Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Faithful Companion

by Mark Griffin

[Please note that this review originally appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of The Baum Bugle]

The Wizard of Oz: The Official 75th Anniversary Companion
By Jay Scarfone and William Stillman
Harper Design/HarperCollins Publishers, 2013. 
Cover image courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers

I’ve long harbored this fantasy that in the summer of 1939, some subversive MGM janitor – fed up with sweeping the cutting room floor – decided to “preserve” some of the scraps of celluloid that he found after the editors on The Wizard of Oz had knocked off for the night. 

Allowing my fantasy to take full flight, I imagine that this crafty custodian managed to rescue the choicest cuts.  What if he had salvaged scenes deleted from Oz that have obsessed movie buffs for decades?  We’re talking about the mother lode here:  The "Jitterbug" number, “The Triumphal Return” to the Emerald City (following the Wicked Witch’s unforgettable liquidation) and a poignant reprise of “Over The Rainbow.”   As my wishful thinking would have it, my insubordinate janitor not only saved the most significant excisions but he stashed these treasures in his worn-out steamer trunk.  Said cache is now sitting in a downtown Burbank consignment shop, just waiting for someone to peer inside that battered trunk and make the cinematic discovery of a lifetime.

The point of all of this is to express a fervent hope that there is still something new that remains to be seen in reference to everybody’s favorite movie.  That kind of hopefulness envelops The Wizard of Oz: The Official 75th Anniversary Companion by Jay Scarfone and William Stillman.  This is the same duo responsible for the 1989 bestseller, The Wizard of Oz: The Official 50th Anniversary Pictorial History (co-written with John Fricke) as well as its lavishly illustrated follow-up, The Wizardry of Oz, which followed a decade later.  You’d think that by now the cupboard would be bare in terms of excavating any unseen Oz ephemera. 

Apparently not.  In their latest effort, Scarfone and Stillman promise the reader material “rarely seen or previously unknown since 1939” as well as “new, uncovered quotes and fresh facts.”  Do they deliver?  Pretty much.  Or as well as can be expected considering that The Wizard of Oz has been exhaustively analyzed, annotated and footnoted like no other film in history. 

So what new information have the authors uncovered?  The most exciting discoveries in this anniversary companion are the visual elements.  On page 38, we’re treated to a fascinating glimpse of the Oz that almost was:  An image of an uber glam Judy Garland, decked out in a blonde wig and looking far more Lana Turner of Beverly Hills than Dorothy Gale of Kansas.  The authors inform us that this is “the only color photograph known to have survived from Richard Thorpe’s tenure as [the film’s original] director.”  As none of Thorpe’s footage has surfaced, this kind of intriguing artifact becomes all the more important.  The photo also bears evidence of producer Mervyn LeRoy’s original vision – his Oz was initially conceived as a highly stylized production, like an animated cartoon come to life.  In this way, the movie would serve as Metro’s answer to Disney’s groundbreaking blockbuster Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Another rare visual is an arresting sepia-toned image of the Gale farmyard, looking every inch like a Walker Evans photograph of the Dust Bowl in the midst of the Great Depression.  This still image allows one to fully absorb just how meticulously detailed this production was.  To the best of my knowledge, this shot hasn’t turned up in any of the previous books on the film’s production history.   Same would be true for a series of captivating thumbnail photos that reveal how the Great and Powerful Oz’s disembodied head appeared to float over the throne room long before the advent of digital technology.

The book has been beautifully designed by Paul Kepple and Ralph Geroni of the Philadelphia-based Headcase Design.  The elegant, Art Deco style on display is reminiscent of MGM in its voguish hey day.  The visual style of the Companion reminds us that Oz emerged from the same sleek universe where Joan Crawford was gowned by Adrian and William Powell and Myrna Loy solved murders between sips of champagne.

Text-wise, the style is straightforward and restrained, though the narrative is upstaged by the outstanding artwork throughout.  Purists will undoubtedly take exception to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s “Mighty Miracle Show” being repeatedly referred to as “Turner Entertainment Co.’s The Wizard of Oz,” which sounds an awful lot like a corporate takeover talking.

The glut of commercial tie-ins whipped up to cash in on the 75th anniversary of Oz ranged from the embarrassing  (Julep’s Oz-inspired nail polish…”Give Tin Man a try…It’s a silver, holographic shade that reminds us of the man without a heart”) to the lackluster (the recent Warner Home Video re-packaging of the film).  Compared to these letdowns, the Scarfone-Stillman collaboration achieves the appropriate balance.  Their Anniversary Companion is reverent yet fun and the determination to scrounge up some new material for die-hard Oz fans is admirable.  So skip the holographic manicure and celebrate in style.     

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