The Wizard Of Oz

DVD Rating: *****

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Read Scott Macdonald's film review of The Wizard Of Oz

Warner Brothers is celebrating the 70th birthday of the family film to beat them all by re-releasing The Wizard Of Oz in an Ultimate Sing-along Edition, available in everything from one disc format to an all-singing, all-dancing four disc box set. Many of the features here were first included on the earlier three-disc "Collector's Edition" but, rather against the odds, Warners have dug up even more for inclusion here.

The first thing to say is that this film - now given an 8K resolution transfer, up from the 4K one last time out - looks stunningly good. The colours of Oz are extraordinarily vivid, while even the earlier sepia tones of Kansas are given a feeling of warmth and depth. Clips used in many of the additional features on the disc only serve to remind you how much of a face-lift it has had. It is also worth noting that virtually everything on the disc, with the obvious exception of the Audio Vault and one or two of the smaller extras, is subtitled.

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Beyond the new transfer, the contents of disc one are much the same as in the previous release. There is a thorough - and thoroughly entertaining - commentary track from academic John Fricke, intercut with snippets of interviews from members of the cast and crew. Those sharing anecdotes include Margaret Hamilton (Wicked Witch of The West), Buddy Ebsen (the original Tin Man, who fell ill due to the make-up used on set), John Lahr (the son of Cowardly Lion Bert Lahr), Jack Haley (The Tin Man) and Ray Bolger (The Scarecrow). Fricke is an engaging guide and the commentary track is a solid mix of trivia and recollections, which not only gives you plenty of facts and figures - such as the titbit that efforts to make the Munchkin City river run blue resulted in a batch of ducks receiving a rather unfortunate dye job - but also serves to debunk a few of the myths that have sprung up around the film since its release. The snippets from cast member interviews have been well-chosen and the end result is surprisingly moving. This mixture of technical information and heartstring tugging runs through the extras across the whole set.

Other features on this disc to make it across from the Collector's Edition are an Angela Lansbury read storybook, which uses simple animation drawn from the original book's illustrations; the interesting documentary Prettier Than Ever: The Restoration Of Oz, which outlines the clean up job done on both the film and the soundtrack (read more about that here); plus a series of brief key cast biographies entitled We Haven't Really Met Properly, that are slightly formulaic but still informative. In addition to the possibility of listening either to the music and effects track or original mono track, there is also a fresh treat in store for Ultimate Collection owners - a Singalong section, featuring the 10 songs from the film, which are sure to keep the kids in karaoke material for a while.

Disc Two is again dominated by material from the Collector's Edition, with the major extra here a 50-minute long documentary, directed by Jack Haley Jnr - again narrated by Angela Lansbury - which was actually made back in 1990. It looks rather twee by today's standards, but is still informative and features quite a bit of information about Judy Garland herself, which is interesting since she tends to take a back-seat elsewhere on these DVDs. There are three additional half-hour documentaries. The Art of Imagination: A Tribute to Oz, is a Sidney Pollack introduced piece, focusing on the technical aspects of the film, in particular, the music, costumes and sets. Because of the Wonderful Things it Does: The Legacy of Oz features a slightly random choice of talking heads waxing lyrical about Oz's lasting influence. Some of this feels distinctly overstated, particularly when one woman begins to extol the virtues of its 'feminine energy'. Memories of Oz, a TCM documentary from 2001, further explores the lasting effect of the film on those who viewed it but features an odd collection of talking heads and is the least engaging of the documentaries in the set.

Also included on disc two are Harold Arlen's Home Movies - an entertaining five minutes of material, which sees the cast having fun on the set, plus a raft of deleted scenes and outtakes, the most interesting of which is the full version of If I Only Had A Brain, in all its imaginative majesty. There is also a fascinating short documentary It's A Twister! It's A Twister: The Tornado Tests, outlining how the twister was created and revealing it had a life in film that stretched on long after its appearance in Oz. Also included are some animated sequences created by Chuck Jones to frame up an MGM family film segment on television, that drew on the Wizard of Oz for inspiration.

