"The Wizard of Oz"

A mid-song Judy Garland coughing fit, some poisonous aluminum dust and one magnificent lost dance sequence: An Emerald City's worth of secrets about one of the world's most beloved films.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Published November 10, 2000 8:00PM (EST)

"The Wizard of Oz"
Directed by Victor Fleming
Starring Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley
Warner Home Video; full-screen (original 1.33:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Making-of documentary, deleted scenes, excerpts from earlier "Oz" films, audio tracks, more

Before acquiring this delightful, feature-packed DVD I probably hadn't watched "The Wizard of Oz" the whole way through in 20 years, and by American standards I haven't seen it often, maybe six or eight times at most. But, by gum, it gets better every time. Like any classic work of children's entertainment, this best-loved of all Hollywood films almost has more to offer adult viewers; it's still easy to see why it amazed us as kids, but many of us have also grown to appreciate the wonders of its construction and its immense significance as a cultural touchstone. For me the highlights of this viewing were the marvelous deco furnishings of the Emerald City and E.Y. Harburg's giddy, nonsensical lyrics: "What makes the Hottentot so hot? What put the ape in apricot?" But as Jack Haley (the Tin Woodsman) puts it in an interview included here, the secret of "The Wizard of Oz" is not its Technicolor or its Munchkins or its special effects (astonishing in 1939 and still remarkably effective). It's the story of a little girl who wants to go home.

There's more stuff on this DVD than any but the most devoted Oz-ophile will ever absorb: snippets from silent films directed by "Oz" author L. Frank Baum himself, bits of composer Harold Arlen's home movies, costume and makeup tests for actors who never made it into the film. There are literally hours of extra audio tracks, ranging from alternate takes of "Over the Rainbow" (one interrupted by a genuine Judy Garland coughing fit) to work tapes of Arlen and Harburg in the studio mulling over "Munchkinland."

The most obvious gem is the marvelous Busby Berkeley dance number for Garland and Ray Bolger (the Scarecrow) set to "If I Only Had a Brain," which MGM inexplicably cut from the release version. (In fact, one of the most famous of all American pop songs was nearly stillborn; studio execs wanted to cut "Over the Rainbow" after one preview, believing it slowed down the picture too much.) The film of the much-lamented "Jitterbug" number is apparently lost forever, but the DVD unites the audio track with footage by Arlen to provide an intriguing glimpse of it.

The documentary included here was made in 1990 by Jack Haley Jr., and while Angela Lansbury bills and coos too much as the host, it effectively makes the point that nothing about "The Wizard of Oz" came easily. Buddy Ebsen lost the Tin Woodsman part after aluminum dust from the costume nearly killed him (and it's too bad, as his easygoing recording of "If I Only Had a Heart" demonstrates).

And that was before the film chewed through four directors, went enormously over budget and lost money on its initial release. Credited director Victor Fleming took over for George Cukor (who had replaced Richard Thorpe) but left the final mopping-up to King Vidor after he was called upon to replace Cukor again, this time on a little thing called "Gone With the Wind." (Fleming made more than 40 movies, some of them quite successful, but nothing beyond blind fate can explain how he got his name on two classics within a few months.)

"The Wizard of Oz" didn't really begin to accumulate a cult following until after its 10th anniversary re-release in 1949, and it really came into its own as a cultural phenomenon with the advent of television. Like millions of other boob-tube children, my first viewing came with a parental explanation and a wonderful promise: Despite what I saw on our black-and-white TV screen, the Land of Oz really was in color, and someday I could see it for myself.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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