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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.
Oh yes, and I should mention that even though this is a review for a film swiftly approaching its 80th anniversary, there will be spoilers sprinkled throughout. Don’t want to risk upsetting the one person on Earth who hasn’t seen it yet.
We open with a sepia version of Leo the MGM Lion roaring and right from the start those six magical notes let you know that you’re about to experience something amazing. I’m sorry if I keep stalling, but the music in this movie is gorgeous. Herbert Stothard’s score is so good it managed to beat Max Steiner’s beautiful themes for Gone With the Wind at the Academy Awards, and it’s more than worthy of a spot among my favorite film scores. As the overture comes to a close, we get this rather poignant bit of text.
For nearly forty years this story has given faithful service to the Young in Heart; and Time has been powerless to put its kindly philosophy out of fashion.
To those of you who have been faithful in return, and to the Young in Heart, we dedicate this picture.
The film gets its real start as a girl and her dog come running down a dusty road cutting through the flat dreary Kansas plains. This is our heroine, Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland), and her dog Toto, and they’ve just escaped from a cruel neighbor, Ms. Gulch (more on her later). After checking to make sure Toto isn’t hurt, Dorothy returns home to her farm and tries to tell her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry what happened. You see, Dorothy passes by Miss Gulch and her garden every day after school and Toto has a nasty habit of getting in and chasing her cat around. When Miss Gulch tried to shoo him out by hitting him with a broom, he bit her ankle, and now she’s threatening to get the sheriff involved. Both of them, however, are far too busy with farm work to listen to her. Dorothy tries to vent to her friends the farmhands Zeke, Hunk and Hickory, but they only have time to spout some contrasting advice while they get their chores done. Hunk insists she use her brains in dealing with Miss Gulch, Zeke says to work up some courage to stand up to her, and Hickory…well, his truism involving heart or kindness wasn’t included for whatever reason but it’s easy to tell who his Oz counterpart is by process of elimination.
Zeke rescues Dorothy after she falls into the pigpen and the others mock him for being more afraid of the pigs than Dorothy was (I guess Zeke’s the only one there who read Animal Farm). Aunt Em breaks it up and sends them back to work, and tells Dorothy to find someplace where she won’t get into any trouble. This leads into the signature song of the movie, “Over the Rainbow”, a melancholic yet hopeful expression of Dorothy’s wishes to reach that magical place where there’s no trouble to be found. Judy and her singular pipes bring it to life with such longing and innocence that it tugs at your heart. It’s no surprise that this became her signature song, won an Oscar and is considered one of, if not the best ever created for the silver screen. A fact that still shocks many is that the producers seriously considered leaving this song on the cutting room floor because they felt it was too long and would bore audiences.
Thankfully someone in the room was sensible enough to keep it in place, because not only is it a beautiful tune, it is the crux of the entire movie. If it was removed, all sympathy for our heroine and understanding of her character would be lost. It’s much like “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid in that regard; coincidentally that song was also nearly deleted for similar reasons.
Miss Gulch arrives on the scene riding a bicycle accompanied by her infamous theme music and informs Aunt Em and Uncle Henry why she’s there. If they don’t give Toto over to her to be destroyed she’s going to hit them with such a big lawsuit that they could lose their farm. What I like about this scene is though Uncle Henry is something of an absentminded pushover, Aunt Em is genuinely considerate of how Dorothy feels about this. She suggests other options to keep Toto out of her way and isn’t afraid to insinuate that Gulch’s heart is as dry as her namesake. It’s not until Gulch brings up the lawsuit that Em very reluctantly hands over Toto. Dorothy runs to her room in tears after calling Miss Gulch a witch and Em almost goes through with telling the woman exactly what she thinks of her…but being a Christian woman she backs out at the last second.
Thankfully I’m a semi-agnostic Catholic so I have no qualms about calling the old broad out myself.
Miss Gulch bicycles to town with Toto in tow; however she didn’t do as good a job fastening the basket shut as she thought she did and the little dog is able to escape without her noticing. On a personal tangent, one of the theatrical re-releases of this movie that I was fortunate to attend happened to fall right on the day after my beloved dog had to be put down. Anyone who says animals don’t go to heaven because they have no souls have clearly never owned a pet in their life because how can anything without a soul give you ten years of undying love and devotion? I went into the screening looking for an escape, but instead the emotions I felt throughout the movie were filtered through what I was still feeling from the day before, and as a result they were multiplied in the best possible way. Any time Dorothy and Toto and their friends were separated or threatened or reunited I felt it hard, and it made for an unforgettable moviegoing experience.
Dorothy is delighted when Toto reappears through her bedroom window until she realizes Miss Gulch and the authorities will be returning soon to look for him. She decides to pack her things, run away and start a new life somewhere else. On the road she passes a wagon belonging to one Professor Marvel, a self-proclaimed psychic and magician to the crown heads of Europe who’s really anything but.
Marvel is the first of 5 roles played in this movie by character actor Frank Morgan. Though there were several well-known comedians vying for the part of the Wizard, including WC Fields and Ed Wynn, I doubt they would have pulled off the other roles that come attached half as well as Morgan did. He gives each character enough unique quirks that make them memorable and enjoyable to watch, even when you know it’s still the same actor. In an odd twist of fate, Morgan was given the chance to pick out his wardrobe for the Wizard and chose an old coat he found that, according to legend, had the initials LFB sewn in them. Supposedly it was confirmed that it belonged to L. Frank Baum himself, which, if true, feels like it was destined for Morgan to play the Wizard, as if Baum was showing him his approval. A fact that is definitely true, however, is that Morgan previously worked with Terry, the dog who would play Toto, in an earlier film, which is kind of neat.
