And TCM gives the Munchkins their due in a superb doc, says Ken Tucker
The Wizard of Oz
Credit: Wizard of Oz: TCM

”The Wizard of Oz” returns to TV — commercial free

There are classic films and cult films, and then there are classic cult films — i.e., great, crowd pleasing movies that also spawn intensely, sometimes even loonily, devoted fans. ”Gone With The Wind” is one such cinematic phenomenon; ”Casablanca” is another. Probably the epitome of the classic cult film, however, is ”The Wizard of Oz,” which will be shown commercial free on Turner Classic Movies (July 3, 8 p.m; July 4, 6 p.m.). This 1939 production will be preceded by a 30 minute TCM special called ”Memories of Oz” that’s a cut above the usual making-of documentary.

As its title suggests, ”Memories of Oz” spends much of its time interviewing people involved in turning L. Frank Baum’s children’s book into the unique item it became: a locus for Judy Garland worship; an everlasting record of the vaudeville comic styles of Bert Lahr (as the Cowardly Lion), Ray Bolger (as the Scarecrow) and Jack Haley (as the Tin Man); and a kiddie spectacular that both soothes and frightens children and adults alike. Producer Alexa Foreman had the novel idea of keeping the interviews primarily focused on the surviving little people who played the Munchkins.

The result is innocent vanity: Actors such as Margaret Pellegrini and Jerry Maren, now wrinkled but still peppy, make ”Oz” sound like a movie that was all about the Munchkins, with a sweet kid named Judy clocking in to make a cameo appearance every so often. We’re shown in a series of clever montages which Munchkin actors were most favored by the moviemakers, who tended to put the same performers in scene after scene. ”Memories of Oz” also relies on a few Ozzophile civilians, both to film their meticulously preserved collections of ”Oz” costumery and to serve as examples of why the root word of ”fan” is ”fanatic” — at least one of these fellows really needs to get out in the sun and take in a ballgame or something else non-”Oz”-related sometime very soon.

The most clever moment in the special is when ”Memories” shows us quick snippets of all the movies that MGM used ”Oz” props for — ”Oz”’s cyclone special effect, we’re told, was so expensive in its day that the studio popped it into fare such as ”Cabin in the Sky” (1943) and ”High Barbaree” (1947). You come away from ”Memories of Oz” with a fresh hunger to see the movie again, to match your own memories with the finished product.

How would you rate ”The Wizard of Oz” in film history?

The Wizard of Oz
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  • Victor Fleming