Editorials

OCTOBER EDITORIAL 2009: THE WIZARD OF OZ

By • Sep 30th, 2009 •

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OZ I WAS SAYING…

The Press Conference for the imminent (September 29th) DVD & BluRay releases of the 70th Anniversary of THE WIZARD OF OZ was held at the Essex House on Central Park South. Adroitly organized, groups of two to three writers were moved every fifteen minutes from table to table, at each of which sat an informed, articulate and charming representative of the film, each coming at us from a different perspective.

The first table I chose found me sitting among some of the remaining Munchkins – and I should mention that Dunkin’ Donuts must have been catering the event, because there were trays of ‘munchkins’ everywhere you looked. 89-year-old Jerry Maren (the Lollipop Guild member) and his adorable wife Elizabeth didn’t seem to mind the choice of cuisine at all. She volunteered to go and collect a plateful of donut-holes while I grilled her husband.

4’3″ Maren claimed that they filmed their scenes quickly, and that he never met director Victor Fleming; rather it was an assistant director who worked with the Munchkins, although Fleming must have given Judy Garland her instructions. When I brought up UNDER THE RAINBOW, a 1981 comedy feature co-authored by Harry Hurwitz (with whom I worked four times, variously writing, producing, and directing), and in which Maren appeared, the diminutive actor bristled. “He was a good writer, but he didn’t know what he was talking about. There was no drunken revelry, no sliding down banisters, and no suicide on camera. Those were all myths that he’d heard. We were there to do a professional job, and we worked very hard.” His wife returned with the grub, and informed me that she was writing a book entitled “Short and Sweet.”

The next table’s honorary guest was Ned Price – Vice President, Mastering, Warner Bros. Technical Operations Inc. – who oversaw the latest hi-def restoration of the film, an arduous task that he explained to us in great detail. This was preceded by a DVD demonstration of the various incarnations of the film since 1939, and I was blown away by the clarity of the new version. I never knew Judy Garland had so many freckles!

Apparently there’d been a transitional film stock change in ’38. THE WIZARD OF OZ, got the older, grainier stock, while GONE WITH THE WIND benefited from getting the newer, finer grain. In improving the new OZ restoration, using a 1939 print as their guide, the original grain was left intact, a wise choice. However, due to how sharp the image still became, some hand-painting had to be done to remove a wire on the Cowardly Lion’s tail, etc. Price informed us proudly that OZ is the most protected film on the planet; there are four protection negatives, none of them for printing, just for preservation purposes. That’s good news.

Next: Lorna Luft, who told us that “The dog [Toto] was paid just a little less than my mom.” Her mom being, of course, Judy Garland. She also relayed to us a story about the first time she saw the film as a child, and thought the monkeys had taken over Manhattan. Her mother told her that she would watch the film with her from then on. (She also told her that NYC was fine.)

The last table I visited was manned by John Fricke, the pre-eminent WIZARD OF OZ and Judy Garland author/historian, having won Emmys and written and produced numerous books and TV shows about the subjects. (Made me feel like I was to Zombies and George Romero what Fricke was to OZ and Garland.) He was there with his new book, “THE WIZARD OF OZ: An Illustrated Companion to the Timeless Movie Classic.” I thumbed through it while he was being grilled by the other writers, and it’s a terrific piece of work, heavily illustrated, containing shots of Judy Garland in a blond wig while Richard Thorpe was briefly at the helm, as well as photos from Victor Fleming’s photo album, showing the director on the set, very hands-on, thus helping dispel the myth that he was uninvolved physically or emotionally with the project.

Another myth Fricke dispelled was that the film was neither reviewed well nor performed well on its initial release. There were lines around the block at 5:00 in the morning the opening day, and it did great business all over the country, with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney actually appearing daily with it at the Loew’s Capital on 51st Street – imagine having been able to see that! And, almost all the reviews were positive. The rumor devolves from two facts. First, by 1940, when the film was ready for foreign distribution, the war had seriously impaired the European market, so revenue was poor abroad. Second, 3/4 of the tickets sold in the US were to children under 12, for ten cents a pop. Consequently, although it was an unqualified hit, it didn’t go into the black until its 1949 re-release.

