Friday, December 23, 2005

It’s a safe assumption that MGM’s 1939 musical “The Wizard of Oz” has been seen by more people than any other Hollywood classic — and probably seen more often over people’s lifetimes with little, if any, sense that overfamiliarity was taking a serious toll of fondness.

A new three-disc edition of the movie from Warner Home Video supplements a pristine audiovisual transfer with about 13 hours of supplementary material.

Already a lavishly documented production by movie historians, “The Wizard of Oz” can be savored in a kind of historical compendium that occupies relatively little shelf or table space. If you choose, a considerable amount of “Oz” appreciation, lore and memorabilia can be purchased along with the feature itself this Christmas for $40 to $50.

Disc 1, which keeps things in perspective by giving the movie pride of place, is supplemented by a commentary track narrated by film historian John Fricke; optional soundtracks, including the original monaural version; an Oz “storybook”; a featurette about restoration work; and a gallery of profiles about cast members.

The headliner in Disc 2 is a comprehensive documentary chronicle, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz:The Making of a Movie Classic.” It’s supplemented by three other featurettes on the same subject, plus a selection of home movies by composer Harold Arlen; sidebars devoted to outtakes, deleted scenes and test shots (for the twister sequence); an “audio vault” with several hours of vintage studio recordings of the musical numbers, plus three radio shows devoted to the movie; and even an excerpt from the obscure 1967 TV series “Off to See the Wizard.”

I suppose it’s not unreasonable to anticipate an eventual “Oz” anthology that will include “The Wiz” and a future film version of “Wicked.”

Disc 3 might tempt some admirers to approach the movie gradually, as a mass cultural triumph that took several decades to mature, awaiting the emergence and improvement of the American movie industry.

This batch of “extras” begins with a half-hour biopic about L. Frank Baum, the author of the “Oz” books, and then retrieves some of the cinematic prehistory that anticipated the 1939 culmination. In retrospect, it seems almost too perfect that the first “Oz” book was published in 1900 and that the Baums moved to the hamlet of Hollywood, Calif., in 1910, several months before the first movie company called the place home.

A trio of short silent films made between 1910 and 1914 includes the one produced and directed by Baum himself, “His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz.” It was not a success and doesn’t appear to improve significantly on the 1910 version, although both preserve a sense of how the theatrical versions of the period must have looked, along with trick-shot spectacles obviously influenced by cinematic pioneer Georges Melies.

A 1925 feature subordinates Dorothy’s character while transforming her into a flapper ingenue of 18. The movie was a vehicle for silent comedian Larry Semon, also the producer-director, who cast himself as a farmhand who assumes a scarecrow’s disguise during a jaunt to a more Ruritanian than enchanted version of “Oz.”

Oliver Hardy is cast as another farmhand, but he’s the least conspicuous of the lot, in part because there’s also a black cast member, G. Howe Black, who becomes a focus of stupefying racial gags in a few scenes. The most stupefying: When the cyclone approaches, lightning bolts strike his skull three times with no effect and then finally get a reaction by administering a hotfoot on the fourth strike. Despite this moronic usage, Black demonstrates a flair for physical comedy that makes you curious about his movie career way back then.

Considerable advances in movie craftsmanship, stylization and acting can be traced across the 1910-1939 continuum. For example, Larry Semon and Ray Bolger are physically similar types, but the latter’s embodiment of the Scarecrow belongs to a far loftier artistic elevation.

The 1925 version spends so much time messing around the farm setting that one experiences a renewed admiration for the expository finesse of the 1939 production. The first reel is a screenwriting gem. Before sepia gives way to Technicolor at 19 minutes and 30 seconds, the film has established all its fundamental characters, conflicts and promising fancies: the innocence and dreaminess of Judy Garland’s Dorothy; the menace embodied in Margaret Hamilton’s Miss Gulch; the comic contrasts in the farmhands played by Mr. Bolger, Bert Lahr and Jack Haley, destined to reappear in their valiant “Oz” alter egos; and the kindly fraudulence of Frank Morgan’s Professor Marvel.

Remakes aren’t always a bad idea, despite all the evidence to the contrary currently on display in the new editions of “King Kong” and “The Producers.”It took several warm-ups and almost 40 years for “The Wizard of Oz” to be glorified with a splendid set of collaborators within a production apparatus capable of exceptional forms of pictorial, musical and emotional gratification. With or without the supplements, the appeal of “Wizard” remains out of this world.

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