster. MGM opted for separate jackets for the feature and its supplements. The feature is housed in a gatefold jacket opening to a lovely montage of Oz photos , while the back of the single supplementary jacket has material appropriate to its subject contents. A four page insert serves as a guide through the multi-faceted Ultimate Oz production, listing the voluminous chapter stops and offering simple directions for navigation through this ocean of information.
     Both the documentary and Aljean Harmitz's interviews with Margaret Hamilton, Ray Bolger and Jack Haley are ably complimented by the second audio commentary of John Fricke, though some facts are bound to be repeated considering the magnitude of information presented. We are fortunate to have the reminiscences of some surviving principals of The Wizard of Oz available to us. Through the various supplements, we learn that five directors and 14 writers were actively associated with the project. While the bulk of filmed was directed by Victor Fleming, George Cukor spent several days as temporary director of The Wizard of Oz after the dismissal of director Richard Thorpe, who had completed two weeks of filming. When Fleming was desperately recruited to replace George Cukor as director of Gone With the Wind, King Vidor came on board for three weeks to film the Kansas sequences, including "Over the Rainbow." Just how much of Thorpe's filming, if any, was left in the final film was not clear to me, though considering the major changes that Cukor instituted in the look of Dorothy, from changing her blond curls to brunette pigtails and simplifying her dress to Kansas proportions, its likely that Thorpe was completely excised.
     Dedicated Oz acolytes will learn that there were a total of 124 authentic "little people" playing munchkins and monkeys as well, and that the munchkin dialogue was almost all dubbed by veteran Hollywood character actors and the munchkin singing was recorded months after finished filming by the St. Joseph's Choir. The final screen effect of the munchkin voices was produced by slightly speeding up the vocals. If you never noticed the varying lengths of Dorothy's pigtails, Fricke points it out, just as he notes an errant oil can and other production bloopers. Fricke notes a number of modifications or cuts that were made in the film because of collective executive fear that the film was too frightening. Fricke's commentary accompanying the last quarter of the film appears slightly less continuous, though the gaps never last too long.
     While The Ultimate Oz duplicates some of the extras available on MGM's 50th Anniversary edition, there is no comparison to the extent of the supplemental material and the terrific "If I Only Had a Brain" is happily presented in its complete form as opposed to the slightly abbreviated anniversary treat. The transfer is cleaner than ever before on this latest incarnation. The overall film has been brightened up slightly in this new pressing to fine effect. The scratchiness previously evident in the sound track has been removed and the audio overall is richer and fuller with a much better bass.
     The clarity and cleanliness of this transfer is joyous, though the color appears too saturated and necessitated turning it down a notch on my properly set-up system. There is a major shift in Sepia intensity just as Hickory forecasts the erection of a statue to himself. I noted some instances of color shifting and in the scene introducing the Tin Woodsman, focus shifts from sharp to soft in rapid bursts. There was only one very minor horizontal dropout evident in the entire pressing. While searching for minor faults and imperfections can result in carping observations, the truth is that nothing on this edition mars the sublime pleasure of looking at arguably the most glorious ever screen images.
     The Ultimate Oz? That's a difficult goal to live up to. This is a truly wonderful disc production, but what is ultimate? There are indications that additional scenes were filmed and subsequently deleted. Could they be discovered just as the altered "If I Only Had a Brain" was in 1973? New video formats will most certainly surpass the reference quality of this Wizard of Oz edition. Does ultimate in this case mean final, the last in a series or progression. I doubt that. Perhaps it means as good as we possibly could have done now, and in that sense this appreciated and welcome laser package can truly be declared The Ultimate Oz.

The Wizard of Oz Laser A, A

US/1939/Color/Fullscreen 1.33:1/Mono/103 minutes/Directed by Victor Fleming/Starring Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr/MGM-UA/190 Chaps/Supplements/3 Discs/CLV-CAV/$99.98

The Wizard of Oz DVD A,B+

     The Wizard of Oz is a core title in any video collection. If you already have it on laser disc, there may be no reason to add a DVD. There are any number of laser versions of The Wizard of Oz and at least one, The Ultimate Oz laser edition, looks better than its DVD counterpart. The laser disc is slightly sharper in image and the colors are controlled to richer effect.   
      Personally, I never tire of the charms of Judy Garland in this wonderful fantasy. Garland captures something so fresh and extraordinary in her portrayal of  Dorothy Gale. Watching Garland perform is excuse enough for watching the film on a regular basis. But revisiting The Wizard of Oz is also a reminder of  lost innocence as well as our glorious movie past. 
      The brilliant colors of The Wizard of Oz are a perfect match for would-be optical perfection. This DVD does capture all the magic of the fabulous production. The mono sound is very accurate with no distortion. Even the Munchkin dialogue is discernible.  And itís great to have both the laser sharp quality of images and the absence of ill-timed side breaks that DVD provides for most films on The Wizard of Oz.


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