08 August 2008

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

d. Victor Fleming / USA / 101 mins.

I've always taken for the granted the greatness of The Wizard of Oz, a movie that has just always "been there" – always been on television, always been easily accessible for my (and our collective) consciousness, always been a reference point for those basic pearls of wisdom that influence the mind of a child. Ask any random person on the street a general question about the film and it would be astonishing if they didn't immediately know the answer: What is the heroine's name? Her dog's name? Who are the individuals that accompany her to see the wizard? Who is the villain? What color are the slippers?

Then consider how rooted its quotations are in pop culture:

• "Somewhere over the rainbow..."
• "I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore."
• "Follow the yellow-brick road."
• "Ding dong, the witch is dead!"
• "We're off to see the wizard!"
• "Lions, and tigers, and bears? Oh my!"
• "I'll get you, my pretty. And your little dog, too!"
• "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!"
• "I'm mel-l-l-l-l-ting!"
• "There's no place like home."

And all this without not even mentioning Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon.

Although we have no way of measuring such things, I suspect more people have seen this movie than any other. Of course, it's not the saturation of its characters or its quotable lines (and melodies) that make the movie great; those are effects rather than causes. The Wizard of Oz is a great movie because it tells a great story in a great way. It's really that simple – or rather, it only sounds that simple because most movies can't even claim to do that.

Based off the book by L. Frank Baum, the plot barely warrants re-mentioning except in the most academic of settings, where it is teased through and analyzed for metaphors and subtexts Baum might be frightened to learn we have read into it. We know Dorothy (Judy Garland) is sucked into Oz by a tornado, and there she meets the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion (Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, and Bert Lahr), who accompany her to see the wizard and help her steer away from the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton). The plot speaks to the kid in all of us, and the way it skips through genres – it's an adventure and a fantasy and a musical and a comedy, all wrapped into one – is something even the most sophisticated cinephile can appreciate.

The Wizard of Oz was directed by Victor Fleming, who worked with others but earned solitary billing (on this and the other huge film from 1939, Gone With The Wind). It goes without saying that the film is an accomplished technical feat, even for 1939. The best decisions were the simplest ones: going from sepia-tone to Technicolor, never fully saying if what happened was really a dream, etc. The wildly vivid and imaginative art direction and set design is such an important part of the film's success, too, and I won't tolerate any nay-saying on the production quality. At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon who throws his bucket of popcorn upon contemporary blockbuster films, part of the reason we give a pass to The Wizard of Oz for its special effects is that it's a completely competent motion picture in terms of its direction, script, vision, and performance. In other words, it doesn't depend upon its special effects – the matte paintings, the men in suits – to tell its story well. They are tools that transport us there – like a torando, really – but once we're there it's up to the performers to work hard for us. (If The Wizard of Oz were made today, one wonders whether the Cowardly Lion would be a CGI beast and defeat the whole purpose.)

This is one of those movies where production trivia runs amok, the surest sign it's a valued piece of Americana. Reviews seem obligated to mention the four directors (Richard Thorpe, fired; George Cukor, temp; Fleming, final; King Vidor, wrap-up) and the casting problems (Buddy Epsen's allergic reaction to the Tin Man makeup and Hamilton's burns from the Wicked Witch's puffs of smoke). Then there are the urban legends: the hanging man (not there) and the synchronization with Dark Side of the Moon (eerily close at times). Partly it's because we like to think of what might have been, but mostly it's because we wouldn't have the film any other way, luck be damned. These facts and tidbits show us the potential flaws in an otherwise stellar film, a sign that its makers were only human although their product is otherworldly.

Two final thoughts: Is it possible for a movie to be great enough that we don't need to see it anymore? If so, The Wizard of Oz might be the likeliest candidate. I've seen it so many times it's not a movie I purposefully seek out anymore, regardless of my high feelings for it. But every time I stumble across it I can't deny how entertaining it is, which leads right to my second thought. This is probably an amateurish theory at best, but I would estimate that in the course of a normal human life, the average person will earnestly watch The Wizard of Oz at least three times: once as a child, having never seen it before; once as an adult, really seeing it for what it's worth; and finally once through the eyes of a child, perhaps your own, when you see those eyes widen and the jaw hang agape and you realize just how magical the movie can be the first time around. I've accomplished the first two. Call me sentimentalist, but that third time just might be the most joyous.


Anonymous,  28 May, 2009  


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