Sunday, September 22, 2013

There's No Place Like Oz!

It was Thanksgiving and the family - filled with turkey and all of the fixin's - was sitting in front of the small black and white TV about to continue an annual ritual ... watching the once a year broadcast of The Wizard of Oz. There was no home video so this was the only chance to see it during the year, and we looked forward to it from the moment it ended the year before. This was a truly magic movie, even in black and white and with commercials, and the whole family - as many as four generations - would sit and watch it.

Over the years, my love of this movie would propel me into learning as much about it as possible, and I studied everything I could find that was written about it. I read many of L. Frank Baum's earliest Oz stories. I have even ridden through Munchkinland (in the Great Movie Ride at Walt Disney World). I would purchase an 8mm film version of highlights, then a VHS copy, followed by a DVD copy and my last purchase was a restored version (with lots of extras) on Blue-Ray.

We bought our first color TV too late in 1969 to watch it that year in color, so the first time I ever saw it in color (and without commercial interruption) was when it was shown in my college one weekend. (Remember that this was the early 70's and we were all college students, so the "atmosphere" was one which made the viewing ... errr ... how should I put this ... enhanced?) We saw the sepia toned beginning and end ... and the color ... when Dorothy opened the door and saw Oz (with us) for the first time was truly an experience different from watching it on a small black and white television set.

Years later, when I read to my son and daughter at bedtime, it would be from the Oz stories. We got through many of the earliest books before bedtime stories ended.

Five years ago, for the 70th anniversary of the movie, it was shown for one showing only - in IMAX. Naturally my wife and I had to go see it. It was an Event (capital "E")! There were many Dorothy's (with or without Toto) as well as Wicked Witches, and a few Scarecrows, Tinmen and Lions (well, maybe one Lion) and a scattering of Munchkins. When the movie came on it was amazing at that size! You could see things that you never would even have imagined on that small black and white TV.

This week - and for this week only - they have gone one better ... it is showing in IMAX 3D! My wife and I went yesterday to see it. Since it is showing for a full week with a complete daily schedule during the week, it didn't have the Event status that the earlier one did five years ago, but my wife and I found ourselves good seats in the exact center of the theater and couldn't wait.

Right from the moment Leo (the MGM lion) appeared on screen, I knew we were in for a treat. I find it somewhat sobering that the movie starts with these words ...

Since those words first appeared on movie screens in 1939, 74 more years have passed - almost three quarters of a century - and those words are still true!

As for the quality of the film itself, considering that it was filmed on some of the very first color stock and not the top quality digitally produced high definition films we have gotten used to seeing, it was amazing. You had to look closely and want to see the grain for it to be visible. The color (it was a very early Technicolor film) was just beautiful. Even after all these years, when Dorothy first opened the door into Munchkinland, I still got goosebumps! The color was brilliant! Not the oversaturated colors one might see if the movie where made today, but a palette that would have made Baum proud. Not "in your face" but stunningly beautiful.

Of course, at this size, you are going to see things that you weren't meant to see even in theatrical releases on the screens of 1939. While the texture of the Scarecrow's burlap "skin" was sharp, so were the skull caps and the borders of the prosthetics used on other characters, particularly in the case of Bert Lahr's Cowardly Lion. But that didn't detract from the movie, in fact, perhaps I might not have noticed many of these things if I weren't looking for technical details.

However, what I did notice above all else, was the fact that you could see in Judy Garland's eyes, each and every kleig light in her field of view. In fact, in the Technicolor scenes, you could even tell how many there were, and which were key lights and which were fill lights. At times she had as many as four catchlights in each eye which when looked at closely were the kleig lights. Technicolor in those years required a huge amount of light. (In the sepia scenes, less light was needed so only two lights were ever visible.) Oddly enough, it was only in Dorothy's eyes that they were so visible. 

The 3D effect was good, but subtle as it should have been. Since the movie was not made in 3D, no cheesy 3D effects were included - and the one place where it could have been done - when the Winkies point their spears at our heroes, and the shot has them pointing directly into the camera - passed quickly and was not exaggerated for 3D. The 3 dimensionality only enhanced and never intruded.

For a movie in which I know every line (though I did catch one I don't ever remember hearing before) and every song ... it never gets old!

I will leave you with a bit of trivia about the movie, that the studio did not use as part of the original publicity for fear that it was such an amazing coincidence that they didn't believe the public would believe it ...

When putting together the wardrobe for the movie, they gathered a lot of the costumes for the Kansas scenes from thrift shops. One of the pieces that they obtained was the smoking jacket that Frank Morgan wore as Professor Marvel. A slip of paper in the pocket and the initials LFB lead the production crew to believe it might be somehow connected to the movie in a way that no one had anticipated. It was verified by Maud Baum, the author's widow, that the jacket had indeed once belonged to Lyman Frank Baum - the creator and author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz from which the movie was adapted.

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