Retrospective: The Wizard of Oz – 80th Anniversary

I don’t believe I’m out of line in identifying this as the most famous film ever made. The fantasy/adventure musical adapted from L. Frank Baum’s famous children’s novel has transcended the medium of film itself to become entirely inseparable from our culture at large. The music, the characters, the iconography, all so deeply embedded into our subconscious that most of us can probably piece together the entire film in our heads, no matter how long it has been since we’ve seen it. That was certainly the case for me when I trekked out of the house earlier this year to catch a screening for the film’s 80th anniversary. It had been a good fifteen years since I had seen the film, not since I was still a child, and yet I remembered it all so vividly. Like most Americans, I was a student of television growing up, and The Wizard of Oz enjoyed frequent broadcasts throughout my youth. It played even more for my parents’ generation, and they made sure I got the same education as they did in that regard. Only recently have I learned that there are, in fact, people who haven’t seen the film before, or only recently saw it for the first time. To me, such an idea is unthinkable, because I can’t imagine a childhood without it. 

The Wizard of Oz. Dir. Victor Fleming.

Some years ago, I asked my mother what her favorite movie was. Her answer left me with the impression that favorite anythings weren’t much of a concern to her, but nonetheless, she told me it was The Wizard of Oz, and that stuck with me. I’ve always associated the film with watching it with my parents, even if I’m only now realizing that. My dad used to occasionally mimic the angry trees from the film to get a laugh out of me, and only now do I realize he was misquoting the film when he’d adopt a gravelly voice and say, “Hey! What do you think you’re doing with my apples?!” We didn’t watch a lot of films in my household growing up; the intersection of what was available and what would hold my adolescent attention was actually quite small, but the wonder and joy of The Wizard of Oz struck a chord in a way that led us to look forward to the annual viewings of the film on television, like many other families across the country. So why, then, have I actively not sought out the film again through the entirety of my adulthood? A DVD copy of the film sits on my shelf this very moment, and has for more than five years, yet I’ve never desired to pop it into the player to see how I’d view the film today. I wasn’t waiting to see it in a theater intentionally, I didn’t even know there were going to be screenings for the film until the week before. The only explanation I can supply is that I could already see the film in my head, every single frame, and whatever Victor Fleming and his mountainous crew at MGM had actually made couldn’t measure up to the defining fantasy of my childhood. 

Shooting the Tin Man sequence during production of The Wizard of Oz.

As I stood in line waiting to purchase my ticket for the showing, I was only slightly worried that the film wouldn’t be as good. My rational instincts told me any film could not garner such ubiquity without being at least competently made, if not a masterpiece. I had faith that my memories of the gorgeous set design and enchanting songs from the film were very much deserving of their indelible reputation. Still, movies are no longer just entertainment for me. I’ve become very much aware of the process of storytelling, and can pick between good and bad production details. I’m not fool enough to think the film’s iconic status equally translates to its overall quality. For the first twenty or so minutes of the film, this was very much my thought process. While still pleasantly enjoying the cheery tone of the film, the material did feel very elementary. The dialogue is designed to be simplistic enough for any child to understand, hammering in the importance of brains, heart, and courage from the characters who would desire such traits later on in the film. It definitely sags somewhat in the first act, as we impatiently wait for the terrible tornado to come whisk us away to the technicolor adventure we’ve come to expect. 

The Wizard of Oz. Dir. Victor Fleming.

It wasn’t long before I learned that my memory of the film wasn’t as complete as I had initially believed. I was certain I knew the entire film by heart, but was rather surprised when Dorothy ran away from home and encountered the traveling fortune teller who sneakily tricks her into going back to her aunt out of the goodness of his heart. My childish attention span was just as impatient for the film to get going as I was in the present. I should have remembered, because all the major characters in Oz have a Kansas counterpart, and there’s nobody else to represent the Wizard in the real world, but nonetheless, I was caught off guard. His sincere form of snake oil proves to be an effective parallel to the fanciful trickery of the Wizard, more so than the blatant forecasting of the three farmhands that are to be the colorful trio that accompanies Dorothy. This scene is also when the storm comes in to play, and with it, the film really picks up steam. It’s still a really impressive sequence, with genuine terror and real danger going on in the frame. The way the door of the house flies off the hinges as Dorothy attempts to gain shelter inside is particularly alarming, as well as the violent throwing of the bed around the room once the house takes flight. While Fleming does get sole credit in the film’s direction, he did have to take leave during production to finish work on David O. Selznick’s grandiose masterwork Gone With the Wind (1939), and thus legendary Hollywood director King Vidor finished shooting on some of the early Kansas sequences, including the tornado scene. I think his touch really shows, as the intensity of the sequence is never quite matched throughout the rest of the film, even in the scenes involving Margaret Hamilton’s gruesome Wicked Witch of the West. 

