Restored ‘Wizard of Oz’ hits theaters tonight and store shelves Tuesday

Sept. 23, 2009 | 2:16 p.m.

Susan King takes a look at the gorgeous new restoration of “The Wizard of Oz,” which will be screened in theaters across the country tonight. This is a longer version of her story that appears in the Los Angeles Times Calendar section today; for you Hero Complex readers, this one has much more detail on the restoration effort, which you can find in the final section of her post. — Geoff Boucher

Somehwere over the Rainbow

Numerous myths and legends have sprouted over the last seven decades regarding MGM’s production No. 1060 — better known as the beloved musical fantasy “The Wizard of Oz” — like the tall tale that the studio wanted to cast Shirley Temple, not Judy Garland, as Dorothy.

“That’s one of those legends that have gotten so blown up,” says “Oz” historian John Fricke (“The Wizard of Oz: An Illustrated Companion to a Timeless Movie Classic“). “The Temple thing . . . never entered the ‘maybe’ stage.’ “

“The Wizard of Oz,” based on the L. Frank Baum children’s classic, is celebrating its 70th birthday. Warner Bros. has done a beautiful new digital restoration that will be screened tonight in theaters around the country. On Tuesday, Warner Home Video is releasing a lavish collector’s edition of this restoration in DVD and Blu-ray Hi-Def.

“The magic doesn’t dissipate,” says Fricke. “I have been asked about how many times I have seen the movie, and it must be over 125 times. But I know 4-year-olds who have seen it more because they have seen it every day.”

Dorothy, the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), the Tin Man (Jack Haley), the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr), the Wizard (Frank Morgan) and Toto (Terry), says Fricke, “get to be your friends. . . . You want to go down the yellow brick road with Judy and those buddies of hers because they would take care of you.”

Oz, in the presence

The two things that made “The Wizard of Oz” a reality were the success in December 1937 of Walt Disney’s first feature-length animated film, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” which proved audiences were clamoring for musical fantasies, and Garland’s hitting it big that year with her valentine to Clark Gable, the tune “Dear Mr. Gable.”

Arthur Freed wanted to graduate from lyricist to producer and wanted to find a vehicle for Judy,” says Fricke. “Mervyn LeRoy is the producer of credit on ‘Wizard’ . . . but the more one looks at any of the production paperwork that survives, so much of the film in terms of creative was Arthur Freed.”

Even before MGM head Louis B. Mayer brought LeRoy over from Warner Bros. to replace the late producer Irving Thalberg, Freed had sought suggestions for casting, composers and other creative talent. Practically every actor he recommended is in the film. Bolger was originally cast as the Tin Man; Buddy Ebsen was the Scarecrow. Those roles were eventually switched, but Ebsen dropped out because he was allergic to the Tin Man’s makeup.

Freed pushed for composers Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, who were the perfect choice, creating such standards as “If I Only Had a Brain” and Oscar winner “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

Oz poster

At first glance, Victor Fleming may have seemed an odd choice to direct a musical because of his reputation as a burly man’s man. He directed such movies as “Red Dust” and “Captains Courageous.” “Victor Fleming was not against the idea of doing ‘Oz’ because at that point he had become a father for a second time and he wanted to do ‘Oz’ in honor of his kids,” says Fricke.

“Wizard,” which was running behind in pre-production, had been a revolving door for directors. “Norman Taurog did some tests and then was taken off the picture. Richard Thorpe was on it for two weeks and was released,” says Fricke. “George Cukor came in and changed the makeup and costumes for Judy, the Wicked Witch and Scarecrow.”

Fleming was on the film for about four months, shooting all of the Technicolor sequences before he went off to direct “Gone With the Wind.”

King Vidor came in and shot on it for three weeks,” says Fricke. “He shot virtually all of the Kansas scenes, and he did some Technicolor retakes.”

When the film opened in August 1939, it was uniformly praised, save for the New Republic, the New Yorker and McCall’s. “MGM trade-screened the movie on Aug. 9 in Los Angeles and New York, and the Hollywood Citizen News reported that critics were still crying when the lights went up,” says Fricke.

The new digital restoration of “Oz” is as close as one can get to the experience of seeing the classic in theaters 70 years ago.

Warner Home Video had digitally restored the film for the 2005 DVD release using the original nitrate negative, which has been stored at the George Eastman House archive for years. “At that time we thought it was absolutely spectacular,” says George Feltenstein, senior vice president for theatrical catalog marketing.

Oz slippers ouch

But when it became time to do the high-definition Blu-ray version, “what we didn’t realize was that the technology had improved so dramatically in the interim four years, if we had used what we did for the prior transfer, it would have been OK, but it wouldn’t have been breathtaking. It would have been half-baked. Thankfully, the opinion of the company was that we have to do this full throttle the best it can possibly be.”

For this restoration, Warner was able to locate 1939 approved nitrate print that gave them a map as what the true colors of the film were. “In finding the 1939 nitrate Technicolor print, we got a different look for the film than we previously had,” says Ned Price, vice president of mastering at Warner Bros. Technicolor Operations.

“It had much more midrange colors,” says Price. “It was no so contrasty and you could see much more into the shadow detail. It was less primary color. It was more earth tones and the color didn’t pop as we had it made it previously. It was very colorful but not as colorful as the negative lead us to believe.”

Using a pin-registered Northlight film scanner, they were able to scan the three separate camera negatives at 8K, a much higher resolution than previously possible. “The information allowed us to get not only finer picture detail but much better grain capture.”

The color correction computer package they used “is a much more powerful color correction tool,” says Price. “It can manipulate color much better and provides better color imagery.”

And for the first time, viewers can see more detail on Toto, the Wicked Witch’s hairy mole, the Tin Man’s rivet in the middle of his brow and Dorothy’s acne.

– Susan King

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