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‘Wizard of Oz’ Laughs Take Restorers by Surprise

WIth Imax 3D re-release, auds rediscover what their grandparents knew: The MGM classic is a comedy

Movie lovers who trek to theaters for the Imax 3D presentation of “The Wizard of Oz” may be astonished to discover something about the beloved classic: It’s a laugh riot.

At least, that’s what surprised the team at Warner Bros. after they restored the picture in preparation for conversion to 3D and to Imax format.

“When I’m working on these in a room without an audience, you don’t quite get the humor of it,” said Ned Price, chief preservation officer at Warner Bros. technical operations. Price recounted studying the film in meticulous detail, making sure the color was right and the brightness and contrast were correct. “But then when you’re done with a project, you present with an audience, the laughter and the timing of the film is amazing.”

The Wizard of Oz” was made by MGM in 1939 but Warner acquired it when it bought Turner Broadcasting in 1996. It was one of the first pics to find a perennial home audience; it was a once-a-year TV special and its airings were like a holiday in many homes. But relatively few people have seen the pic in a theater with an audience.

Those who know “The Wizard of Oz” only from TV might not think of it as a comedy, but when the pic debuted in 1939, Variety’s review called Burt Lahr’s Cowardly Lion “sheer comic genius” and his “If I Were King of the Forest” number “hilarious.” Ray Bolger’s Scarecrow was called “most amusing” and Frank Morgan “droll.”

Price said when Warners screened it for an audience, they learned just how precise editor Blanche Swell had been with the pic.

“They say a joke, and you hear a titter, then they say another joke, and then they’ll follow it up with a punchline,” he said. “So (the jokes) might come in threes, but there are pauses in between to let the audience stop laughing. And they’re timed beautifully. They would tweak those during previews.”

Sometimes audiences aren’t sure they’re supposed to laugh, said Price, but once Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch shows up, that breaks the ice.

“She’s just so over-the-top,” he says.

Variety‘s Steve Chagollan, who covered the Sept. 15 premiere, reported the picture was met with more chuckles than guffaws by the audience at the Chinese Theater. However, he added, “the performances, especially (Judy) Garland’s and her three compatriots — the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion — are just as splendid and heartbreaking as the first time.”

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