The third and definitive film adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s fantasy is a musical adventure and it made Judy Garland a star. Between this and A Star is Born we get to see her meteoric rise and decline which is how fantasies in Hollywood are likely to end up.
Dorothy Gale is an orphaned young girl unhappy with her drab black-and-white existence on her aunt and uncle’s dusty Kansas farm. Dorothy yearns to travel “over the rainbow” to a different world, and she gets her wish when a tornado whisks her and her little dog, Toto, to the Technicolorful land of Oz.
Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.
You got that right, Dorothy. This is Hollywood. Where fantasies are made visible, audible, emotional. Even if we cannot guarantee you success no matter what, we can make you a star given the right ingredients in the Golden age of Cinema in technicolor.
So they did and it is a classic even in this age of superfluities and gratuitous sex and violence.
When L. Frank Baum published his children’s story in 1900 he didn’t think it would be held up as an original American fairy tale. Nor did he imagine it would be given an entirely new treatment in an altogether medium of celluloid. Yes his literary classic would be a cinematic milestone some 40 years later. L. Frank Baum overachieved and his book has been read by generations of children, who each grew up and read it to their own children. He went on to write a whole series of Oz books, taking up the characters he created in ‘The Wizard’ and giving them new adventures – 14 books in all. It did not even stop with his death in 1919, as Ruth Plumly Thompson and other writers continued the series, creating scores of volumes. Officially, there were 40 books in the series, but there were many unofficial additions. Even the Russians wrote some.
You’re off to see the Wizard, the Wonderful Wizard of Oz
You’ll find he is a Whiz of a Wiz if ever a Wiz there was
If ever, oh ever, a Wiz there was,
The Wizard of Oz is one because…
When MGM made their movie in 1939, they wanted a big success with the relatively new process of Technicolor. Disney had enjoyed massive success with the color animation Snow White and the 7 Dwarves. Now MGM wanted a share of this cake. Director Victor Fleming was a very busy man. He took over after George Cukor who was fired by the studio. Cukor was called to work on MGM’s flagship project, Gone With the Wind. Later, when Cukor had run foul of Clark Gable, Fleming found himself directing GWTW by day and editing Wizard by night. King Vidor took over in the Wizard studio and directed the Kansas sequences. Between them, these men took Frank L. Baum’s classic children’s fantasy and added a few Hollywood ingredients:
* a transformation from black and white Kansas to an Oz so Technicolor that it almost hurt your eyes
* some hardened professional character actors, including at least one drunk
* a troop of midgets
* unforgettable songs that children could learn and carry on singing into their twilight years
* a young Judy Garland (although not as young as Dorothy) conveying the innocence of a Kansas farm girl but with the singing voice of a streetwise angel
* the best special effects 1939 technology could deliver.
I have a sneaking suspicion that there are some like me who has not yet read the real but just got carried by the reel. So for those who think this is another New Age wizardry set in Avalon or in the Middle Kingdom, here is what happens.
Anyway, Dorothy and Toto manage to get caught up in a twister and see all sorts of people whizz by them. ( Apparently, Toto was put out of filming for a fortnight when one of the crew stepped on the little animal.) When they come back to solid ground, everything has suddenly become brightly colored – not a bit like dull old Kansas, filmed in black and white. It turns out that Dorothy has inadvertently killed the Wicked Witch of the East, making her a hero to the diminutive locals, the Munchkins.
Ding-dong, the witch is dead!
The wicked witch!
Ding-dong, the wicked witch is dead!
Dorothy heads down the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City, where dwells the all-powerful Wizard of Oz, who might be able to help the girl return to Kansas. En route, she befriends a Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), a Tin Man (Jack Haley), and a Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr). The Scarecrow would like to have some brains, the Tin Man craves a heart, and the Lion wants to attain courage; hoping that the Wizard will help them too, they join Dorothy on her odyssey to the Emerald City.
Having offended the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton), Dorothy is protected from the old crone’s wrath by the ruby slippers that she wears. Glinda, the Good Witch of the North (Billie Burke), is there to safeguard her and needs to “Follow the Yellow Brick Road”, and she does.
