Monday, October 14, 2013

The Wizardry of Oz

The wonderful thing about films is that so much work goes into them from so many angles. Often we focus on the script, the directing, the music and the cast and sometimes forget the massive amount of work it can take to make the film look just right.

The Wizardry of Oz, by Jay Scarfone and William Stillman, was assembled to highlight the creation of the sets, props, costumes and makeup of MGM's The Wizard of Oz.

Like fantasy epics of today (The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, Harry Potter), most of what was seen onscreen in The Wizard of Oz had to be created specifically for that picture. The costumes and set pieces and props to depict the Land of Oz had to be made for the picture: they were depicting another world. Yes, they made it a dream world so they were a little free from adding a level of complete reality to it. But still, the fantastic look of Oz couldn't be found in a store.

The book starts with a look at where the MGM film owes its origins: the original book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and other adaptations of it and also Disney's groundbreaking fantasy film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It makes it clear that when MGM set out to make The Wizard of Oz into a movie, they were trying for a new spectacle that audiences had not seen before. Today, these films are such classics in our collective psyche that we forget that what they were doing was breaking new ground. Like Snow White, Oz would draw in audiences with an engaging story, lovely music and songs, and spectacular visuals that had never been seen before.

The book is, of course, highly illustrated with sketches, art, stills, on-set photographs, test photographs, but very rarely actual frames from the film. These are beautifully put together and the book is as much fun to look through as it is to read.

We then move straight into the makeup. Highlighted is Jack Dawn's challenge to take the faces of the stars of The Wizard of Oz and turn them into the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, the Cowardly Lion and the Wicked Witch and yet have people be able to recognize them as Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr and Margaret Hamilton. Although they were less challenging, the detail of the makeup of the citizens of Oz, Frank Morgan, Billie Burke and Judy Garland are not ignored.

Next is the costumes: surprisingly, costume designer Adrian had been drawing Oz character designs since childhood and worked with the vivid fantasy MGM was aiming for in creating costumes not just for the principal cast, but also for the Munchkins, the Winkie Guards and the people of the Emerald City.

Third is set design, how MGM's artists turned soundstages into the fantastic world of Oz and the farm in Kansas. The surprising thing about the film is that if you think about it, you can see how it's a soundstage, but it doesn't matter if you're not. The effect is sold that well.

The fourth and last section on the film's production is about the special effects from matte paintings to creating the cyclone to moving trees and flying monkeys, it's all there.

Next, the book showcases the promotion campaign for MGM's movie. Having spent $2,777,000 on the movie, they wanted to be sure people were excited and would go see it. The book discusses the lavish campaign with many, many images of surviving examples of advertising from covers of magazines to posters to cards found in packages of candy cigarettes. A surprising piece is a newspaper page drawn by artist Michelson. It very quickly brings to mind John R. Neill's Oz artwork, though the designs are clearly of the movie.

The book then talks about the impact the MGM movie had on Hollywood after its release from films that tried to mimic its format by bringing full-color fantasy to life onscreen (Shirley Temple's The Blue Bird and the 1940 production of The Thief of Baghdad) to Oz tributes in cartoons and films to re-use of props and costumes in later MGM movies. An especial favorite photo of mine is Shirley Temple at her desk, typing. Next to her is her bookshelf with all of the Oz novels on it in order, except they are in order with the oldest to the right and the latest (The Giant Horse of Oz) to the left. (Giant Horse and Land are the latest and earliest seen. As the photo is dated 1941, we can assume Shirley actually did keep up on the series, and surely she had a copy of The Wizard of Oz.)

The book was originally released in 1999 for the movie's 60th anniversary. My edition was released in 2004 for the otherwise generally ignored 65th anniversary. (The special edition DVD came out in October 2005.) The new edition is listed as "Revised and Expanded" with a number of new material. I haven't seen the 1999 edition. There is a section that gives a brief biography of Terry, the little dog that played Toto, as well as her filmography. The back cover lists the filmography as a new feature.

The Terry section is preceded by a section of never-before printed photos of filming of the movie by Peter Stackpole. It's followed by a complete credit listing for everyone they could identify who worked on the movie.

Overall, The Wizardry of Oz gives a nice look at the creation of the visuals of one of the most important fantasy films of all time. Definitely recommended.

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