#10 The Wizard of Oz (1939)

by Trey Hock on June 19, 2011

in 1 Year, 100 Movies,Columns

For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!

Like most people who grew up in the Midwest, and more specifically in Missouri and Kansas, I have a complex relationship with “The Wizard of Oz.”

Whenever I have either traveled or lived outside of Kansas City, once somebody learns where I’m from the litany of Toto, Scarecrow, or Oz references usually follows. I almost always get a “You’re not in Kansas anymore.”

These annoying asides always cause the one spouting to chuckle proudly to themselves, as if they were not only an astute follower of popular culture, but had also made a deep and meaningful connection with a simpleton from the wasteland of the Midwest. To those non-Midwesterners out there, these comments make you look stupid. If I were to dress in a sailor suit and start singing songs from “On the Town” every time I met a New Yorker, I would look like an idiot, too.

Though I have heard silly people misquoting “The Wizard of Oz” in glorious and annoying fashion, it doesn’t take away from a deep seeded connection that I have with the film itself. There is an uncanny resonance in “The Wizard of Oz,” and whenever I watch the film, my viewing is often reverent.

The rich sepia and the open landscape of the Kansas scenes spoke to me as a child. This was geography, a home, which I recognized. Even if it did not look at all like my own home in Kansas City, I was never far from a place that looked remarkably similar to the Gale residence.

The longing that Dorothy (Judy Garland) feels early on may be the universal longing of a child as they mature into adulthood, but for the Midwesterner, the lonely melancholy that leads to her song, “Over the Rainbow” has a specificity to it that is hard to describe.

Dorothy Dreams of a Land Over the Rainbow

Judy Garland is perfect in this her most famous role. She is often understated in her theatricality, and there is a genuine sadness that she brings to her character. Even though we all know the story, the insecurity and humanity that Garland pours into the role makes us unsure of whether Dorothy has the substance to overcome her challenges. This uncertainty makes Dorothy’s victory all the more satisfying, when she does succeed

Her longing to go somewhere else and the threat to Toto from Miss Gulch, lead Dorothy to runaway. She only makes it a short way down the road when she meets Professor Marvel (Frank Morgan), a carnival seer.

Marvel, through his clever deduction and quick investigation of Dorothy’s belongings, concocts a story of a worried Aunt, who is stricken with grief over a missing child. Dorothy, concerned for her Aunt Em (Clara Blandick), rushes back home.

That is the fascinating thing about “The Wizard of Oz.” Dorothy has already changed her mind and has decided to return to the farm, but there is a distinction between the half-hearted change that comes with remorse or guilt, and the genuine change that comes from experience.

The wind and the weather will spark that experience.

Dorothy and the Tornado

I have lived in a landscape where I have witnessed an actual tornado, and I still think that the tornado in “The Wizard of Oz” is the most menacing film tornado I have ever seen. Because of this tornado, I had an emergency bag packed so that I could be ready to descend the basement steps as soon as the weather sirens blared. Forget the more technologically impressive “Twister.” “The Wizard of Oz” captures the dark and beautiful evil of a tornado, as it looms ever closer.

“The Wizard of Oz” often flirts with real danger and teeters near the edge of being legitimately scary. It allows children a cathartic moment and gives adults the emotional markers, which open the door to their own childhoods.

Before the tornado becomes too frightening, Dorothy, Toto and her house are swept away in the gusts and transported to a magical world, where munchkins sing, and a good witch (Billie Burke) and bad witch (Margaret Hamilton) argue over Dorothy’s fabulous new shoes.

Dorothy and the Two Witches

Keep in mind that “The Wizard of Oz” came out in 1939, only two years after “Snow White” was released. If “Snow White” was a shot across the bow of live action films, that signaled the limitations of sets and actors, then “The Wizard of Oz” was the return volley.

Instead of providing the viewer with every visual wish they could ask for, “The Wizard of Oz” gives us visual cues and lets our imaginations take it from there. You can often see the line where the set stops and the backdrop begins, but the blurry line between real and fantasy works for “The Wizard of Oz.” We know it’s fake, but still accept it as real, because its truth extends beyond the flats and backdrops that fill the frame.

With basket in hand, Toto at her side, and a pair of ruby slippers to protect her, Dorothy is off to see the Wizard.

Off to See the Wizard

As Dorothy skips down the path, she comes across three companions, a Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), a Tin Woodman (Jack Haley), and a Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr). Each is in desperate need of a brain, a heart and some courage respectively. Dorothy invites them to join her on her journey.

