Almost everyone must have seen 'The Wizard of Oz' on TV at some time, but how many of us can claim to have viewed it on a big screen in a Cinema?
Well, I can! Not at some special screening but during a proper cinema run.
Contrary to some ageist rumours being spread by certain other reviewers, I can't actually claim to have seen it upon its original release back in 1939 but my memory takes me back to a family holiday in Whitley Bay in 1969. The reason I can recall the year is because 'Where Eagles Dare' was playing in a Picture House nearby and 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang' in another - they were both new releases then. As my younger brother and I strolled hopefully in the evening sun, our parents asked us to pick a film. My brother chose 'Where Eagles Dare', so obviously I had to go for a different one and even at the age of eleven I knew that 'The Wizard of Oz' was a classic. My Mum and Dad seemed awfully keen for us to see it too, perhaps because it was a way of them sharing something from their own childhood with us. I just couldn't believe that we were going in to a Cinema to see a movie that was made before the Second World War. My brother, bottom lip tripping him, was dragged protesting bitterly into Munchkinland.
I recall initially being disappointed as the curtains parted revealing a black and white image. We could get black and white on TV at home. My little brother whispered that 'Where Eagles Dare' would at least have been in colour.
A trip to the cinema was a rare occasion for us then - usually reserved for a Bond movie or as on this occasion, while on our summer holidays - not to be wasted on a black & white film.
Imagine my relief when Dorothy (Judy Garland) woke up, not in Kansas any more, and opened the door to a land where Technicolor began. And wow, what colour it was!
To this day I remember the vivid yellow of the Yellow Brick Road and the bottle green face of the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) - who was pretty scary.
All of those memories came flooding back as I opened the lid on the 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collectors Edition Box Set of 'The Wizard of Oz' on Blu-ray. Inside the sumptuously presented box, my eyes lit upon a reprinted production budget sheet, a press campaign pack from 1939, a beautiful hard back book and a special collector's edition watch. Most of this material I have heard described by the trendy cynics as cheap tat, but I can only guess that they haven't actually seen it with their own eyes. Then, embedded in a cavity in the bottom of the box I spied the treasure that most movie collectors want - the four disc special edition of the movie with barrow loads of extras.
I couldn't wait to pop the first disc in my player.
I'd already read about the work done on the transfer, so was looking forward to seeing the results projected on my own home cinema screen. It had to be projected in order to try to recreate the experience of seeing it on a big screen in a cinema.
The MGM lion roared and we were in. Into the sepia tinted black and white opening where we meet Dorothy with her Aunt Em (Clara Blandick) and hear about the vindictive Miss Gulch (Margaret Hamilton) with her campaign against Toto the dog. But the moment that surely everyone waits for is when Judy launches into the emotional 'Somewhere over the Rainbow' classic number with its warm, optical sound quality. Okay, I know I was listening to a Dolby TrueHD track but the original still reminds me of good, old fashioned Optical sound where a light beam shines through the sawtooth pattern printed on the edge of the film that is then converted into sound via an amplifier. The quality of her voice, the instrumentation, the soft focus close-ups - all combine to produce a feeling. That feeling is one of nostalgia, caused by childhood memories that transport us back in time to a much kinder, safer, happier world.
They say that time travel is impossible, but I believe that movies are our link with the past as we can mostly remember where we first saw a particular film and thus our memories are triggered to pull back events that also occurred around that time.
Now, widescreen hadn't been made commercially available in 1939, so 'The Wizard of Oz' was obviously shot in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio and thankfully nobody has tried to crop the top and bottom of the picture. This will no doubt cause the usual outcry from those who think that nothing produced pre-'Star Wars' and not in widescreen has any merit.
On the newly released Blu-ray, we have the movie as it was meant to be seen, in 1.33:1 with black bars either side of it. That's the way it is, so get used to it. Nobody is going to ruin a perfectly good film to suit a bunch of kiddywinks who don't realise that it's the story that counts rather than the aspect ratio.
It's a movie full of great characters that Dorothy meets in her 'dream'. The scarecrow (Ray Bolger), the Tin Man (Jack Haley), the cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) and the Wizard himself (Frank Morgan) are all depicted by people from her 'real' life. The film doesn't set out to preach at us with any great parallels, and the only message it tries to sell us is that 'there's no place like home'.
Of the songs used in the film, the two that really stand out are also the ones that have become sing-along classics - 'Somewhere over the Rainbow' and 'We're off to see the Wizard...'. I defy anyone to try to get to sleep after watching this film without those two numbers playing in a loop inside their head. That's because they're great, catchy tunes - something that songwriters seem to have trouble reproducing these days.
Some of us might recall 'Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead' cropping up in 'Airplane'.
This wasn't the only film to make reference to 'Oz'. Over the years many movies and books (including 'Star Wars') have borrowed from or emulated 'Oz' in one way or another, so those of us who believe that modern day classics include wonderful themes or ideas really need to look to the past to find out from whence they originally came.
The performances in 'Oz' are superb. Judy Garland holds our attention with her sincere, charming, honest approach while her lovely voice does justice to the musical numbers. She's more than ably supported by a troupe of strolling contract players from the MGM stable who you instantly recognize from other productions. For my money, Bert Lahr is fantastic as the cowardly Lion - and even after all these years, the scene where he complains that someone pulled his tail still gets a laugh. It must have been murderously hot inside that suit under the lights.
Considering it was made over 70 years ago, the Special Effects still hold up well when viewed in context. No CGI here! What a pleasant change. Effects were much more 'free range' in those days.
The twister scene at the start of the movie still works well especially when you consider it was a piece of muslin hanging from a gantry.
The set designs for Munchkinland are colourful, imaginative and eye catching - making the most of the three strip Technicolor process, allowing colours to leap off the screen at you.
Even though I tried hard to describe the movie in a fresh way, the much used phrase 'timeless classic' kept on coming to mind. Maybe that's because that's exactly what it is. A film that's as enjoyable now as it was the very first time I saw it.
The magic continues...
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