Marvel “knows” Dorothy is running away from home and says they’ll have to consult his crystal ball when she asks if she can join him on his travels. He tells her he sees a heartbroken Aunt Em discovering she’s gone and falling gravely ill. Funny story, when I was a more naive child I believed what Professor Marvel was seeing in the crystal ball was real and not an obvious way to get Dorothy to return home. Struck by guilt Dorothy thanks Professor Marvel and flees back to the farm as “a whopper” of a storm begins to brew.
The cyclone itself is something that blows me away every time (excuse the pun). It roars and twists near the farm like a monster, and it looks just as realistic if not better than anything modern day CGI can do. I’m not going to turn this into a rant of how practical effects are always going to better than CGI because both have their merits and pitfalls, though I admire how creative they had to be back in the early days of film when trying to make something no one had ever seen on screen before. The twister is actually a long piece of muslin made to spin around the soundstage, but it moves so realistically that you could never tell.
Uncle Henry and the farmhands herd the animals to safety while Aunt Em searches for Dorothy. They are forced to drag her into the storm cellar as the tornado draws closer. Dorothy returns to find the farmhouse abandoned and the cellar locked; the howling wind drowns out her cries to be let in. Dorothy searches the house once more and while she’s in her room, the wind blows out the window pane and hits her on the head, knocking her out.
Dorothy awakens to discover the cyclone has carried the farmhouse up in the air with her and Toto inside. Animals, pieces of the farm and even people that have been swept into the storm fly by her window. This is where Stothard’s score shines again, capturing the windswept surreal nature of the scene thanks in part to recycling a piece of classical music known as “The Happy Farmer”. Yeah, I didn’t even know it was an already existing work either; any time I heard it before then I’d think “Aren’t they playing the cyclone music from The Wizard of Oz?”
Things take a darker shift when Miss Gulch appears on her bicycle, not giving a flying fuck that she’s hundreds of feet off the ground. Before Dorothy’s eyes, she transforms into a horrifying witch.
The house falls but thankfully Dorothy and Toto survive the crash, having wisely stayed on the bed. Dorothy tentatively exits the house, curious to see where they’ve landed.
And the following scene is one of my top 10 all-time favorite moments on film, bar none.
Few scenes still manage to elicit a feeling of wonder and enchantment from me. The majority of it is one long take of Dorothy’s new surroundings with only the oohs and ahhs from the score illustrating the awe she is in. At most screenings I’ve gone to, the audience breaks out into applause at this part, like they just witnessed an amazing magic trick. That’s the way to describe this scene – magic. The drab sepia of Kansas gives way to the beauty and color of a strange new world with just a push of the door. Barely any words need to be said because the music and striking visuals do it for us.
As Dorothy famously remarks that they’re not in the state where they once resided in at this current moment in time, a shining pink bubble descends, revealing a woman with a fancy dress, crown and wand. She greets Dorothy by asking if she’s a good witch or a bad witch (which is only appropriate if you’re in a Harry Potter RPG) and introduces herself as Glinda the Good Witch of the North (Billie Burke).
Now before we get any further I need to stop and talk about Glinda for a moment because there has been almost no other character from this movie or the world of Oz in general as divisive as her. On being called beautiful by Dorothy, she replies that it’s only bad witches who are ugly. She is shown to have some power and the love of the Munchkins, but has apparently done nothing to help overthrow the tyranny of the Wicked Witch of the East. At the end she tells Dorothy that the ruby slippers could have sent her home all along and chose not to mention it because she wouldn’t have believed her, even though the girl survived a cyclone, landed in a colorful fantasyland, had a parade of little people sing her praises and was threatened by a fiery green hag moments before she received those damn shoes, so I’m gonna go out on a limb and say I’m pretty sure she would have been open to the idea. This has led to many a conspiracy theory claiming Glinda was really an evil mastermind who used Dorothy to eliminate the Witches of Oz (and the Wizard as an added bonus) so she could dominate the land herself.
Sadly those who propagate this belief have spectacularly failed to do the research. If they need an answer as to why Glinda is the way she is in the movie, all they have to do is pick up the original book. In Baum’s story, there are two good witches to balance out the two wicked ones. The first good witch, the nameless Witch of the North, is the one whom Dorothy encounters when she arrives in Munchkinland. She gives her the slippers, tells her to seek the Wizard of Oz, and sends her on her way with a kiss that will protect her from harm. After the Wizard’s departure and another trip through the perilous parts of Oz, Dorothy visits the REAL Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, who tells her the truth about the slippers.
When it came to the film the screenwriters decided to combine the witches into one composite character in order to simplify the plot. To be fair it’s not an uncommon practice when adapting a story for the screen, but they probably could have come up with a better excuse than the assumption that Dorothy would have doubted her. I personally think that Glinda didn’t know the true extent of the slippers’ powers and she sent Dorothy to the Emerald City because she genuinely believed the Wizard was the only one who could have sent her home. Then she went and researched the slippers’ magic just in case something happened in the meantime. See, you don’t have to fill in an ancient plothole by assuming a character is a bitch. It’s really not as hard as you might think.