Dorothy Meets Her Three Companions

One of the striking things about “The Wizard of Oz” that stood out to me during this particular viewing was the emphasis given to female characters. The main character is a young girl and her adversary in both the dream world of Oz and on the plains of Kansas is a woman. The male characters offer help and support, but it is Dorothy that leads them.

In a time where every movie seems to focus on the childhood fantasies of teen boys, filmmakers could take note of the almost universal appeal that “The Wizard of Oz” holds for both children and adults, whether they are male or female. Dorothy is all of us.

As they travel and encounter various obstacles, including the narcotic poppies, we realize that all three of Dorothy’s companions already have the qualities they hope to get from the Wizard. The Tin Man is sensitive to a fault, the Scarecrow often has a plan, and the Lion is usually courageous in spite of himself. Like Dorothy, they already possess what they desire, but often the desired thing is less important than the journey to secure it.

With that, our quintet enters the Emerald City.

Entering the Emerald City

In the Land of Oz, our heroes are cleaned up and made presentable, before they meet the Wizard. There are a couple of obstinate guards, but some evil skywriting and a few tears from Dorothy convince the guards that Dorothy and her friends deserve an audience with the Wizard.

The Great and Powerful Oz

With his flame fountains and his bulging disembodied cranium, the Wizard sends Dorothy and her friends away on a quest. He will fulfill their requests, but first they must bring him the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West.

The group heads off to the Witch’s castle, but the Witch sends in her terrifying winged monkeys to scatter the group and kidnap Dorothy and Toto. The Witch wants the ruby slippers, and she’s prepared to kill Dorothy to get them. She decides to give Dorothy a little time to decide what to do.

The Wicked Witch Turns the Hourglass

Inspired in part by theatrical stage productions, German Expressionism, and “Snow White” the sets and staging for “The Wizard of Oz” often reach extravagant heights, but that isn’t to say that there wasn’t incredible attention given to the little details. I always found the Witch’s hourglass with its red sand a particularly sinister and incredibly well executed touch.

With Dorothy captured and fretting over her impending doom, Toto escapes and gathers the Tin Man, Lion and Scarecrow. The Scarecrow comes up with a plan to sneak in and rescue Dorothy.

The Lion, Tin Man and Scarecrow in Disguise

The three sneak in and find Dorothy, but the Witch and her Winkie guards quickly surround them. Again Dorothy, the clear leader, is the one who stands up to the Witch. When the Scarecrow is threatened, Dorothy inadvertently douses the Witch with water, who melts into nothing.

The Wicked Witch Melts Away

I find it fascinating that though our heroine has defeated her main foe, the film still has a twist or turn left. When Dorothy and her friends return to Oz, they find out that the Wizard is a fake. He is actually a balloonist, who was blown of track. He landed in Oz and was declared wizard and ruler.

The Wizard does give each of Dorothy’s companions a gift to illustrate that they already have the heart, courage and brain they were after. The Wizard also has a plan for returning home with Dorothy, but even this goes awry, when his balloon unexpectedly takes off without her. It seems that Dorothy’s difficulties will continue up until the end.

Glinda shows up and tells Dorothy that she, like her companions, has always had what she was after. The ruby slippers will take her home, with just three heel clicks and a wish. This moment offers a quick moral and a tearful goodbye, but it is all handled so well that the moment could not be more endearing.

Dorothy Says Goodbye to the Emerald City

Once Dorothy clicks her heels and makes her wish, she wakes up in her bed back home. She has returned to the familiar sepia of Kansas and she couldn’t be happier.

There’s No Place Like Home

Her friends back on the farm all chuckle as she tells each they were in the magical land from which she has returned, and then she tells us that she’ll never leave again. As children we feel the same way. We want to run away, but we want to return safely for a hot meal.

Dorothy is like Max in “Where the Wild Things Are.” Neither is ready to leave just yet, but each must test the waters. Though Dorothy now has a newfound appreciation for her own backyard, we know that she can take on the world that lies just over the horizon.

As with “Star Wars,” “The Wizard of Oz” is culturally bigger than any single individual can handle, so feel free to post favorite facts, viewing stories, or your experiences surrounding “The Wizard of Oz” in the comments below. I look forward to reading them.

