"The Ultimate Oz," MGM/UA's definitive limited collector's edition of the 1939 classic, is one beautiful piece of work marking one of the few times that the hyperbole fulfills the promise.
The gorgeous box set ($100) includes the laser discs themselves with the restored "The Wizard of Oz" in CAV standard play and THX sound, a documentary on the making of the movie, a fascinating collection of outtakes, behind-the-scene footage, the original soundtrack masters and an intelligent second channel audio commentary.
The beautifully designed box also gives you something substantial to handle with intelligent packaging and extra goodies to admire: a full reproduction of the bulky continuity script dated March 15, 1939, available for the first time (with an informative introduction), five black-and-white stills and nicely conceived liner notes.
Unless you were at the premiere, you've never seen "The Wizard of Oz" in such rich, sharp, pop-off-the-screen color or heard Judy Garland & Co. in such clear, crisp, full-bodied sound. An earlier Criterion edition made a valiant effort, but the producers of this edition were able to create a new Technicolor restoration from the original nitrate negative and to work with restored audio created from the original soundtrack masters and to put it all together with state-of-the-art THX technology. Rarely has an hour and 43-minute film been lavished such attention.
The CAV edition enables you to stop at any point along the yellow brick road or in the middle of a sepia-tone Kansas tornado, perfectly freezing any frame and helping you discover just how the movie makers achieved their sparkling effects. The digital THX audio dusts off the impressive 1939 soundtrack.
On a separate analog audio track, "Oz" historian John Fricke provides an informative, articulate, easy-to-take narrative exploring all facets of the production. And the producers also take advantage of laser technology to provide an additional digital channel that offers an impressive collection of the original soundtrack masters recorded during production. Among other snippets, you can hear the 16-year-old Garland apologizing for coughing in the middle of an otherwise excellent take.
Other music recording chapters let you listen in on rehearsals with songwriters Harold Arlen and E.Y. (Yip) Harburg, provide alternative lyrics to "If I Only Had a Brain," and offer Munchkin voices as they were and in the speeded-up sound used in the film. MGM/UA has provided a thorough and informative list of chapter stops for each of the soundtrack masters. All this plays on two discs. At any point, you can follow along with a hard copy of the continuity script, which includes deleted and altered dialogue.
A third supplementary disc unreels the film's golden anniversary homage documentary, "The Wizard of Oz: The Official 50th Anniversary Pictorial," narrated by Angela Lansbury. If you can get past much of the self-congratulation there are fascinating facts, outtakes and interviews. Among them are clips of Buddy Ebsen, the original Tin Man, dancing and performing, before the aluminum dust used to transform him into the character nearly killed him. His replacement, Jack Haley, was made up with aluminum paste that fortunately for him did not have the same effect. You'll not only see Ebsen dancing along the yellow brick road with Garland, Scarecrow Ray Bolger and Cowardly Lion Bert Lahr but you'll also hear where he's \o7 still \f7 singing on the soundtrack because it was too hard to dub in Jack Haley's voice.
The documentary takes up one side of the supplementary disc. The second side includes a batch of additional material that will leave you shaking your head at who really didn't have a brain as "Oz" got closer to theaters. Bolger's incredible solo, deleted because MGM brass thought it took too much time from the story, is a marvel.
And if you think that was an isolated bit of insanity, we also hear how MGM executives almost cut "Over the Rainbow," the film's monumental signature hit song that came to define hope and longing for beauty and love for several generations. As Fricke and Garland herself explain it, the executives wanted "Over the Rainbow" out because "it takes up too much time with that little fat girl" and, besides, it was undignified for an MGM star to sing in a barnyard. Happily, better minds, particularly producer Mervyn LeRoy's, prevailed.
No doubt, this cornucopia of "Oz" should satisfy any fan of the movie, from those who would pay big bucks for the ruby slippers themselves to those who have seen the movie over and over on TV. Incidentally, it turns out that those ruby slippers were originally conceived as silver by original "Oz" book author Frank Baum and transformed to the more Technicolorful rubies by Noel Langley, the key 26-year-old writer who helped lead the film team's already swollen ranks to the promised land.