[1 October 2009]
McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)
The Wizard of Oz has become so ingrained in the American psyche that today, 70 years after it was released by MGM, the movie continues to inspire wonderment, laughter and tears.
In our daily conversations, we still quote memorable lines from the movie: “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”; “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”; “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too”; “There’s no place like home.” Even Andrew Sarris, a prominent film critic/historian who does not care for the movie, has written that it “is the closest thing we have on film to an official national fairy tale.”
A 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition of The Wizard of Oz is recently released, the movie’s first appearance in a Blu-ray version with a high definition remastered picture and Dolby TrueHD audio, as well as 16 hours of bonus features tracing its development, production and marketing (four discs, Warner Home Video, $84.99, rated G; a standard DVD edition is also available, for $69.92). These features tell the inside story of how a risky and expensive production, worked on by 14 different writers and five different directors, could become one of Hollywood’s most beloved films.
Among the extras are deleted scenes and home movies showing the jazzy song-and-dance number “The Jitterbug” and an extended version of the Scarecrow’s dance to “If I Only Had a Brain” which was choreographed by Busby Berkeley –- neither of which survived the final cut. The Blu-ray version provides an additional four hours of documentaries, short features, several silent film treatments of the story, a sing-along track and collectibles such as a “Wizard of Oz” watch, facsimiles of original promotional material and a 52-page hard cover book.
Several documentaries remind us of the enduring popularity of the source material, L. Frank Baum’s children’s tale from 1900 about a Kansas girl and her dog who journey to a mysterious land filled with diminutive Munchkins, evil and good witches, a modern Emerald City presided over by a strange wizard and three unforgettable characters — a Scarecrow, a Tin Woodsman and a Cowardly Lion. Baum himself is the subject of a 1990 made-for-TV movie, The Dreamer of Oz, included in the Blu-ray edition, starring John Ritter in the title role.
The important contribution of young assistant producer Arthur Freed, who first conceived of The Wizard of Oz as a musical even before Walt Disney’s animated musical fantasy, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs captivated audiences in 1938, is also recognized. Other features explore the magic-making of the film’s creative crew — including the remarkable Technicolor sets and costumes, and amazing special effects like the Kansas tornado and the key role of director Victor Fleming, who came late to a troubled production but quickly set it on its immortal course.
Due tribute is paid to the impact of composer Harold Arlen and lyricist E.Y. (Yip) Harburg’s memorable songs, from the beauty of “Over the Rainbow”, named by the American Film Institute as the No. 1 movie song of all time, to the punning humor of “If I Only Had a Brain”, in which the Cowardly Lion rhymes “prowess” with “mowess” (mouse).
The ingenious manner in which The Wizard of Oz was marketed is also explained, beginning with its initial release in August 1939, a year marked by the production of so many great movies that it is often considered the best in Hollywood history. This was followed by well-publicized theatrical reissues and its very popular annual presentations on television beginning in the ‘50s.
Most importantly, these features remind us of the movie’s extraordinarily talented cast, beginning with the 16-year-old Judy Garland. Already a veteran of seven films when she made The Wizard of Oz, Garland brought a vulnerable child’s sensitivity to her role as Dorothy, as well as one of the best singing voices ever heard in motion pictures. Ray Bolger (the Scarecrow), Jack Haley (the Tin Man) and, especially, Bert Lahr (the Cowardly Lion) were given the opportunity to show off their formidable talents as dancers, singers, humorists and hams. Frank Morgan’s over-the-top style worked well in his multiple roles (including the Wizard), and Margaret Hamilton created one of film’s most indelible villains as the Wicked Witch of the West.
So, has anything worthy of note been left out of these voluminous bonus features? The immediate response to The Wizard of Oz by both the public and by movie critics, is passed over rather quickly. Certainly, the film created lots of attention when it was released and long lines were seen at the theaters playing it.
But, as critic Michael Sragow, author of Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master points out, the film’s opening-release gross resulted in an initial loss of $750,000 for MGM. Contributing to this, Sragow notes, was the popularity of other films in 1939, which prevented holdover runs for The Wizard of Oz, and the fact that children — a key part of the film’s audience — paid lower ticket prices than adults. It took several re-releases of the film in subsequent years for it to finally make money for MGM.
While The Wizard of Oz was reviewed favorably by most contemporary film critics – the New York Times’ Frank Nugent called it “a delightful piece of wonder-working” that verdict wasn’t unanimous. Otis Ferguson, writing in The New Republic, dismissed it as humorless, heavy-handed and affected, while the New Yorker‘s Russell Maloney called the film “a stinkaroo” which “displays no trace of imagination, good taste, or ingenuity.” Whew.
The new 70th anniversary edition also doesn’t look at some far-fetched, but amusing, theories about the film, such as the alleged synchronicity between The Wizard of Oz and the rock band Pink Floyd’s 1973 album, Dark Side of the Moon. (The members of the band have always denied any connection.)
Nor does the DVD explore an aspect of The Wizard of Oz which those of a historical bent might find interesting — its alleged origins as an allegory of the Populist movement at the end of the 19th century. In 1964 a historian named Henry M. Littlefield published a scholarly article in the American Quarterly entitled “The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism” in which he found hidden meanings in many of Baum’s characters.
The Wicked Witch of the East represented the Eastern bankers and manufacturers who controlled the masses (represented by the Munchkins), while the Wicked Witch of the West symbolized the railroad Robber Barons. The Scarecrow represented the wise but naive Western farmer, the Tin Woodsman the dehumanized industrial worker, and the Cowardly Lion was William Jennings Bryan, the 1896 Populist candidate for president, who campaigned on a platform calling for the free and unlimited coinage of silver (Dorothy’s magic slippers were originally silver; they were transformed into ruby red slippers for the purposes of Technicolor).
The dangerous Yellow Brick Road represented the existing gold standard, which Populists opposed. The Emerald City was Washington, D.C., while the Wizard stood for the Gilded Age’s undistinguished presidents of the United States. Finally, Dorothy herself was an American Every(wo)man.
This thesis has been the subject of much historical debate, and some debunking, over the years. Even Littlefield recognized that “Baum never allowed the consistency of the allegory to take precedence over the theme of youthful entertainment.” In any event, it’s a thesis that provides a lot of food for thought, and fun.
Still, the overwhelming feeling for this critic from watching The Wizard of Oz again and perusing the supplemental material on this 70th anniversary release is amazement: amazement over its spectacular look, memorable songs and remarkable cast; amazement over the scene in which Dorothy steps from her sepia-toned farm house into the glorious Technicolor world of Munchkinland, and amazement that it was ever made at all.