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AFI List: The Wizard of OZ – 1939 (10)

Movie: The Wizard of OZ

Year: 1939 / Genre: Family, Fantasy

Starring: Judy Garland

Director: Victor Flemming

Here is another film I watched out of order… mostly because I felt bad that my kids have made it to almost 8 and 6 1/2 and never seen it. It is such a classic and, I didn’t realize how influential it was to my life until I sat down to write this post… it was a good time to start the education!

This all started with Phineas and Ferb. My kids love Phineas and Ferb – and I must admit that I do too. The show is well written and the humor palatable for adults as well as for kids. One of those palatable moments for me – which is very subtle (as is a lot of the humor in this show) – is that the theme typically reserved for the Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz is satirized when the character Candace enters the scenes to “bust” her brothers. I giggle incessantly when I hear it and the boys were always curious about why I giggle so I told them I’d explain it later.

Well… later came when I took them to see Wreck-it Ralph and there was a scene where guards – that were Oreo cookies – were chanting “Or-e-o, Or-eeeee-o” similar to the chant the guards make in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy was captured by the witch. I laughed heartily at this scene and the boys wanted to know why it was so funny. Soo… I made them watch The Wizard of Oz with me so they got the reference.

In making my case for them watching this film, I realized that it had a much bigger impact on my life than I ever thought: My earliest memory of the film was watching it with my Mom – who was really excited about watching it with me – on television when I was about 4. Since then, it was an annual event for us to watch this film when it came on broadcast TV. When I was really little, I can remember running up the stairs to hide when the Wicked Witch of the West came out because she scared me. I idolized Dorothy. I loved her dress (still do) and her shoes. She wore her hair like I did and loved red sparkly shoes – she had to be cool. I dressed up as Dorothy for Halloween when I was a kid – still my favorite costume – and costume garnered my all-time favorite pair of shoes (to this day) my little red sparkly patent leather Mary Janes. I wore those shoes until my feet bled and I couldn’t fit into them any longer. It was a sad, sad day for me when they no longer fit – hence, my love of shoes began with those.

My love of this film continued into my college years when I first heard about how the Pink Floyd Album “Dark Side of the Moon” works in concert with the movie – and damn if I didn’t do it (several times) – and yes, it does. It is actually very amazing how well it matches, especially considering that Pink Floyd had absolutely no consideration for the film while recording the album… though, I am curious about what it took to discover this. The other way this film has woven itself into my life is through the movie “A Christmas Story“, which is one of my all-time favorite Christmas movies (“you’ll shoot your eye out, kid!” – haha – a classic!). That story seems to take place in the early 1940s, shortly after The Wizard of Oz came out and there are characters from it in throughout some of the parade and mall scenes.

I was thrilled when I discovered that this film was in my AFI 100 list, so I decided to go ahead and do my research after watching the film again (counter to the rest of the films where I did my research before the film). First, as I’m discovering with a lot of films from this era, there were a lot of people contributing to the film that went credit-less. It turned out that the director that ended up with the credit, Victor Flemming (who also directed Gone with the Wind, also on this list) was one of about four different directors and didn’t have much say in the art direction – he basically executed someone else’s ideas. Probably because he was also working on Gone with the Wind at the same time, he had less time to really give it thought.

Other interesting things about this film are how they originally had Dorothy (as a blonde with baby doll make-up – which seems pretty creepy to me) and how they had a sing-off planned between Dorothy and a princess character that never materialized. They shot it in Technicolor, which, as a photo geek, was really fascinating to read about the progression of the methods. I mistakenly thought this was the first color film, but I discovered there were several full-length feature films done in Technicolor – one of several methods. However, the fact that half of it was done in back-and-white (sepia) and half in Technicolor made it a remarkable film to me. I won’t bore you with the details, but let’s just say it was an arduous process that sounded labor intensive and cost prohibitive. However, the One fact I found interesting is that, because of the lower speed of the film they needed for the Technicolor filming, they had to use a lot of lighting which made the set unbearably hot.

There were a lot of injuries to the actors during the filming, including to the woman playing the Wicked Witch of the West and the original Tin Man (Buddy Ebson – the guy that eventually played Jed Clampett). Both were hospitalized – and Buddy was replaced because his recovery took longer than expected.

