Tuesday, August 07, 2012

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

#23: The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming/George Cukor/Mervyn LeRoy/King Vidor, 1939)

There are things I trace back directly to my early exposure to those annual television airings of The Wizard of Oz hosted by Danny Kaye, which usually occurred around Easter time, if I recall correctly: A fascination with tornado footage (better than ever nowadays via the storm-chaser shows). An appreciation for long roads that stretch to the horizon—my idle meeting-time doodles are full of them. How many shots of long roads and horizons, only partially blocked by the backs of our heroes, are in this? You'd be surprised.

More than anything, this is where my taste for horror movies started, because that's what basically happens here. It's a bit like that joke about going to the fights and a hockey game breaks out. Right in the middle of a colorful, goofy MGM musical, there's a witch who scares the hell out of any sensible 9-year-old expecting carefree, happy-go-lucky, parent-approved saccharine. Or anyway that's what happened to me. Mary Poppins this is not. Getting through it was a rite of endurance for a lot of years, a battle with my own adrenaline, and I didn't always win. But I survived, and that's the paradoxical pleasure of horror reduced to its fine point.

I know I am a wimp nonpareil on these matters, but I'm not the only one who started to feel queasy at the first sign of those grumpy talking apple trees throwing fruit. The clip at the link is as good an example as any. The full might and malevolence of the green-toned witch is on display. Hordes of flying monkeys darken the skies, the woods are terrifying, Dorothy is chased to ground and unceremoniously hauled away, and her dog too. One of the characters is literally torn limb from limb. "That's you all over," says another, gathering up the pieces. But the comic relief didn't help when I was a kid.

As with It's a Wonderful Life and Blue Velvet I keep coming back to this for the dynamics, the tensions that threaten to tear it apart, and the ability it has to hold itself together and remain entertaining every step of the yellow brick way. It's one of the best and most original dream movies, not least for its famous switch from the sepia tones of Kansas to the blazing technicolor of Oz, but also for the way it incorporates all its characters into both of its halves, with that kind of insane dream logic not often done well. And, yes, I go for the cheese whole. Judy Garland: "If I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own backyard. Because if it isn't there, I never really lost it to begin with." Somebody get me a hanky. I still love this.

"Take your army to the haunted forest and bring me that girl and her dog."

Phil #23: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Milos Forman, 1975) (scroll down)
Steven #23: Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)

Right about here is where a countdown usually starts to get exciting. It's the numbers that do it. You have to start back far enough, of course—at least 40, and 100 is a good round number. So is 50. Countdowns like this inevitably lose a little steam after the start until about here, as one approaches territories such as top 20, top 10, top 5, 3, 2, etc. Then somehow, for me anyway, even taste doesn't have so much to do with it anymore. I just want to know what's next. Also, knowing what's already been picked, I am usually making obsessive efforts to guess and outguess the surprises and quirks. There's plenty of opportunity for that coming up. We are nothing if not cranks of a bent.

Speaking of, after my string of It's a Wonderful Life, Blue Velvet, and The Wizard of Oz, Phil accused me of "playing to the crowd," which is an interesting idea. I keep running into people who dislike or reflexively dismiss all three of them, but yes, they have impressive histories of being well loved too, and fanatically so (and, arguably, by buffoons and morons). Phil later expressed some regret about his pick here, choosing Jack Nicholson's famous Milos Forman vehicle over Chinatown because I had already picked Chinatown. I think he wanted to keep the pot stirred and interesting, or at least varied, and at this point he seemed more and more to be making his choices with some consideration for our own, to counterpoint and underline themes. That was interesting but somehow kind of unnerving too. More and more there are threads we picked up on from one another in the write-ups, so don't miss Phil's and Steven's pieces at the links above as we go. One of Phil's biggest last-minute shifts, which affected all of us, is just a couple of turns away. And another issue: Dealing with "the canon" would inevitably come more and more into play as we climbed our lists up this high—it's hard to know how to deal with the great marble monuments exactly (did Vertigo really just get better than Citizen Kane, e.g.?), especially with an inclination toward being contrarian, and we each would have separate strategies for that, usually accompanied by notes of "I can't help myself here" as we resorted to canon picks. This will all make sense.


  1. "Jeff's working the crowd again...Elemental, like Shakespeare or the bible. (Of the three, I know The Wizard of Oz about a million times better.) It would have been one of my picks in university, which was the first time I attempted one of these lists."

    I gotta keep tabs on you---I was just kidding!

  2. Ha -- Dave comes up this Friday.