The Wizard of Oz

I remember the first time I ever watched The Wizard of Oz (1939). I must have been around 5 or 6 years old and I still remember the exact events of that afternoon. I was spending the day with my grandmother during my school holidays and we were sitting around in the lounge room. From what I can recall, these were the Pre-Foxtel days, so Nan didn’t have cable at the time and naturally, there was nothing on TV. So, Nan put on a video of a movie that she said was one of her all time favourites – one that she remembered first seeing when she was about my age and has loved ever since. At first I was put off by the film’s black and white opening. “Is this movie in black and white?” I remember saying, almost dismissing the film. “No. Only this first part.” Thank god I stuck with it because, little did I know then, but this was going to be a pivotal point in my life and a seminal moment in my love for cinema and filmmaking.


As soon as Dorothy opened her bedroom door and stepped into that wonderful Technicolor Land of Oz I was instantly captivated. As the camera began to track through Munchin Land; past the shiny leaves and shrubs, over the sparkling blue river and across to the centre of the Yellow Brick Road; I was mesmerized. I remember my exact response – “You know what Nan, I think I’m going to have to borrow this video.” At that moment I had been introduced to ‘cinema.’

Whenever I’ve described my love of The Wizard of Oz to anybody I’ve always used the same phrase – There was never anything like it before, and there has never been anything like it since. And whether you believe that statement or not, it’s absolutely true. Being 5 or 6 when I first watched it, of course I had never seen anything like it before. And now, 15 years on, I’ve never found a film, old or new, that has captured the same energy, the same heart, the same soul and the same loving filmmaking as Oz.

The one thing that strikes me about Oz is the fact that it refuses to die. The story has been around for 111 years now, and the film was released 72 years ago. And the fact is that it remains timeless, a classic, a favourite amongst young and old. There is no other film so old – with exception of Walt Disney’s animated classics – that you could put on the television and expect a young child to enjoy and want to watch over and over again. How can a film of 72 years age be so widely accepted by such a broad range of viewers today? You couldn’t imagine a 5-year-old sitting down and enjoying, say, Casablanca (1942) or Gone With The Wind (1939).
The fact is – it remains timeless, familiar and accepted by younger generations because its themes, its characters and its style are still so much a part of today’s culture. There’s a reflection of values here that is still so very much emblazoned in the minds of today’s people and its characters are so familiar and so recognizable to you that you could swear they were reflections of yourself. This is why Oz is timeless, and why a child could sit down and not know that the movie was made well before their parents and even grandparents were born.

The Wizard of Oz was constructed back when films were made out of love, made from blood, sweat and tears, back before Hollywood became so overruled by movie moguls and people out to make a quick dollar. Sure, Louis B. Mayer – head of the MGM studios, and Jack Warner – head of Warner Bros. were all for making money and making big pictures that could gain revenue, but these two hard-heads never, EVER, signed off on a film that they didn’t believe had credibility. They never signed off on a film they thought they could just simply make money off, but films that they believed would be popular, films people would love to see, films people would enjoy and films that they would like to make. Oz is the product of the fairytale early days of Hollywood, back when Hollywood was known as “The Dream Factory,” before money, special effects and blockbusters took over. And for this reason, the film means so much more to me and to the history of cinema.

Oz
was made as MGM’s live action answer to Walt Disney’s Snow White And the Seven Dwarves (1937). Mayer wanted his audience to experience the same love and the same joy as they had when they visited Disney’s cartoon dream world. Regardless of the fact that it was nominated for a flurry of Oscars (losing out mainly to MGM’s other epic Gone With The Wind, directed and released by the same director, Victor Fleming, in the same year) Oz did quite dreadfully on its original cinema run. It wasn’t seen as a ‘flop’ but it barely made any revenue, it was seen simply as “just a movie.” But over the years, Oz was re-released over and over again and played annually on television – introducing itself to new generations with each showing. It was then that people realised “hey, we have a classic on our hands” and further cemented it into the history of film classics. It’s because of this that Oz has been deemed the most watched film of all time.

Regardless of its status as a film classic Oz does suffer from mixed reactions. It is often an understated and overlooked film gem and usually finds itself just missing out (usually to Gone With the Wind – the films major competitor still to this day) or just making the cut in the occasional “Best Movies” lists – but at the same time, finds itself near the top of others. It’s listed at #129 on IMDb’s list of “Top 250 Films” but is listed at #6 on the American Film Institute’s list of “100 Years… 100 Films.”

The Wizard of Oz, more than any other film has shaped the way I and many others see cinema. Oz has taught me that a film doesn’t need to make money to be successful, just as long as the makers love it, and nurture it and the viewing public do so likewise.

