Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Director: Victor Flemming                               Writer: Noel Langley & Florence Ryerson
Film Score: Herbert Stothart                           Cinematography: Harold Rosson
Starring: Judy Garland, Margaret Hamilton, Frank Morgan and Ray Bolger

I firmly believe that it is impossible, literally impossible, to write an objective review of The Wizard of Oz. For anyone my age or older there are so many associations with childhood that those viewings will always color any interpretation or analysis we attempt to make. Indeed, the A List author for this film does exactly that, and placed the film firmly within the context of his childhood. Before the advent of home video tape, this was the one film experience that almost all children had in common, every spring, gathered around the TV set, whether color or black and white, being alternately scared out of our wits and delightfully entertained. It was an event, something to be looked forward to as much as the Rankin-Bass Christmas specials or the preview of the new fall Saturday morning cartoons. The television networks had a captive audience then, and boy were we captivated.

MGM’s making of the film itself was prompted by two events, the first being David O. Selznick’s production of Gone With the Wind which made Louis B. Mayer a little less apprehensive about taking on their own color spectacular. The second was Walt Disney’s incredible success with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Lacking, however, the promotional creativity that both Selznick and Disney understood as creative studio heads, Mayer’s financial focus caused him to botch both the promotion and distribution and, as a result, Oz did only average business at the box office. It would take television a decade later to demonstrate the artistic genius of the film and make it the classic it has become today. There’s little need to explain the plot, as it’s difficult to imagine that there are people who haven’t seen the film. And while it retains all of the characters and set pieces of L. Frank Baum’s fantastic but grim children’s story, there is a tremendous amount of invention that went into the story from no less that eighteen contributors to the script.

The one analytical theory I would proffer is that the film embraces not just the children’s story, but staples from seemingly every genre and weaves them together in a way that no other film has been able to do before or since. There are comedic elements, with the farm hands during the sepia opening and during the color sequences. The opening is also something of a family drama, not only about Dorothy and the fate of the dog but in the way honest people feel trapped by the law. There is the horror of the cyclone and the kidnapping of Dorothy. There is certainly an element of the western, with Dorothy and her posse tracking down the wicked witch. The wizard’s bait and switch suggests the caper film, while the suicide mission he sends them on mimics the war film. The witch’s organization feels like the mob, with her as the boss and the three characters as cops or private detectives attempting to rescue the kidnapped heroine. Finally, and most obviously, there is the incredible music and dancing that were one of MGM’s specialties.

Beyond that, it’s the personalities that make the film the tremendous entertainment juggernaut that it remains to this day. MGM had been obsessed with obtaining the services of Shirley Temple, but Judy Garland’s performance is what centers the film and makes it something more than just good. Ray Bolger is her second, a terrific actor and dancer. And while Jack Haley and Bert Lahr were certainly replaceable, Margaret Hamilton and Frank Morgan were not. I don’t believe anyone else had been considered for the role of the wicked witch, but in Morgan’s role there was definitely an attempt to get W.C. Field. While he certainly would have conveyed the humbug aspect of the character, the multiple roles that Morgan takes on are testament to his being the perfect choice. The musical numbers, completely jettisoning anything from the 1903 Broadway production, are classics today and rightly so. Add to that the sepia frame story, the brilliant special effects, the casting of the little people, and it truly becomes a thing of perfection.

Peter Keough’s essay in The A List takes the obvious tact, opening with the terrors of the film for a child, the witch, her flying monkeys, the destruction of the scarecrow, and the transformation of benign Auntie Em with the witch in the crystal ball. All of which, he asserts, made him become a film critic later. Like him, I too watched the film later with my children when released in the theater. Keough makes a nice point that there are different horrors for the adults in the audience as well, but then launches into a disappointing Freudian interpretation . . . honestly, again, must we? The real lesson of the film, entirely missed by Keough, is that experience is our greatest teacher. The scarecrow only becomes smart by having to be smart, the tin man loving by caring, and the lion brave by being brave. Dorothy only learns how important home is after leaving. This is the real lesson of The Wizard of Oz, that however scary the world might seem, it is only by diving in and fully embracing it that we conquer our demons and become who we were meant to be. Yet another thing that makes this film an enduring classic.

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