Some movies defy criticism and, because nothing bugs critics more than their superfluousness toward a film’s general perception, inspire reactive critical insanity. Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz is surely one of those films. That said, boy, the impish character of “prestige” projects has surely corroded since MGM’s heyday. Cultural appropriation still can’t quite mask the fact that Wizard of Oz is absolutely barmy. It’s a multimillion-dollar super-production based on L. Frank Baum’s born-from-poverty series of mundane, Great Plains fantasy books. Its switch from sepia to color cinematography reverses the standard parameters of which hues represent dreams and which represent realism—we’ve been associating sugar plum color wheels with our attainable aspirations ever since. It outdoes George Cukor’s contemporaneous The Women for its depiction of a matriarchal social model in tumult, where bitchliness is next to evenness. It’s both the definitive Hollywood narrative for legions of hopeful starlets and female impersonators (“Come one, come all, your screen test awaits you”) as well as a coded-but-firm post-Dust Bowl message to the throngs of California Oakies: “There’s no place like home, and this place is not within reasonable classification your ‘home.’”
Famously unpacked by Salman Rushdie’s BFI monograph as a testament to the resilience of the geographically, politically displaced peoples, The Wizard of Oz stresses the schism between home and not home in a series of vaudeville songs and dances, most revolving around the character’s shamed awareness of their own inadequacies. Usually cited by most people as one of their inaugural exposures to the concept of terror within cinema (it even appeared on the AFI’s list of the top 100 “most thrilling” films, a seemingly valence kids’ film alongside the likes of The Shining and Wait Until Dark), the film’s dread doesn’t merely emerge from burlap tornadoes, flying monkeys, mole-puckered witches, and sassy apple trees. It also reflects children’s subconscious separation anxiety, their knowledge of that distant but defined moment when they will be expected to demonstrate their autonomy. (In Motown’s funky ‘70s update The Wiz, that independence had somehow developed into a synonymy with marriage and sexual maturity, which makes Michael Jackson’s casting as the Scarecrow a joke for the ages.)
Rushdie’s essay astutely noted that Oz is “an authorless text.” He was basically referring to the film’s production via committee, a true amalgam of creative forces individually pooling their studio-contract talents like a hive of bees (in tribute to a trio of queens…a quartet if you count Cukor). But his inadvertently anti-auteurist appraisal also encapsulates the nuclear family favorite’s crucial endorsement of personal sovereignty…and, like in that Seinfeld episode, of surrounding yourself with new friends that are essentially doppelgangers of your old ones.
The first DVD edition of The Wizard of Oz ranked up there with The Matrix and A Bugs' Life in being one of the showcase discs for the then-emerging format. We already know that the extant film elements are fully capable of producing a shimmering-rhinestone transfer. To lay it out flat, this transfer stands shoulder with the previous disc. It looks so fresh and vibrant and new as to be branded jailbait. Color delineation is never less than rock solid, and the modest grain only adds to its filmic sensation. The sound options seem to be identical to the previous release. Sound recording and restoration lags behind its video counterpart, but the 5.1 remix does give a lot of the music cues a nice boost. Nice unless, of course, the sound of munchkins warbling from that rear speaker next to your head sets your hair on end.
The Wizard of Oz's new special edition actually comes in two different forms, both with packaging seemingly inspired by the Broadway promotional art for Wicked. There is a deluxe three-disc edition and a scaled-back, not-quite-as-special two-disc set. The Warner publicist sent Slant the latter, which is unfortunate since most of the really intriguing extra features, such as a collection of pre-1939 adaptations of Baum's novel, are on that third disc. Even still, there's a lot of material collected on the other version, more than appeared on the already reasonably stocked previous issue, including a stitched-together commentary track moderated by John Fricke and including sound bites from cast and crew members, their relatives and that poor Tin-Man-that-wasn't Buddy Ebsen. Also new is the presence of a music-only soundtrack option. Rounding out the first disc is a shallow collection of character bios, theatrical trailers, and a restoration demo. The second disc is packed with test reels, recording session outtakes, art galleries, behind-the-scenes home movies from composer Harold Arlen, and deleted sequences (including that most conspicuous of "lost" sequences: the Scarecrow's "Jitterbug" number). But the centerpiece is a quartet of documentary tributes to the film: the now standard, hour-long 1990 "The Wonderful World of Oz: The Making of a Movie Classic," orated in dulcet honks by Angela Lansbury (who also voices portentous introductions to nearly all the special features throughout both discs, in addition to an entirely pointless animated storybook short of the same goddamned movie that's on the main disc). As per usual, it's all about her, and the woman spends half the running time talking about how much she enjoys showing the film to her grandchildren. Solipsism seems to be a common theme running through all four docs, though. Each interview subject makes a nice show of clutching the film to their bosom.even John Waters (who at least offers a reasonable excuse: that it's the cult movie for the cult of everyone). The other three, more recently produced half-hour retrospectives (all of which cover the exact same territory) stress personal recollection over production anecdotes. The most surprising participant is Bert Lahr's daughter Jane, who sums up the film's cultural context with the terse efficiency of a critic (to boot, the film is a prelude to WWII, with the Wicked Witch representing the autocratic despots in Europe). Someone in charge made the unfortunate decision to have the munchkins, now octogenarians or beyond, dress in their original costumes. Somehow, a grandmotherly dwarf with an oversized cotton cupcake atop her skull doesn't exactly scream lovin' like fresh from the oven.
The new editions of The Wizard of Oz will cut you to the quick. Angela Lansbury's incessant voice-overs will just cut your eardrums.