Oz is an odd film for a guy to hold as their favourite movie of all time, but given what the film means to cinema and means to me personally I think it’s fairly justified. I say with no regret, no embarrassment and no trepidation that Oz has always been and will always be my favourite film of all time. And I, like many others, will revisit this film to the day I die, not only to help me in my endeavours to make films, but also in my endeavours to find myself, and like Dorothy, find my place in the world.

Since my first viewing of Oz I have seen it in many formats and editions. I have seen it on VHS and have seen the special restoration it received for its 65th anniversary DVD and the crisp, clear and beautiful 70th Anniversary Blu-Ray restoration. But nothing can come close to seeing Oz on the big screen. I saw Oz at the Astor Theatre when it screened late last year, and was amazed how special a viewing experience it was to see it on a true Technicolour print in a theatre filled with an older generation re-visiting the film, and a younger generation experiencing it for the first time. Oz is an extremely special movie that captured the hearts of all no matter how you see it – but take it from me, seeing it on the big screen is an experience like no other.

Written by our wonderful, cine-passionate and regular E-news contributor Dave Lee.

This blog entry is an edited version of Dave Lee’s write-up on the film from his new film blog, Dave’s Most Inspirational Films.

For your chance to win tickets to see The Wizard of Oz (screening in a double bill with Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, this Sunday July 17th, 2pm at The Astor Theatre), make sure you’ve “liked” us over on Facebook!

RE-DISCOVERING METROPOLIS

On Saturday July 23rd, The Astor offers Melbourne fans a chance to experience THE COMPLETE METROPOLIS on the big screen. It is arguably the most important movie discovery of our time and for those wanting to see it as intended, in a way not accessible since it’s 1927 premiere, this is a very exciting date indeed.

Seldom has the rediscovery of a cache of lost footage ignited widespread curiosity as did the announcement, in July 2008, that an essentially complete copy of Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS had been found. When it was first screened in Berlin on January 10, 1927, the sci-fi epic ran an estimated 153 minutes. After its premiere engagement, in an effort to maximise the film’s commercial potential, the film’s distributors (Ufa in Germany, Paramount in the U.S.) drastically shortened METROPOLIS. By the time it debuted in the states, the film ran approximately 90 minutes (exact running times are difficult to determine because silent films were not always projected at a standardised speed).

Even in its truncated form, METROPOLIS went on to become one of the cornerstones of fantastic cinema. Testament to its enduring popularity, the film has undergone numerous restorations in the intervening decades. In 1984, it was reissued with additional footage, color tints, and a pop rock score (but with many of its intertitles removed) by music producer Giorgio Moroder. A more archival restoration was completed in 1987, under the direction of Enno Patalas and the Munich Film Archive, in which missing scenes were represented with title cards and still photographs. More recently, the 2001 restoration – supervised by Martin Koerber, under the auspices of the Murnau Foundation – combined footage from four archives and ran a triumphant 124 minutes. It was widely believed that this would be the most complete version of Lang’s film that contemporary audiences could ever hope to see.

But the world of film preservation is not governed by the laws of wide belief. In the summer of 2008, the curator of the Buenos Aires Museo del Cine discovered a 16mm dupe negative that was considerably longer than any existing print. It included not merely a few additional snippets, but 25 minutes of “lost” footage, about a fifth of the film, that had not been seen since its Berlin debut. The discovery of such a significant amount of material called for yet another restoration. Spearheading the project was the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung (hereafter referred to as the Murnau Foundation), which controls the rights to most of Lang’s silents and is the caretaker of the legacies of many other German filmmakers, including the one after whom the foundation is named. Film Restorer for the Murnau Foundation, Anke Wilkening co-ordinated the endeavor.

“We discussed the new approach with experts and German archive partners to establish a team for the 2010 restoration,” Wilkening explains. “The project consisted of two main tasks: the reconstruction of the original cut and the digital restoration of the heavily-damaged images from the Argentinian source.” Returning to METROPOLIS was Koerber, Film Department Curator of the Deutsche Kinemathek, who had supervised the 2001 restoration. “Three people worked on what we call ‘edition’ – meaning sorting out the material and determining the order of shots, making aesthetic and technical decisions, etc.: Anke Wilkening, Frank Strobel and myself,” says Koerber.

As word spread of the discovery of the Buenos Aires negative, a nervous public worried that archival politics might hinder the integration of the rediscovered footage into METROPOLIS. Koerber explains this was never the case. “They were always willing to cooperate, in fact they offered the material once they identified what it was.” Once obtained by the Murnau Foundation, the 16mm negative was digitally scanned in 2K by The Arri Group in Munich. The condition of the 16mm negative posed a major technical challenge to the team. The image was streaked with scratches and plagued by flickering brightness. “It had all been printed from the 35mm nitrate print, which means they have become part of the picture,” says Wilkening. The source 35mm element was later destroyed (probably due to the flammability and chemical instability of the nitrocellulose film stock).

