When The Wizard of Oz premiered 70 years ago, it stunned and amazed audiences worldwide. Not only was it an engaging, fantastical tale of friendship, love, loss and redemption, but it was also an incredible technical achievement, featuring stunning cinematography and revolutionary special effects. It delighted audiences by starting out in sepia-toned black and white and then exploding into spectacular Technicolor once Dorothy and Toto landed in the magical land of Oz. That transition, bridging two film types, represented a massive leap in technology — while not the first film to be shot in three-strip Technicolor, its innovative use in The Wizard of Oz fully demonstrated the radical difference between the two approaches, and accelerated even further the move towards full-color pictures becoming the norm. The palate of The Wizard of Oz was a gorgeous one, full of rich, over-saturated, yet full-bodied tones that sparkled across American theaters.
Much like the change from silent films to talkies, the switch from black and white to color was one of the most spectacular advances in film history, and Oz, along with Disney’s other mega-hit from the 30’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, helped show audiences and producers just how beautiful films could be. The Wizard of Oz’s special effects (which still stand up today) and techniques represented a technical achievement the likes of which we haven’t really seen since — the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park were impressive and all, but didn’t have nearly the same overall effect. And say what you will about Cameron’s forthcoming Avatar, but I can’t imagine that it will change the game so completely and totally the way those two advancements did.
In addition to being a marvel of technological know-how, The Wizard of Oz was also simply a wonderful film. Of course, just about everyone knows L. Frank Baum’s story — Dorothy (Judy Garland), a lonely, adventurous girl living on a dreary Kansas farm is swept up in a tornado and deposited abruptly into the wondrous land of Oz. Her arrival brings about the death of the Wicked Witch of the East, and she is heralded as a hero by the diminutive residents of Munchkinland. She and her faithful mutt Toto are encouraged by Glinda, The Good Witch of the North (Billie Burke), to follow the yellow brick road to see the Wizard (Frank Morgan), who will help her find her way back to Kansas. Along the way, she picks up an unlikely trio of friends, each an allegorical representation of human weakness, who each unknowingly already has the solution to their problems deep within them. The Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr), The Tin Man (Jack Haley), and The Scarecrow (Ray Bolger) all accompany her as they travel through bizarre and beautiful lands, all the while trying to evade the vengeful Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton), who wants to kill Dorothy for the death of her sister, and take her ruby slippers.
The Wizard of Oz is a film that packs a tremendous amount of ideas and themes o its 103 minutes. In addition to its imaginative tale of wonder, it is, of course, also a musical. The music and lyrics, written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, won a much-deserved Oscar for Best Music (the remaining majority of that year’s Oscars would go to the theatrical juggernaut known as Gone With The Wind), and each player performs and sings perfectly. Of course none more so than Garland, who was actually not even the original choice for the role (originally, producers wanted Shirley Temple). But Garland carries the film with a sense of vulnerability and precociousness is still incredible, and conveys a grace and sense of wonder that seems beyond her 17 years. When she slowly moves into “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” (which also won the Oscar for Best song) it’s hard not to feel a little tug — and I’m not someone who gets particularly emotional during movies. Her song and dance routines with her companions, particularly the first sequence with the Scarecrow, and clever and deft and a joy to watch.
It’s an amazing film that has been reviewed and criticized and lauded thousands of times over the last seven decades, so I won’t review it in too much depth. Suffice it to say that in the land of Oz, nothing is as it seems, and its story continues to awe and amaze adults and children to this day — one of the few films of its era that can claim such a feat. It’s a film with heart and soul, and I freely confess to absolutely adoring it. Which is why when I learned that it was being screened nationwide, for only one day at only one time, in it’s new High Definition print (as a promotion for the pending Blu Ray release), I jumped at the chance to see it. Few, if any, of us have ever had the chance to see it on the big screen (and it’s more than likely that if you missed it this time around, you may not get another one), and it was not an opportunity to pass up.
The HD print is, in short, spectacular. Presented in its original aspect ratio, it’s crisp and vibrant and absolutely stunning. The moment when Dorothy throws open the door of her house to our first glimpse of Oz is so sharp and rich, the drastic change almost hurts the eyes. Every hue and tone is captured gloriously, and the film becomes almost hypnotic — I found myself entranced, watching the backgrounds more and more, taking in the amazing set pieces as well as the painted backdrops and artwork. There’s so much going on in every scene — random emus and cranes wandering through the forest, flowers bursting everywhere, and a surprising amount of backdrop movement — all of which is clearer and more impressive with the new print. The exquisite costume design, with so many individually distinct outfits for the Munchkins, as well as the residents of Emerald City, are all the more splendid, with each detail clearer and more impressive. The sound is sharp — a little too sharp, in parts, but that’s simply a consequence of the recording capabilities of the time.
It was preceded by a breezy introductory documentary (part of a much longer one that will be part of the voluminous Blu Ray extra features, I assume) hosted by Angela Lansbury, containing archival footage, interviews, and little outtake bits. There was a remarkable amount of trivia contained in there — for example, the original Tin Man was hospitalized after inhaling aluminum dust, as well as taking the audience through the exhausting casting process (it does conveniently leave out how Toto was paid more than many of the actors, particularly the Munchkins, as well as the numerous problems in filming — rewrites, reshoots, and staff changes). It was short enough so that people didn’t lose interest, and only built up the anticipation.
What was perhaps most satisfying was the audience response. I’m a rare filmgoer, mainly because I despise the interruptions and noise that pervades theaters nowadays. Not this night. The audience was rapt with attention, whether they were jaded misanthropes like myself, tiny children, teenagers or elderly folks. People laughed and clapped and little kids giggled and squealed. I saw a woman of at least 80 with her grandchild sitting in my row, and each of them was equally captivated. A little girl of about 8 was dressed as Dorothy, right down to the pigtails and ruby slippers, and gleefully skipped into the theater. I saw a lumbering giant of a man, dressed in a Randy Moss jersey big enough to build a tent out of, chuckling and grinning through the whole film.
Which is why, clichéd as it may be, The Wizard of Oz really is one of those timeless pictures. It still has the ability to evoke feelings of reverence and delight out of people, and clearly it’s not just out of a sense of nostalgia. Little kids, regardless of what kind of barrage of noise they’re currently being subjected to, still adore it. Adults are still charmed by it. Which is why I make no apologies about it — I absolutely love The Wizard of Oz. I always have, since my parents showed it to me as a wee TK. It remains to this day one of Hollywood’s finest achievements, and will always be a breathtaking example of cinema done perfectly.
TK writes about music and movies. He enjoys dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.