I admit it: I've been a friend of Dorothy's since I was 5 years old and CBS annually brought the Land of Oz into our little Kansas living room. "The Wizard of Oz" lost some of its impact on a small black-and-white TV, but I kept returning every year until the color set was in place and glorious Technicolor awaited Dorothy's drop from the heavens and her descent into Munchkinland.
With the advent of video, future generations were able to get a dose of Dorothy on a daily basis, but the big-screen splendor of Oz has been absent for more than 25 years. On the eve of the 60th anniversary of MGM's classic 1939 adaptation of L. Frank Baum's 1900 novel, Warner Bros. has re-released a restored version of "The Wizard of Oz."
A plot synopsis of the film that was recently voted No. 6 on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 Best Films is hardly necessary. Young and old alike are familiar with the tale of the farm girl who is whisked away via "cyclone" to a magical land where she encounters good and evil, but finally realizes "there's no place like home." Many fans are familiar with the production's lore and legends -- the string of directors attached to the project, local boy Buddy Ebsen's allergic reaction to the Tin Man makeup that eventually lost him the role, the bosom-binding of 16-year-old Judy Garland to make her into the 11-year-old Dorothy Gale, and the wide-spread rumors of orgiastic shenanigans among the Munchkins. But die-hard fans under the age of 40 have never been able to see the film as it was intended to be seen until this weekend.
The most impressive feature of the restored print is the film's bookend segments on the Kansas farm. While most remember the farm sequences in black and white, the original film employed a rich and beautiful sepia tone. The fact that the original negatives were destroyed in a fire in the mid-1970s posed a few problems to the restoration crew from the Optical Effects Division and Digital Restoration at Pacific Title/Mirage. Working from severely flawed dry-grain master prints, they miraculously restored the sepia quality, giving these scenes the feel of an antique photo album. It's these scenes that stand out.
In the larger-than-life land of Oz, some of the painted backdrops appear phonier than they did on the small screen. More scrutiny is also drawn to the makeup of the Tin Man, Scarecrow and particularly the Cowardly Lion who appears to be wearing nothing more than a half mask. But hey, this was 1939, and in its time many of the special-effects were outstanding. The flying monkeys, Glenda's bouncing bubble and the images inside the crystal ball were, and still are, first-rate.
The sharper visual images aren't the only improvements. After an extensive digital overhaul in Dolby Digital Sound, the soundtrack is now in true stereo, allowing the mature sound of the young Garland's "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and the rest of the timeless classics of Harold Arlen and E.P. "Yip" Harburg to shine.
While speaking to the Tin Man toward the end of the film, the wizard says, "A heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others." If that's true, the continued love and admiration for this timeless classic give it the biggest heart on the cinematic block.