Tuesday, June 16, 2009



The Wizard of Oz (1939) is everybody's cherished favorite, perennial fantasy film musical from MGM during its golden years. For many seasons, it was featured regularly on network TV as a prime time event (its first two showings were on CBS television on November 3, 1956 and in December, 1959) and then annually for Thanksgiving, Christmas and/or Easter time. It soon became a classic institution, and a rite of passage for everyone, and probably has been seen by more people than any other motion picture over multiple decades. Initially, however, the film was not commercially successful (at $3 million), but it was critically acclaimed.

All of its images (the Yellow Brick Road, the Kansas twister), characters (e.g., Auntie Em, Toto, Dorothy, the Wicked Witch), dialogue (e.g., "Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!", "We're not in Kansas anymore," "Follow the Yellow Brick Road," or the film's final line: "There's no place like home"), and music ("Over the Rainbow") have become indelibly remembered, and the classic film has been honored with dozens of books, TV shows (such as HBO's dramatic prison series Oz), references in other films, and even by pop groups (singer Elton John with his Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road album, or Pink Floyd's 1973 album Dark Side of the Moon).

The film's plot is easily condensed: lonely and sad Kansas farmgirl Dorothy dreams of a better place, without torment against her dog Toto from a hateful neighbor spinster, so she plans to run away. During a fierce tornado, she is struck on the head and transported to a land 'beyond the rainbow' where she meets magical characters from her Kansas life transformed within her unconscious dream state. After travels down a Yellow Brick Road to the Land of Oz, and the defeat of the Wicked Witch of the West, Dorothy and her friends are rewarded by the Wizard of Oz with their hearts' desires - and Dorothy is enabled to return home to Kansas.

Dual Roles
Many of the film's characters play two roles - one in Kansas and their counterparts in the Land of Oz, the locale of the young heroine's troubled dreams.
Kansas Role Oz Role(s) Actor/Actress
Hunk Scarecrow Ray Bolger
Hickory Tin Man Jack Haley
Zeke Cowardly Lion Bert Lahr
Miss Almira Gulch Wicked Witch of the West Margaret Hamilton
Professor Marvel Emerald City Doorman/Cabbie/The Wizard's Guard/The Wizard of Oz Frank Morgan

All of the featured actors and actresses - Judy Garland, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr, Ray Bolger, Margaret Hamilton, Frank Morgan, Billie Burke, Charley Grapewin and Clara Blandick - had successful, long film careers before and after the film, but this film is the one all of them have become best known for, and in some cases, the only film they are remembered for. Garland's career was overshadowed by the film, despite appearing in many classic films and musicals, including those for which she received Oscar nominations (A Star is Born (1954) and Judgment in Nuremberg (1961).) This was the sole film for which she received an Oscar, albeit an honorary special award for her "outstanding performance as a screen juvenile." (Garland had just completed the successful hit films Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938) and Babes in Arms (1939) with Mickey Rooney.)

The popular film was brilliantly adapted from L. Frank Baum's venerated children's book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (written in 1899 and published in 1900) by three credited writers Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and E.A. Woolf, and a team of many uncredited scriptwriters (including Arthur Freed, Herman Mankiewicz, Sid Silvers, and Ogden Nash). Langley insisted that the fantastical characters have real-life counterparts to make them more believable, as they had also existed in the 1925 silent film version.

The first line of the book follows: "Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer's wife." The Wizard of Oz was first performed as an on-stage musical in 1902-03 in Chicago and New York. It premiered at the Grand Opera House in Chicago on June 16, 1902, and made stars of vaudeville team members David Montgomery (the Tin Woodman) and Fred Stone (the Scarecrow). On January 21, 1903, the show opened on Broadway at the Majestic Theatre in New York. The show was so popular (the production tallied over 290 performances and was the longest running show of the decade) that it toured the country in road shows lasting until 1911. [Much more recently, New York City's Radio City Music Hall presented an annual, limited-run, live stage version of the 1939 MGM musical.]

The book was made into films on many different occasions during the silent era. [Archivist Mark Evan Swartz' book Oz Before the Rainbow (2000) compiles an in-depth history of the evolution of Baum's work with all its stage and screen permutations up through the 1939 MGM musical version, and its significant cultural influences]:

•The Wizard of Oz (1908)
•The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910), with 9 year old Bebe Daniels as Dorothy
◦and two other films from Selig Polyscope Company based on Baum's Oz: Dorothy and the Scarecrow in Oz (1910), and The Land of Oz (1910)
•three times in 1914, all produced by Baum's own short-lived Oz Film Manufacturing Company
◦The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1914)
◦The Magic Cloak of Oz (1914)
◦His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz (1914/15) - the closest to Baum's original book and the only one directed by him
•The Wizard of Oz (1921)
•The Wizard of Oz (1925), a full-length silent film from Chadwick Pictures, with comedian Oliver Hardy of Laurel and Hardy fame portraying the Tin Woodsman, from producer/director/star/writer Larry Semon
Other versions (and several instances of film homage) include:

