The Wizard of Oz (review)

There’s No Place Like Home

Are there people who don’t love The Wizard of Oz? I can’t imagine my childhood without this movie. It was always on television around Thanksgiving time when I was a kid, and it’s with warm, comfortable, Thanksgiving-y feelings that I remember Oz. The ruby slippers, the yellow brick road, Auntie Em, and Toto — they all feel like home. Even the bits that freaked me out as a kid — those creepy trees with the arms! flying monkeys! “Surrender Dorothy”! — seem like satisfyingly conquered childhood nightmares.
Overcoming childhood fears and feelings of inadequacy is, of course, what The Wizard of Oz is all about, to such a degree that I wonder if the film has the same primal intimacy for adults seeing it for the first time. Teen Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) lives with her Aunt Em (Clara Blandick) and Uncle Henry (Charley Grapewin) on a farm in Kansas. Feeling useless and constantly underfoot, Dorothy fears she’s about to lose her only friend — her dog, Toto — to the machinations of local busybody Almira Gulch (Margaret Hamilton). So she and Toto run away, physically, at first, and then mentally, when a knock to the head sends Dorothy into moviedom’s most famous dream sequence.

The transition from the sepia tones of Dorothy’s Kansas to the Technicolor world of Oz is a reminder of how glorious color film must have been when it was new — and the movie, sepia and color sections alike, looks absolutely stunning in the new DVD release, digitally remastered for the film’s 60th anniversary (also available on VHS). Dorothy journeys through the all-singing, all-dancing, all-Munchkin land of Oz — with Toto and her new friends, Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr), and Tin Woodman (Jack Haley) — to defeat the Wicked Witch of the West (also Hamilton) and gain the help of the Wizard of Oz (Frank Morgan), and through her adventures she comes to realize that running away from her problems doesn’t do any good. It’s no coincidence that nearly everyone she meets in Oz is a dream-reincarnation of someone back in Kansas, from Miss Gulch as the Wicked Witch to the traveling magician Professor Marvel as the Wizard himself. Forget all the sitting around and talking of Dawson’s Creek‘s teens — this is adolescent angst worked out through cathartic action.

Directed by Victor Fleming (Gone with the Wind), The Wizard of Oz is not only a delightful confection in its own right, it has influenced the generations of films and filmmakers since. Snippets and overtones of Oz turn up in everything from The Princess Bride and Star Wars (Can’t you just hear Vader saying, “I’ll get you, my Jedi, and your little R2 unit, too!”?) to Earth Girls Are Easy, and the film is the source of many a reference for the wags on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

The guys at MST3K — and any other devoted fans — will appreciate all the extras on the new DVD. There’s some of the usual stuff — trailers and a making-of documentary — but lots of more arcane things, as well. Included are a hilariously ridiculous 1949 trailer for a reissue of the film, designed to demonstrate that this is Not Just a Kids’ Movie, and behind- the- scenes home movies taken by the film’s composer, Harold Arlen, during which you’ll see Margaret Hamilton, in full Wicked Witch makeup, break into a beautiful and decidedly non-evil smile. You’ll find excerpts from early film versions of L. Frank Baum’s classic book, including one from 1914, and scenes from the silly 1967-68 TV series Off to See the Wizard. Most interesting are the outtakes. The original concept for Scarecrow’s “If I Only Had a Brain” dance was choreographed by Busby Berkeley — significantly longer and quite different from the version that appeared in the film (it includes an additional verse to the song), it had to be cut when the finished film was running too long, but you can see it here. And there’s an entire section of audio outtakes: unedited musical numbers, looping tracks, and music recorded for underscoring. It’s all fascinating stuff for buffs.

AFI 100: #10
unforgettable movie moment:
The Wicked Witch of the West gets hers: “I’m melting! Melting! Who would have thought that a little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness?”

previous AFI 100 film:
9. Vertigo
next AFI 100 film:
11. City Lights

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