After all that, and a couple of Jelly-filled Munchkins, I went home and rested up for the evening gala at Tavern on the Green (a dream-factory of a restaurant, owned by descendents of Mervyn LeRoy, the producer of THE WIZARD OF OZ). I went expecting more press junket work, but was told to enjoy myself. Out in the parking area, a giant hot air balloon was being fired-up to take Dorothy back to Kansas (if she would only stay in the balloon this time…), and inside there was all manner of fantastic celebrating going on. Ms. Luft sang, green apple martinis were handed out, copious amounts of delicious food was ours for the grabbing, people chatted good-naturedly, and dozens of Ruby Slippers from various designers were being auctioned off.

It was only the following day, as I was recovering from the whirlwind of the previous evening, that I broke into the BluRay release box, finding some delightful artifactual souvenirs inside, including a wristwatch with an emerald-colored watch-band, a copy of the film’s budget, a reproduction of the film’s original program, and other sundry delights. I pulled the giant lollypop out of my gift-bag from the press conference, sat back, and watched the BluRay, which was amazing. Then I ran it again, listening to the commentary track, with archival sound bites from Margaret Hamilton, Ray Bolger, etc. I wondered what it would have been like with some of the other casting considerations – Shirley Temple for Garland, Buddy Ebson for Bolger, Gale Sondergaard for Hamilton, Stan Laurel for Bolger, W.C.Fields for the Wizard…

Much work and money was lavished on the promotional fandango, but for once, it was in the service of an unassailably worthy cause. THE WIZARD OF OZ is a true classic, and it’s gratifying to see that it has been preserved for generations to come, well after I’ve departed from this earthly existence, and that intelligent choices were made in its remastering. Also, something I don’t do often, but feel I should in this editorial – since the event was run so smoothly, and the guests of honor so in-synch, informed, and primed to satisfy our every need – is to mention at least a few of the PR people involved who orchestrated the day and evening so flawlessly. Karen Penhale and Marie Remelius of Carl Samrock Public Relations, Ronnee Sass of Warner Home Video, and the beautiful Sharmistha Chatterjeel of Warner Bros. who helped guide me along the yellow brick road of this sumptuous celebration.

WHILE OVER AT CNN…

…this past weekend saw the debut of Christiane Amanpour’s Sunday show, an examination of the trouble spots of the world as revealed through interviews with their often elusive leaders.

Someone chose most wisely in art directing her debut. The predominant color of the set was blood red, and there were complimentary warm tones in Ms. Amanpour’s makeup as well. All this worked well against the black of her hair. It was strikingly dynamic, moreso than any of the other shows’ sets on CNN. Talk about a barely subliminal use of production design. I was ready for armed conflicts to break out at any moment.

Her first three guests were on too briefly to contribute in-depth information. They felt more like sound bites of moderate value. But then came the main act, rarely-interviewed President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, who Ms. Amanpour mercilessly pinned down in regards to recent failings of his once-triumphant reign. Acknowledging that once he was regarded as the great hope of Africa, turning the country around economically for its people, in the past decade or more, his rule has taken on the less laudatory aspects of a ruthless dictatorship. At times she really had him on the run, stuttering as he tried to refute her accusations. It was an energized and revealing debate.

Chriatiane Amanpour, Fareed Zakaria, and Michael Ware, are three of the very best commentators extant, and all of them speak eloquently…each in their unique styles. I take their observations of the world scene more seriously than any other reporter or newscaster, and far more seriously than any politician. The weeks to come will determine how successfully Ms. Amanpour is able to deal with her remarkable stable of contacts. But I won’t soon forget that blood-red set…

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3 Responses »

  1. THE WIZARD OF OZ disc is a must get and I intend to be one of its many owners! This is one film where, like Disney, the magic still hasn’t faded.
    CNN sounds they’re getting it togeather and really going back to its roots-reporting the news, hitting the hard questions rather the PC I’ve seen in the last few years! Good for them!!

  2. Roy, Sorry I missed it.
    The Wizard of Oz was my favorite film growing up.
    It was on every Thanksgiving, sandwiched between Toys R’ Us commercials that featured a bouncing ball over the lyrics.

  3. What an amazing event.

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