•The Scarecrow of Oz (1931) (aka The Land of Oz), a fantasy short
•a Canadian black and white feature The Wizard of Oz (1933) with no dialogue, and with some color animations
•a short animated version in 1938
•another animated version for ABC-TV broadcast titled Off to See the Wizard (1967)
•Sidney Lumet's The Wiz (1978) - Universal's Afro-American film of the Broadway musical with New York City substituting for Oz, and singer Diana Ross in the lead role; also with Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow
•The Muppet Movie (1979) - resemblances include the voyage by Kermit to Hollywood (Oz), his meeting with Lew Lord (the Wizard), the avoidance of the temptations of Doc Hopper (the Witch), and the song The Rainbow Connection - a variation of Somewhere Over the Rainbow
•Under the Rainbow (1981) - see below
•an animated Japanese version, Ozu no Mahotsukai (1982) by director Takayama Fumihiko
•Disney's live-action, non-musical fantasy Return to Oz (1985) with Fairuza Balk as Dorothy
•the Royal Shakespeare Company's 1987 stage production
•David Lynch's Wild at Heart (1990) was filled with Oz references
•Jan de Bont's blockbuster Twister (1996) made numerous Wizard of Oz references (i.e., Dorothy is the name of the tornado device that measures the wind speeds in a tornado, and a tornado-blown cow was similar to the one in Dorothy's concussion-dream)
•Robert Zemeckis Contact (1997) contains multiple Oz references, including the radio signal of "Over the Rainbow" and a hot air balloon with "THIS WAY TO OZ" imprinted on it
•in action master John Woo's film Face/Off (1997), "Over the Rainbow" plays during a climactic, slow motion, bloodbath sequence
•Stephen Schwartz' Broadway musical, opening in late 2003, entitled Wicked (based on Gregory Maguire's 1995 novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West), that tells the back story of Glinda the Good Witch and the Wicked Witch of the West (Elphaba: derived from the name of the author L. F(rank) B(aum), L-F-B = Elphaba)
There was a near-fatal burning accident on the set involving Margaret Hamilton. Two scenes, the Scarecrow's (Ray Bolger) dance, and the jitterbug dance were edited out of the final film - as was Ebsen's singing of "If I Only Had A Heart." [The magic world of OZ was named after the alphabetical letters O - Z on the bottom drawer of Baum's file cabinet.]

There were a total of four directors who collaborated in the making of the film: first, Richard Thorpe (for almost two weeks) and then George Cukor (for two or three days). Victor Fleming (the credited director) was involved for four months, but was hired away by David O. Selznick to direct Gone With the Wind (1939). An uncredited King Vidor finished the production in ten more days, which consisted mostly of completing the film's opening and closing sepia sequences in the Kansas scenes. The back-story behind the chaos and confusion created by the many Munchkin extras was strangely and improbably documented in director Steve Rash's Under the Rainbow (1981), a tasteless comedy set in 1938 during the filming of Oz, that starred Chevy Chase, Carrie Fisher, and Eve Arden.

The film perfectly integrated the musical numbers (songs by Harold Arlen and E.Y. ('Yip') Harburg) with the action of the plot - enhancing and advancing the suspenseful narrative. The scenes in bleak Kansas were shot in drab sepia tone, with brilliant, vibrant, 3-strip Technicolor used for the fantasy scenes in the journey to Oz. The special effects, by Arnold Gillespie, included the cyclone sequence, the flying winged monkeys, the Emerald City views, the poppyfield, and the message written by the witch in the sky: "Surrender Dorothy."

An interesting sidenote: the plot of The Wizard of Oz has often been used, rightly or wrongly, as a Parable on Populism in the Gilded Age, to explain the political situation at the time of its writing, including the 1896 Presidential election, and the turn-of-the-century Populist movement. Here are a few of the allegorical connections, most of which were originally recognized by Henry M. Littlefield, and published in the American Quarterly in 1967:

•the Scarecrow - the wise, but naive western farmers
•the Tin Woodman - the dehumanized, Eastern factory workers
•the Wicked Witch of the East - the Eastern industrialists and bankers who controlled the people (the Munchkins)
•the Good Witch of the North - New England, a stronghold of Populists
•the Good Witch of the South - the South, another Populist area
•the Wizard - President Grover Cleveland, or Republican Presidential candidate William McKinley
•the Cowardly Lion - Democratic-Populist Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan
•Dorothy - a young Mary Lease; or the good-natured American people
•Dorothy's silver shoes - represents the 'silver standard' (acc. to the Populists, "the free and unlimited coinage of silver")
•Toto - the 'teetotaling' Prohibitionists (or Temperance Party), an important part of the 'silverite' coalition
•the Yellow Brick road - the 'gold standard' - paved with gold, but leads nowhere
•the land of Oz - oz. is the standard abbreviation for ounce, in accordance with the other symbolism
•Emerald City - Washington, D.C., with a greenish color associated with greenbacks
•the Poppy field - the threat of anti-imperialism
Because Buddy Ebsen (later noted for being cast as Jed Clampett in TV's The Beverly Hillbillies) was removed from the production as the original Tin Man because of an adverse allergic reaction to silver dust make-up, Jack Haley replaced him. [Haley was the father of producer Jack Haley, Jr., who was once married to Judy Garland's daughter Liza Minnelli for five years from 1974-78.] Established 20th Century Fox's star Shirley Temple was considered for the Garland Kansas farmgirl role (but the studio refused to loan her out to MGM), as was W.C. Fields for the role of the Wizard, and Gale Sondergaard as the Wicked Witch. Universal's Deanna Durbin was also considered to play the lead role of Dorothy. Ray Bolger was originally cast as the Tin Woodsman, but changed his mind to play the Scarecrow - in recognition of his childhood idol Fred Stone (who had originated the stage role in the early 1900s), and because he claimed a pre-existing verbal agreement.

The beloved film in Hollywood's most classic year was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture (producer Mervyn LeRoy), Best Color Cinematography (Hal Rosson), Best Interior Decoration (Cedric Gibbons, William A. Horning), Best Special Effects, Best Song ("Over the Rainbow" by Harold Arlen and lyrics by E.Y. Harburg) and Best Original Score (Herbert Stothart), and won only two Oscars - for its dual musical nominations. [It was competing against the domineering multiple Oscar winner, Gone With the Wind (1939).]

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