The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Directed by: Victor Fleming
Written by: Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, Edgar Allen Woolf
Starring: Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Margaret Hamilton, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Billie Burke, Clara Blandick
(101 minutes, Color/Sepia Tone)
The movie's artistic achievements wouldn't be nearly as powerful if it was shot in Technicolor all of the way through. Instead, director Victor Fleming works up to the unveiling of Oz by letting the audience get to know the life of Dorothy Gale while she's still in Kansas. The Kansas scenes at the film's opening and closing are shot in sepia tone, as Fleming wanted to capture the dustiness and grittiness of the country, described by L. Frank Baum in the original novel as "shaded grey." The sepia tones aren't cold or off-putting, but compared to what follows in the remainder of the film, they are remarkably dull. The moment when Dorothy, still photographed in sepia, opens the door to the glimmering, bright land of Oz sent shivers down my spine. The studio wanted The Wizard of Oz to be the box office smash of the year, so no shortcuts were taken in the movie's design or photography. Expensive Technicolor was used. It took a week to decide the shade of yellow that would be used on the Yellow Brick Road.
The movie's tumultuous production is well-noted. Its creative team picked up and then dropped director after director and writer after writer, all of whom brought significant changes to the story. Early drafts wanted to explain away all magic through technology (recent fantasies had not fared well at the box office), though later revisions restored the fantasy element. Many unused songs were written for the movie but discarded during production or editing, including a jitterbug dance contest presided over by a princess of Oz. Ray Bolger was originally cast as the Tin Man, opposite Buddy Ebsen as the Scarecrow. The two swapped parts, however, at Bolger's request, which led to Ebsen having a near-fatal allergic reaction to aluminum powder used in the Tin Man's costume. The role was re-cast. Margaret Hamilton and Frank Morgan, as the Wizard, were last-minute substitutes in their roles. Hamilton was badly burnt in a poorly-planned explosion.
The Kansas scenes provide interesting bookends for the movie. Studio executives in '39 were concerned the opening in Kansas, which introduces Dorothy, Auntie Em, Uncle Henry, and the real counterparts to the Oz characters, was too long. They wanted to eliminate the song "Over the Rainbow" (which now is the most famous aspect of a movie that contains so many well-known parts) to focus more on the land of Oz. This is strange because, originally, before Fleming was attached to the project, the same studio execs didn't want to film to focus at all on magic, witches, or wizards. They believed that the supernatural aspect of the story made the movie too unrealistic for "modern" audiences of the time, who were used to seeing cheap, gritty black and white pictures that focused on gangsters and crime. The Scarecrow was originally written to be a stupid, unemployed man who could only find a job by dressing as a scarecrow. The Tin Man was slated to be a hardened criminal locked in a tin suit as part of his punishment. It's lucky then, that The Wizard of Oz ended up in Fleming's hands. He ensured that the picture was done right.
While in Oz, Dorothy encounters some of the most famous characters in film history, including her companions the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), the Tin Man (Jack Haley), and the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr), who accompany her on her journey to meet the Great and Powerful Oz, who, according to the Good Witch Glinda, has the ability to send Dorothy home. Their journey is beset with turmoil brought on by the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton), who gets the best scenes of the movie: the chase through the castle, the melting scene, and the most famous lines, such as: "I'll get you my pretty, and you're little dog too." The last bit in Kansas, which ends the story on a "was it a dream?" note, is bittersweet. Dorothy is back home, where she wanted to be all along. Home, however, is dusty, dull, and sepia toned. Most of us would rather be in Oz.
The movie is packed full of imaginative and fantastic stunts. During the twister that transports Dorothy to Oz, the house is blown apart as trees come unrooted and sail violently past Dorothy. The girl and her comrades in Oz are whisked away, across the dark and ominous horizon, by cruel flying monkeys, and subsequenty chased through the castle of the Wicked Witch by crowds of spear-wielding guards. The friends travel through the Emerald City on a carriage pulled by a horse that remarkably changes color, switching from lusty purple to bright red and yellow. The Wicked Witch shoots fireballs from her hands and spirits across the sky on her broom amidst a thunderous cloud of smoke. These elements, which were revolutionary during the time period, are no less stunning today. More often than not a watch recently released films, with their ceaseless special effects and carnage, and feel no wonder or excitement. The effects in The Wizard of Oz continue to amaze generation after generation because of their genuine creativity.
The color and zeal of the production is added to a great deal by the music. The Wizard of Oz is one of the finest film musicals because the songs are well-integrated into the story. They never feel out-of-place and they never distract from the action. The initial scene in Oz, the Munchkinland Sequence, is the longest number in the movie, and runs through several smaller songs. The scene is bursting with light and brightness, culminating when Dorothy begins walking, then skipping down the famous Yellow Brick Road, which cuts like a bright knife through the countryside of Oz. Perhaps the best things to ever happen to The Wizard of Oz since its release was its restoration on DVD. Initial television viewers in the 50s, 60s, and later were shown an imaginative tale in muted shades. Now The Wizard of Oz can be seen by everyone the way it was meant to be seen. Viewers can appreciate visual elements that were hardly seen or noticed before: the glistening corn stalks behind the Scarecrow, the shining individual grains of rice in the Witch's bloodred hour glass, the reflective surfaces in the Emerald City. The musical numbers practically jump from the screen. The final third of the film is largely without song or dance, which wisely helps to build tension as Dorothy's relations with the Wicked Witch escalate. The Wizard of Oz delivers unto her a task: in order to get home to Kansas, she must return to him the broomstick of the Wicked Witch.
The movie is magical and enjoyable, but isn't goofy or silly. Through the years it has gained its reputation as the best of all children's films not because of its lightheartedness or splendor, but because of how it wisely presents its important themes. Home is a central place for all children, but they dream of finding adventure in lands of mystery. They see themselves in Dorothy. The three supporting heroes confront fears that are fundamental in childhood (stresses brought on by intellect and education, confusing emotions, lack of courage) and overcome them admirably. As kids grow, the fear of home disappearing becomes more and more real, but The Wizard of Oz promises that with bravery and friendship, we can overcome that. Everyone has flaws (even the Great and Powerful Oz), but every person still holds heroic potential. This is why The Wizard of Oz always saves a spot in the minds and hearts of children who see it. It's a movie that doesn't age or grow irrelevant. Those who discover it early always treasure it, and those who come upon it later never forget it. As a family film, as a fantasy, as a musical, and as a national treasure, it has never been equaled.
The Wizard of Oz is rated G by the MPAA. It's one of the best movies for children ever made, and contains no objectionable material, though young children might be frightened of the ominous witch and her minions.