Judy Garland - Dorothy Gale
Ray Bolger - Scarecrow/Hunk
Jack Haley, Sr. - Tin Man/Hickory
Bert Lahr - Cowardly Lion/Zeke
Margaret Hamilton - Wicked Witch of the West/Elvira Gulch
Frank Morgan - Oz/Professor Marvel
Billie Burke - Glinda
Clara Blandick - Auntie Em
Charley Grapewin - Uncle Henry
Genre - Fantasy/Family/Musical/Supernatural/Witchcraft
Running Time - 101 Minutes
It's always difficult deciding what film should be covered for each milestone review I write. Should it be a film I absolutely love? Should it be a film within the genres I cover that is so popular, it needs to be covered? Should it be one of the worst films out there, leading me to go on a sarcastic tirade, bashing the film in every way? It's a tough choice.
Usually, I like to go with a film I absolutely love, since every 50th review I write feels a bit special. The 650th review was actually a pretty easy choice, since I have been wanting to publish something about this particular film for years. With a blockbuster prequel having been released back in March [which became one of the biggest films of the year], I figured in order to discuss that film, I might as well start from the Judy Garland classic.
1939's THE WIZARD OF OZ is probably a film anyone reading this has seen in their lifetime at least once. It's a classic that everyone has dissected, talked about, and even tried to sequelize or reboot in some way - in both movie, animated, and theatrical form. L. Frank Baum's most popular novel has become a pop culture giant, and the film is still shown every Thanksgiving for years now. There's no place like home, and to get there, it's time to follow that yellow brick road and see why this movie is still as wonderful as it probably was almost 80 decades ago.
Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) from Kansas is whisked away inside her house by a massive cyclone along her loyal dog, Toto. When the house lands, Dorothy steps out to find out she's been transported to some magical land called Oz. She also learns that her house has landed on the Wicked Witch of the East, killing her. The Munchkin natives of Oz congratulate and celebrate with Dorothy for killing the witch, because now they're independent of her rule. While she's treated like royalty by a good witch named Glinda (Billie Burke) for her deed, Dorothy just wants to find her way back home to her Auntie Em (Clara Blandick) and Uncle Henry (Charley Grapewin). Glinda and the Munchkins tell Dorothy that she must follow the Yellow Brick Road, that leads to Emerald City, to find a wizard named Oz (Frank Morgan), who will grant any wish she desires.
As Dorothy follows the road, she encounters three new friends. The first is a Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), who wants a brain. Then they encounter a Tin Man (Jack Haley, Sr.), who only wants a heart. Finally, they meet the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr), who wants a jolt of courage to confront his foes. As the four of them head to Emerald City, they're being chased by the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton). This dangerous villain not only wants revenge on Dorothy for killing her sister from the East, but she wants possession of Dorothy's powerful ruby slippers that were her sister's to begin with.
It's hard to really review THE WIZARD OF OZ. What do I say that others haven't already said or written about such an immortal classic movie? It's probably the greatest family fantasy film ever made, based on a novel that's actually better than this fantastic adaptation. It's hard to really be objective with this film. I've seen it so many times since I was a kid, so my enjoyment of it sort of blinds any flaws the film probably has here and there. But THE WIZARD OF OZ is still as magical to me as an adult as when I first watched it. It's just that good.
To go deep inside the screenplay would be missing the point with THE WIZARD OF OZ. It would also be redundant, as it's well written, logical, and deeper than one would think. The dialogue is memorable. The characters all have distinct personalities and looks that make them special. The narrative follows a path anyone can follow, carrying various themes all ages can relate to. Sure, a lot of things from the novel were either omitted or changed. The silver slippers are now ruby [a color that's more vibrant onscreen]. Glinda the Good Witch is the blending of two characters in the novel [the Witches of the North and South]. The Wicked Witch makes her appearance much later in the story, although her role in this adaptation makes her a better and more present villainess. The Scarecrow and Tin Man had deep backstories. Certain characters and dangerous situations were left out for time constraints and possibly flow issues. Obviously, you'll get more out of the story by reading the novel. But the screenplay adapts the essence and more important parts of the narrative, so it works really well in terms of cinema.
