The Wizard of Oz

In Kansas, one could see things that were invisible or not noticed before -- a coffeepot, the feathers on a baby chicken. In Oz, too, the folds in the Scarecrow’s burlap bag face and a bird in the apple tree were, rather shockingly, there to be seen. For the first time, the ball in which Glinda, the Good Witch, appears and disappears did not seem like a flawed special effect but something out of a fairy tale. And the black cardboard matte paintings of sets also became real.

Best of all, the studio did not play games with or embellish the movie. No 3-D effects were launched into the audience to show how clever the filmmakers were, and they left the film in its original 1939 aspect ratio of 1.37.1 instead of turning it into a wide screen extravaganza.

I have some reservations.  When you could see the two sets of birds in the trees, that clarity made the witch’s forest much less scary.  All of the characters that rush by Dorothy when the house has been picked up by the tornado seem out of focus.  And, in a few places, the perfection made the artificiality of OZ more artificial.         

What struck me most forcibly was how no vocal or visual enhancement could tarnish Judy Garland’s performance. In fact, surrounded by the utterly clear and intentional artificiality of Oz, she seemed realer than ever.

There is an irony in Warner Bros. taking such tender care of this MGM movie it inherited when it bought Turner Broadcasting Co. from Ted Turner in 1996. In the 1930s “The Wizard of Oz” was the antithesis of the torn-from-the-headlines gangster movies starring John Garfield and James Cagney that filled the Warner schedule. But things always change in Hollywood. Studios thrive. Studios die. Moviemakers lose control to corporate suits. Bigger corporations feed on littler fish.

But “The Wizard of Oz” might just stick around for its 100th anniversary.

Aljean Harmetz is the author of “The Making of the Wizard of Oz.” The updated edition will be published by Chicago Review Press on October 1.