Glinda thanks Dorothy for destroying the Wicked Witch of the East by dropping her house on her. The Witch’s feet in striped stockings and a gleaming pair of ruby slippers stick out as proof of her death. Dorothy insists it was an accident, but Glinda declares her a hero to the little people of Munchkinland. The Munchkins come out of hiding and welcome their savior with a charming six-minute medley of short songs, most notably “Ding Dong The Witch is Dead”. I’m impressed by the number of little people they got to star in this one scene, and how there are even a few that are alive to this day. The number is extravagant and colorful, with the cream of Munchkinland’s society like the mayor, the coroner, the Lullaby League and the Lollipop Guild putting in appearances to thank Dorothy through music. This does raise a few questions about how Munchkinland works in relation to the rest of Oz, like what exactly is the purpose of the Lollipop Guild? Are they responsible for ensuring Munchkinland’s confectionery treats are up to code and suitable for human consumption? I actually understood the possible reasoning which I may or may not have made up for the Lullaby League first (singing the younger Munchkins to sleep at bedtime, by the way) Regardless it’s chock full of clever rhymes, and if you’ve got a high tolerance for varying pitchy voices it’s a joyous piece of music.
Ugh, speaking of witches – wait…
She’s down where the goblins go below/
Below, below, yo ho/
Let’s all get up and sing
Oh…um…maybe they’re singing about how she’s with some other goblins?
As the celebration comes to a climax, a burst of flame in the middle of the square sends the Munchkins fleeing. From out of the smoke appears a horrible green-skinned harridan with a pointed hat and a broom that resembles the Witch Dorothy saw in the cyclone. Glinda informs her this is the Wicked Witch of the West, the East’s sister, who’s worse than she was.
Interesting story about the Wicked Witch, at the behest of producer Mervin LeRoy she was designed after the glamorous Wicked Queen in Disney’s Snow White and he went so far as to cast screen siren Gale Sondergaard for the role. It took LeRoy a lot of convincing that the Witch’s wickedness should be reflected on the outside and after some failed attempts to ugly up Sondergaard, she decided it wasn’t meant to be and left on good terms. Margaret Hamilton, a former kindergarten teacher turned character actor known for being, well, not exactly a spring chicken, was given the part on sight (literally).
Let’s be honest, the role of the Wicked Witch isn’t exactly Lady Macbeth. She cackles and shrieks and there’s little motivating her attempts on Dorothy’s life other than gaining more power with the ruby slippers. Yet it’s how Hamilton carries it out that makes her an iconic villain. She gives the Witch such a menacing presence that’s felt even when she isn’t onscreen. Every moment she appears she’s either calculating her next move or reveling in her dark deeds, subtlety and selflessness be damned. The ramifications she had on young audiences were felt as far back as the initial preview screenings (yes, they had those back then). The terror inflicted on the children and even the adults resulted in some harsh criticisms and a few of her more threatening moments being trimmed from the final picture. Regardless of the hundreds of kids who screamed in terror on recognizing her, Hamilton had no regrets about being forever associated with her mean green role, only suggesting that children under five should wait to watch the movie and making appearances on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street to show that the Witch was only a part she played.
The Wicked Witch isn’t happy that her sister is dead and lays the blame on Dorothy. Glinda reminds the Witch about the ruby slippers, the real reason why she’s poofed here if you read into her reaction at their mention. Before the Witch can remove the slippers, they disappear and her sister’s feet shrink under the house. She demands Glinda return them but Glinda points out that they’ve inexplicably appeared on Dorothy’s feet.
You know, it’s kind of annoying that almost every character has a name and she doesn’t. Simply calling her The Witch throughout this whole review is going to be a pain. So from now on I’m going to refer to this monster with immense greed, lack of morals, no subtlety, and notably discolored skin as…
Gruntilda wants Dorothy to give her the shoes, but Glinda states that she wouldn’t want them so much if there wasn’t some kind of powerful magic attached to them. She asks that Grunty makes like a tree and get out of Munchkinland before another house drops on her as well. Look carefully and you’ll see Miss Green Meanie glance up for a split-second after she says that; it’s a little touch that’s often missed but gets a laugh if you’re quick enough to catch it. Grunty warns Dorothy that there’s a million things she hasn’t done to her, but just you wait.
Grunty makes her big exit in a fiery puff of smoke. Listen carefully before she vanishes and you’ll hear her evil laughter turn into a scream. It’s actually one of the darker on-set stories – Margaret Hamilton was supposed to be lowered down a platform before the flames went up and on one take the timing was off, resulting in her being nastily burned and spending several weeks in the hospital before resuming shooting. Any future scenes that involved smoke or flame she insisted be done by a double, and I don’t blame her one bit.
Glinda suggests that Dorothy had better hightail it out of Oz if she doesn’t want Grunty breathing down her neck, but Dorothy can’t exactly go back the way she came. Glinda recommends asking the mysterious great and powerful Wizard of Oz who lives in the Emerald City for help. Since there’s barely room for one in her bubble and Uber won’t exist for another fourscore, the only way to get to there is to, as she and the Munchkins famously say, “Follow the Yellow Brick Road”. Glinda departs, and Dorothy and Toto embark on their journey.
It isn’t long before they come to a crossroads at a cornfield. Dorothy wonders aloud where they ought to go and gets trolled by a scarecrow hanging out in the field pointing in opposite directions when she isn’t looking. She discovers the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger) is actually alive and rather friendly, he just doesn’t know any better because he hasn’t got a brain. Dorothy wonders how he can talk with no brain and Scarecrow replies “I don’t know, but some people do an awful lot of talking without brains, don’t they?”
