I am of the generation who first saw the WIZARD OF OZ on TV in 1956 when it was shown on CBS for the first time. As we did not have a color TV—for me—the movie was in B&W from beginning to end. Despite that I found the film to be magic and thinking back to this first showing, and to the others that followed, I don’t remember commercials being any sort of annoyance or mitigating my enjoyment of the film. The pull of the story was that strong. In addition as a pre-teen my attention span was short and so commercials weren’t much of a problem. I finally saw the film in color in 1961 when we finally purchased a color TV and, if not the experience it had been when I first saw it in 1956, the color definitely added to the experience.
Since the film was shown annually during the 1960s I would sometimes watch it but I never made an effort to look at it. I thought it a kid’s movie and it was enjoyable in that way but I didn’t think anything more of it. Of course I appreciated the production values, the songs, and, of course the performances. But in no way was it a favorite film of mine and I felt it had achieved “classic” status because of its post TV popularity and the legends that have grown up about it. But, a serious movie that deserved my time in analyzing it; no way. In the early 70s I finally saw it on the big screen—and without commercials—and with it came a greater appreciate the things about the film that I had always liked.
Then in 1977 I read Aljean Harmetz groundbreaking book on the making of the film. The amount of research that she put in for this book is simply incredible. She scoured the MGM archives reading everything on the film including memos, production notes and every version of the script right up to the one that was shot. When I spoke to her a number of years later I told her—and still believe—that the book was like an archeological search as she uncovered who did what and exactly how the film come into existence.
Prior to this most film histories—what there were off then—were a mostly dependent on interviews and thus, full of disinformation. This book was different. Much different. The material in which she discussed the writing of the script intrigued me. It was from that book that I learned which writer decided to make the color section of the film Dorothy’s dream and an expression of her subconscious. This is when I began to take the film seriously as a work of art, not just a pop culture icon.
Learning that bit of information my view of the film as a “kids” movie evaporated. After reading the book I purchase a VHS of the film and could study it as I would book and not have to wait for a yearly TV showing. So, during these repeated viewings I realized that hidden under the trappings of an ‘entertainment’ was a keen and insightful look at childhood; both the fears and the joys and most of all a realization of what was crucial in one’s life. In short, The WIZARD OF OZ was—and I know how pretentions this must sound—is, in a sense, a psychoanalysis of Dorothy Gale. I am not going to go into the interplay of characters or the meaning of this scene and that scene. That’s for another time and another writing.
Nevertheless, I will discuss one scene to demonstrate my unique view. We are presented with a wicked witch so evil, so frightening that she is the incarnation of every child’s nightmare. (She still make me shudder.) Dorothy and everyone else shakes and quivers even if she looks at them. Then when push comes to shove Dorothy dumps a pale of water of on her and all that “wonderful wickedness” evaporates into a puff of smoke. I can tell you, and I have been analyzed, that is one of the key elements of any analysis; to work through childhood fears until seeing them as an adult they to evaporate into a puff of smoke. The movie is filled with insights and symbolism like this and for me with each viewing it becomes a richer and richer experience. Perhaps it is this aspect of the movie that touches audiences on a subconscious level and a reason for its universal appeal.
I purchased the DVD in its various incarnations and special editions as I did the Blu-Ray and WIZARD has become a film that I can watch over and over. But the film still had one last revelation when I purchased the 3D release. Let me tell you, visually I felt that I was watching the film for the first time. This was a “conversion;” an expensive and time consuming process in which a 2D movie is be converted into a 3D. Don’t ask me how it’s done. It’s way above my pay grade. I have read I don’t know how much about this process and I could not make head nor tails from it. So, let’s leave it at that and say that of all the 3D conversions this and Titanic are the best. For WIZARD (I think) 18 months were spent on it and for me it was more than worth it.
First of all in 3D the film becomes much more immersive as you are literally pulled into the screen. The print used is the best imaginable and I think is probably better than the ones used when the film was first released and the film loos as if it was made yesterday. Second, viewers really get a sense of the film being shot on sound stages and the placement of one character relative to another. But rather than detract this only adds to the imaginary/fantasy quality of the film. ‘Real” doesn’t enter the experience in 3D and thus, the film becomes even more magical. The faces, costumes and sets literally come out of you. This is a film that was made to be seen in 3D which I found amazing as I am not a fan of altering older films to new technologies. In this case WIZARD is an exception to the rule and should not be missed if you can see it in this format.
Finally, along with the Harmetz book there is another great book on the film—it’s a coffee table book filled with scads of illustrations—“The WIZARD OF OZ: The Official 50th Anniversary Pictorial History.” Reading both books will answer every question you might have about the film, tell you fascinating anecdotes about the production and provide you with wonderful color illustrations. Again, they can be purchased for peanuts on eBay.
Here is the film when it opened at the Capital in August 1939. For the first two weeks Garland and Mickey Rooney appeared in performance between showings so, as you can see here, for the first two weeks the lines went around the block. For the two weeks following, it was Garland, Lahr and Bolger. The lines weren’t so long. No wonder. At the time Mickey Rooney was the top Box-Office star in the world beating out even Clark Gable.
Contrary to what many believe, WIZARD was not the first major theatrical film presented on TV—it was a consolation prize for viewers as the network had wanted GWTW but MGM said no. For that film TV Viewers would have to wait another 20 years.
That distinction goes to RICHARD III which was broadcast In March 1956. WIZARD was shown the following November. Olivier’s RICHARD III was shown on network TV the Sunday it premiered as a reserved seat Roadshow in New York. The producers knew that the film might not do so well in the states and the $400,000 they received for the TV showing eventually helped towards recouping the film’s $2,000,000 cost. Nearly 40 million viewers saw RICHARD III during that Sunday afternoon TV presentation; more people than had seen the play on the stage since Shakespeare first presented the play.
Finally, over the years WIZARD earned ten times its costs on TV and as a result of TV earned a place as one of the Jewels of the MGM film library.