The Wizard of Oz (1939, Victor Fleming)

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!!! A+ FILM !!!

When this extraordinarily rich fantasy explodes into color at the fifteen-minute mark, it’s already run one of its most crushingly beautiful sequences before us: that in which Judy Garland, as L. Frank Baum’s dreamflighted Dorothy, gazes off into the far distance and sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” instantly connecting us with the longing mood at the heart of this precocious character. She longs for escape of the sort that only adulthood can bring, but now she belongs in Kansas to form the memories of this life and childhood, for all its hardship and acrimony (the priggish Miss Gulch and her intentions to steal away little dog Toto) — and the roundabout journey, to travel far to find what’s near, provides the thesis of The Wizard of Oz. For all the audacious Technicolor in the Oz sequences, we find ourselves unable to shake the simplistic beauty of Dorothy’s steps through the farm singing her song, the minimal moment that expresses so much.

Baum himself didn’t intend Oz to have a moral, rather — believing that children got plenty of that in other areas — designing an absorbing story free of didactic lecturing, meant to be fun material for a kid to get lost in. The image set inherited from the source material in the expansive MGM adaptation is enjoyably outlandish and tremendous in scale, retaining the ability to impress and inspire decades after it permanently entered the Western cultural lexicon. Yet there is more here than a traditional fantasy story; from Baum’s humanist, exciting, populist text we’re given the blueprint for a surreal and deeply moving allegorical journey traveling to the root of so much about the dream state, the human inclination to believe and disbelieve, the inherent insecurity of maturation, and finally cinema itself. To claim it’s simply a movie for kids is appallingly reductive, yet to claim it’s anything but a film for kids is to deny its sense of absolute, pure joy and ecstasy.

It’s difficult to say how much the intervening years have enhanced this, but producer Mervyn LeRoy designs Dorothy’s journey to the Emerald City as a cut-to-the-bone spiritual odyssey. The film’s structure is as appealingly circular and fascinatingly simple as that of Keaton’s The General, its pacing even more economical and rapid: Dorothy, her caring family and cantankerous neighbor are all introduced in sepia-toned black & white; a tornado picks up the house and carries Dorothy and Toto to Oz; she accidentally kills the Wicked Witch of the East and meets with the Good Witch of the North, who fits her with slippers and provides some minimal exposition, after which we’re introduced to the brutal Gulch-mirroring Wicked Witch of the West, one of filmdom’s most delightful villains; told by the local Munchkins to follow the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City in order to meet up with the Wizard of Oz and return to Kansas, Dorothy sets out and meets up with, in order, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion — each corresponding to a farm worker — and reaches the Emerald City only to be instructed to recover the Wicked Witch’s broomstick, a suicide mission that leads to much treachery and action until the Witch is, again, accidentally killed and Dorothy and her friends’ return to the Emerald City is triumphant. Unfortunately, the Wizard himself is a bust, simply a fabulously flamboyant and preoccupied showman who offers to return Dorothy to Kansas by balloon. But of course, she’s been able to return all along, there’s no place like home, and then she wakes up.

Undoubtedly the film’s emotional, technical, and storytelling perfections need not be underlined; they are staggering — the movie runs virtually uncontested as the artistic peak of the major studio system in the ’30s and the definitive portrait of what it was truly capable of creating. In its thematic elegance, robust visuals, and characterization that never rings false, it stands as one of the few “perfect” films: nothing about it could possibly be improved, and it gives no time for such silly impulses, breezing along at a 103-minute clip. This achievement is made more severely daunting when one considers that this film so seamless in style and tone was in the hands of no fewer than six directors, all but one (Victor Fleming, the same beneficiary of a similar arrangement in Gone with the Wind the same year) uncredited. In much the same way that Gone with the Wind is more accurately a Selznick picture than a Fleming picture, The Wizard of Oz is really a true labor of love for LeRoy. It was his project, his baby, and he made a landmark of it.

