This 1939 classic is a landmark for dozens of reasons. I wanted to see if I could get our next generation to embrace the film, so my wife and I rustled up our daughters on a weekend morning for an IMAX 3D screening. Our daughters are 13 and 15, so every sort of their entertainment is on demand, whether it is TV, film or music.
I tried to explain there was a time, in a galaxy far, far away, when I was a kid and the chance to see The Wizard of Oz came around once a year. My folks hurried us into our PJs, made sure we had a potty stop and sat us in front of the TV at the appointed time. The film came and went that night, with no way to see it again for another year. I think my kids have an understanding of appointment viewing, but they can’t believe it ever existed.
Whereas my folks saw The Wizard of Oz first in the theatre, for me it was on TV. The ensuing years brought home video of course, so my kids wondered why we would want to go to a movie theatre to see a nearly 75 year old film.
Despite the on-demand nature of everything cultural today and despite the amazing advances in home theatre technology, there is still something primal about the big screen and gathering with hushed folks in a darkened room.
The 3D effort was painstaking, and well worth it. The flattened nature of sepia-toned Kansas in the opening and closing sequences called for less three dimensional wizardry, but once Dorothy steps into Oz, that long slow take as she steps out of her once-spinning house is what the viewer also relishes. The fateful burning witch’s broomstick almost lands in your lap, but that is about the only ‘gotcha’ 3D moment. The folks doing the 3D conversion worked diligently to bring just the right amount of depth. Many scenes end with the foursome (Toto too) skipping on the yellow brick road, and it looks less like they are heading to the Emerald City than to the back of the sound stage, but that is something the conversion process could not cure.
Undoubtedly “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is studied by screenwriters and songwriters as the premiere example of a song moving the storyline forward. It is still incredibly emotive, and the theme is whispered at crucial moments throughout the story. The song almost ended up on the cutting room floor, as the original cut of the film ran 2 hours. The film moves now crisply at about 101 minutes. Given the state of special effects in 1939 in Culver City, the storm scene still is terrifying all these decades later.
Those of a certain age are reminded of the film’s iconic nature when seemingly ubiquitous bits of dialogue emerge. Our family talked afterwards about the resonating fascination of the film, how for instance Judy Garland in later years was troubled by drugs and alcohol, eerily reflected in her sleepy time in the poppy fields. Rock music felt the film’s influence, whether the band named after the dog, the name of a sprawling and magnificent Elton John album, the album cover by ELO or most famously (and apparently unintentionally) with Dark Side of the Moon. Play the film and the Pink Floyd album simultaneously and great coincidences emerge. Literature abounds with Oz references, my favorite of which is Geoff Ryman’s magnificently ambitious “Was.” Broadway’s smash musical Wicked cleverly looks at the story from an oblique angle (and does so far more successfully than The Wiz from years earlier). Film of course is not untouched; most recently Disney returned for the second time to the L. Frank Baum canon with the intermittently interesting Oz the Great and Powerful.
Although it was not a box office blockbuster upon its 1939 release and although it lost the best picture Academy Award to Gone With the Wind that year, The Wizard of Oz has over time reaped fortunes for MGM (now Warner Bros) and has ingrained itself in the psyche of American culture.
It will be on offer in theatres for one week only starting September 20th. It will open in the newly restored and remodeled Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, now called TCL Chinese Theatre (where it first held the world premiere). The 3D version is an exceptional way to see The Wizard of Oz, whether for the first time or the umpteenth.
On a final note, in one of the best sponsorships in eons, the 75th anniversary of the film is being celebrated in support of Habitat for Humanity’s No Place Like Home campaign. Brilliant.