This week marks another home video milestone for The Wizard of Oz. As the iconic 1939 musical fantasy celebrates its 80th anniversary, Warner Home Video honors the occasion with a 4k Ultra HD release. Over the years, director Victor Fleming’s adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s children’s classic has been at the forefront of any new home video format, from VHS and Laserdisc to DVD, Blu-ray, and even 3D.
If I’m not mistaken, Oz is the oldest Hollywood movie to get the Ultra High-Def treatment. For a film that was – and still is – considered a technological marvel, such a distinction only seems fitting.
Of course, ever since the dawn of home video, MGM and then Warner Bros. have milked every penny they could from The Wizard of Oz, and with such a rabid fan base, who can blame them? The beloved film has touched and continues to touch every segment of the population both here and abroad, and its universal appeal spans generations. We all may have fallen in love with The Wizard of Oz as children, but for many of us, the affection remains just as ardent into adulthood, throughout middle age, and beyond. I was first introduced to The Wizard of Oz at age four. I’m 56 now, and I adore the film as much as I ever did.
When MGM/UA released the 50th anniversary VHS edition in 1989, I eagerly snatched it up. I also grabbed Warner Home Video’s 60th anniversary DVD in 1999, the Three-Disc Collector’s Edition DVD in 2005, the 70th Anniversary Blu-ray in 2009, and the 75th Anniversary 3D Blu-ray in 2014. All the anniversary editions were available in lavish box sets filled with all sorts of fascinating and fickle collectibles. (Another massive box set, The Ultimate Oz, was released by MGM/UA in 1993 on both VHS and Laserdisc formats.) Did I need a new Wizard of Oz edition every few years? No. Did I anticipate and welcome each and every one like a visit from Santa Claus? Absolutely! To this day, I deeply appreciate the thought and care that oozes from every release. Each is lovingly designed, and even if some of the kitschy swag reeks of shameless marketing gimmickry, the tie-in trinkets bring whimsy and warmth – essential elements of The Wizard of Oz – to each set.
So, here’s a fond and nostalgic look back at all the Oz special releases I’ve collected over the years. Perusing them in preparation for this piece was a real treat and filled me with the kind of childlike wonder only The Wizard of Oz can inspire.
1989 50th Anniversary VHS
The most modest special edition, this release features a cover flap that opens to reveal a glued-in 28-page booklet celebrating the movie’s 50th anniversary. Contents include a lengthy essay by Oz expert John Fricke, scads of color and tinted photos, and descriptions of the bonus material that follows the movie on the cassette. Though bonus features are commonplace on DVDs and Blu-rays, they were pretty rare on VHS tapes, so the inclusion of trailers, newsreel clips, and outtakes is noteworthy. This edition also marks the first time the original sepia-toned Kansas scenes were included on a home video release, and the first time a bona fide Technicolor print was used for the transfer.
1993 Ultimate Oz VHS Box Set
Does size really matter? The largest of all the Oz special editions, this behemoth measures 12-3/4″ x 12-3/4″ x 2″ and features fluorescent emerald green lettering on the cover. (The same box was used for a Laserdisc edition released simultaneously.) Raise the box top, and printed on its underside are historical liner notes by John Fricke superimposed over a blow-up purple-tinted portrait of Judy Garland as Dorothy. Inside the box, nestled in a custom-made slot, lies the Oz Continuity Script. The hefty volume “contains all material from the March 15, 1939 ‘Cutting Continuity’ script taken from Printer’s Dupe. Scenes and dialogue later deleted for the final release version of The Wizard of Oz have been indicated in italics.” Underneath the script are five glossy 8″ x 10″ black-and-white scene and production stills, and right below them sit two VHS tapes: the main feature, distinguished by a “new Technicolor restoration from the original nitrate negative” and “restored audio created from original soundtrack masters,” and the 1990 documentary The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: The Making of a Movie Classic, narrated by Angela Lansbury.