Dorothy helps him down from his pole and asks the Scarecrow what he’d do with a brain if he had one, which segues into “If I Only Had a Brain”, the first of three “If I Only” songs sung by our main cast. Like with the Munchkinland medley the rhymes are catchy and clever, but Bolger’s Busby Berkley-choreographed dancing steals the scene. Bolger was a vaudeville performer originally cast as the Tin Man, but he pleaded the director to be recast as the Scarecrow for personal reasons. As a boy he got to see one of his childhood heroes Fred Stone play the Scarecrow in a stage production of Oz and was dying to follow in his footsteps. Bolger made the right call in the end, because how can you envision the Tin Man doing the spectacular rubbery-limbed moves that the Scarecrow does? The routine was supposed to last for an additional three minutes but most of it was cut for runtime. If you track it down and watch it I’m sure you’ll agree that it stops the story, though I will concede that it’s very entertaining. The additional verse also hints at some possible romance between Dorothy and the Scarecrow, going back to an earlier draft where there was also some sparks between her and the farmhand Hunk. If you look carefully at some of the little moments Dorothy and Scarecrow share throughout the film you can still see it – him holding her when the Witch has them cornered, she coming to his rescue when he’s set ablaze, the fact that instead of plainly saying goodbye near the end she tells him she’ll miss him the most, just to name a few. Frankly they were one of the first couples I shipped before shipping was a thing, and like with Mary Poppins and Bert I knew they were supposed to be a couple but was always frustrated that they were never officially declared as such. Oh well, that’s what fanfics are for, I guess.
Dorothy applauds the Scarecrow’s dancing and tells him where she’s going. The Scarecrow asks if maybe the Wizard could give him some brains and Dorothy, grateful to have a friend accompanying her, can’t refuse his request to join her. Along the way they come across an apple orchard, one more than likely enchanted by Grunty since she’s watching in secret. Dorothy tries to take an apple but the trees come to life, scold her and refuse to accept her apology. The Scarecrow tricks the trees into surrendering their fruit by insinuating that they’re full of worms. When Groot’s irate cousins fail to grab them, they pelt the Scarecrow with apples instead, leaving Dorothy free to help herself. While searching through the undergrowth, she comes across a man made of tin who’s rusted solid.
Now going back to casting trivia for a moment, Haley wasn’t the first choice to play the Tin Man, even after Ray Bolger was switched out. Buddy Ebsen was initially cast and some of his songs and scenes were even recorded before he dropped out. To this day a few stills from test footage of him in his killer makeup are all that have survived.
That wasn’t a joke by the way, the original Tin Man makeup was made of aluminum powder which got into Ebsen’s lungs and nearly killed him, something they failed to tell Haley when they asked him to step in. They also switched out the deadly powder for a slightly less dangerous face paint just to be on the safe side. As terrible as it all sounds, I won’t deny that the makeup in this film is revolutionary. Much of it still holds up with only the slightest of seams showing if you pay close attention on a big enough screen. It’s easy to see how many of the techniques used inspired countless of future cinematic makeup artists. Chalk up those near-deaths as trial and error, I suppose.
The Tin Man (Jack Haley) manages to mutter something about an oil can, which Dorothy finds and and uses to fix him up. He thanks her and gives her his backstory – not the horrifying one from the book where he was an ordinary woodsman who was cursed by the Witch of the East and got his entire body chopped up and replaced with tin piece by piece. No, that was thankfully omitted. Here he’s your run-of-the-mill tin person who got caught in the rain and was rusted in place for nearly a year. He’d feel fine if it wasn’t for the fact that the tinsmith who made him forgot to give him a heart.
Haley was another actor who got his start in vaudeville and worked his way into pictures. His approach to the Tin Man was inspired by how he would tell his son stories at bedtime, all warmth and quiet understatement with those big expressive eyes. He sings “If I Only Had a Heart” with tenderness, devotion, and all the things you need a heart to convey, making it my favorite of the “If I Only” songs. He even summons the voice of Snow White herself to play the Juliet to his Romeo before dancing for a bit. Funny how they let the Tin Man keep his routine but whittle the Scarecrow’s down to nothing, don’t you think? The dance does serve some purpose here as the Tin Man exercises his limbs for the first time in ages and it becomes a fun declaration of his regained mobility, even going on to inspire some of Michael Jackson’s moves in his Smooth Criminal video.
When his breakdancing is done, Dorothy asks the Tin Man to come with her and Scarecrow to ask the Wizard for a heart. Tin Man is doubtful that the Wizard will want to help, but Dorothy’s insistence is interrupted by Gruntilda making herself known to the three. She warns Scarecrow and Tin Man to leave Dorothy for herself or be tortured alongside her, and tries to frighten off Scarecrow by throwing a fireball at him.
Rather than dissuade them from their journey, this encounter has only made Tin Man and Scarecrow more determined to see Dorothy to the Emerald City and out of harm’s way. Dorothy is touched by their loyalty, even calling them her best friends, though notes that they seem oddly familiar.
The three continue down the yellow brick road which leads them into the heart of a dark forest. Dorothy and Scarecrow are beginning to feel a little spooked and wonder if they’ll run into any wild animals. Scarecrow asks if those especially dangerous animals are the kind that eat straw.
The Tin Man, who’s been oddly cool about running into danger up to this point, tells them the most they’ll have to worry about are lions, tigers and bears. Their fearful chanting of these creatures’ names summons the former, a seemingly ferocious Lion (Bert Lahr). Unlike Haley and Bolger’s roots in musical theater, Lahr got his start in burlesque comedy, and his energetic delivery and precise physical timing made him the top contender for the role of the Cowardly Lion. Despite the heavy makeup and costume (which was made of real lion skin), he made it work, and was the actor who arguably received the most praise for the movie; some even considered him worthy of a Best Supporting Actor nomination. My thoughts on his performance, however…I’ll get to it in a moment.