The script — which for all its indebtedness to Baum is really a creation unto itself, rife with dialogue so unforgettable that few scenes in the film have failed to become endlessly quoted pop culture touchstones — is an even more extreme case of widespread meddling. Credited to three writers plus Baum for source material, it in fact involved at least eighteen. (Among the unexpected names in that list: Ogden Nash!) Miraculously, something holds the final product together beautifully, and it must be stated that a large part of its consistency is a credit to its actors. Garland is truly magnificent — the perfect synthesis of naivete, growth, genuine humor and unfiltered sadness. The other showpiece is Margaret Hamilton, hilarious embodiment of Miss Gulch and the ill-fated Wicked Witch of the West, whose nefarious cackling and behavior are the mask affixed over a performance of unrestrained wit and playfulness. And the dream-casting of the supporting roles is an unparalleled coup: Ray Bolger’s Scarecrow, Jack Haley’s Tin Man, and Bert Lahr’s Lion all define themselves by something drawn from the richest of depths, and all are achingly touching and frenetically comic. Then of course there’s Frank Morgan, fulfilling seemingly half the other roles in the film, putting his incessant little chuckle from The Great Ziegfeld into transcendent use.

The Wizard of Oz is also an integral showcase for MGM itself (those lavishly artificial sets looking more opulent than ever, at last in service of a tale and landscape as bizarre as their appearance), for Technicolor, and most importantly for Arthur Freed. Because he was promoted shortly after its completion to the head of his own unit, known for its monumental films that essentially shaped the Hollywood musical over the next decade, this can stand as the first true film of that crucial operation of the all-important architect of a genre. It couldn’t be a stronger construction as a musical, with a run of terrific songs by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg. “Over the Rainbow” is the legacy, the totem, and deservedly so, but what would our film culture be without “Ding! Dong! The Witch Is Dead,” “If I Only Had a Brain,” and that joyful lions and tigers and bears chant? It’s an almost biblical event, to witness the creation of these tropes that have lived on for each generation after.

Which brings us to another point, about subtext. At least as much as The Wizard of Oz is about growing up and appreciating home, beneath a very thin surface it’s about a loss of faith — an atheist allegory. The garish beauty of Oz might be some abstract slice of a Heaven conception in all its colorful otherworldliness and well-lit absence of mystery; it’s beautiful and kitschy at once and Dorothy’s appreciation of its strangeness is hampered by her confusion and her desire to return to the rational world she now longs for. As much as Oz may operate as its own metaphor for a kind of independence that Dorothy will one day discover in her own world, it is also an encouragement to her own rebellion, to standing up for her convictions and independence. The presence of a God figure is explicit in the personage of the Wizard, a supposedly all-knowing figure who turns out to be a posturing little man who’s full of ironic and syrupy feelgoodisms and easy solutions (and diplomas!) handily mocked by the film; in this sense it’s not just easily read as an atheist screed but a highly observant and well-reasoned one.

Or perhaps this is merely a function of Wizard‘s sharp, biting humor, one of its most gracefully aged elements along with its then-peerless special effects work (the tornado looks stronger and scarier than any CGI); people tend not to remember just how funny and lively the movie is, which in some respects is a Freed trademark — it also holds true for Singin’ in the Rain, his other masterpiece. It’s not just that modern comedy touchstones like The Simpsons constantly reference this, they borrow from its tones and its general wit, to say nothing of its effortless pathos, often manifested by the wounded humor in a character like the Lion.

Which is another way of saying, the movie makes me cry, and I can tell you when: when Dorothy sings her song in the first act, I cry; when she sees Aunt Em in the crystal ball and apologizes to her and tries to reach her, I cry; and most of all I cry when she leaves Oz and says goodbye to her friends, individually. But then it becomes clear she doesn’t really have to say goodbye to them, not really, and I cry again. And luckily, we needn’t say goodbye either — this crucial part of our culture and heritage is ours to keep, and something we can be proud of allowing to ingratiate us. But a moment like realizing that there really is no place like home, that’s worth more than all the yellow brick roads and emerald cities there can ever be.

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One thought on “The Wizard of Oz (1939, Victor Fleming)

  1. I’ve never really thought about the humor like that. It’s one of the reasons why, no matter how old the movie gets, it never feels dated. That and there isn’t any overacting like there was in some of those old movies, especially children. If they would have used a younger actress it could have been a very annoying movie.

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