Together they meet with the imposing Wizard of Oz, who promises them their hearts’ desires (brain, heart, courage, a return flight to Kansas) if they will only kill the Wicked Witch of the West.
Of course they triumph, after a few surreal setbacks, including an attack by blue winged monkeys. Dorothy sings some more and gets back home older and wiser.
Then close your eyes and tap your heels together three times. And think to yourself, ‘There’s no place like home’.
Frank L. Baum’s story works because it is a great story, with a mythic center that is nothing short of an allegory for growing up. The story had been filmed before, in 1925, but this is the version that will be remembered as long as movies are remembered. Why?
* Because of the way the Technicolor Oz bursts onto the screen.
* Because everybody remembers “Over the Rainbow”, but nobody ever sung it quite like Judy Garland (real name Frances Gumm). This hit song by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg was nearly chopped from the picture after the first preview because it “slowed down the action.”
* Because everybody, adult and child, has had a dream that seemed apparently senseless and yet made perfect sense.
Garland was MGM’s second choice for Dorothy after Shirley Temple dropped out of the project; and Bolger was to have played the Tin Man but talked co-star Buddy Ebsen into switching roles. When Ebsen proved allergic to the chemicals used in his silver makeup, he was replaced by Haley. Gale Sondergaard was originally to have played the Wicked Witch of the West in a glamorous fashion, until the decision was made to opt for belligerent ugliness, and the Wizard was written for W.C. Fields, who reportedly turned it down because MGM couldn’t meet his price. The Wizard of Oz was too expensive to post a large profit upon initial release; however, after a disappointing reissue in 1955, it was sold to network television, where its annual showings made it a classic.
(ack: Hal Erickson)
Alice in Wonderland (1983, Harry Harris)
A Connecticut Yankee (1931, David Butler)
Mary Poppins (1964, Robert Stevenson)
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971, Mel Stuart)
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1979, Bill Melendez)
The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1914, John Farrell MacDonald, L. Frank Baum)
Alice in Wonderland (1933, Norman Z. McLeod)
A Wrinkle in Time (2003, John Kent Harrison)
The Cat Returns (2002, Hiroyuki Morita)
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968, Ken Hughes)
Movies with the Same Personnel
Thousands Cheer (1943, George Sidney)
Courage of Lassie (1946, Fred Wilcox)
The Three Musketeers (1948, George Sidney)
Sweethearts (1938, W.S. Van Dyke)
Boom Town (1940, Jack Conway)
Dancing Pirate (1936, Lloyd Corrigan)
The Great Ziegfeld (1936, Robert Z. Leonard)
The Affairs of Cellini (1934, Gregory La Cava)
Other Related Movies
is featured in: That’s Entertainment! (1974, Jack Haley, Jr.)
is related to: Return to Oz (1985, Walter Murch)
The Wizard of Oz (1925, Larry Semon)
20th Century Oz (1976, Chris Lofven)
The Lion of Oz (2000, Tim Deacon)
The Wizard of Oz (1933, Ted Eshbaugh)
The Wizard of Oz (1991, Jim Simon)
The Wonderful Land of Oz (1969, Barry Mahon)
Harold Arlen: Somewhere Over the Rainbow (1999, Don McGlynn)
The Marvelous Land of Oz (1987, Gerald Potterton, Tim Reid)
The Wizard of Oz (2004)
Veggie Tales: The Wonderful Wizard of Ha’s
Tin Man (2007, Nick Willing)
Zardoz (1973, John Boorman)
Rainbow (1978, Jackie Cooper)
His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz (1914, L. Frank Baum)
The Dreamer of Oz: The L. Frank Baum Story (1990, Jack Bender)
Being Dorothy (2003, Howard Goldberg)
Return to Oz (1964)
Under the Rainbow (1981, Steve Rash)
Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows (2001, Robert Allan Ackerman)
influenced: The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953, Roy Rowland)
has been remade as: The Wiz (1978, Sidney Lumet)
The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz (2005, Kirk R. Thatcher)
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