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CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD

The world of 'Wizard of Oz'

The 1939 MGM classic with Judy Garland has a rich back story and a new digital restoration.

September 23, 2009|SUSAN KING

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."

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."

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.

--

susan.king@latimes.com.

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