The Wizard of Oz

Dir: Victor Fleming, 1939. Starring: Judy Garland, Roy Bolger, Burt Lahr, Jack Haley, Margaret Hamilton. Musicals.
The Wizard of Oz
There may not be another film more ingrained in Hollywood movie culture, more iconic, or more entertaining than The Wizard of Oz. For decades its yearly broadcasts on television become a rite of passage and, like a precious family heirloom, it was passed on; each year a new generation of children was introduced to it and eventually they grew up and did the same for their kids.  As adults we’ve been able to find new aspects of it to be astounded by. For kids it’s also worked as the perfect portal to make a child into a more sophisticated movie watcher—after experiencing The Wizard of Oz it’s hard for a kid to go back to watching Barney. Their brains now need newer and richer material and of course there are so many films to follow it up with.The Wizard of Oz is also notable as a massive genre bender: besides succeeding as a family film, it’s a delightful musical, a dark Depression-era period drama, and it also works as a terrifying fantasy/ horror/ adventure flick. No matter what age, who couldn’t find something to love in it?

For folks who may be reading this from another planet, here’s the basic set-up... In the gloomy black n’ white Kansas, young Dorothy Gale (17-year-old-ish Judy Garland, playing much younger) lives on her aunt and uncle’s farm with her beloved little mutt, Toto. A mean neighbor, Miss Gulch (Margaret Hamilton), threatens to have the pooch destroyed. So Dorothy escapes the farm with Toto, and while running away she meets a traveling fortune teller named Professor Marvel (Frank Morgan) who convinces her there’s no place like home. She gets back to the farm just as a tornado sweeps in, knocking her unconscious; she and her house are swept up into the air and land in a colorful place called Oz, inhabited by an army of little people known as Munchkins. It turns out her house landed on top of a witch, killing her, and leaving her still-living green sister, the Wicked Witch of the West (again, Hamilton), irate. Dorothy would be dead meat but as informed by another witch, this one kindly and beautiful, named Glinda (Billie Burke), the magic ruby slippers she is now in possession of will protect her. The Wicked Witch leaves swearing revenge. Dorothy is eager to get back to dullsville, Kansas, so before ditching her, Glinda suggests she follow the yellow brick road which will lead her straight to the brilliant Wizard who should know how to get her home. 

Dorothy’s journey along the yellow road is similar to that of the NY street gang from The Warriors trying to reach Coney Island, while picking up new friends, and fighting off rival gangs. She puts together her own motley gang, befriending a dim-witted Scarecrow (Roy Bolger) in search of a brain, a heartless, axe-wielding Tin Man (Jack Haley), and a scaredypants Lion (Burt Lahr) in need of courage. The four misfits all have a something they hope the Wizard can give them. Reaching the Emerald City, a sorta Technicolor Las Vegas, they keep getting the runaround from the Wizard’s minions (the big man and others again played by Frank Morgan). Finally the Wizard’s booming voice says he will only help them if they can snag the Wicked Witch’s broom and bring it back to him, surely a suicide mission. On their way, the Wicked Witch’s nasty looking flying monkeys capture Dorothy and Toto and now it’s up to her three buds to rescue her. They free her and, during a chase through the Wicked Witch’s castle, accidentally end up killing the old green hag. Her monkey army hails Dorothy as a savior as do the residents of Emerald City. The Wizard, however, doesn’t want to live up to his agreement, that is until it’s revealed that he’s no all-powerful god, but a goofball ordinary guy. He does, though, impart some logic; the brains, heart, and courage Dorothy’s friends seek, they actually had all long (he gives them placebo objects just in case they don’t get it). He’s set to take Dorothy and Toto with him in a balloon back to Kansas, but out of nowhere Toto gets all rabid and chases a cat. The Wiz and the balloon set sail without them. Glinda shows up and explains that Dorothy always had the power to go home (oh, now you tell me!), she just needed to learn that "There's no place like home." After some chanting Dorothy finally gets home or wakes from her bad dream and realizes that the farm workers were actually the three friends she made in Oz. She’s no longer a runaway, content to live out her days in miserable Kansas. There is no Twilight Zone twist in the end, no reveal that she still has the ruby slippers; nope, it was a dream and Dorothy is just happy to be snug in bed at home with her family.

What can be said about this timeless classic, that hasn’t been stated before? First off, the acting: all the assembled character actors are wonderful with Lahr’s Lion and Bolger’s Scarecrow standing out, while Hamilton is still the gold standard for wicked witches. There’s a “Let’s put on a show!” quality at work here with the performances, an all-star team of musical and character talents had been assembled to support young Judy Garland and she delivers.Garland is wonderful; she is the movie, and she’s featured in about every scene. It’s one of the great juvenile performances in film history (along with Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun and that weird boy in The Sixth Sense). Besides the convincing acting, her singing voice is lovely and, more importantly, dramatically relevant; early in the film when she sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” the pain and loneliness of Dorothy is movingly clear. Almost all the songs, with music and lyrics by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg (“Brother Can You Spare a Dime?”), are now considered classics. The Munchkin songs are all a blast and Bolger’s “If I only Had a Brain” is up there with Donald O'Connor doing “Make ‘em Laugh” in Singin' in the Rain as one of the great pieces of musical physical comedy ever filmed. 

Based on L. Frank Baum’s 1900 kiddie book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, it was originally often compared to Alice in Wonderland—a comparison that, over time, doesn’t feel apt. It was filmed earlier as a couple silent shorts and then as a major silent feature in 1925 with Oliver Hardy. Of course the ‘39 version is now the standard. There have been countless shorts, spoofs, TV adaptations, and cheapie foreign versions ever since. In 1974 there was a fairly popular but limp animated sequel called Journey Back to Oz. But maybe most relevantly are the two hugely successful theatrical plays: Wicked and The Wiz. Wicked was from the Wicked Witch’s point of view and The Wiz was an all-black cast take on the story, which, unfortunately, was made into a miserable film by Sidney Lumet. As all forms of pop culture are being re-imagined and remade it’s inevitable that there will be a new, big money version one day. Someone visual with no new ideas of his own like Tim Burton will, besides seeing dollar signs, think that it needs computer CGI and modern references to tell the story. Of course they will be missing the point. Though in ‘39 Oz was on the forefront of visual effects it was actually about the heart. No matter how graphic the effects and exciting the action is, how scary the monkeys and Wicked Witch are, a new version can never upgrade on the purity and the simplicity of the theme. These Hollywood wizards of today can stand behind their curtains and make a lot of noise but they never seem to understand actual love and that’s the secret magic recipe that explains why The Wizard of Oz is so special.
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The Wizard of Oz was nominated for 6 Oscars including Best Picture, Best Special Effects (A. Arnold Gillespie, Douglas Shearer), Best Cinematography (Harold Rosson), Best Art Direction (Cedric Gibbons, William A. Horning), and won for Best Music, Original Song (Harold Arlen, E.Y. Harburg), and Best Music, Original Score (Herbert Stothart).
Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Mar 7, 2012 5:07pm
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