The Wizard of Oz (1939) dir. Victor Fleming
Starring: Judy Garland, Bert Lahr, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Margaret Hamilton, Billie Burke
By Alan Bacchus
If someone were to ask me what the most widely seen movies ever made. Not just based on box office figures but on TV and DVD I’d probably only put ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Wizard of Oz’ on top that list with much space to the next one down. Both movies transcend time and are invisible to their age.
Like 'Gone With the Wind', ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is a producer’s picture, not a director’s picture. In fact there were four directors all of whom left or got fired for one reason or another. Including the only credited man, Victor Fleming, would also go on to direct portions of Selnick’s picture and get sole credit as well.
The opening Kansas sequence, shot famously in black & white and timed for sepia tone, evokes a cinematic period before 1939. By 1939, black & white was so sophisticated, cinematographers could manipulate light and shadows to do anything. So the sepia tone and obviously stagey studio set opening is meant to bring us back to a simpler time even before the relatively simple times of 1939 cinema. Perhaps the anachronistic opening was meant to enhance the great transition to Technicolor which announces itself so grandly when Dorothy exits her tornado-transported home and into Munchkinland.
Rare for its time “Oz” seems to have an awareness of itself.
As a strictly studio picture, ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is not much more than a theatrically staged telling of the Frank L. Baum story. Some might describe the choreography as stagey, as there’s an awareness of the interior studio setting at all times. The painted backdrops looks like, well, painted backdrops. The flowers look fake. The colours are overly saturated and unrealistic. The edges and falseness the costumes and makeup worn by the Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion are made visible by the bright, unsympathetic lighting. Like a the front row patrons of a Broadway show, there's very little hidden from the audience in Oz.
Even within the constraints of the studio iconic imagery is everywhere. The mere sight of Dorothy and her three costumed companions skipping down the yellow brick road toward the Emerald City is as grand a composition as there ever was in the movies. The foursome framed at the bottom of the screen, with the converging lines of the road creating the sense of depth and the deco design of the castle at the top of the frame is a brilliantly fantastical work of art.
'The Wizard of Oz' is a work of pure and inspiring fantasy. The classical structure of the fairytale hits every beat so precisely in hindsight it’s a template for all fantasy cinema made after. Dorothy’s journey is not unlike Frodo’s in 'Lord of the Rings' or Alice in Wonderland, so innocent and fragile, dainty in her pretty dress and her constant follower, Toto. Even her empty basket which she refuses to put down even in the most dangerous of situations stays on her arm. Dorothy as a farm girl, doesn’t know it but her congeniality and resourcefulness is about to save the world from the tyranny of the wicked witches. Well, Glinda knows it. We can see it on her face when she first introduces herself in Munchkinland, she will be the saviour.
The late second act action sequence in Wicked Witch’s castle is frightening. Not just Margaret Hamilton’s snarling performance as the Witch, but her army of Russian Army-coat wearing minions and flying demon monkeys. The grey and gothic tones of these scenes provoke a truly dark and threatening hazard in Dorothy’s journey.
My favourite performance, no doubt, is Bert Lahr’s Lion – a character of vaudevillian extremes, with an exaggerated New York accent which, of Dorothy’s three sidekicks, best represents the trio’s slapstick comedy.
“The Wizard of Oz” is invisible to it age because, if the film were made now – or perhaps before the age of CG – under a producer as smart as Mervyn LeRoy would likely (or should) look exactly the same. Look at the 1971 version of ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’ for instance, a film made 32 years after Oz but with the same visual and tonal sensibilities. No wonder that film is also a timeless classic.
The 70th Anniversary of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Warner Bros. Home Video. The special features on the two-disc set are adequate, but mostly older featurettes which unfortunately show their age – especially the Angela Lansbury-hosted 1990 feature, ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: The Making of a Movie Classic’ urggh.
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