Dorothy (Judy Garland) comforts the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) in "The Wizard of Oz" now playing at the Normal Theater. (Photo courtesy of the Normal Theater)
By Dawn Riordan
NORMAL - It’s a rare occurrence to be able to see "The Wizard of Oz" in a real movie theater that’s roughly the same age as the movie itself.
"Oz" was released in the year of some of Hollywood's greatest movies – 1939. The Normal Theater was opened in late 1937. The movie was not expected to do big business, unlike the Normal Theater, which was built as a state-of-the-art movie theater with air conditioning, a modern streamlined design and the same sound system that Radio City Music Hall had at the time.
The Deco's in the details
The film's aesthetics had a lot more in common with the Normal Theater. Look at the way the Emerald City is depicted in the movie, all late-period Art Deco, or "streamlined." Curved edges, geometric shapes, recessed lighting making an airbrushed appearance; this is the Art Deco that everyone thinks of when they hear the term. Both the Normal Theater and "The Wizard of Oz" have it in buckets!
It comes as no surprise when these two great beauties meet that the experience will be a sensational one. Sure, within the past year the movie was released in limited fashion around the country in various multiplexes. "Oz" was shown with an introduction from the current definitive expert on movie nostalgia – Robert Osborn of Turner Classic Movies. But this time you'll see it projected as historically as possible.See "Oz" in an historic theater can have the effect of transporting us back in time, when movies were amazing feats of special effects, screenplay writing, acting and all the other things that go into making one of the best movies ever made.
In 1939, they had no computer generated imagery. Movie effects were done with paintings, miniatures, smoke and mirrors. Yet, the tornado-sequence still commands respect from special effects artists, and remains a most spectacular scene. It certainly works for me.
Something else that works is the characters. As an adult, I know they are players in make-up, but they have that wonderful appearance of an illustration in a time-honored children’s book. There’s no need to go for image-morphing, no need to go so far as to intimate that there’s no human actor underneath the effect. The characters in the Land of Oz are different enough to be part of a fantasy, and human enough to relate to.
After all, the whole Oz portion is coming from the mind of a little girl, not an IT department.
There are some stories where CGI technology works very well. "The Matrix" is one film where special effects technology helped get the movie listed on the National Film Register this year, and with good reason. The special effects are absolutely necessary for a story all about computer-technology. The CGI used in "Hugo" did not go overboard, thanks to director Martin Scorsese, but was only used to enhance the story line and primarily to show that "Hugo" could use 3-D sparingly and wisely, and not gratuitously as in "How many times can we fling something into your face in a 100-minute action movie?"
Amazingly, the success of "Hugo" was that it hearkened back to the early invention of special effects in the movies – those of Georges Melies, who, like the film makers of "Oz" obviously did not have computers at his disposal. The appeal of Georges Melies, brought to light by "Hugo", is in part due to the steam-punk movement. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s championed by people who yearn for a look back at the innovative technology of over a century ago.
I love technology when it reaches a level of amazing new heights. But, there’s something to be said for the nostalgia associated with low-resolution techniques that get the job done quite nicely. "Oz" needs no hi-tech-gloss to make it work. It’s a steam-punk work of art from the streamlined era. And just like the Normal Theater, it gets the job done nicely.
See "The Wizard of Oz" in the amazing Normal Theater this Thursday through Sunday at 7 p.m. each evening. We sell low-res tickets at an old-fashioned ticket booth when the box office opens at 6:30 p.m.
Dawn Riordan is manager of the Normal Theater.