Like a Russian doll, the second disc of this set just keeps on giving, with the From The Vault section holding three brief features made at or around the time of the film itself. Another Romance Of Celluloid: Electrical Power is a curiosity more than anything, but features a glimpse behind the scenes of Oz, while Cavalcade Of The Academy Awards Except is a Frank Capra directed snippet, showing Garland picking up her ‘juvenile Oscar’ from Mickey Rooney. Rounding out the clips is Texas Contest Winners, a rather sweet piece of film that shows the cast playing with a bus-load of competition winners who visited the MGM lot.

Disc Two also contains a plethora of other material, including a huge audio vault featuring hours of radio shows and promos not to mention a Jukebox featuring masses of rehearsal cuts, early song takes and the like. Finishing off the second disc is a truly exhaustive series of Stills Galleries and a raft of trailers and intros. My personal favourite in the trailer department, promises “a wizard that whizzes”.

Disc Three is where most of the material new to this edition lies. In addition to Frank L Baum: The Man Behind The Curtain – a half-hour, well-made documentary ported across from the Collector’s Edition that outlines the life of the author – there is a second half an hour slot dedicated to the film’s director. Victor Fleming: Master Craftsman is an equally enjoyable watch, giving a real sense of the director’s output and influence. Also new to this edition is Hollywood Celebrates Its Biggest Little Stars, a very sweet tribute to those who played the Munchkins, featuring interviews with the surviving cast members and footage of them receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame.

At this point, the extras take a turn for the slightly more whimsical, with the inclusion of made-for-TV film Dreamer Of Oz (1990). TV stalwart John Ritter stars as Frank L Baum in this rather mushy and melodramatic biopic. It is doubtless better included than not, but the transfer to the disc is really terrible, with the picture very blurry, while the content has clearly taken considerable liberties in terms of Baum’s life.

Much better are the films included from closer to the time when the book was written and which are spread across the rest of Disc Three and Disc Four. Silent films The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz (1910), His Majesty, The Scarecrow Of Oz (1914), The Magic Cloak Of Oz (1914) and The Patchwork Girl Of Oz (1914) are notable for their nuttiness. The plots are imaginative but difficult to follow and The Magic Cloak, in particular, suffers through having seemingly had little or no restoration, meaning that the intertitle cards are very difficult to read. Although undeniably bonkers, they all have a catchy energy about them and are well worth watching for the performers in animal suits, who give them all a lot of charm. Nickodemus the donkey in Magic Cloak is a wonderful comic creation, as is the Woozy – a sort of large cat made from cubes – which features in Patchwork Girl.

The Wizard Of Oz (1925) serves to show how far silent cinema travelled in a relatively short space of years, since it features a much more structured narrative and some good use of different tints to indicate place – although its relationship to the Wizard Of Oz source material is pretty tenuous, save for the inclusion of characters who become a tin man, scarecrow and cowardly lion. This is really a vehicle for its star Larry Semon, although it is also notable for a turn by Oliver Hardy. There is clever use of animation and some well-realised slapstick but it also has a rather nasty vein of latent racism running through it, which sits uneasily with modern sensibilities.

Finally, The Wizard Of Oz (1933) is a, rather elderly, print of Ed Eshbaugh’s cartoon, which predates the MGM film in choosing to show Kansas in monochrome and Oz in colour. It seems almost churlish to criticise such a wealth of extras, but it is a shame that a little more attention wasn’t paid to the additional films included in the set. A brief introduction to each – or even a short title card offering background – would have been most welcome.

Although perhaps a little hagiographic in places, this is an Ultimate Edition that truly lives up to its name and would be the perfect Christmas present to keep you and your Munchkins occupied over the Christmas period.

Reviewed on: 09 Nov 2009
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The Wizard Of Oz packshot
Swept away to a magical land, young Dorothy sets out to find the wizard who can help her get home, meeting some unusual friends along the way. Out on IMAX reissue.
Amazon link

Product Code: DY23395

Region: 2

Ratio: Various

Sound: Dolby Digital 5.1, mono

Extras: Commentary by Historian John Fricke including archival interviews of the film

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