Monday, August 18, 2014

Technicolor Dreams and Black & White Nightmares REVIEW

When I came home from the Winkie Convention last year, I saw someone had contacted me about a restoration that had been done on Ted Eshbaugh's 1933 cartoon adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. The cartoon's been very much available on collections of public domain cartoons and as a bonus feature on many home video editions of the MGM movie from Warner Brothers since 2005. (3 or more DVDs? It's on there. 2 or more disc Blu-Ray that isn't the 3D and 2D only pack? You got it.) But the cartoon looked its age. Colors were drab, scratches could be seen, and there was another print that had been colorized from a black and white version.

So seeing it restored for a high definition Blu-Ray release was a revelation!

Technicolor Dreams and Black & White Nightmares is the collection the cartoon is released on. It was delayed in release to ensure every featured cartoon looked its absolute best. (Screen captures are from the DVD edition.)

The set has two discs: the featured cartoons (including Oz) are both on Blu-Ray and DVD, as well as some bonus features. (I haven't looked these over thoroughly, but there don't appear to be any Oz-specific features.) The DVD also includes additional cartoons in good to rather rough shape.

The title is very well earned. All of these cartoons date from 1917 to 1947, a very different time in cartoon animation. Without strict regulations, animators let their imaginations go wild, and in such an experimental time, you can see many styles develop. Thus, you have beautiful cartoons such as "Mendelssohn's Spring Song," to some with disturbing undertones, such as "The Magic Mummy." Some of the DVD-exclusive cartoons get quite disturbing, such as a Mutt and Jeff cartoon featuring a long line of stray cats and dogs being caught and fed to a sausage grinder.

Oz is not the only Eshbaugh short on the set. Two other cartoons by him—"The Snowman" and "Tea Pot Town"—appear. "The Snowman" I had seen before in black and white, but here it appears, restored in two-strip Technicolor. (In fact, when Sam and I discussed Oz on the podcast, I mentioned the cartoon as another example of Eshbaugh's work.) Both are a little disturbing: a happy Eskimo boy and his friends build a snowman, only for it to come to life and terrorize them. Tea pots go out into the world to battle the "Droops," which are little gloomy men who are vaporized by the tea pots' steam.

The presentation on all the cartoons is excellent. Using Blu-Ray's resolution of 1080p, the entire frame of each cartoon is presented so every detail can be seen and appreciated. Each cartoon looks sharp, and you feel sure that any color inaccuracies you see are due to the source, not the transfer. In addition, the sound is very clearly restored as well. Dorothy's cries for Toto sounded so out of place on Warner's presentation, but now they sound much better. The music is very clear as well. You might even find yourself singing, "Hail to the Wizard of Oz! To the Wizard of Oz! He'll lead the way!" And don't worry. The DVD offers you the same thing, just with a smaller picture size. The Blu-Ray will show you the original photography's texture, giving you a real feel of how these were originally presented.

For those unfamiliar with the 1933 Wizard of Oz, I'll be talking about it in a minute, but I want to also bring up some of the other inclusions on the set. There is one of the Disney Alice Comedies, featuring a live action Alice in an animated environment. She doesn't feature heavily in this one, but her feline friend has to deal with a rat infestation! And a longtime favorite of mine, "Raggedy Ann in the Enchanted Square," is the final cartoon on the set. A sweet little cartoon, a policeman gives a thrown away Raggedy Ann doll to a blind girl named Billie, which inspires her to see her neighborhood with her heart and use her imagination to turn it from a city block into a metropolitan fairyland. I shamelessly sang along with the song "You Can See With Your Heart" as I watched.

The 1933 Wizard of Oz cartoon was actually unreleased until it came to video tape in the 1980s, due to complications with Technicolor licensing. It was written by Frank Joslyn Baum, credited as "Col. Frank Baum." (He was L. Frank Baum's oldest son, often called "Frank Jr." He served in World War I and was eventually promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, so while the credit looks as if it wants you read "L. Frank Baum," it is accurate.) He also co-wrote the 1925 Wizard of Oz silent film, but don't worry! This cartoon is much Ozzier than that film!

The cartoon also has three other distinctions: it is the first animated adaption of Oz, the earliest existing color Oz film, and the first Oz film with sound. And—as you'll see in a moment—it had a motif that later appeared in the MGM film.

