Wednesday, November 15, 2006

We're Off to See the Wizard

This Sunday TBS once more aired the classic Wizard of Oz. I rather suspect it will air on the CW (the remains of the WB and UPN) later this year. There was a time, however, that The Wizard of Oz was not seen on network television, let alone cable. November 6 of this year it was fifty years since The Wizard of Oz made its television network debut.

Though it may be hard for those of us who were not born yet to believe, there was a time when Hollywood regarded television as a bitter rival. In the early days of the medium, the major studios released almost none of their movies to the networks. The studios mellowed over time, so that they released many of their older films to television. This was the case with industry giant MGM, with two exceptions: Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. This did not keep the networks from trying to get these two films, however, as CBS tried to lease Gone with the Wind from MGM (it would take 20 years before they would get it). CBS then set its sights on The Wizard of Oz. MGM relented and let them have the classic film.

The Wizard of Oz would first air on network television as the final installment of Ford Star Jubilee on November 6, 2006. Ford Star Jubilee was an umbrella title for a diverse group of specials, so the classic film fit the bill perfectly. The movie's running time was a bit awkward for network scheduling, so the film was trimmed a bit and it was hosted by Judy Garland's daughter Liza Minelli and Cowardly Lion Bert Lahr. Regardless of the cuts made to the film for its network debut, The Wizard of Oz raked in huge ratings.

Curiously, it would be nearly four years before it would air on network television again. This time CBS aired it around the holiday season, on December 16, 1959. From that time forward The Wizard of Oz would air either around Christmas or Thanksgiving, once a year on one of the networks (CBS lost the right to air the film briefly to NBC in the Sixties and Seventies.

Like many Gen-Xers, then, the first time I ever saw The Wizard of Oz was on television rather than a theatre. In fact, it may be both the first musical I can remember seeing and the second fantasy film (the first was Jason and the Argonauts) I remember seeing. The movie certainly made an impression on me. While I know that there are many as children who found the Wicked Witch of the West and her flying monkeys frightening, personally I found the sequences with the Wizard of Oz himself more scary. Of course, keep in mind as a child I had ears that were overly sensitive to any loud noise. At any rate, as a young child it was my favourite film, so much so that Judy Garland is the first celebrity's death I can recall. I remember as a child thinking that she must still be all of 17 and asked my parents how someone so young could die. They simply explained to me that the movie was made many, many years ago and she was a lot older now. I guess that they didn't want to explain to a five year old that, in addition to old age and accidents, death can also occur because of an overdose of barbiturates....

In 1999 Turner Broadcasting, who had held the rights to the movie for several years after buying MGM's film library, decided to withdraw it from the networks so they could show it on TBS, TNT, and TCM. I never did quite like this. While I realise that practically every cable system in the United States carries TBS and TNT, and while I realise that most Americans have either cable or satellite TV, it seemed to me that there would still be a few viewers out there who would not get to see the classic film each year. Fortunately, the past few years the WB has aired The Wizard of Oz. I'm guessing it will air on the CW later this year. For me at least, The Wizard of Oz belongs on network television.

Anyhow, I watched the movie again Sunday. Despite the fact that I have probably seen it at least 35 times in my lifetime, it still holds a good deal of magic for me. There are some films that are called classics, but they don't hold up to repeated viewings. This is certainly not the case with The Wizard of Oz. It remains a film one can watch over and over again.


RWA said...

I never saw The Wizard of Oz in the theatre either - but I have watched it countless times on television.

It is definitely one of those movies that I never get tired of seeing.

Jeremy Barker said...

I think we all have movies that we can watch over and over again, no matter how many times we've seen them. I can't channel surf past Groundhog Day myself, nor any Bond flick.

It is amazing that the studios used to fight the networks. It's hard to imagine as everyone I know saw their first movies on the small screen.

themarina said...

50 years? Wow. I had no idea! I've only ever seen the movie once but it's on my list of re-visits; when I have some extra time!