Adapted from L. Frank Baum’s timeless children’s tale about a Kansas girl’s journey over the rainbow, The Wizard of Oz opened at Grauman’s Chinese Theater on August 15, 1939. The film was directed by Victor Fleming (who that same year directed Gone With the Wind), produced by Mervyn LeRoy, and scored by Herbert Stothart, with music and lyrics by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg. Ray Bolger appeared as the Scarecrow; Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion, Jack Haley as the Tin Woodman. Frank Morgan was seen in six different roles, including that of the "wonderful Wizard" himself. Dorothy was portrayed by a 4'11" sixteen year old girl who quickly earned her reputation as “the world’s greatest entertainer”-- the incomparable Judy Garland.
The Wizard of Oz received five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, and captured two Oscars® -- Best Song (“Over the Rainbow”) and Best Original Score -- plus a special award for Outstanding Juvenile Performance by Judy Garland. The film was an overwhelmingly popular and critical success upon its initial release and repeated its ability to captivate audiences when M-G-M reissued the film in 1949 and 1955. The film made a new kind of history with its network television premiere in 1956 on CBS. Nearly 45 million people tuned in for this initial telecast, marking the beginning of an annual tradition. Ever since, The Wizard of Oz has been shown virtually annually on network (and then cable) television; its magical story and heartfelt performances have enabled it to grow from a perennial classic to its current status as a treasured icon of popular culture.
When I was a kid back in the late '60s and early '70s, I looked forward to four banner days every year: Christmas, my birthday, the first day of summer vacation, and the annual network airing of 'The Wizard of Oz.' The latter was appointment TV before there ever was such a term. With no DVRs or VCRs to capture Dorothy's magical journey down the Yellow Brick Road, I had to view the film in real time, or else wait an interminable 365 days until NBC or CBS showed it again. Though I don't recall much about watching 'Oz' (except sitting agape in front of the television and ducking out during the cyclone sequence – witches didn't scare me, but tornados sure did!), I do vividly remember the breathless anticipation that preceded the broadcast, and how it quickened my pulse and heightened the aura of this iconic adaptation of L. Frank Baum's enduring fantasy. No doubt about it, 'The Wizard of Oz' was a bona fide event, and while I couldn't always count on Santa Claus to leave what I wanted under the tree, I knew Dorothy and her trio of devoted pals would never let me down. Year after year, they delivered the goods, and with wide-eyed wonder I gratefully accepted the many gifts this special motion picture showered upon me.
Now Warner Home Video has given me – and the millions who share my enthusiasm for this timeless classic – another gift. 'The Wizard of Oz' on Blu-ray is the same film we've always cherished, but the impeccable remastering lofts it over the rainbow. Those of us of a certain age can at last recapture the exhilaration and revel in the awe we felt so strongly so many years ago, and those who grew up with 'Oz' more recently on video now have a pristine edition of this 70-year-old masterpiece that meets the new millennium's high technical standards. Like the pungent scent of poppies in the field that borders the Emerald City, this spectacular version of 'Oz' intoxicates the senses and revitalizes both the film and its loyal audience.
With its thrilling plot, lush Technicolor palette, unforgettable score by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, excellent performances, and impressive spectacle, 'The Wizard of Oz' is a heady enough mix on its own. Add high-def picture and sound, and it's a genuine trip. Yet despite all the external stimuli, the basic themes of Baum's tale – home, family, facing fears, empowering friends, unity against adversity – still resonate as heartily as they ever did, and the image's immediacy only increases their emotional power. Though on the surface, this well-known story of a young girl who runs away from her Kansas farm to protect her pooch, gets caught in a violent storm, and travels via tornado to a breathtaking land of Munchkins, wizards, and witches may seem like a typical children's adventure, director Victor Fleming and writers Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf infuse it with such warmth, humor, suspense, and wisdom, it transcends the mold to become a far more substantive piece than songs like 'Ding! Dong! The Witch Is Dead' and 'We're Off to See the Wizard' would lead one to believe. Wisely, 'Oz' doesn't browbeat messages into us (until the final scene); they hide in plain sight and can be easily harvested or ignored. Some are a bit dated – Dorothy's vow at the end of the film to never go looking for her heart's desire outside the boundaries of her own backyard seems more than a little short-sighted in this feminist era – but most defy age and gender. As long as we're "young at heart," 'The Wizard of Oz' will continue to touch us.
