Vaudeville never died - it just went over the rainbow, where it became immortal. That's the bracing comic message of "The 70th Anniversary Edition of The Wizard of Oz." This tender yet also tingling high-definition restoration provides a Munchkin City, an Emerald City and Wicked Witch's castle that announce themselves as brilliantly colored stage sets - make that soundstage sets.
Then they burst into unruly life with the singing and dancing of Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley Jr., Margaret Hamilton, and, of course, the Munchkins - who on a flight of mass inspiration turn wildly different schticks into compelling characters and cohesive, overwhelming magic.
This restoration offers a vast improvement on the cold digital polish job done just a few years ago. The pre-release publicity has trumpeted the progress in computer power and sophistication that have made this festive, improbably pretty version possible. From the outside the explanation appears simpler. This one has been done with love and admiration for the original.
The key may not have been the increase in digital resolution, but the discovery of a fresh 1939 release print suggesting how director Victor Fleming intended the film to look in its full glory. He'd always envisioned it unfolding at the intersection of live-action revelry and movie magic, just as the longings Dorothy generates in workaday Kansas intersect with her experiences in that wonderland called Oz.
"Oz" is now as fresh as ever. Seeing the film in a version as close to the original as we're likely to get, the comedy detonates the poignancy - and vice versa - and the humorous and terrifying shocks erase the seven decades since the film's original release. One reason I've loved "The Wizard of Oz" from boyhood is the way it invites everyone to participate in its make-believe. You surrender your disbelief gleefully because the film is so witty and enjoyable.
The director builds that oddity and others like it into the movie's immense charm, confident that his cast of troupers are making the emotions of each character and their shared bonhomie both funny and real.
When Dorothy opens the door of her aunt and uncle's house and leaves the pewter tones of Kansas for the Technicolor of Oz, she becomes every boy or girl entering the world of unfettered yearning and imagination. Yet no movie has ever been more casually potent in its escapism. Dorothy gets to behave in a manner that future generations would call "acting up" or "acting out" while her co-stars, playing off beloved characters they'd already established on-stage, get to tap, joke and act up a storm as potent as any twister.
In this release, you can pick out details hard or impossible to see before, like the wire that snags Dorothy in her Uncle Henry's pigpen or the hair on the Witch's mole. And comic touches that were always present register more vividly, like the piece of red sash Toto proudly carries in his mouth after he and the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion conquer some Winkies in front of the Wicked Witch's castle.
But the overall brilliance of the print lies in the warmth of Dorothy's skin as well as the shimmer of green turrets or the modern-art-meets-burlesque merger of physical yellow bricks with painted backdrops. That's my "Wizard of Oz": a place where flesh and blood mingle freely with plaster of Paris.
Full disclosure: The DVD and Blu-ray "Ultimate Collector's Edition" contains Gary Leva's documentary, "Victor Fleming: Master Craftsman," which draws on my recent biography of Fleming. I contributed my interview time and Fleming material freely and gladly - and am delighted to report that Leva has put together a short film that pays proper tribute to the man I called "An American Movie Master." Others such as director William Friedkin ("The French Connection") and William Wellman Jr., the actor-producer son of Wellman Sr. ("The Ox-Bow Incident"), testify eloquently to Fleming's prodigious gifts.
And Gene Reynolds, the producer and frequent director of TV's "M*A*S*H," contributes an indelible anecdote of Fleming pulling tears out of him when he was a child actor. I interviewed Reynolds by phone for my book, but seeing and hearing him re-enact that episode of Fleming made the short hairs rise on my neck.
The deluxe gift editions also contain a too-fleeting tribute to the Munchkins. I shared a stage with three of them at an "Oz/Gone With the Wind" 70th anniversary celebration last spring in Cadiz, Ohio, sponsored by the Clark Gable Foundation.
Their enduring professionalism was fizzy as well as moving. Jerry Maren, who played the middle mini-tough guy in "da Lollypop Guild," sang the Lollipop Guild song to his wife (a little person but not a Munchkin), who stood in for Dorothy. They had developed an intricate teamwork as performers and as partners; they were the best of sports on stage and at the desk where they sat for hours selling Maren's memoir, "Short and Sweet."
One of the Munchkin trumpeters, Karl Slover (who in 1938 was known as Karl Kosiczky), sang "We're Off to See the Wizard" for the audience the way he did, at Fleming's request, for set visitors 70 years ago. Margaret Pellegrini, a Munchkinland Villager and also a Munchkin Sleepy Head, had a brisk humor and toughness when she told me that Fleming was "such a handsome fella." What was most endearing about her, though, was the way she looked after Slover, who is getting frail and hard of hearing.
"Oz," of course, is not just about individuals growing up and getting older - it's also about how they become friends. It still brings out the best in everyone who has anything to do with it.
The "70th Anniversary Edition of The Wizard of Oz" is available today from Warner Home Video in a "Special Edition" (list: $24.98), an "Ultimate Collector's Edition DVD" ($69.92) and an "Ultimate Collector's Edition Blu-ray" ($84.99).