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Thursday, 1 April 2010

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Director: Victor Fleming
Stars: Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Billie Burke, Margaret Hamilton, Charley Grapewin and the Munchkins



I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

Given its long reaching influence on pop culture, it's nigh on impossible to forget the basics of The Wizard of Oz, but when I caught back up with it in 2004 it had been so long since I'd seen it that I'd forgotten pretty much everything else. I'd forgotten, for instance, that one of the most gloriously Technicolor films of all time starts in sepia, even down to the MGM logo and the opening credits, and it doesn't shift into colour until almost twenty minutes in when the twister takes Dorothy 'somewhere over the rainbow where skies are blue' and dumps her at the end of the Yellow Brick Road. I remembered that it was a musical, of course, but I was still surprised at just how much singing and dancing got crammed into the reasonably short running time. The welcome in Munchkinland takes up most of ten minutes, but for something of an epic children's story, the film as a whole is only a notch over an hour and forty minutes long.

All this is understandable because I don't think I'd seen the film since I was five or six, probably on British TV one Christmas with my family. At that age I enjoyed the wonder of it and all those glorious colours but there's no way I'd have caught all the little details. For instance I'd completely forgotten that everyone back in Kansas morphs into key characters in Oz, including all Dorothy's travelling companions, who are the hired hands on the farm run by her Uncle Henry and Auntie Em. They even give plenty of hints as to what will come later in dialogue that I wouldn't have noticed in the slightest. 'Well, your head ain't made of straw, you know,' points out Hunk, hinting at the reality of life as the Scarecrow. 'Have a little courage, that's all,' says Zeke, before he turns into the Cowardly Lion. 'Someday they're going to erect a statue to me in this town,' suggests Hickory, presaging how we discover him as the Tin Man.

It's patently obvious viewing as an adult that Dorothy is an all American version of Alice, but the darkness and danger so integral to that story is utterly missing, replaced by pretty basic moral stories. Lewis Carroll's book, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, was published in 1865, 35 years before The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and was obviously a major influence on L Frank Baum's American classic. Both stories feature young girls who through a singular event are thrust into an episodic series of fantastic adventures that eventually lead them back home, a little wiser than when they left. These adventures involve a host of bizarre characters who are generally exaggerated and simplified versions of the 'real' people that our heroines left behind at home, each one of them a connection to reality in a fantasy situation. This story is an iconic bundle of fun but Alice gets better the older the reader or the viewer gets, while Oz doesn't change much.

In The Wizard of Oz, our heroine is Dorothy Gale who is supposedly nine years old, though actress Judy Garland doesn't look a day younger than the sixteen that she really was at the time. Back in Kansas she's pouty and breathless, in equal parts a four year old brat, a polite little lady and some flouncing drama queen. No wonder she's the biggest influence on modern gay culture there is, the code phrase of 'I'm a friend of Dorothy' to mean simply 'I'm gay' gaining widespread usage as early as the forties. Back in Kansas, Dorothy isn't having a good day because everyone's too busy to listen to her and nasty old Miss Gulch, who owns half the county, wants to take Dorothy's little dog Toto to the sheriff to be destroyed because it has a habit of running around in her garden. So rather than grow up she stamps her metaphorical foot and runs away, trying to hitch up with the first person she meets, a travelling huckster called Professor Marvel.

Once she gets away from home though, all she wants to do is get back again, but by the time she does a tornado has started raging through Kansas and everyone else has taken cover in the storm shelter. For her part she heads indoors and gets clocked on the head by a window and the rest of our film is her Technicolor dream. The twister carries her and her house off to the fantastic land of Oz, landing her right on top of the Wicked Witch of the East, killing her instantly and making her an instant favourite with the local Munchkin population. Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, then sends her off on a quest to reach the Emerald City and find the Wizard of Oz who is apparently the only person who can help her get home to Kansas. Oh, and she has to survive the dastardly deeds of the Wicked Witch of the West in process, whose sister she just killed with her house and who wants the ruby slippers that Glinda whisked off the witch corpse and onto Dorothy's feet.


