Friday, November 27, 2015

The Favorites - The Wizard of Oz (#79)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. The Wizard of Oz (1939/USA/dir. Victor Fleming & King Vidor) appeared at #79 on my original list.

What it is • In early 1939, it was MGM Production #1060, just another job for the many professional actors, technicians, and businessmen involved with its making. That August, released six days before the outbreak of World War II in Europe, it was a lavish family film, touched by vaudevillian comedy, screen-musical , and adventure/fantasy influences - an escapist treat for parents and children, whose half-cost and/or matinee tickets made it difficult for the studio to recoup its considerable investment. The following year, on Leap Day, the film's respectable nominations (including one for Best Picture) yielded two wins (both musical) plus a special award for Judy Garland. In 1949, when Frank Morgan - the wizard himself - passed away, this role was not mentioned in his filmography. Within a decade, broadcast in black-and-white on early television sets - so that even the candy-coated world of Oz took on the dusty shades of the Kansas sequence - the movie finally became the pop culture phenomenon it remains to this day. Since then, it has inspired in-depth psychoanalytic analyses, sync-ups with Pink Floyd records, and endless parodies and references and analogies from editorial cartoons to everyday speech. By sheer coincidence, as I wrote the previous sentence, another person in the room opened a backpack and discovered a Barnes & Noble bag featured the curled-up feet of the Wicked Witch of the East with text from L. Frank Baum's book (and while the original story remains a classic, it's unlikely it would be remembered nearly so universally today if not the film version which has long ago supplanted the literary images and phrases). The Wizard of Oz is truly inescapable; quite likely it is the most referenced motion picture in history, and certainly it is one of the most viewed. Yet at its core is a simple story, presented straightforwardly for all of its resonance and associations. A young girl, lonely and frustrated in her native Kansas, is apparently transported by a twister to a faraway land, where she must defeat the Wicked Witch of the West, befriend the lovably incomplete Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion, and discover the truth about the fearsome Wizard in Emerald City before learning that "there's no place like home."

Why I like it •
Like everyone else, I have a personal history with the movie. Allow me to bore you with it for a moment. For my sixth birthday, my main desire was the brand new VHS release of The Land Before Time. I got that, but I also got a copy - released to accompany the 50th anniversary of the film - of The Wizard of Oz. The video opened with a detergent commercial, shot through with quintessentially eighties fuzziness, in which a bunch of kids dress up as the Oz characters for their school play. Nine years later, in eighth grade, I re-enacted this ritual myself, cast as the Wizard in a jr. high production (to this day, I could probably recite much of Frank Morgan's dialogue from memory). Around the same time, I saw a premature 60th anniversary screening - my first big-screen encounter with the film (I remember being really struck by the film's classical aspect ratio for the first time) and in between those two poles - first video viewing and theatrical re-release - I read the book for the first time for an elementary school research paper on L. Frank Baum. Close to a decade later, I experienced a resurgence of interest when a friend encouraged the woolly "Dark Side of the Rainbow" exercise. Making sure to sync the lion's second roar with the needle-drop onto Pink Floyd's most famous album, most of the on-the-nose correspondences seemed unsurprisingly trivial. But what struck me unexpectedly was how well the mood of the music suited the images, bringing out the subterranean emotions embedded in the experience, evoking both prior Depressions (the 1890s, the 1930s) and future depressions (neither L. Frank Baum nor Judy Garland had easy lives following the their success with this story). I noticed too that in a weird way the movie seemed almost documentary-like in its artificiality - the stylized sets made me more conscious of the soundstage surroundings than I would have been if the illusion was more convincing. This viewing led me to several related books, the best being The Making of The Wizard of Oz, which details the daily lives of the actors, the troubleshooting special effects, the decadent hotel parties of the Munchkin performers and other memorable details from the set. It was probably with this experience in mind that I included The Wizard of Oz on the 2011 "Favorites" list which spawned this series; other nostalgic classics were cut from the running (the point being what moved me now, now what moved me once upon a time) but the big picture of The Wizard of Oz still held fascination. Watching it yesterday, what stuck with me was the effectiveness of the framing device. Casting the bulk of the film as a dream and finding correspondences between Dorothy's "real-life" companions and the dream's characters could be perceived as a cliched cop-out. Instead, I find that it elevates the fantasy beyond trivial escapism and imbues the reality with a larger sense of music. I wonder if without the Kansas sequences the film would be as much of a classic today? Somehow anchoring the story in familiar Depression reality gives it an extra punch, and the notion of several levels of interacting reality inspired everyone from Salman Rushdie to David Lynch, indelibly shaping the dream-logic that characterizes some of the best high art and pop culture of the twentieth and twenty-first century. The Wizard of Oz itself is a fun entertainment whose aftertaste suggests so much more beneath the surface and along the margins. "What a world," indeed.