As will the work of the incomparable Judy Garland. Though so many elements contribute to the success of a film, it's impossible to imagine any one piece of the 'Oz' puzzle having a greater impact on the film's viability and durability than Garland's performance. Sure, her simple yet stirring rendition of 'Over the Rainbow' ranks high on the list of milestone movie moments, yet this gifted 16-year-old actress brings so much more to the table than her mellifluous voice. Honesty and sincerity ooze from her pores; every word she utters is totally believable, and her pluck, vulnerability, innocence, and empathy instantly seduce the audience. From the opening frames to the "no place like home" coda, Garland keeps us transfixed, maintaining an intimacy that's rare in such an extravagant production. Her performance, more than any other, keeps 'The Wizard of Oz' contemporary, and allows the picture to connect with past, present, and future generations.
Garland's brilliance may dominate the film, but the performances of her co-stars certainly aren't chopped liver. On the contrary, Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow, Jack Haley as the Tin Man, and Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion all rise above their cumbersome costumes and heavy makeup to file energetic, endearing portrayals. The rapport they create with Garland is nothing short of extraordinary, and the way the motley quartet bands together to assault the Wicked Witch of the West (still one of cinema's most frightening villains, thanks to Margaret Hamilton's inspired portrayal) almost puts Dumas' musketeers to shame. Billie Burke as the delightfully ditzy Glinda provides a bit of Hollywood glamor, and the underrated Frank Morgan plays multiple roles (can you name them all?), but none better than the befuddled title character.
Technically, 'Oz' still impresses. Though its hand-crafted special effects can't compete with today's CGI capabilities, they rarely look cheesy, and the sumptuous sets, costumes, and production design always keep the eye engaged. The clever, hummable tunes add buoyancy and wistfulness to the story, and director Fleming, the unsung hero of this legendary production, corrals all the elements into a cohesive whole. Known for his coarse, macho veneer, Fleming masterfully infuses 'Oz' with a delicate sensitivity that's never cloying or hackneyed. And to think he went straight from this production to helming another little film you might have heard of – 'Gone With the Wind' – is nothing short of amazing. Though the one-two punch nearly killed him, the end result – two iconic blockbusters in the same year – remains an unparalleled (and herculean) achievement. Eat your heart out Spielberg and Scorsese.
"Beloved" describes 'The Wizard of Oz' to a T, but the film is also one of Hollywood's most influential and inspiring works. Books (the 'Harry Potter' series), music (Pink Floyd's 'The Dark Side of the Moon'), TV shows ('Lost'), and other films (the 'Star Wars' saga) have paid homage to, borrowed from, and blatantly ripped off countless aspects of this timeless tale. Yet somehow, the movie itself is never diminished, and the messages that moved audiences upon its initial release seven decades ago still provoke knowing nods, heartfelt tears, and soul-nourishing warmth today. Though it may not be as important or significant to the current crop of youngsters as it was to those in my generation, 'The Wizard of Oz' still wields tremendous impact, and possesses the power to engage, excite, and quietly educate viewers of all ages. And that's no small feat.
While I can't say 'The Wizard of Oz' has changed my life, I will state that Dorothy and her friends have enriched and shaped it in more ways than I probably realize. That's the magic of film, and this particular production – now presented in the splendor of high definition – arguably possesses more magic than any other in history.
After viewing the 2005 Collector's Edition DVD, I never dreamed 'Oz' could look any better, but the wizards at Warner have fashioned an exceptional high-def rendering that significantly increases clarity while preserving the original look and feel of this national treasure. Of course, the studio easily could have used its 2005 remaster for this Blu-ray release and most viewers would still be impressed. But instead, at considerable expense, the powers-that-be decided to go back to the drawing board and completely remaster the film again, this time scanning the original Technicolor negatives using 8K resolution. From there, a 4K "capture" master was created for this Blu-ray, giving viewers twice the resolution of the 2005 DVD. (For a more detailed explanation of the technical processes involved in the creation of the 'Oz' Blu-ray, check out this HDD feature article.) Are the differences noticeable? Is the Pope Catholic?