The Wizard of Oz. Dir. Victor Fleming.

The marvelous technicolor transition is still as astonishing and awe-inspiring to see as an adult as it was as a child. I caught my fiancé sitting beside me tearing up out of the corner of my eye. It was pointed out to me some time back that they used a double for Dorothy painted in sepia-tone to open the door, revealing the lush and colorful land of Oz. Judy Garland waited just out of frame, and once the stand-in stepped out, she took her place in front of the camera, unveiling the iconic costume in all its glory. I kept an eye out for the switch-over, now knowing how it was supposed to work. It’s always fascinating to watch the actual process of movie magic unfold before your eyes. From here onward, I remembered every event of the film. The arrival of Glinda the Good Witch and all the lively little munchkins played like clockwork. Though I vividly remembered the remaining sequences of the film, I seemed to have misplaced some of their context, because I did not recall the celebration of the Wicked Witch of the East’s death to be so morbid, odd as that may seem. Yes, I understand the refrain for the song is a gleeful “Ding dong, the Witch is dead!”, but it’s actually a really long sequence parading around the town square with increasing theatricality. At one point, they bring forth a munchkin coroner to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Witch is positively, absolutely, unequivocally dead. It’s an excessive ceremony, but perhaps deservedly so given the implication of long withstanding oppression of the munchkin people, and remains as entertaining a number musically as I had remembered. 

The Wizard of Oz. Dir. Victor Fleming.

Finally, comes the introduction of Dorothy’s three fanciful guides through the yellow-bricked wonderland. The Scarecrow was my favorite of the three growing up, I’m not particularly sure why. Perhaps it was because he has the most convincing costume, which still looks incredible these 80 years later. The makeup phenomenally blends wrinkles on his face with the burlap of the outer hood of the costume, matching his facial color to the bag seamlessly. Ray Bolger has great physicality as the character as well, constantly falling over as if he were actually made of straw and didn’t have a single bone to his body, or a brain. Clever readers will surely attribute my like of the Scarecrow to a shared lack of intelligence, which I will grant them in some respects. I think the real reason I liked him best was probably that my dad liked him most, too. When quoting the film, he often mimed the bit where the Scarecrow would stuff handfuls of hay back into his body, or when the Witch sets him ablaze later on in the film. I don’t have as much to say about the Tin Man, either from this viewing or my own recollections as a child. He always left me somewhat cold, but again I give considerable credit to the great costume design of his character. It’s not as seamless as the Scarecrow, but the shiny metallic silver has always been striking, even before he gets the cleaning in the Emerald City. The rusted look of him is actually more impressive in many ways, and I always found the detail of his oily tears to be rather remarkable.

The Wizard of Oz. Dir. Victor Fleming.

The Cowardly Lion had always favored the least curry with me these past 15 years. Perhaps his costume wasn’t as impressive, or his plight for courage wasn’t as endearing, at least to my adolescent memory of the character. Now, I don’t see how he can be anything but the favorite of the film. Bert Lahr is an absolute ham in the role and having the time of his life doing so. From the moment he leaps on-screen, arms poised for fisticuffs, and antagonizing the trio of travelers with his thick New York accent, he’s an absolute riot. Unlike the Scarecrow and the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion is given an additional song beyond the introductory tune that establishes each member’s absent trait: an operatic ballad just before meeting the fabled Wizard proclaiming how he’d rule over his domain when he receives his newfound courage, played entirely for laughs. The excessively exaggerated vibrato he employs throughout the song is absolutely hilarious, further accentuated by his equally exaggerated facial expressions. Lahr plays this character with an almost blisteringly tongue-in-cheek nature, winking at the audience and playing up the exorbitantly silly character for our amusement. The pièce de résistance of this comedic masterclass is the small moment just before the end of the song, where Dorothy, Scarecrow, and Tin Man all bow in the majestic presence of the new forest king, rolling out the green carpet and draping him in a flowery raffish rug. One last piece completes the picture: the Tin Man picks up his trusty axe and, on beat with the music, smacks it against a nearby flower pot to create a makeshift crown, resulting in a side-splitting “thud”. I was in stitches, caught off guard by the frankness of the joke, and still reeling from the Lion’s parodic performance. Leaving the theater that night, I had a new favorite scene to look back on for the future. 

The Wizard of Oz. Dir. Victor Fleming.

