This week marks the 75th anniversary of the release of one of the most beloved movies in film history, The Wizard of Oz. There is little left to say about it, critically or historically, but that’s not going to stop me.
The film was not a box office success when it was released in 1939, though it was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and won two (both for music). It had a couple of re-releases, but it wasn’t until it started to be shown on television that it became the most viewed film in the history of eyeballs (I have only come across two people who have never seen it: one of them is a contributor to this blog, and another was recently arrived from Turkey). It’s first airing was in 1956, and was the first film to be aired uncut on a network (prior to that, movies were only shown on local affiliates). It started airing annually in 1959 until the 1990s, and now that it is owned by Turner it pops up every so often.
For old fogies like me, the telecast of The Wizard of Oz was a major event, as it was the only way to see it. Every year it drew huge ratings, and I remember anticipating it keenly. I distinctly remember watching while sitting cross-legged right in front of the tube, and when the credits came on feeling a rush of exhilaration.
The film is now a cultural touchstone of great immensity. So many of its lines and situations have been firmly embedded in our cultural ethos that it’s as if they have always existed:
“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
“Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?
“I’ll get you my pretty, and your little dog, too.”
“Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!”
“Who rang that bell?”
“I do believe in spooks.”
“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”
And many, many others.
Historically, the film is a treasure trove of lore that has filled several volumes. Based on the turn of the century book by L. Frank Baum, it had been made into a film many times before, including a silent version in 1925 with Oliver Hardy as the Tin Woodsman. MGM’s Sam Goldwyn bought it as a property for Eddie Cantor, who was to play the Scarecrow. Casting tales are legion–producer Mervyn LeRoy was pressured to use Shirley Temple as Dorothy, but Fox wouldn’t loan her out. Deanna Durbin was also considered, before Judy Garland was cast. Originally Ray Bolger was to play the Tin Woodsman and Buddy Ebsen the Scarecrow, but Bolger had been inspired to enter show business after seeing the show on stage in 1902, and had always wanted to play the Scarecrow, so they switched. Ebsen turned out to be allergic to the paint used in his makeup, and got so sick he was in an iron lung, and was replaced by Jack Haley. Ed Wynn was offered the part of the Wizard, but turned it down for being too small. W.C. Fields was approached, but contract negotiations dragged on, so Frank Morgan was cast. Gale Sondergaard was cast as the Wicked Witch of the West, but when the film’s conception of her was changed from beautiful to an ugly hag, Sondergaard ankled, and contract player Margaret Hamilton was cast.
Some of the lore has varying degrees of truth. Possibly true is that Morgan, looking through old coats for the perfect one to wear, found a tag inside the pocket indicating it belonged to Baum himself at one time. Not true is that you can see a Munchkin who had hung himself in the background of the apple orchard scene. It’s actually some sort of crane.
The film went through many different scriptwriters. The book has no Kansas sequence, and actually happened to Dorothy and was not a dream, so the alternate identities–Elmira Gulch and the farmhands–were created for the film. It’s hard to know who wrote what, but Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf are the credited screenwriters. The directing credits are also complex. Although Victor Fleming retains the sole directing credit, Norman Taurog, Richard Thorpe, George Cukor, and King Vidor all worked on it. Cukor served as a consultant, and may have been the one who nailed down the concept, but Fleming replaced him. Fleming also replaced Cukor on Gone With the Wind, and also got the sole credit. Vidor finished the picture, directing most of the Kansas sequences.
So what has made the film so enduringly popular/over these 75 years? I think it boils down to a few reasons. One is the fantastic music. I would venture to say that it is the best music ever written strictly for a film, and that “Over the Rainbow” is the best song ever written for a film. The songs were written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, and Harburg, according to some, wrote much of the dialogue to go with the music. Some of the songs, like “It Really Was No Miracle” and the whole Munchkin song medley, take the place of dialogue. There are no bad songs. Even the interstitial music, such as “Optimistic Voices” (the music playing as the friends head up to the Emerald City) and the chant of the Wookies, the Witch’s guards, have become instantly recognizable.
Secondly, the theme resonates. There is no place like home, but you can’t find that out until you’ve been someplace else. Dorothy’s adventure is thrilling and dangerous, and at the end she could have stayed, but her familial roots pulled her back, even if it was to sepia Kansas (and, by the way, Toto still faces destruction–I doubt Elmira Gulch was willing to let bygones be bygones. Just what happened to Toto?)
Third, the three companions are an example of what came to be known as camp–so ridiculous that they are funny, and, along with Garland, the reason the film is so popular in the LGBTGQ community. I watched with a special eye for that this time, after reading earlier this year that the Cowardly Lion, played by a straight man, Bert Lahr, was actually a well-known stereotype at the time, the “Nance,” an effeminate gay man. The Tin Woodsman also seems to be light in his tin loafers, making the Scarecrow the butch one. Note how many crying men are in the film. The Tin Woodsman, the Lion, and the Wizard’s gatekeeper weep copiously (again, the Scarecrow is the only one who doesn’t). In this day and age, one could see the effeminacy of the characters as making sure the audience doesn’t think of any romantic entanglement with Dorothy (something Larry Flynt so vividly did in a x-rated pictorial in Hustler). I found it interesting to read there was an extra scene written, but never filmed, with Hunk (the Scarecrow’s alter ego) heading off to agricultural college, Dorothy sending him off, suggesting a future romance. Maybe that’s why she tells the Scarecrow “I’m going to miss you most of all.”
Part of this camp humor is so much fun, especially the whole scene after the Wizard is unmasked, and he gives the three males what they want, essentially satirizing American mores. “They’ve got what you haven’t got”–whether it be a diploma, medal, or testimonial, which, one realizes, are meaningless, and it’s action that matters.
The film does feel dated in some areas, notably the special effects. I still find the twister scene effective, even if that is nothing but a lady’s stocking being turned by a fan, but the backdrops are so crudely drawn and the owls and vultures in the haunted forest look like third-rate carnival spook house effects. But the flying monkey scene still works, as does the scene when the Wicked Witch is on her broomstick–it still gives me some chills. Also, the restoration of the picture makes the wires visible, especially in the Lion’s tale in the “King of the Forest” number. But so what? I still love Bert Lahr saying, “I’d thrash him from top to bottom-us.”