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“Toto…I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
– Dorothy Gale
In the late 1800’s, Lyman Frank Baum was a family man down on his luck and out of a job. He was a bright and creative fellow but for one reason or another could never stay employed for long. Then one day, his wife convinced him to write a story based on the ones he told his children, where ordinary people are whisked to magical lands, where men made of tin come to life, where the world is ruled by wise and powerful women (Baum’s wife and her family were suffragettes, so that was a big influence). All that was missing was a name. While going through a file cabinet Baum noticed that everything was organized from A – N and O – Z. Had Baum not payed any attention to the latter, we may never have gotten the land so surreal and imaginative as Oz.
Over one hundred years later, The Wizard of Oz is still considered America’s fairy tale. France has the works of Charles Perrault, Germany has the Brothers Grimm, England has J.M. Barrie and J.K. Rowling, and America has L. Frank Baum. The original book has no less than 52 sequels (13 of which were originally penned by L. Frank Baum), and there are numerous stage, television and film adaptations, but the most beloved of them all is the 1939 musical from MGM. In terms of popularity it has all but eclipsed the book it was based on, wonderful as it is. Heck, I didn’t learn until I was older that the film was even based on a book (because what kid actually reads the opening credits of a movie, even one they’ve seen a thousand times before they learned how to read?) But I’m not here to talk about the differences between the book and the movie (except for when they’re relevant), I’m looking at the movie itself.
Like I said before, The Wizard of Oz was one of the earliest movies I remember watching. I still have the 50th anniversary VHS and to this day I can’t watch the DVD without missing the cute Downy commercial of the kids putting on their own production of Oz that played before it. It was one of the first musicals where I had the songs almost completely memorized. I played out the story with my toys, Dorothy narrowly beat out Snow White as the character I would dress up as the most for Halloween (I would wear a pair of sparkly jelly shoes for the ruby slippers, just to give you an idea of how old I am), I saw a live version with my Girl Scout troop at Madison Square Garden starring Mickey Rooney, Eartha Kitt and Ken Page, and like with Beauty and the Beast, I would walk around with a wicker basket and act out the movie as it played on tv. As I got older I went through the whole “it’s just a dumb kid’s movie” phase that we’ve all gone through, but thankfully that didn’t last very long and it’s earned a lasting place in my favorite films collection.
Truth be told, this is going to be a hard one to cover, not only because I love this movie to pieces and know almost everything there is to know about it, but simply because what CAN you say about The Wizard of Oz that hasn’t already been said? Even if you haven’t seen it odds are you know the story and characters thanks to countless parodies, homages and plain old-fashioned pop cultural osmosis. Being a top contender for the most quoted and recognizable movie ever made didn’t come overnight, however. When it first premiered in 1939, The Wizard of Oz was something of a financial failure due to going massively over budget as well as some infamous behind-the-scenes disasters. It picked up two Oscars for its music as well as an honorary one for Judy Garland’s performance and a nomination for Best Film, but wasn’t until a few theatrical re-releases and a national tv airing of it in the 50’s that a new generation finally saw it for the classic it was destined to be.
But why does it still resonate with us almost eighty years later? Is it worth being put on a pop culture pedestal? And what’s more, can I both analyze and have some fun with it without getting burned at the stake? Let’s take a look.