There’s no place like home. And for Judy Garland’s classic 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz,” home is on the big screen.
Starting today – and for one week only – Dorothy (Garland), Toto, Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), Tin Man (Jack Haley) and the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) follow the yellow brick road back to theaters, where their timeless tale of love, courage and self-confidence debuts on the very big screen in stunning IMAX 3D.
Based on the beloved L. Frank Baum children’s book, “The Wizard of Oz” debuted in theaters 74 years ago, but did not achieve financial success until its 1949 and 1955 theatrical rereleases, despite initial critical acclaim. In 1956, “Oz” made history when nearly 45 million people tuned in for the film’s network television premiere, a phenomenon that would spark an annual rebroadcasting of the Technicolor spectacular.
Among those enthralled by that first “Oz” telecast was John Fricke, who would grow up to become the world’s foremost expert on Judy Garland and “The Wizard of Oz.” I recently spoke with the 62-year-old author and historian, who opened up his vault of Emerald City knowledge and divulged some of the secrets and little-known facts about this perennial film favorite.
David Onda: Tell me how your fascination with “The Wizard of Oz” began.
John Fricke: Like so many people of the Baby Boomer generation, it was that annual teleshowing where you only saw it once a year. I was introduced to it on TV when I was 5 and I was totally transported. When I found out that there were “Oz” books and Judy Garland records and other Judy Garland movies, it was like, “Ok, this is what I really am interested in finding out about.” And it just snowballed from there for me. It was never supposed to become a career, but it’s nice to be able to share stuff like this.
Onda: How amazing was it to see this film in the IMAX 3D format?
Fricke: My gosh, I’ve never seen it that big. That’s kind of extraordinary. I think what made me happiest about the whole event is that the 3D has been done very unobtrusively. It’s there and you can enjoy it and marvel at it, but it never gets in the way of the story and the songs and the characters. It’s still about the movie. And to see it with an audience – that’s how these pictures were meant to be seen, big and dominating and with other people, so that you laugh out loud and clap if you want to. To see it at home any time you want is a wonderful thing, but you get up and make a sandwich, you get up and answer the phone – it’s not the same as when it’s your focal point. And IMAX is going to give it a focal point like never before.
Onda: I never realized how many animals are wandering around in the background of “Oz.” And the 3D gives the film a depth that helps you see things you’ve never noticed, like chickens and peacocks…
Fricke: Or a crane, or a toucan. That’s MGM, which was the biggest and the best at the time, and they weren’t going to scrimp on anything. I’ve done seven books now – four on “Oz” and three on Judy – and the very first book on the 50th anniversary of “Oz,” we found out that L.A. Zoo park at that time was in dire financial straits, and MGM stepped in and rented a lot of birds and animals from them for the making of “Wizard of Oz.”
Onda: What “Wizard of Oz” question do you get asked the most?
Fricke: How it started. What I think the appeal is. Why does it endure the way it has? Is it true Baum’s book was a parable on the populist movement? It depends on what their own point of reference to the film is. Some people are fascinated by the casting difficulties, or the script drafts that never made it, or all the hidden subliminal meanings. But one of the points I like to make is it’s entertainment. Baum wrote it as entertainment. MGM was in the entertainment business. And Judy Garland was the great entertainer of the 20th century. And you put them all together, and you get something that was made to be entertaining, and has proved to be much more than that.
Onda: I was going to ask you about the script, because the “Oz” we see today is not how it would have looked based on the original script. Are there any elements of those first drafts you would have liked to see included?
Fricke: No. [laughs] Only because I’ve read most of the early script drafts, and seen the memos, and all of this interpretive stuff about a princess in Oz who sings opera, so that when Judy gets to the Emerald City they can do an opera versus jazz duet. And she’s got a boyfriend who the Witch turns into the Cowardly Lion, and then imprisons them in cages in her castle and they sing Nelson Eddy-Jeanette MacDonald duets to each other. And the Tin Woodsman character in Kansas was supposed to have a girlfriend who worked at a soda fountain named Lizzie Smithers, and she was gonna turn up in Oz as the assistant to the Wizard. And Miss Gulch was gonna be Mrs. Gulch with a son, so that in Oz, the Wicked Witch would have a son named Bobo, whom she was going to put on the throne of the Wizard of Oz after all of her Winkie Guards marched to the Emerald City singing a song that was called “Death to the Wizard of Oz” – I mean, trust me, we don’t miss any of this.