This also was not the first time there was a film adaptation of the 1900 book called “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by Frank Baum. It was actually the fourth: first was 1910, then 1925, then 1933. I had no idea this story had been adapted so many times. Also, according to the Wikipedia article I read, it seems that this 1939 version took quite a few liberties with the original story. (sigh) oh great. Now I have to read the book!

Probably the most interesting fact to me, though, was how poorly it did at the box office during initial release. It was highly acclaimed by critics, but barely covered the $2.8M price tag only bringing in just over $3M. Releases since, however, have more than made up the difference, and since then, it has been an incredibly successful film.

The story is that of a young girl, Dorothy, who lives with her aunt and uncle on a Kansas farm. Though she has befriended the farm hands, her constant companion is her dog Toto. Toto bites a woman in town and she takes the dog to have him “taken care of”, but he runs away from the woman back to the farm and to Dorothy (gotta love the loyalty of dogs…) Dorothy decides the only solution to save Toto is to run away with him, so she gathers some things and Toto and takes off. She ends up going to see a fortune teller who has to cut it short because of an impending tornado. She runs back to her house to find she’s locked out of the storm cellar, so she goes back into the house to ride out the storm. During the storm, the house is lifted up and she is knocked out by flying debris.

Once the house lands, Dorothy opens the door to a colorful world surrounded by small people in Munchkinville. The Good Witch of the North – Glinda – arrives to get Dorothy up to speed on what happened: her house landed on the Wicked Witch of the East who terrorized the Munchkins, killing her, and now Dorothy is heralded as a hero. Glinda gives her the fancy red shoes – who have power to protect Dorothy – and she is instructed to never take them off. The Munchkins shower her with song and gifts to thank her for taking out the witch, which she is grateful for, but she really just wants to go home. Glinda tells her the way to get home is to visit the Wizard in Emerald City and the best way to Emerald City is to follow the yellow brick road.

She and Toto start on the yellow brick road and encounter a scare crow that believes he has no brain, a tin man that believes he has no heart and a lion that believes he has no courage. Dorothy invites each of the three to join her on her journey to Emerald City, citing that the wizard may be able to help each of them as well.

They get to Emerald City and finally get a meeting with the Wizard – who is just a projection of a head. He listens to their request, but says that he won’t fulfill their requests until they bring the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West. Soooo… ok, they go out to find the witch of the west, and, because she has a crystal ball, she finds them first and kidnaps Dorothy and Toto. She starts to rid of Toto, who, just as before, escapes certain death, finds the scarecrow, tin man and lion. The trio dress up as the guards of the Witch’s palace, and sneak in to rescue Dorothy. They break the door down and make their way out of the palace only to be caught by the witch and her guards. The witch ends up setting the scarecrow on fire, so Dorothy throws water on him to put the fire out and ends up dousing the witch, who apparently melts in water (and I always wondered this: if she knows water makes her melt, why does she have it just laying around in buckets around her house?)

The guards, relived that their oppressor is gone, gladly give the broomstick to Dorothy and gang, and they go back to Emerald City to deliver it to the Wizard. The Wizard initially retracts the deal – until Toto pulls back a curtain to a booth to expose a man controlling the image of the wizard. Dorothy scolds the wizard for being mean, so the wizard explains that he can’t really give them the things they proved they had all along, but can offer each of them something that symbolizes intelligence (though, he makes a mistake reciting the Pythagorean theorem a little wrong), a heart, and courage. He offers Dorothy a ride back home in a hot air balloon (the same one that crashed here in Emerald City – why he hadn’t thought to use it before?) but, at the last minute, Toto chases a cat and Dorothy chases after Toto and the wizard can’t stop the balloon and leaves without them. Glinda reappears and tells Dorothy that she had the power to go home this whole time – the shoes (turns out, not only are they pretty awesome to look at, they are useful for inter-dimensional travel). Dorothy, following Glinda’s instruction, clicks her heels three times and repeats “there’s no place like home”.

She wakes up in her bed – in sepia-tone – surrounded by her aunt, uncle, the farm hands and the fortune teller, who are all very concerned about her. She tells them all about the dream she had about the wonderful place she went, and it ends with them expressing how grateful they are that she is OK.

I cannot believe that this film will be 75 years old next year and how it is still timeless and a great, fantastical film it still is. I can’t wait to restart the tradition of watching it every year with my boys.

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Posted by on January 26, 2013 in AFI 100 Years List


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