The Lion bullies the group and challenges Tin Man and Scarecrow to a fight. It’s not until he goes after Toto that Dorothy retaliates and gives him a light slap across the nose. Just like any troll confronted with a woman in real life, he breaks down into tears and begs for mercy. His sobbing goes on for quite a few minutes, enough to make the three feel sorry for him and probably inwardly awkward after a while. Like I said in a previous review, I was scared of nearly everything as a kid and I cried more than I care to admit, so seeing the Cowardly Lion blubber as he does made me feel uncomfortably self-aware even at a young age, like that was how I imagined people saw me when I was upset. To this day I still cringe a bit when he carries on that way. Dorothy is quick to forgive, however, and the Lion confesses that he’s got no courage so she invites him to become the fourth member of their party.
The Witch, meanwhile, has been watching their progress from her castle and decides to spring another plant-related trap, albeit non-sentient this time so as to not risk being doubly outsmarted by a man who literally has hay for brains. With her magic she creates a seemingly endless field of poisonous poppies right outside the Emerald City.
With their goal in sight, the friends decide to ditch the skipping and run to their heart’s content. Halfway there Dorothy, Toto and the Lion tire out and flop down for a rest. Tin Man and Scarecrow are somehow unaffected – I assume because they weren’t made with lungs – and they realize this is one of Grunty’s tricks. Their cries for help don’t go unheeded as Glinda appears to kill the deadly flowers with a blizzard. This wakes up everyone and they set to work oiling Tin Man who’s rusted himself with his own tears.
Grunty curses Glinda out and speeds to the Emerald City to deal with Dorothy further while she and her friends skip the rest of the way to the melodious strains of some disembodied optimistic voices. The first time we see the Emerald City makes for one of the most enchanting moments in the picture; I’d say it’d be pretty high up there if it weren’t for the reveal of Munchkinland earlier. Most of the matte paintings and backdrops look great, and the fact that I keep forgetting they’re not really there is a testament to that. Every time I see the Emerald City a part of me wants to reach out and touch it. To me and the characters, it represents all the hope and promise of their dreams coming true.
The only way in is barred by a persnickety Doorman (Frank Morgan again) who insists they give proof that Glinda sent them to the Wizard. After Dorothy shows off her heels, they are let into the city and hitch a ride from a friendly Coachman (Morgan, take a shot) and his ever-changing Horse of a Different Color.
Though we regrettably don’t get to see much of the Emerald City, what we do see goes all out in style. The costumes and architecture are storybook meets art deco with liberal use of white and varying shades of green. The Coachman also leads the citizens in the upbeat “Merry Old Land of Oz”, another tune that’s impossible to feel down when listening to. After the four friends get spruced up for their audience with the Wizard at the local spa, the mood is spoiled by Grunty’s sudden arrival.
Oh I’m real scared, Witchiepoo. What are you gonna do, draw rude images of me in the sky? Get a new muffler for your broom?
And really off the meter too. I’m sorry.
Duly noted. Consider it over, Gr – Witch, ma’am.
Oh, thanks. When is iIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIT!!!!!
Anyway the Witch flies over the city skywriting “SURRENDER DOROTHY” in another impressive piece of special effects which sends everyone below into a panic. They flock to the Wizard’s palace for answers where one Guard (Morgan) somehow manages to hold them off and send them home. He changes his mind about letting Dorothy and Co. in to see the Wizard when he’s informed she’s the same Dorothy the Witch is after. As they wait to be admitted, the Cowardly Lion sings about how he’ll soon take his official title of King of the Forest while the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Dorothy hold a mock coronation ceremony. It’s far from my favorite song; in fact on some viewings I’ll skip it altogether with no regrets. You can get the same vibrato effects as Bert Lahr by riding a jackhammer, the guttural syllables and music make it nowhere near as hummable as the other tunes in the film, and it doesn’t add anything that we don’t already know about the Lion. Also, this is the very last song in the movie; the third act goes completely without a musical number of any sort (except for the famous “Oh-we-oh” chant), and it noticeably adds to the darker shift in tone for the film’s third act. I will concede that as a performance, it’s a comic tour-de-force, especially Lahr’s monologue at the very end.
The Guard bursts in on the scene and rudely informs them the Wizard told them to piss off. Dorothy in particular is heartbroken at this rejection. She relates to her friends what Professor Marvel said about Aunt Em possibly dying, unaware that the Guard has overheard her tale and is moved to tears.
He decides to lets them in anyway and they come face to face with the Wizard, a giant floating green head (Morgan). The mere sight is enough to put the fear of God into the four travelers, not helped by the fact that when asked to step forward and state why they’re there he interrupts them by yelling “SILENCE!” and that he already knows while his fiery throne breaks several fire safety codes at once.
Wait…this is all sounding familiar…
When the Wizard scares the Cowardly Lion into fainting away before he can get a word in, Dorothy is moved to speak up for her friend. Fans of the book complain that Dorothy was reduced to a damsel in distress for the movie, which admittedly isn’t altogether false, but she will not be silenced when the people she cares about are threatened. She may get scared and cry if someone harasses her but go after her friends and she will let you have it. It’s one of the reasons why, coupled with her kindness and Judy’s lovely voice, Dorothy was a character I emulated through childhood and still adore as an adult.
The Wizard proclaims that he’s decided to grant their requests, but only if they carry out the impossible task of bringing him the Wicked Witch’s broomstick. The thought is so terrifying that it sends the Lion sprinting from the room and – in a move totally improvised by Bert Lahr – jumping out a stained glass window. With no other choice than to do as the Wizard commands, the four friends trek into the Witch of the West’s domain, the aptly-titled Haunted Forest, and –
…Yeah, so he’s got a gun. Everyone else is carrying some kind of weapon into the forest. Your point is?
