Friday, March 02, 2018

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

USA, 102 minutes
Directors: Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Mervyn LeRoy, Norman Taurog, King Vidor
Writers: Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, Edgar Allan Woolf, L. Frank Baum, Arthur Freed, Irving Brecher, William H. Cannon, Herbert Fields, Jack Haley, E.Y. Harburg, Samuel Hoffenstein, Bert Lahr, John Lee Mahin, Herman J. Mankiewicz, Jack Mintz, Ogden Nash, Robert Pirosh, George Seaton, Sid Silvers
Photography: Harold Rosson
Music: Harold Arlen
Editor: Blanche Sewell
Cast: Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr, Margaret Hamilton, Billie Burke, Charley Grapewin, Clara Blandick, Terry (Toto)

(Early cut for the Facebook countdown here.)

In the 79 years since its release, The Wizard of Oz has come to represent virtually all things to all people. Several years ago, for example, you can see I attempted to drop the overlay of horror on it for the Facebook countdown, comparing it to It's a Wonderful Life and Blue Velvet. I was sincere—The Wizard of Oz has scared me nearly as much as any other movie. Things like the Wicked Witch of the West and her flying monkeys are pretty serious business, and not necessarily just for kids. The joke TV description is funny because it's true: "Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets and then teams up with three strangers to kill again." More recently I've noticed The Wizard of Oz taken by some as a road movie. It's certainly a cartoon, and obviously a musical, and the Munchkins briefly transport it into Freaks territory. Like Casablanca, it speaks to the power of Hollywood collaboration and against the idea of auteurs, with its five directors and 19 writers. Like A Christmas Story (and It's a Wonderful Life) its reputation was cemented only long after its release, facilitated by television. Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon got roped into the circus at some point by stoners. By now, we know The Wizard of Oz so well there's a version of it edited to alphabetize every word. I enjoy it and you might too, a few minutes at a time, but before viewing Of Oz the Wizard take heed of the warning: "This film contains extremely fast editing, flashes of light, abrupt changes in image and sound."

I still forget, or really never knew, the popularity of the original series of children's novels by L. Frank Baum. They arrived at the turn of the century, were wildly loved for decades (though somewhat disreputable among librarians, like Nancy Drew mysteries), and are paid respect in a note at the start of this picture. This iconic 1939 Judy Garland breakout vehicle was actually already the seventh attempt to film Oz—seventh time's the charm, right? It reminds me of the Frankenstein story—once Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was published two centuries ago, stage and then film productions never stopped coming. But now I'm drifting back to talking about it in terms of horror, so let me be clear. I think the best way to view The Wizard of Oz is by taking it as what it's intended to be: an expensive MGM musical built on the bones of vaudeville and meant to be seen in color.

Which immediately reminds me that I never did see it that way for some time. All my formative viewings of it in the '60s (and even '70s) were on black and white televisions only. In fact, I considered the story that it was in both black and white and color to be some kind of myth or urban legend. But in the '70s I crashed a Saturday afternoon library screening intended for suburban children. I had to know if these stories were true. They were, and I was impressed, although it was a terrible print, probably 16mm. For that matter, let's be clear on this point for once. This innovative use of technicolor was brilliant, one of the best features in a movie that is composed of best features, but the scenes in Kansas are shot not in black and white but rather in sepia, which is quite different tonally—more like brown and white, which somehow gives it even more a wonderful feeling of an old America, like some silent movies.

Speaking of tone, The Wizard of Oz is full of clanging paradoxes it never bothers to address, ultimately the right decision I'm sure. For example, it took John Waters pointing it out on a DVD featurette for me to finally notice that Auntie Em is not very likable. She is gruff, dour, and usually ignoring Dorothy. But the biggest whim-wham is built around the movie's narrative core of "There's no place like home." I'm signed on with it totally, which means the hanky is out in the last 15 minutes, but you have to see that home in this movie is the drab Kansas scene of privation and pinched souls. The movie's most compelling reality is over there in what is characterized late as dreamland. That makes, for one thing, "Over the Rainbow" an implicit lie by the moral terms of the movie. While I'm on it, there is also a Glinda problem here, as this so-called Good Witch can be singularly unhelpful and willfully unheeding, plus her beauty is overstated. I know everything happens here for a purpose, but this movie delivers some hard lessons. (Thought experiment: what do you suppose happens to Toto next now that Dorothy has woken from her dream?)

I also learned on a DVD featurette that Dorothy "playing favorites" with these characters, that is, telling Scarecrow he was her favorite, was artifact of a plot thread that was ultimately abandoned. It didn't belong in the picture, in other words. Dorothy actually has much more to say in that moment to the Tin Man and Lion, but perhaps as a result of Dorothy's influence Scarecrow has always been my favorite too—Ray Bolger's boneless dancing style is certainly the one I like best, and I have the most sympathy with someone wanting brains. But, let's be fair, Bert Lahr's Cowardly Lion is constantly stealing the show and getting all the best laugh lines. He's another best feature. The five directors and 19 writers (one of whom is Lahr) seemed to agree because he gets more attention, including a song of his own, "If I Were King of the Forest," which is priceless.

I also noticed how the language itself of The Wizard of Oz has insinuated deeply into at least pop culture, in ways that are starting to remind me of language that traces back to Shakespeare and the Bible. We might say them without even particularly knowing the source: I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.... Surrender Dorothy.... What a world, what a world.... Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.... And, of course, There's no place like home, which strictly speaking comes from a drippy 19th-century ballad, "Home, Sweet Home" (croak along with me now: "Be it ever so humble..."). Still, when you go to Google and look up "there's no place like home," you're greeted with video of Judy Garland. And you can't possibly be surprised.

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