Skip down the yellow brick road to see The Wizard of Oz reissue

Skip down the yellow brick road to see The Wizard of Oz reissue

The Wizard of Oz (re-issue) September 12, 2014)

Tampering with The Wizard of Oz is like asking Michael Bay to remake Lawrence of Arabia: there are certain lines that even the most crass and commercially desperate producers and distributors cross at their peril.

Happily, this 3D/Imax reissue of the 1939 musical, based on the fantasy novel by L Frank Baum, and the subsequent stage musical,  is a dazzling experience for young and old alike.

For those who have only seen Judy Garland’s breakthrough film on DVD or television, now is the time to skip down the yellow brick road to the nearest Imax screen.

In addition to the spectacular set pieces, songs, characters and effects, the film’s appeal lies in its simple message: we all have it within ourselves to become the ‘person’ we want to be.  Dorothy’s message that there’s ‘no place like home’, with her insistence that she should be content with a farm in Kansas, is perhaps more metaphorical now than it was in 1939.

That The Wizard of Oz is any good at all, let alone a masterpiece that continually makes the list of the top ten films of all time, is one of those Hollywood miracles that do not seem to happen anymore.

There were no fewer than eleven writers on the script –including the great Herman J. Mankiewicz and the poet Ogden Nash – who, along with lyricist Edgar ‘Yip’ Harburg, (who apparently contributed to the script), are not credited.

The music, by Harold Arlen, went more smoothly, although his song, Somewhere Over the Rainbow was nearly cut. The song went on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song Academy Award and is still popular.

If there were at least eleven writers, there were half as many directors. Although King Vidor was the last director on set, the most influential were George Cukor, who never actually shot any footage, and Victor Fleming who shot the most.

These two MGM directors played musical chairs between The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, which beat The Wizard to the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1940.  As The Wizard of Oz was not an instant hit, the choice was not as difficult as it might appear today.

The first catastrophe after WC Fields refused the part of the Wizard (it was too small) was the loss of Buddy Ebsen, the Tin Man, several weeks into filming Apparently he  was taken to hospital after suffering a reaction to the aluminium powder in the silver make-up.

The make-up application was altered to protect Jack Haley who replaced Ebsen.  Haley, along with Ray Bolger (Scarecrow) and Bert Lahr (Cowardly Lion) arrived on set before dawn everyday, six days a week for make-up and wardrobe.

Nor was this the only accident involving make-up.  Margaret Hamilton, who plays both Miss Gulch (the Kansas neighbour who wants to kill Dorothy’s dog Toto) and The Wicked Witch of the West was burnt when the grease in her copper-based make-up caught fire, sending her to hospital for six weeks.

If one person deserves credit for keeping the film’s original vision in tact and making the right decisions, it is producer Mervyn LeRoy. For one thing, he always insisted on casting 16-year-old Judy Garland over Shirley Temple and popular child actress Deanna Durbin, both of whom had more experience than Garland.

Baum’s original novel was a fantasy, and so the decision to turn the core of the film, Dorothy’s time in Oz, into a dream sequence required more than technical wizardry. The farm hands Hunk, Zeke and Hickory become the scarecrow, the Lion, and the Tin Man respectively.

Professor Marvel (Frank Morgan), the itinerant fortune teller who sends runaway Dorothy back home, becomes the charlatan Wizard (as well as the Gatekeeper) with whom she is to return home from Oz in a hot-air balloon. The dream is remarkably convincing, mixing wish fulfilment, fears, surreal images and familiar faces.

Monochrome sepia tones were used to capture the dull and ‘gray’ tones associated in the novel with Kansas. Technicolor technology in all its glory was displayed when Dorothy lands in Oz.

The Emerald City gleams in the distance while just before it, the Yellow Brick Road, surrounded by sleep-inducing red poppies, is a feast of primary colours to delight any eye.

Seldom has a transition been more abrupt and gratifying than that from the truly terrifying cyclone sequence in Kansas to the joy of bright, colourful and orderly Munchkinland.

Dorothy, an instant heroine when her spinning house lands on the Wicked Witch, joins the 100 little people in singing ‘The Wicked Witch is Dead’, before setting off to the tune of ‘Yellow Brick Road.’ These glorious songs, imprinted on the brains and in the hearts of anyone over 60, retain the capacity to delight young audiences, too.

by Joyce Glasser, Mature Times film reviewer