The Wizard of Oz (1939)

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

The Wizard of Oz (1939). 101 minutes. Directed by Victor Fleming, King Vidor, and George Cukor. Starring Judy Garland (as Dorothy Gale), Frank Morgan (as Professor Marvel/the Wizard), Ray Bolger (as Hunk/Scarecrow), Jack Haley (as Hickory/Tin Man), Bert Lahr (as Zeke/Cowardly Lion), Billie Burke (as Glinda the Good Witch of the North), Margaret Hamilton (as Miss Almira Gulch/the Wicked Witch of the West), Clara Blandick (as Aunt Em), and Charley Grapewin (as Uncle Henry). Songs by Edgar “Yip” Harburg and Harold Arlen. Based on the novel by L. Frank Baum.

The Wizard of Oz has to be one of the most phenomenal movies ever made: one of the most quotable, one of the most thematically resonant, and one of the most visually memorable (virtually any scene from any part of the movie can be excerpted in still form and people will instantly recognize it). It was not a major success upon its initial release and only achieved its present status as one of the greatest of the great classic films when it was shown on the small screen in the age of television. Yet unlike some legendary films, which have a Hamlet-like ability to intimidate critics and a serious context that tends to encourage study rather than enthusiasm, The Wizard of Oz has spawned obsessive, fetishist fans around the world, rivaling only Gone with the Wind, a Technicolor release of the same year, in terms of fan devotion and tchotchke merchandising. It seems eternally possible to find things to say about it, not in the least because it remains one of the weirdest movies ever to be considered a masterpiece.

The plot will probably be very familiar to you. Dorothy Gale is a young girl living on a Kansas farm with her Uncle Henry and Aunt Em. Her beloved dog Toto is apparently the nemesis of a rude local woman named Almira Gultch, who produces a court order one day to have the dog put down. Dorothy opts to run away with Toto but is caught in a tornado and hits her head while seeking shelter in the farmhouse. The house is carried away in the storm. When the tornado passes, she steps outdoors and finds herself in the land of Oz. She encounters the Munchkins, who celebrate her because her house has landed on and killed the Wicked Witch of the East. The Wicked Witch of the West, sister to the Witch of the East, manifests herself and vows revenge. The Witch of the East’s powerful pair of ruby slippers then fasten themselves to Dorothy’s feet. Glinda the Good Witch of the North explains that Dorothy can find her way home if she follows a Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City, where the all-knowing Wizard lives.

With Toto, Dorothy departs for the Emerald City wearing the ruby slippers. Along the Yellow Brick Road, she encounters the Scarecrow, who longs for a brain; the Tin Man, who wishes for a heart; and the Cowardly Lion, who craves courage. They band together and journey to the Wizard in the hopes that he can grant them their wishes. When they finally reach the Emerald City, the Wizard refuses to help them until they have defeated the Witch of the West. After they return successful, the Wizard is revealed to be only an average man, and he argues that the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion have earned their brains, heart, and courage as part of their quest to reach him. He promises to bring Dorothy back to Kansas, but it is ultimately Glinda who tells Dorothy that she can return simply with the help of the slippers and the incantation “There’s no place like home.” Dorothy wakes up in Kansas, where she learns that everything she experienced in Oz was a dream and delights in being back with her family.

If you saw The Wizard of Oz as a child, it likely left strong, colorful imprints on your psyche. It is part jovial fantasy, part nightmare—but it is sometimes hard to tell where the happiness ends and the nightmare begins. The Scarecrow is a good example of this phenomenon. On the one hand, he is perhaps the sweetest, most charming, and most affectionate of the friends Dorothy meets along the way to the Emerald City. The dance he performs while singing “If I Only Had a Brain” is so amusing, it is easy to believe that he is really a benign and vulnerable man of straw, only momentarily and unpredictably in control of his limbs. But then consider his makeup, the way that his face and neck seem to be made out of sack cloth. He looks a bit like a serial killer clown. In fact at the screening of The Wizard of Oz that I recently attended at the Pacific Film Archive, a small child burst into tears when the Scarecrow first started to talk—not, noticeably, when the Wicked Witch of the West appeared for the first time in the previous scene in an explosion of ominous red smoke. The Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion are much more palatable in appearance than their brain-seeking chum.

But it is more than the Scarecrow that makes The Wizard of Oz seem nightmarish at times. The color scheme is so vivid that it can actually seem garish—the bright yellow of the Yellow Brick Road with Dorothy’s sparkling red shoes dancing along its path, for example, or the Wicked Witch’s surreal green flesh, or the blood-red sand in the hour glass that counts down the time remaining in Dorothy’s life when she is held prisoner by the Witch. (For some reason, when I was a child the red grains of sand stuck with me perhaps more than any other image in the film. They seemed to pulse with the force of death.) These are just a few examples of the movie’s phenomenal color scheme. And that scheme is deliberately and provocatively intense; the Kansas scenes are famously filmed in sepia tones, so that Oz emerges not merely as a colorful wonderland in contrast to the drab, earnest conservatism of the Gale family farm but as an outrageous exaggeration of the everyday.