I have, I’ve noticed it long before anyone made a big deal about it and frankly I don’t care. It’s not like he ever uses it anyway.
There’s no pleasing you troll-types, is there?
Ugh, fine. Here’s a slightly different Pulp Fiction reference from the one I used last month.
The Cowardly Lion and Scarecrow’s talk of “spooks” in the forest causes Tin Man to declare that he doesn’t believe in them. Unfortunately that has the opposite effect of saying you don’t believe in fairies and the Tin Man is hurled into the air by angered supernatural forces. Scarecrow and Dorothy help him out while Cowardly Lion…cowers, neither of them knowing that the Witch has her eye on them once more. She orders her army of Flying Monkeys to capture Dorothy and mess around with her friends if they’re up for it. The Witch also makes mention of “an insect” she sent ahead to “take the fight out of them”. What is this insect she speaks of, you may ask? That would be “The Jitterbug”, a deleted song where the titular bug would sting Dorothy and Co. into dancing themselves into exhaustion. It’s a catchy number and one that’s often reinstated in most live performances, but I agree with the decision to excise it from the final film. The jazz clashes tonally from the scene and the film’s score as a whole, it risks dating the movie, and it grinds the story to a halt. As for the plot hole its exclusion creates, you could make the thin argument that the spooks were what the Witch was referring to. What we get instead is a fade to a scene that some claim is more terrifying than the Witch herself. The Winged Monkeys swoop in howling like the damned, succeed in separating the four and even eviscerating the Scarecrow, and they carry Dorothy and Toto away screaming.
With Dorothy trapped in her castle, the Witch tries to make her hand over the ruby slippers. Dorothy refuses until the Witch orders one of the monkeys to drown Toto. Unfortunately for the Witch, she can’t even touch the slippers without getting a loud and painful electric shock. She curses her own foolishness, but it turns into dangerous cunning as she realizes “Those slippers will never come off…as long as you’re alive.”
As the Witch ponders how to do away with Dorothy without being affected by the shoe’s magic, Toto escapes from the basket again (maybe Dorothy should have named him Hound-ini) and succeeds in fleeing from his captors. Dorothy cheers through her tears but the Witch is through fooling around. Flipping over an hourglass filled with blood-red sand, she tells Dorothy that she’d better make peace with her maker because she’ll be dead the instant it runs out. Whether that means she has until then to remove the slippers herself, or the Witch will return with some new method of killing her, or even if the hourglass is some kind of bomb that will go off when it’s done it’s never made clear (it does explode when the Witch throws it later so I’m leaning towards the latter). All the poor girl can do now is wait as death inches closer by the minute. To drive the hopelessness home, Dorothy was going to sing a sad reprise of Over the Rainbow but it was cut for being TOO sad. According to a popular anecdote, the crew and even the director broke into tears while Judy Garland was performing it. Considering this was the role that made her America’s sweetheart I don’t doubt it. I can count the number of characters that I want to jump into the screen and comfort on one hand, and Dorothy is usually one of them. The audio still exists, but if you’re going to listen take my advice and keep the tissues on standby.
Now I’ve talked about how over-the-top the Witch is and after all she’s done so far you’d expect her to be your average children’s movie bad guy – no delicateness, being evil for the sake of it, you get the idea. But what marks a good antagonist in any story often comes down to a moment that may not have been necessary in the grand scheme of things, but goes the extra mile in proving how truly evil or beyond redemption they are, enough that you feel chilled to the bone after it happens. You find it in scenes like Maleficent tormenting Prince Philip in the dungeon in Sleeping Beauty, or Scar convincing Simba he can never return home after his father’s death, or “Mother’s” final monologue at the end of Psycho. And though it’s often overlooked, The Wizard of Oz has that moment as well, and it’s a powerful one.
While Dorothy cries for Aunt Em, the crystal ball begins to glow and change colors until the image of Aunt Em appears, calling out for Dorothy as she searches for her. Dorothy, even though she knows she can’t hear her, helplessly screams back as Aunt Em fades away…into the face of the Witch, who throws her pitiful tears back in her face.
This is the reason why the Wicked Witch is one of the greatest villains of all time. It’s not her iconic look, her menacing cackle, or her intense dedication towards owning a pair of shoes. It’s how RUTHLESS she is. She isn’t content with killing you on the spot, she wants to see you squirm first, writhing in terror before delivering the coup de grace. Look at how she tackled Dorothy on the yellow brick road and at the Emerald City. When the trees didn’t work, she went after the only friends she had who could protect her. When Dorothy made it to the Emerald City, the Witch showed up to remind her that she still wasn’t safe. Rather than rely solely on physical intimidation, the Witch psychologically torments Dorothy, reminding her she is always there. Always watching. Always knowing. And she enjoys every fucking second of it.
That fear also extends to the audience at this point, because not only does she laugh at Dorothy, but she turns and screeches right at us, the viewers. Most friends I had who weren’t afraid of the Witch up to this point in the movie have confirmed that they browned their pants here, and for good reason. It’s the one moment in the film where it seems that even WE’RE not safe from her wrath.
Meanwhile Toto reunites with the Lion, Tin Man and Scarecrow before leading them to the castle. Scarecrow has to come up with a plan while keeping Tin Man together and convincing the Lion to lead them. Seeing the changing of the guard at the drawbridge gives him an idea.
They’re ambushed by some of the Witch’s Winkie soldiers, but the three succeed in taking them down. Scarecrow has them wear their uniforms to get inside. Once there they find where Dorothy is kept and Tin Man goes Jack Torrance on the door. They have little time left; the hourglass is almost out and judging by the music borrowed for this scene Chernabog is coming for them.