The Wizard of Oz opens outside the Emerald City and pans over to a book titled "The Wizard of Oz," which opens to reveal the credits. Then, we cut to a monochrome Kansas, where a bored Dorothy plays with Toto by throwing a stick for him to fetch. When a storm whips up, Dorothy and Toto hurry inside before a tornado carries their house away. Falling out of the house, Dorothy and Toto land on the Scarecrow in the Technicolor Land of Oz, and the three journey on together.

Shortly, they find a rusted Tin Woodman, who is quickly oiled (his cap is his oil can here) and brushed off with a clump of the Scarecrow's straw. He then points out that they are not far from the Emerald City. After taking in some sights, they enter the city, where they are greeted with a parade before being shown to the Wizard's palace.

The Wizard is a little bearded man in a standard Wizard garb. He makes seats for Dorothy and her friends appear before doing a magic act with top hats and dancing dolls, then a hen laying magic eggs that burst into funny composite creatures. (Only in Oz!)  One egg appears to be quite undersized, but the hen protects it, knocking the Wizard's wand away. The egg begins to grow as Toto makes off with the wand. The Wizard and Dorothy chase Toto, while the Tin Woodman tries to break the egg and the Scarecrow gives him things to hit the egg with, before finally snatching the wand from Toto, breaking the egg to reveal a tiny baby chick inside. The hen joins the chick and begins to sing "Rockabye Baby" as Dorothy, her friends and the Wizard emerge from the debris and merrily join in.

People wonder why the Cowardly Lion, Wicked Witch and Silver Shoes don't appear. The answer is simply that this wasn't a straightforward adaptation, but an entertainment based on the public's knowledge of Oz. The Lion was not a major character in the famous stage production, and the Wicked Witch and Silver Shoes were nonexistent. Thus, Dorothy, Toto, the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman were the four major characters to focus on. Good or bad, the production is what it is, and is actually quite enjoyable, and now looks even better than ever on this Blu-Ray/DVD set.

"But wait," you might be saying, "how much better does it look?"

Well, here's a screen capture from Warner Brother's presentation, specifically the 2009 Emerald Edition DVD.
And here's the same scene (a few frames difference) from the Technicolor Dreams and Black & White Nightmares DVD.
The image is clearer, sharper, the colors are more vibrant, and also more of the picture can be seen. Warner Brothers might do well to partner with Steve Stanchfield and Thunderbean Animation for any future reissues as their transfer has clearly been surpassed.

This does bring up a wish of mine that all of the existing pre-1939 Oz films could get high definition home video releases. Maybe a certain company specializing in silent films on Blu-Ray can take care of the 1910-1925 films, while I hope the Meglin Kiddies Land of Oz eventually gets a public release.

So, should you put down the $18 + shipping for this set? I already have, but the fact is clear that the Oz cartoon is one of many featured cartoons on this set, so Oz fans who aren't too interested might be giving this a pass. Diehard Oz fans will snatch it up just for the Oz content alone, while Oz fans who also enjoy classic animation will find the set a treat. It can be easily found with a search on Amazon.


Anonymous said...

Do you have a full list of the included shorts (as well as any bonus features, etc.)? The Amazon description seems incomplete...

Jared said...

The featured cartoons are:

Dolly Doings (1917)
The Wrong Track (1920)
Alice Rattled by Rats! (1925)
Playing With Fire (1925)
Goldilocks and the Three Bears (1928)
Mendelssohn's Spring Song (1931)
The Bandmaster (1931)
The Snowman (1931)
A Swiss Trick (1931)
The Wizard of Oz (1933)
The Magic Mummy (1933)
Tea Pot Town (1935)
To Spring (1936)
The Enchanted Square (1947)

Anonymous said...

Thanks! But I'm also curious on what bonus shorts are included since they are not in the Amazon description.

Jared said...

Bonus cartoons
The Hasher's Delirium (1910)
The Great Cheese Robbery (1920)
Dog Gone (1926)
The Wild Goose Chase (1932)
Simple Simon (1935)

Bonus features
Tea Pot Town Booklet
Bosko the Talk-Ink Kid (pitch film)
Posters and photos gallery (a few Eshbaugh-specific ones now that I've looked further, but not Oz-specific)
Coke Theatrical Ads & Commercials