Crisp and colorful, but with all its glorious grain and texture intact, this beautiful 1080p/VC-1 transfer shows how wonderfully film-like Hollywood classics can appear on Blu-ray. Wisely, Warner doesn't try to disguise the film's age or give it a "facelift" by smoothing out and doctoring up the image. The studio merely provides the sharpest, cleanest, most balanced, and best color-timed picture it can, given the elements it had to work with. And what we get is what I like to call the Sophia Loren of movie transfers – an impeccably preserved, gloriously vibrant, almost ageless 70-year-old specimen that defies logic.
Only a couple of stray marks dot the pristine print, and the grain, while noticeable, is so deftly woven into the film's fabric, it never calls attention to itself. Instead, it lends the picture a lovely weight and feel, and neutralizes the intense color and artificiality of some of the sets. The opening and closing sepia sequences are a revelation; never have they exuded such richness and depth. The brown tones hammer home the dusty dreariness of the Kansas plain (and Dorothy's life) so much better than black-and-white, and excellent contrast brings out striking details, such as the candles in Professor Marvel's tent and the hot dog Toto grabs off a skewer.
When the action shifts to the Technicolor wonderland of Oz, the transfer explodes with color, but Warner technicians perfectly modulate the temperature to keep levels in check. Superior saturation brings out all the lush hues in the Munchkinland sequence, but bleeding is never an issue. The Yellow Brick Road and ruby slippers are deliciously bold, the wicked witch's green face takes on a newfound fluorescent tinge, and the horse of a different color manages its changing shades with ease. Blacks are inky, fleshtones look stable and natural (or as natural as the garish makeup allows), and heightened clarity allows us to pick out the freckles on Garland's face, tiny scuffs on the Tin Man's body, and makeup anomalies on the Cowardly Lion and Wicked Witch of the West. The fur on the Lion and Toto is well defined, costumes exhibit noticeable texture, individual sequins on Dorothy's shoes sparkle, and the bricks on the Yellow Brick Road never blur together. Best of all, the heavy checkerboard pattern of Dorothy's dress remains rock solid and resists shimmering throughout the film.
Several of Garland's close-ups are truly breathtaking, exhibiting all the youthful verve, fresh-faced innocence, and subtle beauty of this uber-talented teenage star, while marvelous depth makes the massive sets feel even more expansive. Of course, the super-sharp image draws a bit more attention to the painted backdrops and primitive special effects, but let's face it, we noticed such things even when watching 'Oz' on a 20-inch TV with rabbit ears back in the '70s. Some scenes do look slightly softer than others or not quite as vibrant, but the gradations are so minor they barely merit mention.
Digital enhancements? I couldn't find any. Warner knows better than to monkey with a flick on the National Film Registry, and the studio has steered clear of any blasphemous noise reduction or edge enhancement. Other imperfections such as mosquito noise and banding are also absent, making this digital rendering almost indistinguishable from a filmic presentation. Without question, this is the ultimate 'Oz' transfer, a dream come true for both fans of this particular film and film in general. Whether you've seen it 100 times or are just now discovering the wonders of 'The Wizard of Oz' (lucky you!), this meticulously produced effort provides an immersive, exhilarating viewing experience you won't soon forget.
Warner offers multiple audio choices to please both purists and digital enthusiasts. The disc defaults to the lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 option, but the original mono and a music-and-effects track can be accessed via the Special Features menu. (A Dolby Digital 5.1 track is also listed on the packaging, but could not be found on the disc.) Of course, the TrueHD track offers the most sonic bang for one's buck, and adds welcome dimension to many aspects of the film. Though Warner technicians can't completely mask the antiquated nature of this track, they've done yeoman's work sprucing it up, and the end result is a robust, nicely nuanced effort that complements the glorious visuals well.
Most of the audio is front-based, but faint surround action occasionally kicks in, usually during extended scoring sequences. Details, such as the chirping baby chicks on Uncle Henry's farm and Dorothy's shrieks when she's carried away by the flying monkeys, are crisp and distinct, and some hefty low-end accents that I don't recall on the DVD's DD 5.1 track significantly punch up the action. When Dorothy's house crash-lands in Oz, a palpable rumble shot through my living room, and when the witch shuts the castle doors as Dorothy and her friends try to escape, another burst of bass emphasized the entrapment. The tornado sequence envelops well, and though it's loud and frenetic, there are enough distinct elements to keep it from becoming a cacophonous mess. In addition, the wizard's amplified bellowing possesses a wonderful hollow tone, as does the echoing empty chamber of the Tin Man's chest.