The Witch catches them before they can escape, and as par the course for her, she has her minions move in for the kill slowly so her victims can dwell on what pain awaits them. Thankfully it’s a red letter day for Scarecrow and he uses the Tin Man’s axe to drop the chandelier on the guards. They run for it with the Witch and her army on their heels; unfortunately they make the classic horror movie mistake of running upstairs where they’re easily trapped after a harrowing chase among the parapets. The Witch decides the last one to go will see all her friends go before her, starting with the Scarecrow. She lights him on fire with her broom and laughs maliciously while he burns. Dorothy spies a bucket of water and puts out the blaze, unintentionally dousing the Witch…which causes her to start melting.
After all that she put our heroes through, seeing her thrash about screaming in agony before vanishing into nothing is so satisfying.
And yet, when you stop to really think about it, and I mean REALLY think, I can’t help but feel…
I can’t lie, folks, this a prime example of a deus ex machina; a twist of fate that solves everything quickly and with no proper buildup. No buildup AT ALL as a matter of fact, except for her shouting “Don’t touch that water!” seconds before getting splashed.
The original story tries to rationalize it this way: since the Witch can’t kill Dorothy directly thanks to the Good Witch’s kiss of protection, she makes her her slave and tries to think of ways to steal the magic shoes on the sly. The only times she can is when Dorothy is either sleeping or bathing, which is no good. And you want to know why?
Because the all-powerful tyrannical and murderous Wicked Witch of the West is afraid of only two things – the dark, and water.
Baum does mention that, similar to the North Witch’s assessment of the Witch of the East’s body on her death, her wickedness has made her so dried up that anything can wash her away, though that’s far from a great reason. None of this is helped by the fact that in the later books, the concept of death in the Land of Oz goes from a natural thing to nonexistent. And I don’t mean people are in denial or ignorance. Death is on permanent holiday in Oz. People never grow old or sick, body parts continue to live on after being chopped off including heads, and all curses that transform a person or animal into a statue or tree or living abomination are simply a permanent case of the trope “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream”, meaning that the Wicked Witch of the West isn’t really dead. She’s just clogging a drain somewhere.
Only after hours of thinking did it finally hit me – it’s obvious that the Witch is the Ozian counterpart to Miss Gulch; both women represent everything Dorothy fears and stands against. In Kansas Dorothy is afraid of facing her again and tries running away, which only makes things worse, and the same can be applied to her and the Witch in Oz. It’s only when Dorothy takes action against her – albeit inadvertently – that she’s able to defeat her and reveal that there wasn’t that much of a threat to begin with if that was all it took. And it’s interesting to note that Miss Gulch isn’t mentioned once after Dorothy returns home, so if the Witch was truly killed in Oz…
The Winkie soldiers thank Dorothy for ridding them of their cruel mistress by giving her the broom. This would have led into a triumphant reprise of “Ding Dong The Witch is Dead” where they return to the Emerald City as heroes, but like with “The Jitterbug” only the audio and a few seconds of test footage remain. It’s a shame too, such a victory deserves a moment of celebration instead of jumping directly to their meeting with the Wizard.
As for the Wizard himself, he congratulates them on their resourcefulness but insists they return tomorrow for what they asked for. Toto gets bored while they argue back and forth and plays around with a curtain in the corner of the room, ultimately revealing the “great and powerful” Wizard of Oz to be an old man shouting into a microphone and fiddling with fancy machinery.
Everyone is shocked and furious at this deception and the Wizard explains himself: he was a carnival worker from Kansas who performed tricks from a hot air balloon until one day it broke loose from its moorings and floated far away from civilization. And I’ve got to hand it to Frank Morgan again; he knows when to lay on the deadpan to get the most laughs out of his lines, such as when Dorothy asks him if he was frightened by experience (“Frightened? You are talking to a man who has laughed in the face of death, sneered at doom, and chuckled at catastrophe – I was petrified.”) The balloon inexplicably crossed over mountains and deserts until it landed in the heart of the Emerald City. The astounded Ozians declared him a Wizard and he graciously accepted the post, using his technological know-how to keep up the facade for years. The Wizard insists that despite being a bad one he’s really a good man, and proves it by giving a few uplifting speeches and tokens representing that which they truly had all along – a medal of courage for the Lion, a clockwork heart for the Tin Man, and a diploma for the Scarecrow.
By the way, last summer me and my friend Brian went to a screening of this and since we’re both huge Simpsons fans we quoted that line together at the exact moment it came on. I think we both laughed harder than anyone else in the audience then.
Seeing how there’s nothing to give Dorothy that could make her feel at home, though, the Wizard decides to take her back to Kansas himself in the very balloon that brought him to Oz. A grand farewell ceremony is held where the Wizard declares that the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion shall rule in his stead. Unfortunately Toto spies a woman holding a cat in the crowd and leaps out of Dorothy’s arms after it (seriously, who brings a cat to a public outing?) Dorothy chases him and the balloon is accidentally released early. The Wizard apologizes that there’s nothing he can do as he floats away, seemingly stranding Dorothy in Oz forever.
The Cowardly Lion says what we’re all thinking and asks her to stay with them, but Dorothy knows that even a place as magnificent as Oz would be nothing without her family. She asks Scarecrow what to do and he knows someone who could help her, because she’s floating down towards them now. Yes, it’s Glinda again, here to help deliver the final message of the movie.
A) Wishing is never enough, and if you want something you can rely on your own brains, heart and courage to get it?
B) Home is truly where the people who love you are?