Perhaps the best example of the film’s wild sense of color and daring art design is the almost psychedelic Munchkinland sequence, which has to be one of the most remarkable things ever filmed. Munchkinland is a giant Technicolor wave of cartoonish sights, sounds, and words, and it is hard to imagine any other montage effectively communicating so completely the total transformation of Dorothy’s environment from scrubbed-bare Kansas to this fantastic, frenzied world of uncomfortable dreams. From Munchkinland’s constipated Lollipop Guild to its helium-inspired coroner, to the minute flower babies emerging from vegetation perched atop a tall pedestal—the full range of bizarre possibilities involving little people as supernatural beings is on display. The diminutive Munchkins, depicted in questionable taste, are fashioned as the most prominent examples of Oz exoticism in a story that excels at creating alternatives to Dorothy’s Kansas culture and Midwestern appearance. This exoticism extends both to the Munchkin characters and the people who played them: The Wizard of Oz gave birth to a legacy of unflattering, unlikely tales of Munchkin-actor behavior during filming that includes the awful movie Under the Rainbow (1981), a comedy that envisioned the little people performers as drunken agents of mayhem who threatened to destroy the Oz production.

While the Munchkinland sequence focuses on the colorful otherness that the Munchkins provide, it also offers us our first glimpse of Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West. It is hard to imagine a fantasy character who more endemically conveys terror and evil. Hamilton, who specialized in playing spinster types, channels all of the fear society harbors for an uptight single female coupled with genuine ill will—first as the cruel Miss Gulch, who is content to exterminate a young girl’s dog for trespassing in her garden, and then as the murderous Wicked Witch, whose squinty looks and shrill angry voice convey only horrid intentions. The sudden appearance of her in Munchkinland, wrapped in smoke and flame, is shocking. Her explosive entrance is evidence that danger and malevolence are never far away in Oz.

The sort of turmoil that the Wicked Witch introduces has a parallel in the The Wizard of Oz’s troubled production history. In one take, when the Witch exits Munchkinland in flames, Hamilton’s trapdoor elevator did not convey her away from the stage surface quickly enough, and she was badly burned. (It is not clear to me if this take was used in the final print.) When she returned to work many weeks later, she subsequently refused to perform with any smoke or fire device. Her stand-in took over for her in shots she deemed too dangerous, and the stand-in was also burned. Additionally, Buddy Ebsen, who was originally cast as the Tin Man, apparently suffered a medical emergency while the film was in production—he proved allergic to a component of the metallic paint used to color his skin and had to be replaced by Jack Haley. It was not a shoot with luck on its side. The movie’s direction was similarly fraught with difficulty, albeit not of a medical nature. Most notably, the assignment shifted from George Cukor to Victor Fleming to King Vidor, and Norman Traurog and Richard Thorpe were also involved as directors early on. Likewise, there were many hands on the script, which saw the involvement of both the actors and the songwriters. The overall experience must have been chaotic.

And yet The Wizard of Oz overcomes its, in some respects, disastrous conditions, managing to be completely unified, so much so that it seems other-worldly at times. One of its most moving sequences takes place on the Kansas farm before Dorothy is transported to Oz, where she sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”—a song that, it seems ludicrous now to say, the producers wanted cut, feeling that it dragged the film down and added to its, at the time, excessive length. It is hard to think of a more faulty artistic judgment. Listening to Garland sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is an almost spiritual experience. The song is so wonderfully melancholy, offering hope but denying us affirmation that good will come, that the rainbow its singer longs to traverse is truly reachable. Garland seems so sweet and wholesome singing it, young in her pigtails but wonderfully mature in vocal tone. It is horrifying to think of what her private life was becoming at this point, with (as is well known) her developing addiction to prescription drugs, administered to her by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for the purpose of keeping her peppy in front of the camera and helping her to sleep at the end of the long, upper-influenced hours on the set. That she manages to exude wonderfulness in spite of all this is a testament to her special ability as a performer to transport herself and the audience through tenderness and earnestness.

It is important that when Dorothy sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” she does it in Kansas, where her cares are heavy. She returns to those cares when she wakes up at the end and finds herself back on her family’s farm. But in the novel by L. Frank Baum that the movie is based on, Dorothy’s time in Oz is not a dream, and she takes her family back with her to Oz to live there forever. In the movie, the dream conceit explains everything away, makes the Oz fantasy/nightmare unreal, and lands her back exactly where she began. Although the movie does not stress this point, Dorothy will still have to deal with Miss Gulch’s legal order to have Toto euthanized, and she is back in the land of the terrifying tornadoes.  The Kansas of the movie offers its own nightmares, and Dorothy is left with no ruby slippers to rescue her from the very real dangers they present.

As a result, although the movie of The Wizard of Oz makes it clear that Dorothy is overjoyed to be back on the farm, it is not easy for us to share in her optimism. In the end we are left to ponder which is more unsettling: the strange dream of Oz or the return to real life that the movie celebrates. Perhaps the filmmakers believed that the bizarre world beyond the rainbow was just too strange for it to be a viable alternative. The fact remains, however, that The Wizard of Oz denies us an alternative to real life that could have been more complete and accommodating. L. Frank Baum’s Dorothy discovers that there are, in fact, many places like home—better than home even. It is a shame that the filmmakers denied their Dorothy the same experience.