An unfortunate lessons was thus learned from the restoration. “Don’t throw your originals away even if you think you preserved them, and even if they are in bad shape,” Koerber says. “If we could have had access to the 35mm nitrate print that was destroyed after being reprinted for safety onto 16mm dupe negative some 30 years ago, we would have been able to make a much better copy today.” Fortunately, advances in digital technology allowed the team to at least diminish some of the printed-in wear. “If we would have had the Argentinian material for the 2001 restoration, it would have hardly been possible to work on the severe damage,” Wilkening says. In 2010, however, “it was possible to reduce the scratches prominent all over the image and almost eliminate the flicker that was caused by oil on the surface of the original print – without aggressively manipulating the image.”

Under Wilkening and Koerber’s supervision, the visual cleanup was performed by Alpha-Omega Digital GmbH, utilising digital restoration software of their own development. At one time, purists objected to the use of digital technology in the restoration of film. But it has become an indispensable tool for preservationists. “[Digital technology] has made things possible we could only dream of a decade or two ago,” Koerber says. “Digital techniques allow more precise interventions than ever before. And it is still evolving – we are only at the beginning.”

“The work on the restoration teaches us once more that no restoration is ever definitive,” says Wilkening, “Even if we are allowed for the first time to come as close to the first release as ever before, the new version will still remain an approach. The rediscovered sections which change the film’s composition, will at the same time always be recognisable through their damages as those parts that had been lost for 80 years.” Viewing METROPOLIS today, the Argentine footage is clearly identifiable because so much of the damage remains. The unintended benefit is that it provides convenient earmarks to the recently reintegrated scenes. Other changes are not so noticeable. Because the Buenos Aires negative provided a definite blueprint to the cutting of METROPOLIS – which in the past had been a matter of conjecture – the order of some of the existing shots has been altered in the 2010 edition, bringing METROPOLIS several steps closer to its original form.

It is important to note that the “new” shots are not merely extensions of previously existing scenes. In some cases, they comprise whole subplots that were lopped off in their entirety. “It restores the original editing,” Koerber says, “restoring the balance between the characters and subplots that remained and those that were excised.”

“Thanks to the Argentine find, the film’s structure changes thoroughly,” explains Wilkening, “especially the three male supporting characters – Josaphat, Georgy and “der Schmale” (the Thin One) – who had been diminished to mere extras due to the elimination of two large scenes. Parallel editing becomes now a major player in METROPOLIS, The new version represents a Fritz Lang film where we can observe the tension between his preferred subject, the male melodrama, and the bombastic dimensions of the Ufa production.”

The 2010 restoration took about one year, from conception to completion, and was performed at a cost of 600,000 Euros – (approx. $840,000). But Wilkening is quick to point out that it is but the latest chapter in an ongoing saga, and pays tribute to the other preservationists who have so vigorously championed the film. “METROPOLIS is the prototype of an archive film. Decades of research for the lost scenes and various attempts to reconstruct the first release version have produced a large pool of knowledge of this film.” Asked how the METROPOLIS restoration compared to other projects in which the Deutsche Kinemathek participated, Koerber replies, “No comparison, METROPOLIS is more complex in many ways. On the other hand, it is also more rewarding, as the [availability of source material] – film material as well as secondary sources – is exceptionally good.”

Currently, Wilkening is finishing a restoration of Lang’s DIE NIBELUNGEN saga, and is optimistic about future projects. “Like everybody we would be keen to find the lost films of Murnau and Lang.” But she adds, “I would be happy to turn from the holy grails to some films which are existing in the vaults of the archives, but are forgotten and hardly considered for restorations as they are not part of the canon.” On behalf of the Deutsche Kinemathek, Koerber says, “We were happy to be a partner with the Murnau-Stiftung and provide all the necessary expertise as well as the documents from our collection (script, music, etc.). I hope this successful cooperation will be a model for future projects.”

“The project was a very good experience regarding team work.” Wilkening says. “The collaboration of the different individuals with different background – historians, musician and technicians – was exceptionally fruitful.” Now that METROPOLIS is – at least for now – behind them, preservationists resume their watch for new opportunities, and forgotten cans of film that might offer other cinema treasures a second life.

This essay originally appeared in the catalogue of the 2010 TCM Classic Film Festival. THE COMPLETE METROPOLIS screen Saturday July 23rd 7:30PM