Really it's all a con because Glinda is a sassy little soul who just wants young Dorothy to learn a few lessons and grow up a bit and so she sends her on her quest to do just that. Like all the best travelogues this one is all about the journey not the destination. Glinda is a peach, not least because she's played by Billie Burke and her bubble bath voice in the most memorable role of her career, even though it was already well over halfway done. She'd debuted on stage in 1902, entered films in 1916 and promptly retired in 1921 because 'acting just wasn't fun any more' and because she and her husband, the impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, were more than comfortable. After the Wall Street Crash of 1929 though, she returned to work and thankfully continued to act through into her seventies. The ugly pink fluffy dress here is all a front, she's as sharp as a pin and cute to boot, even though she was 53 at the time. As she once said, 'Age is something that doesn't matter, unless you are a cheese.'

The only thing better than Billie Burke in this film is her precise opposite. Like Burke and most of the actors here, Margaret Hamilton played the role of her career as the Wicked Witch of the West, taking advantage of the fact that Gale Sondergaard turned the role down after it shifted away from its original 'sly and glamorous' look. Hamilton had been playing maids and housekeepers and the like for seven years but someone saw the potential and cast her as what remains today the epitome of the witch on screen. She was painted green and clad in a black witch outfit and she cackles precisely the way a witch is supposed to cackle. 'I'll get you, my pretty,' she cries, 'and your little dog too!' She is so expressively evil that she's a delight to watch and I can't help wanting to join in with her plans. Come on! She has flying monkeys! It would be great fun to go out drinking with the Wicked Witch of the West but come home to Glinda the Good with a twinkle in my eye.

We see a lot more of the Wicked Witch than the Good Witch because she wants those iconic ruby slippers badly, so she pesters Dorothy all the way down the Yellow Brick Road. It's here that she meets the other main characters, all of whom are missing something and so agree to join her in her quest just in case the Wizard can help them too. Ray Bolger is the Scarecrow who needs a brain but he's still a physical marvel, leaping around like he's Donald O'Connor in Singin' in the Rain. Jack Haley is supposed to look friendly as the Tin Man but instead looks to me like someone to keep your kids away from, especially as he doesn't have a heart. Those shining eyes and that knowing grin scare me. He plays the part as deliberately camp as Bill Murray played Criswell in Ed Wood. Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion is even more camp than the Tin Man, acting mostly with his voice, which is simply a joy to hear, and his face, which is incredibly expressive given that he must have struggled to even move it under those huge fake jowls. In fact his entire body is notably expressive given that he was definitely struggling under a 90 lb costume.

It's not surprising that The Wizard of Oz has become a camp favourite, as these camp performances came before we really knew what camp was, making it something of an originator. For my part though, these three companions of the road play second fiddle to both Judy Garland's Dorothy and the pair of witches. Judy Garland gave so much more to Dorothy than the script ever asked that it's impossible to think of anyone else who could ever play the part. I can't say I'm a big fan of such a pouty little princess but I can't fault how Garland does what she does. Producer Mervyn LeRoy claimed that he'd always wanted Garland as Dorothy from the very beginning, but Shirley Temple was auditioned and Deanna Durbin was considered. Both were bigger names at the time than Judy Garland and perhaps Durbin could have been better, but there's no way that either would have been anywhere near as iconic.

The film is a firm favourite among the gay community, because they see it as a parallel to their lives. Kansas, described in the source novel as being comprised of shades of grey, was deliberately shot in monochrome here, and gays identify this as their restrictive and homophobic forced reality. However Oz, where everyone is accepted, however odd they happen to be, is a place where they can be themselves. They take the double roles to heart as symbolising the public face and the real person inside. Judy Garland has been described as the 'quintessential pre-Stonewall gay icon' by writer Michael Bronski, mostly because of this film and the fact that she 'made a legend of her pain and oppression' in a way that many gay men identified with. You can see why, of course. Here she wears drag queen slippers and hangs around with sissies and crybabys, singing and dancing in a garish land beyond the symbolic rainbow of tolerance. It's almost as if it was all deliberate.


