Tuesday, September 8, 2009

1939 - The Wizard of Oz

The next film in Matt vs. the Academy is one with which I have a close relationship. Not because of a particularly large number of viewings (before today, it had been almost fifteen years since I last watched it), but because it served as the basis for my debut stage performance. At the age of eleven, I stepped into the suffocating costume of the Cowardly Lion in a community production of The Wizard of Oz, lovingly adapted (or plagiarised, if you prefer) from the script of the 1939 Best Picture nominee. I credit that one-night-only production with the genesis of my love of performing. It is where I first caught the acting bug. I remember fondly the first rehearsal when, after weeks of listening intently to the film's dialogue, I delivered my lines in a perfect imitation of Bert Lahr's thick New York accent, only to elicit laughter from the cast and crew. I consequently dropped the impersonation. However, laughter could still be heard on show night, but this time, it was from the audience and at appropriately comic occasions. And that was it. I never went back. Once you've received the love of an audience, you just want more. Thus, I now find myself in a city famed for its theatre industry, still pursuing that glorious feeling.

Plus, as I am rather fond of pointing out, Robert De Niro was similarly eleven years old when he first trod the boards to play the Cowardly Lion in a community production of The Wizard of Oz. Good company, indeed. I'm still waiting for my Travis Bickle.

In the meantime, here are my thoughts on...

The Wizard of Oz
Victor Fleming
Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf
(based on the novel "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" by L. Frank Baum)
Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Billie Burke, Margaret Hamilton
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
2 wins, including Best Song ("Over the Rainbow")

I doubt I have any readers who are not at least slightly familiar with The Wizard of Oz, the classic musical about Dorothy Gale and her fantastical adventures. The film begins on the sepia-toned Kansas farm on which Dorothy lives with her aunt, her uncle, three quirky farmhands and her dog, Toto. She has brief encounters with her unpleasant neighbour as well as an amiable fortune teller. After being caught in a fierce tornado, Dorothy is rendered unconscious, awakening to see the house spinning out of control in mid-air. The house lands in a strange and colourful place, a land known as Oz. Greeted by dozens of Munchkins and a good witch by the name of Glinda, Dorothy is told that, in order to return home, she must seek the assistance of the Wizard. On her journey, she teams up with a Scarecrow, a Tin Man and a Lion, all remarkably similar to those quirky farmhands back in Kansas, yet Dorothy simply can't make the connection, try as she might. She is also pursued by the Wicked Witch of the West, angry at Dorothy's careless murder of the Witch's sister, who was crushed by Dorothy's descending house.

When you need to put a smile on your face, just sit back and relax with a viewing of The Wizard of Oz, still charming seventy years on. It is replete with spectacular sets and costumes and make-up, plus some impressive special effects, considering the year it was produced. Add to that some familiar tunes with witty lyrics and you have yourself the perfect cure for any kind of blues. Be aware, however, that this is unmistakably a children's movie. But it's that innocent charm, perhaps, that makes it so enjoyable, allowing you that brief moment to feel like a child again. Still, The Wizard of Oz is also the height of pantomime. The production has an air of a stage performance about it, no doubt a consequence of the vaudeville background of a number of the cast. Everything is as hammy is it can possibly be.

Despite its junior demographic, there are some strangely morbid themes. The first scene in Munchkinland could be somewhat unsettling to some, with its celebration of death. Sure, the Wicked Witch of the East was a nasty old hag, but to dance about and sing, "Ding dong, the Witch is dead," before she's even cold seems a tad insensitive. No wonder the Wicked Witch of the West is so miffed.

The design elements in the film are nothing short of magnificent. A sweeping field of poppies, a sea of flying monkeys, a colour-changing horse. Even the painted backdrops that create the illusion of a larger landscape can be forgiven their conspicuousness because they are still so beautifully extravagant. Although, the frequent sight of the cast skipping along the yellow brick road into the distance made me almost expect to see them wander too far and simultaneously slam their noses into the backdrop.

One of the most impressive effects occurs when the Wicked Witch disappears behind a puff of coloured smoke. Yes, you can see the trapdoor if you look close enough, but the impressive part is the huge ball of fire that spews itself out almost immediately after the Witch has descended. A little less impressive, perhaps, after I discovered that Margaret Hamilton was off work for weeks with second-degree burns because of that stunt. Or maybe more impressive, I'm not sure.

The pre-fantasy sequence demonstrates the cleverness of the script, made all the more fascinating with the knowledge of the subsequent storyline. We all know that Dorothy's dream contains characters inspired by those in her real life, but the farmhands also give hints to their fantasy counterparts' respective desires. The whole concept is rather Freudian, when you think about it.

Which brings me to the film's conclusion. Quite the cliché, but I guess The Wizard of Oz was really the pioneer of the it-was-all-a-dream plot. Besides, the central character still learnt a lesson even if her entire journey is made redundant. And hey, what happened to Miss Gulch's plans to destroy Toto?


  1. Anticipation:

    I mentioned in my GWTW comment, that most 1939 Best Picture nominees were probably shown on television sometime during the 50s, the decade I started watching movies. I actually remember that non-nominees The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Gunga Din were very popular in our household. As a youngster though, nothing approached the excitement and anticipation of the first televised airing of The Wizard of Oz in 1956. My cousin, who lived downstairs in our Brooklyn two family house, and I counted the days like we did before Christmas came. We watched it on our little Black and White Magnavox and were totally captivated.

    The next airing was three years later, 1959 and by then our next door neighbor had a "color" TV and let us watch it there. Amazing. I just read that on September 29 there will be a one night only showing of The Wizard of Oz in selected theaters - presenting it for the first time in high definition. It will coincide with the Blu-ray release. So, I think I'll hold off watching it again until then.

    It's hard to imagine in this day of video and DVD the power of anticipation and the transitory nature of film. I imagine that before television, most films were made for a one time release. I think that's why there were frequent remakes, unlike today when that practice makes little sense and usually results in an inferior product. Ironically, it looks like a sequel to The Wizard of Oz is being made with Dakota Fanning as Dorothy in a much darker version.

  2. I always found the rather angry singing/dancing/kicking of the members of the lollipop guild a little distressing. Like they had just got out of munchkin prison, or something.

  3. I like to think of the Lollipop Guild as the Dead End Kids of Munchkinland - Little versions of Billy Halop, Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall.