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With: Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Billie Burke, Margaret Hamilton, Charley Grapewin, Pat Walshe, Clara Blandick, Toto (a.k.a. Terry)
Written by: Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, Edgar Allan Woolf, based on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum (with uncredited help by a reported gaggle of other writers including Herman J. Mankiewicz)
Directed by: Victor Fleming, King Vidor (uncredited), Richard Thorpe (uncredited)
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 103
Date: 08/12/1939
IMDB

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

4 Stars (out of 4)

No Place Like It

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Many younger viewers won't understand the phenomenon of the yearly The Wizard of Oz television broadcast. When I was a kid in the days before video, we had to wait all year to see this film. It mesmerized and enchanted me, and my enjoyment was only enhanced by the fact that it was a fleeting thing. Moreover, I knew that kids all over my town -- probably all over the country -- were watching it at the same time. It was an event.

This is not to take away from Warner Home Video's spectacular new three-disc DVD The Wizard of Oz box set. (It's also available in a slightly cheaper two-disc set.) Their digital restoration ranks among the most utterly spellbinding DVD achievements yet. Skip ahead to the sequence in which Dorothy (Judy Garland) opens the door of her black-and-white house to reveal the full-color Land of Oz, and it's so stunning that it recaptures what it must have felt like for the original 1939 viewers.

As one of the interviewees says on the disc's supplements, The Wizard of Oz is one of the most-protected films in history, and it's also one of the most well-covered. Probably everyone knows by now that it flopped upon its initial release, and that director Victor Fleming received final credit for both it and Gone with the Wind (released the same year), although he was one of many directors on each film. Most people know that Buddy Ebsen was originally cast as the Tin Man, but had an allergic reaction to the metallic makeup (he went on to be known as Jed Clampett on TV's "The Beverly Hillbillies.")

Fewer probably know that W.C. Fields was once considered for the role of the Wizard. The raucous behavior of the little people playing the Munchkins and Garland's eventual emotional downfall are the stuff of Hollywood dirt, and legends such as the dead cast member visible onscreen and perfect synching of Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon have permeated popular culture. Other movies have incorporated The Wizard of Oz into their fabric, notably Woody Allen's Annie Hall, Martin Scorsese's After Hours and David Lynch's Wild at Heart, not to mention the popular book/Broadway play Wicked, which tells the story from the Wicked Witch's perspective.

Based on the novel by L. Frank Baum, the plot, it goes without saying, has Dorothy caught up in a Kansas tornado, dropped into Oz, and killing the Wicked Witch of the East in the process. With the help of the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), the Tin Man (Jack Haley), and the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr), she makes her way to see the Wizard of Oz (Frank Morgan) in the hopes of returning back home. Scholars love to poke around in the weird layers of this story, focusing on the murders and the various Freudian representations of things, but we'll leave that to them.

No, the key to The Wizard of Oz is its pure, simple theme: Dorothy's desire to get back home, to safety, to comfort, to family and to love. Her subsequent journey is henceforth unsafe and uncomfortable, and so we wring our hands in sympathy, waiting, hoping for her to be okay. That it's all a dream makes it all the more unpredictable and unreliable. The film understandably works better for kids, but since everyone grew up watching it, adults can enjoy with a certain amount of nostalgia, or -- as stated above -- with a twist of the subversive.

Who knows how long it will be before technicians adapt The Wizard of Oz to some other new home video medium, with even better quality and more extras? How much more essential will it actually be? But as long as DVD players and television sets are a reliable source of entertainment, this disc will be a staple.

Despite the fact that the yearly TV viewing is gone and that viewers can watch it again and again whenever they want, the 2005 DVD is an unquestionable, essential item in anyone's DVD library. It comes with enough extras to help any adult re-capture his or her memories of youth. There are two collections of photos and promotional materials (real ones, not just images on the TV screen), and there are as many documentaries as you can shake a broomstick at, including one on Baum. One look at some of the clips in some of these older documentaries provides a brilliant example of just how brilliantly the movie has been restored.

The disc includes the various "deleted scenes" that have already been shown on both the VHS and the laserdisc, including the wonderful song "The Jitterbug." One featurette examines the cult phenomenon and interviews John Waters, among other familiar faces. And for an alternate telling, Angela Lansbury reads the storybook. Disc Three features the most fascinating bonuses: five earlier films based on the Oz books, including four silent films -- one directed by Baum himself -- and one cartoon. The overall quality ranges from decent to poor, but it's great to have these as a comparison.

In 2009, Warner Home Video released The Wizard of Oz again, for its 70th anniversary. The film has been re-mastered once again, and it's a slight improvement over the 2005 set, but only die-hard fans should swap. This release is mainly an opportunity for Blu-Ray owners to get a high-def version of this beloved film. Most of the same extras are here, with about 25% new stuff.

Now, in 2013, Warner Bros. has spruced up The Wizard of Oz for a theatrical run, in IMAX and 3D, for its 75th anniversary, although officially that's still a year away. I have to confess, the 3D adds quite a bit of texture to the land of Oz. I had grown accustomed of making fun of the painted backdrops with my son, watching as the actors were just about to dance into a wall as the shot ends. But now, in 3D, the scenes actually do appear to go on forever, notably the winding, yellow brick road, and the poppy field. Oz actually now does feel like a vast and magical place, just as it probably did when I first saw the movie and was unaccustomed to its flaws.

The movie is still funny and wonderful, and it still works on a primal level, with its threat of having safety and comfort taken away, replaced by the unknown. In the end, the triumph of safety and comfort is hard to resist.

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