EMPIRE ESSAY: The Wizard of Oz Review

Dorothy is is a young girl growing up in a farm in cansas when she caught in a tornado and transported over the rainbow to Oz. Her only way home is to appeal to the Wizard of Oz in the Emerald City but her journey there is not without danger...

by Angie Errigo |
Published on
Running Time:

112 minutes



Original Title:

EMPIRE ESSAY: The Wizard of Oz

  “Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets and then teams up with three strangers to kill again.” From a TV column in the Marin Independent Journal, Rick Polito’s cheeky capsule of the world’s most beloved family film was posted on the internet and tickled ribs globally, because we all get it. We all saw The Wizard Of Oz when we were very young, and it scared the pants off everyone. This fantasy masterpiece is as bizarre as it is beguiling; more frightening than enchanting for younger children. Its malevolent hag, flying monkeys and Scarecrow dismemberment are bad enough, but the moment when the Wicked Witch sets the Scarecrow afire featured prominently in Empire’s Scariest Moments readers’ poll, alongside horror movies and shockers galore.

Oz creator L. Frank Baum aspired to “a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heart-aches and nightmares are left out”, but what he wrote is quintessentially the stuff of tiny tears and frights. This most famous of American fairy tales was published in 1900 and was the Harry Potteresque phenomenon of its time — prompting a hit stage musical, 13 more Oz books by Baum, 26 additional authorised stories completing the ’Famous 40’, and hundreds of non-canonical Oz tales. What the film brilliantly seizes on is that The Wizard Of Oz is one of the great world stories, not because of the wonderful things the wizard does, but because it’s the Odyssey myth for children. Amid the colourful characters and delightful songs, it plays on their most instinctual fears.

The opening sets a tone of fearful anxiety as Margaret Hamilton’s grim Miss Gulch pedals furiously in pursuit of Judy Garland’s farm girl Dorothy Gale and her little dog Toto, accompanied by the witch’s creepy seven-note musical theme (a compressed inversion of the cheery seven notes of We’re Off To See The Wizard). Auntie Em, Uncle Henry and the farmhands are too busy to listen to the agitated Dorothy, so kids, identifying, are immediately hooked. What follows is a parable of every child’s transition to adulthood: separation from all that is familiar and safe when the heroine is hurtled by a tornado into an unknown land. There she must find courage and friendship to succeed in her quest. It’s a bit limp that the goal is returning to that sepia home, where It Was All A Dream, but that — legacy of a poor 1925 film adaptation — was a firm foundation for the narrative structure and was thought to lessen the fantastical and frightening elements.

Things got scary on set, too, where the novel make-up and effects made for unusual accidents. Buddy Ebsen, originally cast as Scarecrow, amiably agreed to swap roles with dancer Ray Bolger and play the Tin Man. But he had an allergic reaction to the metallic make-up so extreme he nearly died, and was replaced by Jack Haley. (Ebsen can still be heard in the pre-recorded group vocals for We’re Off To See The Wizard.) The copper in Margaret Hamilton’s green make-up ignited in the fiery burst of smoke when her witch’s cape caught in the trap-door exit from Munchkinland, hospitalising her. Several ‘flying monkey’ actors fell long and hard from the piano wires suspending them. Even Toto didn’t escape unscathed, stepped on by one of the Wicked Witch’s guards and out for two weeks with an ankle injury while a stand-in terrier doubled.

When MGM bought the film rights in 1938 for $75,000, it was a huge deal. (Gone With The Wind cost $50,000.) Contrary to legend, although executives flirted with the idea of borrowing Shirley Temple from Fox, Harold Arlen and E. Y. ‘Yip’ Harburg set to work composing songs specifically for MGM’s own teen star, Garland. Garland, at 16, had to have her breasts strapped to appear more childlike, but her insecurities and wistful vulnerability suited the material perfectly. When she puts on the ruby slippers — silver in the book, but red was so much more dazzling in Technicolor — she takes a giant step towards maturity.

The adaptation went through 14 writers and five directors. Richard Thorpe was fired 12 days into the shoot. George Cukor stepped in, shooting nothing but shrewdly ridding Garland of blonde curls and baby doll make-up, before Victor Fleming took the helm. Garland remembered him as a kind man bellowing at her vaudevillian companions jockeying for prominence on the Yellow Brick Road: “Let the poor little girl in, you dirty hams!” When Fleming was pulled off to replace Cukor on Gone With The Wind, King Vidor finished the Munchkin sequence and black-and-white Kansas scenes.

Producer Mervyn LeRoy also directed odds and sods, and it is to him that the film’s authorship rightfully belongs, for controlling every aspect of the film from its casting to tricky effects like the tornado and the switch from black-and-white to Technicolor, while wrangling the notoriously rambunctious Singer Midgets. The production cost over $2.7 million and initial takings were a relatively disappointing $3 million. But the film never went away. It was regularly re-released theatrically, televised annually for years as a holiday event, and became the very first MGM title released on video (in 1980), by which time it was part of the fabric of childhood. Nostalgic parents who saw it as kids intuitively introduce it to new generations as a rite of passage.

Up against Gone With The Wind, Oz nabbed only three Oscars. But its imagery became iconic, its dialogue providing scads of universally recognised catchphrases. “Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” was voted fourth most famous movie quote in the AFI’s poll. “There’s no place like home,” came 23rd. And Over The Rainbow topped their 100 Greatest Songs hands down. The euphemism ‘friends of Dorothy’ became a synonym for gay, not only because the film became a camp classic but because so many of the characters have double lives/roles.

The Wizard’s reach went far beyond the great desert that isolated Oz, with countless remakes, ripoffs, and reinterpretations. There were Russian, Japanese, Turkish and Muppet versions; black musical The Wiz; dark sequel Return To Oz, and sundry animations. There is a mountain of merchandise, a Nintendo game, and Wicked, Gregory Maguire’s satirical backstory of Oz’s witches, turned into a Tony-winning Broadway musical currently in the West End. There are websites devoted to the synchronicity between the film and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon, and even an autobiography of the movie’s terrier star Terry — I, Toto — ‘unearthed’ and published in 2001.

Salman Rushdie saw it for the first time in Bombay when he was ten years old and remembers, “It made a writer of me.” That is its triumph, that it continually feeds young imaginations with hopes and dreams and impossible possibilities as well as fears.

A classic in every sense of the word. This remains just as enchanting and just as scary as ever...
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