How you can see it • This one shouldn't be too hard to find. But if you want to revisit (or, shockingly, see it for the first time), The Wizard of Oz is on DVD from Netflix. And chances are good your local library has a copy unless it has gone missing over the years. The film is narrowly available (and can be tracked for future availability) streaming or digitally. Surprisingly, I have never written a review of the film before - probably because I long planned a massive essay, combining impressionistic riffing with loads of research, that never actually came about (had it not been for this proposed endeavor, I would definitely have covered it in my "Big Ones" series). My only copy is VHS, so it wasn't included in my video clips series a few years ago either. However, I did create a visual tribute to the tornado sequence several years ago and several years before that, I mused about films like Wizard of Oz which become popular many years after their premiere. Probably the first time I wrote about the film for this blog was a brief blurb on the aforementioned "Making of" book, which was a runner-up on my Reading the Movies movie-book list in 2009.

What do you think? • How did you first see The Wizard of Oz? Did it have a big impact? What are your favorite sequences in the film, your favorite characters, your favorite songs? Has the charm of the film worn off with repeat viewings and/or growing up, or did you never much care for it in the first place? Does the knowledge of its place in pop culture make it harder for you to view the film on its own? Does it enhance or impede your enjoyment? What is your favorite essay, film, book, comic, or other work inspired by the film? Do you like the book? How does it compare to the film for you? Have you shared it with your kids, or a younger generation? How did they respond? Do you think the Wizard, once he's unmasked, has genuine wisdom to offer or do you think he is still BS'ing the characters? Is Dorothy's return home a disappointing conclusion to her adventure? Or a necessary return to reality? Or something else entirely?

• • •

Next week: Late Spring (#78)

3 comments:

Sam Juliano said...

A true labor of love here Joel, one that I do share in every sense.

It is arguably the most beloved film ever made in this country. It was based on one of the most venerated children’s stories ever written. It launched the career of the greatest female thespian to ever appear in a musical film, and it remains the one film she is most reverentially identified with. The movie’s celebrated score is woven into our popular culture, and it’s unforgettable screenplay has produced lines of dialogue that are ingrained into the consciousness of anyone and everyone who has watched the film countless times, and have come to value it’s themes of home, family and friendship as cinematically conclusive. The film’s most coveted song is probably the most popular number ever written during the twentieth century, and has been covered time and again by renowned artists. The story of it’s changing directors and cast auditions remain as fascinating to movie lovers as anything else about the film, and more has been written on the making of the picture than any other in history. The story of the little people who appear early in the film in one of it’s most celebrated sequences, remains a stand alone curiosity for many to this very day, with the old age passings of this unique fraternity a major news item. Every supporting member of the film’s distinguished cast will eternally be remembered firstly for the role they played in this film, even with exceptional careers to their credit. No film has been more referenced in other movies, and the final black-and-white sequence set in the bedroom of a Kansas farmhouse may well be the most emotionally moving scene in the history of American cinema. With the advent of home video in the late 70’s the film became an incomparable favorite, and to this day has been released more often on the many video formats up to a recently-released blu-ray box set. The smash Broadway hit Wicked is hugely indepted to the 1939 film. While it has come to represent homespun family values and the most vivid realization of one’s dreams, The Wizard of Oz is imbued with humor and humanity, two qualities that more than any other have contributed to it’s enduring, even spectacular appeal over decades all around the world. Much like the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the day astronauts first stepped foot on the moon, many Americans will never forget the day, the month and the year they first remembered watching the film, and in whose company they were with. Just two years ago, the seventieth anniversary of the film’s opening was celebrated to national fan-fare, with the original city of it’s first appearance being honored – Oconomwoc, Wisconsin.

Sam Juliano said...

the remainder of my long comment:



The Wizard of Oz represented for many the technological advancement that brought color into many homes at a time when black and white televisions were the only real option for working class families. Discussion in grammar school playgrounds invariably reached the point where some kids bragged to others that they saw most of the film in color, with of course only the sepia-toned bookends standing apart for obvious intrinsic reasons connected to the storytelling. My wife Lucille recalls a close friend excitedly relating to her that “the witch was green!” and that “Munchkinland was as beautiful a place as anywhere she had ever seen.” More than any other single reason The Wizard of Oz can be credited with causing many to take the plunge and bring the wonderful world of Zenith and Magnavox into their living rooms. After-viewing quizzes though often brought conflicting reports of the colors of certain objects and clothes items, due to the non-conformity of different color tubes at a time when the changeover was in it’s earliest stages. The biggest compliment and validation of The Wizard of Oz’s hold on film (and television) watchers was that it was the main barometer of color control, and the example to be used against all others.

Joel Bocko said...

I thought you would have something to say about this one, and you didn't disappoint! The stuff about the different color tubes is fascinating & "the witch was green" - love it. Thanks for bringing a smile to my face as I grieve the Patriots' first loss of the season. Oh well, like Dorothy I will remain an optimist haha. Looking forward to seeing you again in NY...