Onda: You’ve seen this movie more than 100 times. What are some of the interesting little things you notice in the movie that some of us might not catch?
Fricke: One of the things that’s very noticeable is the scene where Judy meets the Scarecrow, Ray Bolger. It was shot three times, but the first footage was when she was wearing the blonde wig and looked like “Lolita Gale” of Kansas, and all of that was junked. The second time they shot it, November of ’38, and the third time they shot the following March, they did a new version of Ray’s song and dance. And you noticed now, they’ve melded November and March, and her braids are long, short, long, short, long, short, long short, because they tightened them. So, that’s very apparent.
There’s a split second, a fleeting moment, right after the Scarecrow says to the apple trees, “I’ll show you how to get apples,” and he makes faces at the trees and the trees are throwing apples. There’s a long shot when the apples first start to fly, and Judy is on the screen full-length and backs off very quickly. Evidently, her feet weren’t supposed to be in the shot, because she’s not wearing the Ruby Slippers. She’s wearing just plain black shoes.
You can also look for the scenes where it’s not Judy, where they used her double Bobbie Koshay. When Dorothy falls into the pigpen in Kansas, when the monkeys pick up Dorothy in the Haunted Forest, and then one of the most innovative shots of Bobbie Koshay is when Dorothy opens the door into Munchkinland. Bobbie Koshay steps into frame with her back to the camera and opens the door, and then backs out of the frame. She’s in a brown and white dress to mingle with sepia. And then, as soon as she backs out of the frame, Judy Garland comes forward in the Technicolor dress and walks outside holding Toto.
Onda: If people go out and see “The Wizard of Oz” this week and decide they really want to immerse themselves in “Oz,” Baum and Garland – what playlist of books, films, music and documentaries would you suggest?
Fricke: In the 3D [Blu-ray] that’s coming out in home video October 1st, there’s a new “Making of ‘The Wizard of Oz’” in there that will probably give a great, up-to-date, accurate back story. I’ve got a book coming out October 7th called “The Wonderful World of Oz,” and it is a coffee table book. The selling point is 300 illustrations in color, but it traces the history of “Oz” from the first books through the stage plays through the toys, the dolls, the games, the MGM movie, “Wicked,” “Oz the Great and Powerful,” “The Wiz” – all of it. I think those are good starting points. Then, if you want more about Judy, you look for the two-disc “Easter Parade” set on DVD, because the second disc has the two-hour Emmy Award-winning “American Masters” program on Judy from 2004.
Onda: What is the biggest misconception about Judy Garland?
Fricke: That she was a tragedy. Her daughter Lorna [Luft] says it much better than I do. She says, “Yes, tragic things happened to my mother, but she was not a tragedy.” And I think that’s a wonderful way for a child to remember a parent. I’ve done documentaries on Judy and all the rest of it, and this was a woman who loved to laugh and always believed that things would get better, and she conveyed that to every single audience. I think that’s one of the many qualities that made her so enduring as a performer and so communicative to this day. You can’t deny the fact that she had a problem with prescription medication, you can’t deny the fact that she died at 47 and that she married more than once, but there are all kinds of people who have substance abuse problems and multiple marriages and pass away far before their time, yet that’s all they, unfortunately, are able to really do with their life. When you think of the legacy that she left – the “Wizard of Oz” is either the top of the pyramid where Judy Garland’s career is concerned, or it’s the base of the pyramid on which everything else was founded. You can look at it either way. I am a great fan, but as someone who started as a fan and then researched for pleasure and then for business, everything I’ve instinctively felt about her has proven to be true, from all the people with whom I’ve spent time talking to, who worked with her and knew her. That, to me, is the greatest misconception. Just embrace what she gave us, because few people have given us as much.
“The Wizard of Oz” is now open in IMAX 3D theaters across the country – for one week only. Click here to order tickets through Fandango.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.