Dynamic range is wide enough, although the upper registers occasionally flirt with distortion when pushed. 'Over the Rainbow,' however, has never sounded more full-bodied and resonant, and the other songs benefit from excellent fidelity and pleasing tonal depth. Dialogue and lyrics are crystal clear, so even if you don't know the movie by heart like I do, you'll understand everything with ease. All crackles have been carefully scrubbed away, though I did notice a bit of hiss (yet only during the quietest moments) and a few isolated (and jarring) pops, but such imperfections are understandable given the film's advanced age, and are merely brief lapses in an otherwise high-quality track.
There's been a flurry of online chatter about Warner's decision to market its classic releases in super-deluxe, pricey, space-hogging special editions filled with collectible inserts. Some love them, some hate them, but thankfully the studio finally seems to realize consumers will be more supportive of a particular release if they're given an immediate choice regarding contents and packaging. In addition to this widely available Ultimate Collector's Edition (MSRP, $84.99), Wal-Mart offers an exclusive single-disc set packaged in a standard Blu-ray case for the bargain price of $19.96, while Target carries a three-disc set that includes all the video and audio supplements, but lacks the digital copy disc and collectibles, for $34.99. So there's certainly a version of 'Oz' out there to fit everyone's taste and price range, and that's the way it should be for such a popular, historically significant film. Good job, Warner.
Personally, I love these collector's editions – but then again, I'm a classic film collector – and Warner does a superb job compiling, designing, and presenting them. Gimmicks, like the "70th Anniversary Watch with Genuine Crystals" that's included in the 'Oz' set (and wallet and luggage tag that's stuffed into the 'Casablanca' box), I can do without, but any archival reproductions directly related to the film fascinate me, and I welcome them. Smartly, Warner did not duplicate any of the tangible material included in the 2005 three-disc DVD collector's edition, so true 'Oz' fanatics will need to hang onto that set, or stuff the photos and booklets into the box that houses all the goodies in this new edition. (I actually tried it, and they fit quite well.)
Each of the collector's editions are numbered (mine is 10,632 of 243,000), and the hefty box measures 8" tall by 11-1/2" wide by almost 3" deep. (You've heard of coffee table books; this is a coffee table Blu-ray.) Open the front flap, and inside you'll find a similar-sized (yet much slimmer) 52-page hardcover volume, 'Behind the Curtain of Production 1060,' a 70th anniversary commemorative book by noted 'Oz' historian John Fricke. Lavishly illustrated with rare photos in color and black-and-white, this well-written, elegantly designed tribute to 'Oz' includes cast bios, studio memos, ledger sheets, script pages, and other interesting items. Next, there's a replica of the movie's budget sheet, as well as a reproduction of the original 1939 campaign book, featuring a host of promotional materials for theater owners, including ads, newspaper articles, contest ideas, poster samples, and other paraphernalia. Below that is the aforementioned wristwatch (with genuine, if microscopic, crystals), housed in a sleek collectible tin, as well as a handsomely designed foldout three-disc digipak in an embossed slipcase (so it can be stored separately from the box, if desired). At the bottom of the box is a digital copy disc and other commercial inserts.
The video and audio supplements are of the highest quality (after all, this is a Warner release), and the depth and breadth of material is, to say the least, impressive. All the extras from the 2005 DVD release have been transferred over to this edition, and there's almost four hours of additional supplements, as well as a double-sided standard-def bonus disc featuring an acclaimed six-hour MGM documentary. (More on that below.)
They say you never get over your first love. When it comes to movies, 'The Wizard of Oz' was mine, and I'm still as deeply bound to it as I ever have been. Warner, however, has reignited and enhanced my passion for this captivating fantasy, thanks to a breathtaking high-def presentation that makes 'Oz' come alive like never before. This handsome, feature-packed deluxe edition will send collectors over the rainbow, but if you prefer a no-frills, movie-only copy, go ahead and seek that out instead. Let's face it, you can't call yourself a legit film fan without this cinema masterwork occupying a prominent place on your shelf, so get out there and buy this treasured film, support motion picture classics on Blu-ray, and prepare to be blown away. Take it from Dorothy herself; when it comes to watching 'The Wizard of Oz,' there's no place like home.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.