Finally, we meet with the Wizard and are given the mission that will propel our protagonists into the grasp of the maniacal Wicked Witch of the West. Before now, we’ve only been given brief glimpses of Margaret Hamilton’s beguilingly wretched performance. Now, she captures our central attention, and becomes the immediate and present threat of the film she’s been alluded to be. “Fly my pretties!” she caws as her monkey minions take to the skies and capture poor Dorothy and Toto. Hamilton’s gleeful embodiment of the Witch still remains the benchmark for all future pointed-hat spellcasters. In fact, her role here is probably the best example of how the iconography of the film has so widely manifested in our popular culture. Think about how immediately we associate witches with green skin and long, hook-shaped noses. This is the image we see plastered all over our annual Halloween decorations, so much so that it’s become as associated with the holiday as bright orange Jack-O-Lanterns and bone-white skulls. Hamilton relishes every moment she has on-screen, and provides a great threat to Dorothy and her adorable canine companion. But, for all her threat and menacing, she rather arbitrarily decides Dorothy’s fate by an ambiguous crimson sand timer (?) before racing out of the room for seemingly no reason. It’s a rather bizarre excuse to leave Dorothy alone for what was supposed to be a reprise of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” that ultimately got cut from the film. 

The Wizard of Oz. Dir. Victor Fleming.

The climactic race against the clock to free Dorothy from the Witch’s castle plays less like the exciting action sequence it’s presented as and more like the unavoidable result of putting your central character in a perilous situation for the sake of drama that you now have to haphazardly write your way out of, which it is. It’s kind of silly watching them run from one side of the empty castle set to the other in an attempt to convey some sense of thrill. The entire sequence at the castle is absent of any real threat, outside of Hamilton’s delightful cackling. Generally, the sequence fades from our memory as quickly as it enters, aside from the demise of the Wicked Witch. On a story level, it’s actually kind of ant-climactic: “Whoops! Dorothy spilled this ordinary liquid on the main antagonist. Turns out that was exactly the thing needed to defeat her despite no prior indication or sensible explanation!” People like to harp on the aliens from Signs (2002) for having the same weakness, but I’ve heard little complaint in the direction of this beloved classic. That’s probably because the combination of the effect of her melting and Hamilton’s shrieking curses as she sinks into the ground works to be genuinely frightening. It’s not iconic for nothing. 

The Wizard of Oz. Dir. Victor Fleming.

From one iconic moment to the next, we move straight into the reveal of the man behind the curtain. As stated earlier, Frank Morgan does a good job of balancing the Wizard’s inherent deceitfulness with genuine good intentions, and does so through some cleverly cynical jabs I only now understand as the jaded adult I am. Even back in 1939 we joked about how fruitless higher education can be, as he presents the Scarecrow with a diploma, stating that people from great universities have “no more brains than you have”; relevant to the struggling college students of today. He presents the Cowardly Lion with a medal of honor, similar to those worn by soldiers when they parade in the streets in a display of specious valor. In the years preceding World War II we see recognition of the kind of drummed up praise we unload onto soldiers by way of our country’s odious nationalistic traditions. Hmm… On second thought, I’m not sure if this children’s fantasy film really put this much thought into potential social commentary of a singular moment within its final minutes. Perhaps I have gotten too lost in the weeds of cinematic analysis to just enjoy the pretty colors and sentimental feelings. Maybe the Tin Man can loan me his artificial new heart so I can stop worrying about the film’s implicit message warning never to leave your home or explore new horizons beyond those in your immediate community. Somewhat regressive in that regard, wouldn’t you say?

The Wizard of Oz. Dir. Victor Fleming.

Questionable thematic implications aside, how does The Wizard of Oz fare these four scores after the fact? A lot has been done to solidify its grand reputation over the course of many generations. In this viewing, I hadn’t even considered the many conspiracies and mysteries involved in the film’s legacy, as well as the all the tumultuous production stories that range from Judy Garland’s burgeoning substance abuse to the many on-set incidents that resulted in the severe injury of multiple major cast members. My focus was squarely on the film itself, and how it’s held up in the lengthy absence of my adolescent viewing rituals. Like the walls of the house I grew up in, it shows its age in some ways. The colors haven’t faded like I feared they may, and all the things I remember giving me so much joy are still there, as well as a few I forgot. Sitting in the theater that early autumn evening felt like coming home, like meeting an old friend and reminiscing on the days we have seen. The Wizard of Oz was as formative a cinematic experience as I’ve ever had, even if I’m only just now coming to realize that. It’s the first film I can truly remember seeing as a child, and it’s wonderful to know that these fifteen, eighty, or however many years later, it will continue to be an influential and wonderful dream of musical fantasy packaged in an unbelievably imaginative, and sincerely magical manner, rendering us all childlike again. Considering how lasting and all-encompassing this feeling seems to be, I think it’s safe to say its reputation isn’t just the result of collective nostalgia; it really is that special. 

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