It was 70 years ago this week that “The Wizard of Oz” arrived in theaters, and even in this CGI-jaded era those old red ruby slippers still manage to sparkle.
The anniversary has been celebrated over the last year with numerous events, including a national tour by a seven-story Oz-themed hot-air balloon. The festivities will continue into next month with a one-night theatrical presentation of a newly restored version of the film in 450 theaters (Sept. 23) and the release of an “ultimate collector’s edition” home video package with that remastered version and 16 hours of bonus material.
That may sound like a lot of attention for an artifact from the Roosevelt administration but there’s a timeless quality to the cinematic adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s novel that still transports new generations to somewhere over the rainbow. The movie remains an essential reference point -- in James Cameron’s much ballyhooed upcoming sci-fi epic “Avatar,” for instance, when the main character arrives on a dazzling jungle planet, moviegoers will hear a familiar line: “You’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Cameron chuckled when asked about the line. “Yeah, it’s my favorite movie; I had to get it in there somewhere.”
Cameron is not alone in his ongoing romance with “Oz.” To mark the anniversary, The Times interviewed luminaries from film, television, music and books who have never wearied of the cinematic trip down the yellow brick road.
Guillermo del Toro
Filmmaker, “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Hellboy,” the upcoming “The Hobbit”
“I fixated on the scary aspects of the tale: the flying monkeys, the tornado (still a great effects example today), the Wicked Witch of the West, the overwhelming presence of the Wizard and -- in my childhood imagination -- the nagging biological horror that the lack of heart or brains indicated. The super-saturated colors are forever singed in my memory. This is the first movie where I became aware of scale . . . the sense that you are watching a ‘Big Picture,’ a Hollywood super-production. I was completely engaged by the tale. Dorothy losing it all and having to regain it back on her own; it was a very empowering childhood tale.”
Producer, “All in the Family,” “Maude,” “The Jeffersons”
“You mention ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and there’s a glow. I can’t tell you the afternoon or the evening when I saw it for the first time, but I still feel that glow. Judy Garland was incandescent. And there was a magic to all of it that came together. Why would Jack Haley be so indelible in my mind as the Tin Man? Why would Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion be remembered by everyone? The indelibility of those characters. It’s a great, emotional piece of work. The transition from black-and-white to color in the film -- so powerful.”
Composer, “Wicked” and the films “Pocahontas” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”
“For me, not surprisingly, the most memorable thing about the movie is the Harold Arlen music, starting with that great [Herbert Stothart] overture that movies don’t have anymore, and the witty E.Y. Harburg lyrics with all their clever wordplay, which influenced so many lyricists -- including me.”
Visual effects pioneer, “Clash of the Titans,” “Jason and the Argonauts,” “Mighty Joe Young”
“Although ‘King Kong’ remains my favorite fantasy/adventure film of all time, primarily because of the influence it had on my childhood and career, I can certainly say that ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is a very close second. I was extremely impressed with the amazing work done on the film by the legendary A. Arnold ‘Buddy’ Gillespie, MGM’s top visual effects artist, as well as the wonderful production design by the industry’s best art directors. That the film has endured and still impresses after 70 years is no surprise to me. I expect it to continue to gain new admirers during the next 70 years.”
Filmmaker, “Elf,” “Iron Man,” “Zathura”
“The part I gravitate to is hero’s journey, the film as a piece of archetype. It’s the coming of age journey in the Joseph Campbell mythic structure. So much of the movie seems so random, with the flying monkeys and the Munchkins, but if you chip all that away it’s the hero’s journey, in this case about a girl becoming a woman and leaving behind the safety and comfort of home. You don’t think about that, which is why it’s so good . . . the movie’s influence is everywhere. Years ago when I was making ‘Swingers,’ a relatively small, uneventful film, I actually had a ‘Oz’ reference in it because it was about this outsider’s journey into this strange place, the Hollywood night life instead of ‘Oz.’ ”
Lead singer, Flaming Lips
“Like all experiences you have when you’re a child, they are magnified and viewed as either magical or terrifying . . . and obviously ‘The Wizard Of Oz’ is both with its colossal tornado (remember, we live in Oklahoma where tornadoes happen all the time) . . . and its flying monkeys being terrifying . . . and the Emerald City . . . and that great, scary forest being magical . . . and the part toward the end where Dorothy cries. It still is devastating.”
Filmmaker, “Gremlins,” “Innerspace,” “Twilight Zone: The Movie”
“Like the multi-director ‘Gone With the Wind’ (not as good a movie), ‘Wizard of Oz’ [with the credited Victor Fleming and three uncredited directors, including King Vidor] isn’t exactly an auteurist triumph. But it is the high watermark of studio filmmaking. I saw it first at a kiddie matinee in 1954, before it became a network TV holiday staple, and thought it was as memorable as a Disney animated film -- high praise from my 8-year-old self in those days. Remember, this was considered a commercial disappointment in 1939! Only in ensuing years was it embraced as a classic by my own and later generations, illustrating the maxim that the true worth of a movie is very hard to assess at the time it’s first released.”
Author, “Elric of Melnibone,” “Behold the Man,” “The Metatemporal Detective”
“I’ve loved the movie since I first saw it as a tot. The transition from B&W; into color made a huge impression. We didn’t have the familiar U.S. editions of the ‘Oz’ books in the U.K., and when I at last saw a book version, I was deeply disappointed. The illustrations looked ‘wrong’ (no Judy Garland). I did enjoy the story I heard later that there was thought to be a communist subtext to the Harold Arlen songs. I’m not sure if Joe McCarthy came up with that one or not, but the idea of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ as a commie vehicle seems somehow to encapsulate the complete madness of the Hollywood witch hunts and amplifies my relish for the film. I’m sure the story’s apocryphal, but a good story is a good story, true or false -- as I’m sure the Wizard himself would have agreed.”
Filmmaker, “300,” “Dawn of the Dead” (2004), “Watchmen”
“I find it most interesting that even after 70 years ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is still an incredibly modern film in many ways. Especially in the sense that it speaks a very contemporary sci-fi/fantasy language. The skill with which the film guides the audience through the layers of an alternate reality and then delivers one of the best mind-bending endings ever is simply timeless. Not to mention, the film has flying monkeys and you can’t beat that.”
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Coming to a big screen near you
Nearly everyone has seen “The Wizard of Oz” but not many in the way it was intended -- on the big screen. The opportunity is coming: On Sept. 23, NCM Fathom will present the classic film in a high-definition broadcast at more than 400 movie theaters across the country, including at least 21 in Southern California. The event will include an introduction by Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies and the screening of a documentary, “To Oz! The Making of a Classic.” Participating theaters include the Century City 15, the Burbank 16, the Long Beach 26, the Valencia Stadium 12, the Alhambra Renaissance 14, the Antelope Valley Mall and the Puente Hills 20. For the full list of theaters and ticket information, go to www.fathomevents.com.