I am somewhat surprised that The Wizard of Oz (1939) has yet to be suggested. It is one of the most familiar films of all time, and there are a lot of reasons for this fact. For starters, it is one of the first color films in cinematic history. That is quite the accomplishment, and would give it merit by itself. It featured then teen-heartthrob Judy Garland as the wide-eyed Dorothy Gale, though there is a whole sub-text to that side of the story that you would not get from the otherwise cheery film. Given these factors alone, it made for a sensation when it debuted in 1939. I am sure that, even if you have never seen it, you could at least quote a line or two from the film, such has been its impact on culture. Hollywood has made more movies than you could ever accurately count, and too many for this poor reviewer to get to in one lifetime. Hence, it is the mark of a truly memorable film that it is so recognizable to even the most casual of movie fans.
The Wizard of Oz sets the tone at the start by dedicating the film to the “Young in Heart.” How nice. The young in the film is, of course, Dorothy, and she returns Kansas farm home with her dog Toto (Terry). She is soon followed by the well-off Miss Gulch (Margaret Hamilton), whom Toto has bitten. Being a person of influence, she has obtained an order for the dog to be destroyed, which distresses Dorothy. In response, she attempts to run away with Toto. Not long into her trip, she encounters the traveling huckster Professor Marvel (Frank Morgan). He parades as a fortune teller, but I say huckster because his tricks are really cons. Regardless, he uses them for good and gets Dorothy to go home to ease the worries of her guardians, Aunt Em (Clara Blandick) and Uncle Henry (Charley Grapewin). Unfortunately, as she is nearing their homestead, a storm begins to pick up and soon there is a tornado. Aunt Em, Uncle Henry, and their three farmhands who are all friends with Dorothy, Hunk (Ray Bolger), Hickory (Jack Haley), and Zeke (Bert Lahr), all make it into their shelter. Dorothy is forced to ride it out in their home, and I do mean “ride it out.” When the house finally lands, it is in the magical surroundings of Oz, Munchkinland to be precise. The diminutive inhabitants are timid at first, until they realize that Dorothy’s abode has landed on one of their chief tormentors, the Wicked Witch of the East. She is feted by the Munchkins, and when Glinda (Billie Burke), the Good Witch of the North, appears, Dorothy is given the Wicked Witch of the East’s ruby red slippers. These are meant to protect her from the evil clutches of the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton), sister to her cardinal direction opposite. Dorothy is equal parts terrified and fascinated, but in any case, she wants to go home. Her new acquaintances point her in the direction of the only person they believe can help her: the Wizard of Oz (Frank Morgan). To get to his dwelling in the Emerald City, she must follow the Yellow Brick Road. Along the way, she meets a series of characters who, having seemingly nothing better to do, decide to aid her on her quest. When they find out she is on her way to see the Wizard (because, because, because, as the awesome lyrics go), their decision to accompany her is given an extra boost because they believe the “great and powerful” conjurer can help them with certain defects from which they each supposedly suffer. First is the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), who does not have a brain; next is the Tin Woodman (Jack Haley), who is without a heart; and finally there is the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr), who, as the name would suggest, lacks courage. When they eventually make it to the Emerald City and into the Wizard’s presence, after some harassment from the Wicked Witch of the West, the Wizard gives them a task. They must retrieve the Wicked Witch of the West’s broomstick before the Wizard will help them. In the course of their quest, Dorothy is captured by the Witch’s flying monkey minions, adding rescue to the mission still being carried out by the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion. Still, they are able to sneak in and free Dorothy before her time runs out (literally), but not before the Witch spots them and gives chase. The crucial moment comes when the Witch sets fire to the Scarecrow’s arm. Spotting a nearby bucket of water, Dorothy tosses it on the flames, dousing them. Unfortunately for the Witch, she is caught in the splash zone. Water, apparently, is her one weakness, and she begins melting, melting. . . . Anyway, two witches down and broomstick in hand, they return to the Wizard. He initially wants nothing to do with them until Toto reveals that he is just a man behind a curtain, using fancy gadgets to aggrandize himself. He then gives the Scarecrow a diploma, the Tin Woodman a ticking heart clock, and the Cowardly Lion a medal. He next intends to leave on a hot air balloon with Dorothy, but it takes off before she has a chance to board. Luckily, the Glinda intervenes once more, instructing Dorothy to click the heels of her ruby red slippers three times, saying aloud, “There’s no place like home.” She then awakens back in Kansas, surrounded by her family.
One cannot talk about The Wizard of Oz without mentioning some of the technical innovations it features. It receives a lot of credit for being the first live action color film, although there are many caveats and debates over that fact. I do not wish to rehash that aspect. Instead, I will comment on how neat it is to see the transition from the sepia tones of the beginning to the vivid hues of the Land of Oz. There is a neat moment when Dorothy opens the door of her house upon first getting to Oz. The frame features both the interior of the house and the exterior of Munchkinland, the former being drab and the latter being every shade of the rainbow. Dorothy undergoes a transformation when she emerges that is cool to see, too. Anyway, enough about color. What I enjoyed most was seeing how it did special effects. Our modern eyes are too used to seeing computer generated images (CGI), so parts of a film like this one, made in the 1930s, will seem hokey. Yet, the tornado coming to devour Dorothy’s farm looked really cool, as did the rest of the model work. Of course, it does not look real. Then again, you should remind yourself that this is a movie about an imaginary land and they did their best given the filming techniques of the day.
Imagination is a key aspect of The Wizard of Oz. Is the Land of Oz real, or simply the stuff of Dorothy’s fevered dreams? Does it matter? Yet, because I am prone to analyses, let us deconstruct the narrative a little deeper. Clearly, the people in Oz are meant to represent people in Kansas. Dorothy is dealing with the trauma of losing her favorite pet, and she is almost killed when she runs away with Toto. What this Catholic reviewer would point out is how God gave us all our senses to cope with reality. There is a Scriptural practice utilized by most religious orders, and one lay people are also encouraged to use, called lectio divina, or “divine reading.” Part of this way of reading the Bible is repetition of a certain passage. You are also supposed to put yourself into the reading, using your imagination to experience firsthand the things that you are being taught in Scripture. In the film, Dorothy’s imagination teaches her that running away from home is bad, and that there is “no place like home.” Lectio Divina is meant to do the same thing, to drive home what it is that God is telling us through our readings.
Everyone should see The Wizard of Oz, even if it is a musical. Yes, the songs are insipid, and much of the rest of the events are pretty silly. It should be seen because it marks an important moment in cinema history. Also, by watching it, you will know where so many common clichés come from, like “We’re not in Kansas anymore,” if you did not already know. It is, at times, ridiculous, and there is a dark history behind its production, but a classic nonetheless.