Monday, January 23, 2012

The Wizard of Oz

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 10
Year: 1939
Writer: Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, Edgar Allan Woolf (screenplay), L. Frank Baum (novel)
Director: Victor Fleming
Star: Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Margaret Hamilton

At some point since 1939, “The Wizard of Oz” stopped being a movie and started becoming a shared American experience. Our memories of watching the movie have become just as important as the movie itself. It’s nearly impossible to sit down and view it with fresh eyes, especially when your mind keeps reminding you that one of your 150 favorite parts is only seconds away.

What I came away with most during this viewing is that the film is surprisingly vicious and subversive. Hell, the first song sung after Dorothy reaches Oz is “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead,” which goes into excessive detail about just how happy the Munchkins are that the Wicked Witch of the East came to an especially harsh end. Multiple people tell Dorothy that Auntie Em will have a heart attack when she figures out Dorothy has run away. Toto is threatened with death no less than six times. And the less said about those horrifying flying monkeys (they gave me nightmares when I was younger, how about you?) the better. But it’s all presented in such a fun, Technicolor, perky way that the movie gets away with it and parents seem to forget about the horrors until they introduce their kids to the film…and by that point it’s too late.

Everyone knows the story. Dorothy and her house are picked up by a twister and plopped down into the magical land of Oz, where she goes off to see the Wizard to hitch a ride home. The first reveal of Oz, which is the first shot in Technicolor, is a doozy. It follows Dororthy’s P.O.V. for a few seconds but then sweeps forward, ready to explore the world itself, and takes in what seems like the entire Munchkinland set before returning to Dorothy and Toto for her realization that she isn’t in Kansas anymore. Anyway, Dorothy picks up some friends along the way: a Scarecrow who is in need of some brains, a Tin Man who just wants a heart to call his own, and a Cowardly Lion looking for some courage. No one mentions the obvious solution: Kill the lion (he’s a coward so he won’t fight back), give his brains to the Scarecrow and heart to the Tin Man…but that would have probably been a little too dark for even this movie.

Judy Garland is perfect as Dorothy, old enough to carry off the singing and dancing and gravitas but young enough to pull off being a lonely young girl. The rest of the cast, filled with fun character actors chewing on their roles (literally in the case of Bert Lahr, who was chewing on his tail for most of the movie), seem to be having the times of their lives. It’s all over the top, but still heartfelt.

Every piece of music from the film has permeated our culture to the point where everyone seems to instinctively know every lyric to every song, even if it’s been years since he or she has seen the movie. Side note: could someone please explain to me what a “slitch” is? You know, from the lyric “the house began to pitch, and the kitchen took a slitch.” And it’s not just the songs—the instrumental music is just as well known. And it’s all still great. The lyrics are inventive, the melodies sweet and simple…how can you not be moved by the “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and the way director Victor Fleming stages it in the film?

Everyone remembers “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as perhaps the greatest song in all of film (AFI ranks it as the best song in all American Film), and who can’t completely relate to those lyrics in an honest, heartfelt way? What everyone forgets about the movie (myself included), is that Dorothy ends her journey by essentially saying she was wrong to sing the song. Right before she goes home, the Tin Man asks her what she learned from her adventures…and she says this:

“Well, I think that it wasn’t enough to just want to see Uncle Henry and Auntie Em, and if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard, because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.”

Um, excuse me? That’s what she got out of this adventure? That she shouldn’t dream big at all and certainly shouldn’t follow her dreams if she gets them? This bit of dialogue feels so tacked on and disingenuous it really threw me for a loop.

As a kid, the ending always felt like a bit of a bummer. She heads home for no real reason, the movie heads back to sepia tones and the fate of dear Toto is still very much up in the air. Looking at it as an adult, it’s still poignant and bittersweet, but her choice to go home represents something deeper than I think I could comprehend as a child.

After all, Dorothy only makes two decisions during the entire film. The first is to run away and the second is to go home. She is told to do every other thing in the film, and obeys because she is a (mostly) obedient Kansas girl. “Never take off the shoes!” “Follow the yellow brick road!” “Bring me the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West!” etc. Her first decision, to run away, is a very selfish one, based on her feeling like no one cares about her and what she wants. On the other hand, her decision to return home is a completely selfless one. It’s beyond her just missing her aunt and uncle—she takes upon herself the responsibility of being one of the family. She goes to ensure Auntie Em doesn’t have a heart attack. She goes because she knows it’s the right thing to do, not the easy thing to do. And, because of that, she takes her first step into adulthood.

“The Wizard of Oz” is a great film, but doubly special because most of us get to discover it many times throughout our lives and experience the story from a different perspective each time. First as a child, where we love the colors and the dance and the music. Then, often, as parents, where you can pick up on the sly adult winks you missed as a child (“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”). Then as grandparents. And often many, many times in between. And it’s still just as special. The film doesn’t age…doesn’t get tired or repetitive on multiple viewings. What it does do is make us smile just about the whole way through, and in times like these a gift like that is priceless.

My Score (out of 5): *****


Adamy Shoe said...

I think Mrs. Gulch was probably killed in the at least that loose end is tied up neatly.

Some good points in your essay...thanks for casting new light on this old saw.

Patrick J. said...

It's been pointed ot before how the movie really is about a girl who kills a woman and, along with three other strangers, start a journey to go and kill the woman's sister. I liked that you pointed how much death is a recurring topic in this film and how easily they get away with it through singing and danc and basically making verything shinny and pretty, the film was always intended as a children's film, wasn't it?