The product spec sheet amusingly heralds, “You’ll hear Oz like you’ve never heard it before!” While I’m sure that was true at the time, I can only imagine what the audio on that VHS tape sounds like compared to the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track included on the Blu-ray and 4k UHD discs. If only MGM/UA Home Video could have peered into Professor Marvel’s crystal ball and foreseen the audio advancements on the horizon…
1999 Deluxe Edition DVD
The first deluxe DVD Oz edition measures 11-1/2″ x 9″ x 2-3/4″. A yellow brick road trim lines the big shimmery box that displays the faces of the four principals and a drawing of the intrepid quartet approaching the Emerald City on its cover. Open the flap, and you’ll find a packet of six 8″ x 10″ matte stills. There are three color reproductions of various Oz posters, two black-and-white scene stills, and one black-and-white publicity portrait. Underneath the photos lies the same continuity script included in the Ultimate Oz box set (albeit with a different cover), and beneath that is the Oz DVD in one of the snapper cases that were a trademark of Warner Bros back in the format’s early days. The fold-out, three-panel cover features plenty of small color pictures, a scene index, and descriptions of all the disc’s supplemental materials. Tucked inside are two booklets. The eight-page Merry Music of Oz is a “DVD Audio Supplements Guide” that lists and describes the voluminous rare audio material (scoring sessions, alternate vocal takes, and radio shows) included on the disc. This is actually an invaluable reference book, because the Audio Jukebox is included on every subsequent Oz release, and this booklet lists and describes all the material. The other booklet is a quaint, six-page, illustrated DVD tutorial. You’re Off to See TThe Wizard of Oz: How to Get the Most Out of Your DVD explains how to use your remote control (my parents would still find those instructions invaluable!), how to navigate the on-screen menus (all of which are pictured), and what happens when you click on various selections. Once again, the packaging heralds a “never-before-seen restoration” that “looks and sounds better than ever.”
2005 Three-Disc Collector’s Edition DVD
The most compact Oz collector’s edition measures 7-1/2″ x 5-1/2″ x 1-1/2″ and features eerier, more foreboding cover art that showcases the Wicked Witch of the West in a creepy silhouette with a textured rendering of Dorothy and her friends in a crystal ball. The Witch’s green hands are textured, too, and raised gold lettering on the front and sides of the slipcase adds a touch of elegance. The 10-sided fold-out digipak houses three DVD discs, content listings for all three discs, and a couple of artist renderings of notable scenes. Several small color pictures are sprinkled throughout as well.
Two stunning 5″ x 7″ portfolio packets are also included in the set. The 1939 Promotional Portfolio contains a beautiful eight-page reproduction of the original program from the movie’s 1939 premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre; a 16-page reproduction of a 1939 issue of Photoplay Studies magazine, which chronicles the making of Oz and analyzes the intent behind the production; a 12-page reproduction of the original MGM studio Oz press book; a glossy color postcard displaying a montage of original Oz poster art; and facsimiles of the original invitation and ticket to the movie’s gala premiere. The 1939 Kodachrome Portfolio includes ten gorgeous glossy reproductions of original 1939 Kodachrome publicity art printed on high-quality postcards. The vibrant, lush color is truly magnificent and the clarity is breathtaking, too.
Sometimes the best things really do come in small packages. I’m a sucker for any kind of classic movie memorabilia, so I really appreciate these beautifully reproduced artifacts and very much enjoy perusing them now and then. It really is like holding little pieces of film history in your hands.
2009 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition Blu-ray
Arguably the most beautiful Oz collector’s edition of them all, the 70th anniversary box set measures 11-3/4″ x 8″ x 2-3/4″. This is a limited, numbered edition. Warner Home Video produced 243,000 units (mine is #10,632). Opening the box’s flip-top lid reveals a copy of the original budget/ledger sheet for Production #1060, which began shooting on October 12, 1938 and completed on February 27, 1939. It’s a fascinating document, and shows that the film exceeded its budget by just over $1 million. Beneath that sheet lies a gorgeously designed, lavishly illustrated 11″ x 7-1/2″, 52-page hardcover book that chronicles the Oz production through text by John Fricke, rare behind-the-scenes color and black-and-white photos, script and document reproductions, and brief biographies of the main cast members.
Next is a wonderful miniature reproduction of the complete 60-page Campaign Book that MGM distributed to its theater owners. It’s packed with promotional materials, tie-ins, and publicity plans in both color and black-and-white. Digging deeper finds a small rectangular tin box that contains a surprisingly lovely souvenir watch featuring a 70th anniversary image of the five principal cast members against an emerald green background on its face, which is studded with four “diamond” chips. I’ve never removed it from its box, so I can’t vouch for its functionality or durability, but as far as souvenir swag goes, it’s really quite nice.