Next up #9 “Vertigo” (1958)

1 Year, 100 Movies #11 City Lights (1931)

1 Year, 100 Movies #12 The Searchers (1956)

1 Year, 100 Movies #13 Star Wars (1977)

1 Year, 100 Movies #14 Psycho (1960)

1 Year, 100 Movies #15 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

1 Year, 100 Movies #16 Sunset Blvd. (1950)

1 Year, 100 Movies #17 The Graduate (1967)

1 Year, 100 Movies #18 The General (1927)

1 Year, 100 Movies #19 On the Waterfront (1954)

For links to #20-29, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #20 It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

For links to #30-39, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #30 Apocalypse Now (1979)

For links to #40-49, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #40 The Sound of Music (1965)

For links to #50-59, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #50 The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

For links to #60 – 69, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #60 Duck Soup (1933)

For links to #70 – 79, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #70 A Clockwork Orange (1971)

For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)

For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Streams of Whiskey June 20, 2011 at 6:17 am

I really enjoyed this review. It’s been many years since I’ve seen the film; since I’m slated to see a touring production of “Wicked” this summer, maybe it’s time to dust off the old classic. As a Midwesterner with deep roots in Kansas too, I also get ticked at the Oz references people throw at me out east, so I’m still searching for the perfect, succinct comeback.

I don’t have much to add except that I love reading about how Oz is supposedly an allegory for the 1896 presidential election. The idea has a lot of surface appeal, but there are many, including L. Frank Baum’s descendants, who claim that that’s essentially an urban legend. Whatever. I’ll see what I want to see in this story, dammit!

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2 Trey Hock June 20, 2011 at 6:33 am

SoW,

Yeah I steered away from mentioning the economic/populist allegory. I think that even if the book has aspects of that the film doesn’t. The shoes were changed from silver to ruby for the film, and Glinda takes the role for both of the good witches. If people want to talk about it further, I figured it would come up in the comments.

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3 Xavier Robertson June 20, 2011 at 6:55 am

I would caution slightly against wicked, the story is not very satisfying and comes close to ruining a couple of the characters for me. However the music is great and usually the production qualities are very impressive.

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4 Jordan Passmore June 20, 2011 at 11:05 am

Grew up in Kansas and live in OH. If I had a dollar for every Wiz comment I’ve heard…

Totally have to agree with you about that damn tornado. Scared the living hell out of me as a kid, and still get the creeps whenever I see how it rolls along the set. I loved Twister for it’s cheesiness, but this tornado trumps even the F5 in chill factor for me. Awesome review that really hit the nail on the head for me!

I thought it was appropriate to post this cracked link here :)
http://www.cracked.com/article_18881_5-reasons-greatest-movie-villain-ever-good-witch_p2.html?fb_ref=like&fb_source=home_multiline

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5 Trey Hock June 20, 2011 at 3:08 pm

Thanks Jordan,

Yeah that tornado is a marvel of creepy filmmaking. Perhaps the computer jockeys should take note.

Thanks for the link.

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6 Amanda June 22, 2011 at 1:52 pm

This is obviously a major film to write about, and there so many points to touch on, but I really appreciate that you took the time to mention the incredible presence Judy Garland brings to the role of Dorothy. I work in production; I’m not the biggest fan of actors. But I absolutely think there is such a thing as talent and Judy Garland had it in spades. She was 16 when Wizard was filmed. How many 16-year-old girls could have poured such naivete, as well as maturity, and that amazing sadness and longing into this semi-silly fantasy-type role? She took the film to the place that currently lies – a feat of American filmmaking and a cultural icon. Without her, this film would have been more entertainment then fulfilling journey. Shirley Temple was considered for the role of Dorothy. Imagine that film. It’s a testament to Judy’s skills as an actor that this film still holds up for “modern” audiences, but I also like to see it as a sad testament to the treatment of “stars” in Hollywood’s studio days. At 16, she was already experiencing self-doubt as an actor. What a crime. I cannot say this enough: watch the 1954 “A Star is Born” for more Judy Garlan awesomeness, and to watch how the self-doubt transformed itself into an amazing performance.

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7 Eric Melin June 22, 2011 at 4:23 pm

Holy guacamole, Trey. This was a really great article. I haven’t seen “Oz” in years and you made me want to watch it TONIGHT. Bravo, sir. Lots of insightful takeaways on this post!!!

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8 Trey Hock June 23, 2011 at 5:52 am

Eric, this was a big one. I hope your time spent in Oz was enjoyable.

Amanda, thanks for expanding on the talent of Judy Garland. This truly is her film to make or break, and her performance makes indelible mark on our cultural landscape. A truly remarkable and tragic figure from Hollywood’s past.

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9 josh thompson August 5, 2011 at 6:00 am

Totally agree with the comments about the tornado, but I must add you have never seen that scene until you have watched it with Pink Floyd’s Great Gig in the Sky playing.

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