I think what's most interesting about the adaptation are the themes. Obviously, we have good vs. evil. We have reality vs. illusion/magic. There's the idea that what we want in life is within ourselves. However as an adult, I've noticed some political allegories when it comes to THE WIZARD OF OZ. I'm not sure if L. Frank Baum had intended this in his novel back in 1896 - although I'm sure there was some influence. But it's pretty clear to see some metaphors when it comes the film version. Oz, the Great and Powerful, is a stand-in for any powerful political leader who makes promises to people that he can't really make. He appears as this giant head, looking menacing and all-knowing.
But in reality, he's just an illusionist behind a screen who has no real idea what he's doing ruling Oz. He's corrupted by the power because it makes him feel important. He also lets the citizens go at war with each other to solve the land's problems, rather than doing something himself to aid in the situation. The Wicked Witch of the West is the embodiment of sin and corruption. She's greedy for ruby slippers. She assaults innocent people to send a message. She sends out Winged Monkeys to tear the stuffing out of the Scarecrow, or mistreat Toto. She has the power, but uses it in ways that doesn't benefit anyone but herself. In other words, she's a dictator. Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, The Cowardly Lion, and all the Munchkins are the lower-to-middle class workers who expect rewards from their government - in this case, Oz. Each character wants something individually, but Oz makes them work for it. When they do the job, Oz still refuses to help, leading Dorothy and the others to reveal the truth about the ruler. This revelation that Oz is a fraud gives Dorothy and her group the knowledge that they had the power all along. And without them, Oz would cease to exist due to the presence of the Wicked Witch of the West. The truth allows the Land of Oz to be more independent than they were before Dorothy had arrived. I may be looking way too deep into the theme, but it's clearly there if you really look at it. I think the allegory is pretty interesting, and gives one a different perspective on the film as an adult as it most likely did as a child.
The special effects for its time are quite impressive. Even in 2013, you have to marvel at how much work was put into the production of this film, as color was ultra rare in cinema at the time. Kansas is a black and white world, which seems to represent how simple life is there, and that certain things are right and certain things are wrong - there's no middle ground. Oz, in its Technicolor glory [which I'm sure amazed audiences back in 1939], creates more freedoms and represents all shades of right and wrong. It also allows Oz to feel more like this fantasy, surreal world compared to the dreary and boring looking Kansas. You also got to admire the wire work as the Wicked Witch of the West flies around on her broom, or as the Winged Monkeys make their presence known in the air. We also get moments of trapped doors, like when the Witch melts due to water being thrown at her. The sets are lavish and creative. The make-up work is fantastic for 1939. There was a lot of work put into the film's presentation, making THE WIZARD OF OZ one of the most expensive films for its time. Strangely enough, the film wasn't a huge box office success [it did well enough], gaining its life through television showings. I guess it was one of those films that found its appreciation later in life.
The direction by Victor Fleming is very good. Fleming, mainly a silent film director who would also direct the classic 1939 GONE WITH THE WIND, really gives the film life through his visualization of both Kansas and Oz. I love the transition that occurs when Dorothy opens her black and white door to reveal a brightly colored Oz once the house lands. It's such a classic moment in cinema history, probably making audiences awestruck at the use of colors and composition. Fleming also gives THE WIZARD OF OZ a ton of energy through a fast pace, and with memorable great music [songs that will transcend time] that moves the story forward. I also like how the set designs and the way Fleming directs his actors create an artificiality about Oz, which works in the film's favor. I also love Oz's huge green head, which is a great visual and special effects moment - especially in 1939. Fleming creates a fairy tale come to life in terms of his visuals, which is probably a big reason why the film is still loved by all ages today.
THE FINAL HOWL
JUDY GARLAND - "SOMEWHERE OVER THE RAINBOW"