Surprisingly for that rarest of creatures, at once a cult classic and a family favourite, it wasn't a huge hit when it was originally released. It made money but not a lot, only beginning to rake it in later through revivals and eventually home release, it being the first MGM film to be released on video. Perhaps the year was a key factor, given that 1939 was the biggest Hollywood ever had, and it may well have just got lost in the ocean of films that year. In fact, Victor Fleming, who was the only one of four directors to be credited on this movie, was actually hired away from it during filming by David O Selznick to direct Gone with the Wind, which won him the Best Director Oscar. In fact Gone with the Wind swept the Oscars that year, The Wizard of Oz losing out not just for Best Picture but for pretty much everything else too.

Its two wins were in the musical categories. One went to Herbert Stothart for his score and the other to Harold Arlen and E Y Harburg for their song Over the Rainbow. The Observer rated the film's soundtrack as the greatest of all time and it's hard to argue with that, on the basis that I hate musicals, let alone children's musicals; I hadn't seen the film since I was knee high to a grasshopper; and it's over 65 years old, yet somehow I still knew most of the songs by heart anyway. Numbers like Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead and We're Off to See the Wizard are so right that it seems that they've always been there and culture merely caught up in the end. Over the Rainbow didn't just win the Oscar, it was voted the greatest movie song of all time by the American Film Institute. Judy Garland's daughter, Liza Minelli, has consistently refused to sing it, saying simply that it has already been sung. And yet the filmmakers had to fight the studio to keep it in, because apparently it made the Kansas scenes drag.

1939 was also the year that saw the first Special Effects Oscar. It went to The Rains Came, an epic set in India with Myrna Loy, Tyrone Power and a deluge caused by torrential rain and the collapse of a dam, but The Wizard of Oz staked a worthy claim in this category too. The make up is consistently awesome, even with all the problems the team had. Buddy Ebsen, well known as Jed Clampett in The Beverly Hillbillies, would probably have been far better known had he played the Tin Man as expected, but he almost died through an allergic reaction to the aluminium powder make up and so was replaced. The twister is highly realistic and was handled much better than the earthquake that destroys San Francisco in the film of the same name, which was acclaimed only three years earlier as excellent special effects of the time. The disembodied head of the Wizard is also superb, but on the flipside the painted backdrops are about the most obvious painted backdrops that I've ever seen and the Emerald City, as seen from afar, is simply a joke, however much it sparkles.

The success of The Wizard of Oz came through a combination of luck, timing and hard work, a long slog that saw Margaret Hamilton burned during an explosion, her stand-in injured during a flying scene and several flying monkeys dropped heavily to the studio floor after the piano wires that suspended them snapped. Throughout his life, Jack Haley countered the claim that the making of such a jovial story must have been just as jovial, by pointing out, 'Like Hell, it was! It was work!' However hard, it simply worked and may just be the most iconic film ever made. Its success can't be measured in Oscars or special effects or memorable songs, but in how much it's become cultural background. When professional wrestlers on WWE Raw paraphrase a children's musical from 1939, proclaiming 'Ding dong, the freak is gone!' then it's surely permeated pop culture to the ultimate degree.

1 comment:

spartacus montague-phillips said...

Hal, once again apologies for the fact that this comment dosen`t have anything to do with "THE WIZARD OF OZ" its just that i couldn`t find the reveiw of "EL TOPO" so i thought i`d leave this comment here. Peregrine Fforbes-Hamilton has left a marvellous comment over on Soiled Sinemas reveiw of "I WILL WALK LIKE A CRAZY HORSE" (which is similar to Jodorowskys movies which is why i referenced "EL TOPO" earlier).