Wednesday, 23 July 2014

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Country: USA
Based on: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (1900)
Director:Victor Fleming
Producer: Mervyn LeRoy
Screenplay: Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, Edgar Allan Woolf
Starring: Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Margaret Hamilton
Music: Herbert Stothart (score), Harold Arlen (music), E.Y. Harburg (lyrics)
Length: 101 minutes

A girl and her dog make an unscheduled trip by tornado to the magical land of Oz and traverse a yellow-bricked gauntlet of midgets, monsters, witches, and wizards to find their way home.

1939 was a banner year for Victor Fleming, who directed both Oz and Gone With the Wind then sat back and watched them compete for Best Picture at the 12th Annual Oscars. Piggybacking on the success of Disney's Snow White at a cost of $2.8 million, Oz barely broke even before rocketing to $248 million in re-releases, especially on television where it quickly became a perennial favourite and one of the best-reviewed films of all time.

The producers nearly caved and turned Oz into a hip and swingin' Jitterbug club with Buddy Ebsen as the Scarecrow, Ray Bolger as the Tin Man, and W.C. Fields as the Wiz. Meanwhile, Dorothy's classic rendition of "Over the Rainbow" was almost cut because the same producers considered Garland too good to sing in a barn. Thank the Good Witch that calmer heads prevailed.   

Some movies appear untouchable: classics so firmly embedded in our hearts and entrenched in pop culture that there's little to do but bow and move on. But The Wizard of Oz deserves better than that. All "classic" considerations aside, it is important to remember why Oz staggered imaginations and warmed hearts not just in 1939, but every year since.

This became especially evident after watching Disney's execrable 2013 cash-grab "prequel" starring James Franco, a film in which exactly nothing happened or mattered. A cheap and pointless amusement park ride of a film, it represented the Magic Kingdom at its worst. By contrast, Fleming's interpretation of L. Frank Baum's socially-progressive fantasy is still a superbly acted, emotionally stirring, soul-searching marvel of technicality and filmmaking 75 years later. Taking us down the well-trod path of the hero's journey, it continues to make us laugh and cry and sing and dance as we follow along. It carries us away from the worries of this world to one filled with Technicolor delights and adventure. It surrounds us with good friends who would never leave us. And it reminds us what truly matters in life, while giving us (like Dorothy) the courage to go after it. 

Speaking of Dorothy, I wonder if viewers notice that she, not any of the men in her life (including the Great and Powerful Wizard), is the stable one holding it all together as they make their way to the Emerald City. The fact that Baum was the son-in-law of women's suffrage pioneer Matilida Joslyn Gage may have influenced his tendency to create strong female protagonists in his stories. Either way, the credit is all his for doing so. Like Snow White before her, Dorothy Gale stands as one of film and literature's great action heroes: resilient, resourceful, optimistic, persevering, and above all, unfailingly kind.

At the same time, every man is in the story is incomplete in his own way, though determined to find what he's missing. While not necessarily a masculine slight (Dorothy, too, is in search of something), it is noteworthy that women have all the real power in the land of Oz and do all the saving, from Dorothy to Glinda the Good Witch to Aunty Em. But not without the help of everyone else, including the boys. And Oz's male roles, or more specifically the manner in which they are portrayed, are indeed refreshing. The conventions of the time allowed actors Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley and Bert Lahr to be silly, vulnerable, and even girly in a way that might seem stereotypically gay today, but which was perfectly compatible with that era's concept of manliness. The result is a convincing and highly entertaining group of men unafraid to admit and explore their weaknesses while behaving in truly heroic ways. 

Great pacing, engaging performances, an enduring soundtrack, gorgeous costumes, lavish sets, groundbreaking special effects and that heart-stopping transition from B&W to colour make The Wizard of Oz a wonder even today. But it's Judy Garland's Dorothy and her journey of desire, endurance, friendship, and the power of belief that puts the film over the rainbow and near the top of my all-time favourites list!

This was fun! I haven't seen TWOO (oh, that was fun, too) since I was a kid so it was full of surprises, like seeing it for the first time. I don't remember, for example, seeing any of the introductory black-and-white scenes, only the stuff in colour. Who knew how great those parts were?? Everyone who saw it from the beginning, I guess.

I used to think it was a story about a fidgety girl who had to fight a witch in La La Land to get home. Instead, I discover this beautiful exploration of human isolation, hope, community, and how much in the end we all need each other. A gorgeous film about broken people helping each other find the answers they need, people I instantly recognize: the mean-spirited neighbour, the affable uncle, the passive-versus-disciplinarian parent figures. And who says it's just for kids? Oz speaks to everyone who's ever gone searching for adventure while wishing they could return at whim to the safety of home to be taken care of Aunty Em, whoever that is for each of us. 

Like I said, I used to think it was a story about a girl and a witch. Turns out, it's about me. :)

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