C) Always check the soles of your magic shoes for instructions on proper use?
Hey, films are a subjective art form. You make the call.
With the way ahead clear, all Dorothy has to do is to say goodbye to her friends, the ones who stuck by her the whole way…
The friends she never could have made the journey without…
Who found they had they were looking for thanks to her…
Who really are the best friends any of them they will ever have…
And…and she even gets Toto to wave goodbye to them…
Following Glinda’s instructions, Dorothy takes one last look before clicking her heels and saying those famous words “There’s no place like home.” Images of the shining slippers and the farmhouse landing on terra firma fade into her lying unconscious in bed repeating the mantra. She awakens to find Aunt Em and Uncle Henry watching over her and Toto. They are overjoyed that she is all right, though Aunt Em doubts what Dorothy experienced was nothing more than the results of a concussion. Hunk, Zeke, Hickory and even Professor Marvel appear to make sure she rode through the storm in one piece. Dorothy insists that what happened to her wasn’t a dream, but she’s back with them and happy to stay for good because, after all, there really is no place like home.
And that’s The Wizard of Oz, a movie that despite being made in the era where our grandparents most likely hadn’t even started dating yet is as timeless and beautiful as can be. Granted there are a few holes in the story that pop up if you dissect it too thoroughly – like we never find out what really happened with Miss Gulch after Dorothy wakes up – but the film does such a phenomenal job wrapping you up in the dramatic stakes and visuals that going into extraneous detail seems like overkill. After all the trials and tribulations you see Dorothy go through, the climax gives you the perfect emotionally satisfying high point to end on. There are few movies out there that can pull that off.
One major problem the most jaded of viewers have is that the moral comes down to “Forget your dreams and settle at home forever”, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Dorothy makes that wish to go over the rainbow believing that being anywhere other than home will make her problems disappear. In her innocence she doesn’t realize until she after she arrives in Oz that a new change of scene means a new set of problems to go with it. The search for happiness doesn’t come solely from a new place or material gain, it comes from within and finding the value of what you have. “Over the Rainbow” is her first step towards learning that. Even though Judy Garland never officially won an Oscar, her performance as Dorothy was enough to convince the heads of the Academy Awards to present her with an honorary one, and that counts towards something in my book.
And speaking of books, let’s talk about the elephant in the room, one that I’ve hinted and lamented over for quite some time – the question as to whether or not it was all just a dream. In the books there was no question that Oz was a real place accessible by either magic or natural disaster (Dorothy and her kin have been transported by hurricane, earthquake, shipwreck, and countless other conveniences that feature on insurance policies). Apparently the screenwriters made Oz appear to be a dreamworld because they thought audiences of the 30’s were too sophisticated to believe it was real. From a critical standpoint, it does make sense to view it as a dream; it gives credence to the elaborate scenery and logic that runs on emotion rather than concrete laws of reality that other films, even fantasy ones, establish. From a personal point of view, I want to believe it all happened, that for a time Dorothy got her wish and went over the rainbow, because how many of us out there have ever wanted something as magical as that to happen to us? I know I’m not the only one. People who claimed to have seen the very first televised broadcast of this movie say there was a shot where immediately following Dorothy’s famous final line the camera panned down to reveal the ruby slippers underneath her bed. Whether this was true or an example of the Mandela effect muddled by extreme wishful thinking who can say, but it proves my point that people don’t want Dorothy’s adventure to have been an 80-minute long dream sequence. If you stop to think about it there are any number of ways the slippers’ magic could have returned her house and made it appear that she woke from a fever once she returned home. I could delve into the “Death of the Author” argument where the writer loses free reign of how their work is interpreted once it’s loosed on the public and how that plays with what the fandom wants to believe, but that’s a horse of a different color entirely, one that I have neither the insight nor time to postulate on.
Nonetheless, I can’t emphasize enough how iconic and dare I say ahead of its time The Wizard of Oz is. It challenges the idea that so-called kids’ and family movies have to be dumbed down with zero effort put into it. In fact if it hadn’t been for Gone With the Wind being released the same year there’s a good chance it might have won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Its impact can still be felt years later, not just by the number of parodies it spawned but by how many films have followed its example. Look at any number of family musicals that were created in the years following its success – Darby O’Gill, Mary Poppins, The Muppet Movie, Willy Wonka – and tell me they weren’t influenced by Oz in some way.
There’s also one more reason why I believe The Wizard of Oz has managed to endure the test of time. Stop me if this story sounds familiar:
The protagonist is stuck in a dead-end place wanting more out of life. Something appears that changes the protagonist’s world, whether they like it or not. The protagonist undergoes trials of escalating conflict while meeting characters that either help or hinder them on their way. As things begin to look up, a reversal of fortune drags our protagonist to their lowest point and causes them to doubt everything they knew about themselves or their future. It’s only when they are able to pick themselves up and try again that they are able to defeat the lingering shadow that threatens to doom them and everyone they care about.
It’d be easy to say that this is the plot of almost every feature ever made, but that’s a rather large generalization. The Wizard of Oz and the films featured above are all notable examples of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth, aka The Hero’s Journey. They may have different settings and themes, but they all share similar story beats, characters and arcs that predate the written word. These are tales that ascend cultural barriers because there is something fundamentally human about the quest to discover one’s strength, triumph over darkness, find acceptance, and learn compassion. I’ve seen footage of kids in Africa being shown The Wizard of Oz for the first time and the looks on their faces when Dorothy is in Munchkinland proves that this tale will always be relevant, no matter when, where, or how it is told. Does my snarky side pop up every now then while watching it? Sure, but nothing could ever ruin The Wizard of Oz for me.
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