The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Posted by on Dec 10, 2011 in The Best of the Best | 0 comments


Disclaimer: Other than some freaky flying monkeys, a witch, and twister (oh my), which may scare young viewers, this film is Wholesome City (which may actually be in Kansas somewhere).

The Wizard of Oz is not only one of the best children’s films, musicals, and fantasies, but one of the greatest pieces of cinema ever dedicated to celluloid. While many cite Casablanca or Gone with the Wind as the most beloved American movie, I lean toward The Wizard of Oz for the audacious and vivacious way it has stood the test of time. Born in 1939 – commonly referred to as the golden year of American cinema with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Gone with the Wind, Wuthering Heights, and Stagecoach also opening that year – Oz maintains momentum as it approaches a century in age, unlike that year’s Oscar winner, which is now just as its title suggests: Gone with the Wind.

Like It’s a Wonderful Life, Oz flopped at the box office upon its initial release (it cost about $3 million and didn’t make money until its re-release in 1949). Of course, that’s before they inspired subcultures of their own from decades of TV screenings around the holidays. The Wizard of Oz quite simply struck a chord in everyone, including stoners (who watch it with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon), conspiracy theorists (who need better things to do than claim to see a munchkin suicide), and collectors (who covet the priceless pairs of ruby slippers such as those in the Smithsonian). For kids it’s easy to see why it strikes a chord. They, too, fear the big bad world, take solace in the idea of home, sometimes hate grownups for keeping them from doing what they want, and love their pets and imaginary friends.

Somewhere Over the Rainbow, the Wiz3opening number, is at the film’s core as it bellows from gingham dress-clad Dorothy (Judy Garland). It hits and stings that place in the heart where dreams are born, only to perish amidst the bleak farm life of Kansas (I’m reminded of Steinbeck’s Depression-era Grapes of Wrath). It is truly the greatest song born of American cinema, as the American Film Institute aptly claims. But is there anything quite as magical as the moment Dorothy opens the door to Munchkinland and unleashes a bold palette of Technicolor that suggests nothing more than someplace over a rainbow? Though the rest of the movie exists in a dream, it’s one we’re more than happy to be a part of. And that dream is ripe for analysis based on Freudian, Jungian, or Marxian principles, plus loads of metaphors and implications of gender and class.

The whole she-bang is based on L. Frank Baum’s dark socio-political novel, and most of us have seen the movie so many times we hardly remember how frightening the monkeys, Wicked Witch, and twister once were. The popular novel, however, barely resembles the cinematic version after going through 14 writers and five directors. Though MGM did finally land a director, Victor Fleming, the tumultuous project could hardly be called his – or anyone’s besides producer Mervyn LeRoy’s perhaps. With its final product boasting a wonderful ensemble cast, it’s shocking to think of Shirley Temple, W.C. Fields, Buddy Ebsen, and the several others who were in line before Garland, Frank Morgan, Margaret Hamilton, and vaudeville comedians Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, and Jack Haley. After her frightening and spot-on turn as the Wicked Witch, Hamilton was doomed to a career comprised of B-movie roles and a personal life consisting of forever having to repeat the line “I’ll get you my little pretty – and your little dog, too.” We all know what happened to Garland, then 17 years old and awarded a special Oscar for exceptional youngitude. But while her personal life may have been tumultuous, the Dorothy role remains iconic, and is still a phenomenal example of a female hero and role model for young girls (as is Glinda the Good Witch).

The movie boasts far more than wonderful performances and characters, however, as the music, visuals, and endless array of quotes continue to dazzle us. Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg provided the unprecedented music and lyrics from the toe-tapping travel tunes Follow the Yellow Brick Road and Off to See the Wizard to comical pieces like If I Only Had a Brain and If I Were King of the Forest, or my personal favorite, The Munchkinland Medley (comprised of eight little ditties including The Lollipop Guild). Nowadays we dwell on the wires holding up the monkeys or clearly fake backdrops, but those viewers that cannot see past them will never truly enjoy the spectacle of every effect. Besides inspiring countless sequels/remakes/spin-offs (the best being 1985’s freaky Return to Oz and 1978’s “urban” retread The Wiz), The Wizard of Oz has infiltrated the pop lexicon with lines such as “I’m melting,” “I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” “There’s no place like home,” and “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my.”

For a movie dedicated to the young at heart, as the opening title card says, The Wizard of Oz has done a fair share of keeping us young at heart, and, like all great children’s films, making us feel like kids again.

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