It’s been a long while since anyone proclaimed “We’re off to see the Wizard,” then headed to a movie theater to catch “The Wizard of Oz.” The timeless fantasy about a young girl, her little dog, three odd pals, one wicked witch, and a certain man behind a curtain opened in the summer of 1939, capturing the hearts and imaginations of young and old, and garnering six Oscar nominations (including best picture, but winning only for original score and the song “Over the Rainbow”). It was reissued theatrically in 1949, when it made back the $750,000 it lost the first time around, and turned a nice profit; then again in 1955, when MGM tried to cash in on Judy Garland’s Oscar nomination for “A Star Is Born.”
Since then, except for screenings at art houses, festivals, and Oz conventions, the film has been mostly relegated to TV screens (first on CBS, in 1956), and these days on beautifully restored DVDs and Blu-rays.
But it’s returning to big screens for one week, starting Friday. Really big screens: IMAX screens. And it’s not only been fully restored and remastered, both visually and aurally, it’s also made the transfer to eye-popping 3-D.
Hold on! Is that the sound of a howling tornado tearing across a Kansas cornfield, or is it the collective wail of movie purists — especially persnickety “Wizard of Oz” purists — screaming about yet another 3-D movie being unleashed upon the public, but this time ruining a classic? Will it, like so many other 3-D movies, be improperly lit, taking brightness away from the glorious oversaturated colors of Oz? Will the experience of watching it on a huge screen and in 3-D just be too overwhelming?
“I don’t think there’s such a thing as too overwhelming when it comes to ‘The Wizard of Oz’,” said preeminent Oz and Garland authority John Fricke, who has lectured on the film at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, did the commentary for the “Wizard of Oz” DVD, and has written four books about the film. His newest, “The Wonderful World of Oz: An Illustrated History of the American Classic,” will be published next month.
“The film was pretty overwhelming on black-and-white TV for how many millions of people for how many decades,” he added. “All of us who didn’t have color TVs, and took it on faith that that was a yellow brick road and that Dorothy was wearing red shoes — and you still were scared to death and enchanted and excited. I haven’t seen the new version yet, but I’m not worried about it.”
Neither is Greg Foster, CEO of IMAX Entertainment and senior executive vice president of IMAX Corp., who likes to sit two-thirds of the way back, in the middle of the auditorium, for IMAX films.
“I was a little nervous about it, because it’s such a classic,” said Foster, “until I saw how it looked.”
As head of the entertainment side of IMAX, Foster has been responsible for bringing, among others, “Apollo 13,” “The Polar Express,” “Batman Begins,” and “Titanic” to IMAX screens. The company’s two biggest successes to date are “Avatar” and “The Dark Knight Rises.”
“It’s the 75th anniversary of the movie, it’s a classic, and it’s a movie that very few people alive have seen in a movie theater,” said Foster. “A new remastered Blu-ray is coming out in October. My instinct is that Warner Bros. [which inherited the MGM library when it purchased Turner Entertainment Company] thought why not turn this into a bigger event by showing it in IMAX first.”
Warner brought the idea to Foster, which is when that slight case of nerves occurred because, as he put it, “IMAX is the world’s largest magnifying glass.”
But IMAX had great success with its meticulous 3-D conversion of “Titanic” last year.
“They had plenty of time to work on that because the movie was already done, and the same thing applies to ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ ” explained Foster. “They’ve had years to be able to work on converting it. We did a test to make sure it held up, and it did. They did it the right way.”
Hingham native Ned Price is vice president of mastering at Warner Bros. He’s one of the people who actually gets to choose what titles from the Warner library will be preserved and restored. He revealed that “The Wizard of Oz” came up as a candidate for 3-D conversion almost 10 years ago.
“Part of the reason was due to the Technicolor photography [in the original film] needing so much light,” he said. “They used an intense amount of light on it, and that helped with the shadows and the shaping of the images. It was like sculpted shadows, so it was perfect for conversion to 3-D.”
Why, he was asked, didn’t it happen 10 years ago?
“The process was not sophisticated enough,” he said. “We did some testing, but at that point we could say, ‘It’s not quite ready yet; ask again.’ We didn’t want to put out anything that was less than perfect. It’s perfect now.”
So what would Price say to those purists who are worried about this project?
“I probably worried more than they did,” he said. “This is a film that I love and protect. I understand how much other people love it as well. If our crew did the wrong thing with this film, there would be people with pitchforks and torches outside the door.”
Price mentioned one surprise about the new version.
“The MPAA changed the rating from G to PG. They said it was actually more scary in 3-D.”
Technology aside, there may not be anyone who loves the film more than Fricke. He vividly remembers the first time he saw it; it was that CBS broadcast on Nov. 3, 1956, at his cousins’ house in Peshtigo, Wis. Fricke was 5.
“Everybody enjoyed it,” he said, “but I’m the one who had the life-changing experience. I remember the opening, with Judy running home and being worried about Toto. Now, I didn’t even have a dog. But instantly you’re drawn into the story of this kid. It doesn’t matter if you’re a little boy or a little girl. Any kid can identify with what she was worried about. I also remember the Wicked Witch and the monkeys. I’d been sitting on the floor till then, and that’s when I crawled onto my father’s lap.”
Fricke joined the International Wizard of Oz Club when he was 11. In 1969, he wrote an article for its fanzine: the first piece anyone had done on the making of “The Wizard of Oz.” He’s lost track of how many times he’s seen it all the way through, but thinks his most recent viewing was two years ago. He still believes it’s a movie for everyone.
“It is classic musical comedy entertainment, built on the first American fairy tale and produced by MGM, the studio that was better at this than any other studio in Hollywood history,” he said. “And it’s a great introduction to a life lesson. You identify with Dorothy because she’s lost and wants to get home. You identity with her friends as you get older, because by the time you’re a teenager, you’re wondering ‘Am I smart, am I brave, is anybody ever going to love me, am I ever going to love anybody else?’ And by the time you’re an adult you realize, ‘OK, it’s all inside. You have to tap into it. It’s your responsibility to do the digging, but it’s there to mine.’ ”