Beside the watch, a fold-out three-disc digipak resides in a substantial slipcase, along with a separate digital copy disc (itself an artifact of a bygone age). One of the Blu-ray discs contains the movie and hours of special features related to it, while the other is packed with still more extras, including documentaries about director Victor Fleming and writer L. Frank Baum, a TV movie about Baum starring John Ritter and Annette O’Toole, and all the previous Oz silent films. A double-sided DVD presents the acclaimed six-hour TNT documentary MGM: When the Lion Roars, a fascinating history of the studio that boasted “more stars than there are in the heavens.” The 70th Anniversary Edition contains the most supplemental material of any Oz release by far, and is invaluable from that standpoint.
2013 75th Anniversary 3D Blu-ray Box Set
Actually released when the film was only 74-years-old, the last of the big Oz collector sets to date measures 11-3/4″ x 8 ” x 4″ and is also a limited edition. Warner Bros. produced 220,000 units of this set (mine is #40,804); that’s 23,000 less than the 70th Anniversary set. Underneath the lid is another 11″ x 7-1/2″, 52-page, lavishly illustrated hardcover book. This one, however, cleverly uses a timeline format to tell the story of the film’s production. Text is limited to terse descriptions of what happened on a particular day, but the comprehensive array of photos chronicles the production well. The design isn’t as nice as the 70th anniversary book and all the photos (except one) are in black-and-white, but it’s still an attractive, interesting volume. A reproduction of a color lithograph of Judy Garland on the Munchkinland set and an illustrated map of Oz printed on textured paper to give it a historical look (both measure 10-1/2″ x 7-1/2″) are nestled in the box below the book.
Dig deeper and you’ll find what is probably the most useless extra in all the Oz sets: a hardcover 6-1/4″ x 8-1/4″ Oz diary. The blank journal contains dozens of lined pages with an illustrated tornado superimposed on each one. It’s big and heavy, and I can’t really imagine anyone snuggling up with it to transcribe their most intimate thoughts. Beneath that lies a cute Wizard of Oz flash drive that’s housed in a flexible rubber rendering of the Wicked Witch of the East’s black-and-white stockinged legs (complete with ruby slippers), which memorably stick out from underneath Dorothy’s house after it crash-lands in Oz. There’s also a cardboard jewelry box that holds three very attractive pins – a diploma, heart-shaped clock, and courage medal – that replicate the gifts the Wizard gave the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion. The quality and craftsmanship of the pins are impressive, and together they make a nice set. Beside those items lies the standard Blu-ray case (nothing fancy there) that contains a 3D Blu-ray, two regular Blu-rays, and two DVDs, one of which is the MGM: When the Lion Roars documentary.
2019 4k Ultra HD Blu-ray – Keepcase & SteelBook
It’s been a few decades since an Oz home video release did not include a special collector’s edition, but that seems to be the case with this new 4k UHD release. A SteelBook edition seems to be the closest we’ll get to a collectible this time around. We may never know why Warner Bros decided not to produce yet another box set. Was it lackluster sales of the 75th Anniversary box? A dearth of swag ideas? Worry over the impending demise of physical media? Or maybe just plain old corporate economizing? In any event, the 4k UHD release, which comes in a no-frills sleeve, is lean, to the point, and contains the one element all Oz aficionados care about the most: the best transfer yet of one of the greatest films of all time. The hyperbole might seem outdated a few decades from now, but this edition of The Wizard of Oz really does make the movie look and sound better than ever!
The busy, unfocused cover art on the standard case packs too many elements – the tornado, Emerald City, Dorothy and her friends, Kansas, the Wicked Witch, Glinda, the yellow brick road – into one image, so that nothing really catches your eye. On the other hand, the simple, elegant SteelBook case beautifully evokes Dorothy’s dreamy fantasy.
Addendum 1: 1988 Special 50th Anniverary Edition Criterion Collection Laserdisc
From the collection of Joshua Zyber:
Addendum 2: 1993 Ultimate Oz Laserdisc Box Set
From the collection of Joshua Zyber:
Addendum 3: 2009 70th Anniversary 3-Disc Emerald Edition Blu-ray
From the collection of Joshua Zyber:
Addendum 4: 2013 3D Blu-ray MetalPak
From the collection of Joshua Zyber: