100 Film Favorites – #47: “The Wizard of Oz”
(Victor Fleming, 1939)
I have been sitting here for an hour trying to figure out what can be said about today’s selection which hasn’t already been said. The 1939 film adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is without a doubt one of the most popular and critically-acclaimed films of all time. It features unforgettable music, eye-popping technicolor, and remarkable special effects for its time. The characters are memorable, and the antagonists (the Wicked Witch and the “twister”) are the stuff that childhood nightmares are made of. As I’ve said, this Countdown consists of films I personally enjoy, rather than attempting value judgments as to “the best films ever made,” but “The Wizard of Oz” would deserve a spot on that list as well.
You know, seeing as most of the people reading this page are probably the kind of people inclined to movie-watching, it’s a virtual certainty you’ve seen this film. So let’s trot out the plot as quickly as possible:
Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland), a Kansas farm-girl, gets whisked away to the fantastic land of Oz when a tornado picks up her house. In a crash-landing, she inadvertently murders the Wicked Witch of the East, the oppressor of Munchkinland. The Munchkins are super-psyched about it, and sing a song. This royally pisses off the Wicked Witch of the West, and doubly so when Glinda the Good Witch removes the squashed witch’s ruby slippers and magically attaches them to Dorothy’s feet. Dorothy wants above all else to return home to Kansas, and is urged by the citizens of Oz to seek advice from the Wizard, the “great and powerful,” yet rarely seen, ruler of the land. Dorothy and “her little dog too” set off down the iconic Yellow Brick Road toward the Emerald City, Oz’s capital.
Along the way, she befriends a scarecrow (Ray Bolger), a tin man (Jack Haley), and a cowardly lion (Bert Lahr). The scarecrow seeks a brain, desiring to be wise, the tin man seeks a heart, yearning to feel love, and the lion seeks courage, to bravely fulfill his role as “king of the forest.” Dorothy suggests that the Wizard might be able to solve their problems as well, and scarecrow, tin man, and lion join Dorothy in her journey. Much singing and dancing ensues, with an occasional scare thrown in for good measure, as the Wicked Witch continues to pursue the traveling quartet.
Finally, the foursome reach the Emerald City and, after considerable effort, receive an appointment with the Wizard, who tells them he will grant their requests, just as soon as they straight up murder the remaining Wicked Witch. This turns out to be easier than expected: During a climactic confrontation in her castle, the Witch menaces the Scarecrow with fire, and Dorothy douses the flame by throwing a pail of water…which just so happens to be the Wicked Witch’s weakness. She melts, and our heroes return victoriously to the Wizard.
The Wizard turns out to be a humbug, a regular man relying on smoke and mirrors to seem “great and powerful.” The phony wizard nevertheless “grants” the travelers’ wishes, giving the Scarecrow a diploma, the Tin Man a heart-shaped pocketwatch, and the Lion a medal. Luckily each of the three already possessed the traits they’d been seeking (the Scarecrow devising cunning plans throughout the film, the Tin Man expressing great emotion and compassion, and the Lion demonstrating bravery), otherwise I guess they’d be out of luck.
When the wizard offers to fly Dorothy home in his hot air balloon (he’s also a Kansas native), he accidentally takes off without her and is unable to return, further showcasing his uselessness. Fortunately, Glinda appears, and tells Dorothy that she can click the heels of her slippers to return home…something which would have been awfully nice to know at the beginning of the movie. Dorothy gets clickin’ and awakes back at the farmhouse, her whole adventure having apparently been a dream resulting from a head injury received during the tornado. Looking around at the concerned faces of her friends and family (doppelgangers of the various “Oz” characters), she remarks that “there’s no place like home.”
Wow. That took longer than expected for something you already know. Oh well.
I’m honestly a little surprised this movie still winds up on my Countdown. Why? In 2011-12, I worked at a Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum, operating the 4-D Theater, which happened to be showing “The Wizard of Oz: The 4-D Experience” – a 20 minute cut of the film, summarizing the story and leaving out the songs, accompanied by “immersive” effects (wind and debris during the tornado, bubbles to herald Glinda’s arrival, snow during the poppies scene, etc.). My job essentially consisted of bringing people into the theater, pressing “play” on the projector, monitoring the show to be sure the effects triggered at the right time, then escorting people out at the end. I did this 16 times a day. By the end, I was thoroughly sick of The Wizard of Oz. Maybe if this wasn’t the case the film would rank higher on this Countdown. Regardless, it’s such an iconic movie, chock-full of unforgettable quotes and visuals, that I couldn’t leave it out.
The film was nominated for 7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It won for Best Score, Best Original Song (“Somewhere Over the Rainbow”), and a special juvenile achievement award for Judy Garland. The Best Picture Oscar went to “Gone With the Wind,” another MGM production which was also co-directed by Victor Fleming. Fleming must have been a busy guy in 1939, but for his efforts he left a colossal influence on film history.
Tidbits (Actually probably pretty widely known, also. Sorry. Couldn’t be helped):
-The role of the Tin Man originally went to Buddy Ebsen (known later for his role as Jed Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies). After just 10 days of filming, Ebsen succumbed to a serious medical reaction to the aluminum filings in his makeup. The tiny bits of metal had coated his lungs, leaving him unable to breathe. Jack Haley assumed the Tin Man role, wearing makeup with a slightly different composition. Ebsen’s voice can still be heard in the group choruses of “We’re Off to See the Wizard,” as Haley only re-recorded lyrics for his solo sections.
-A sequence cut from the film featured Dorothy et al being menaced by “the Jitterbug,” an insect which compels its victims to dance wildly. As with the “octopus” scene in The Goonies, a line remaining in “Wizard” refers to the Jitterbug scene, and makes no sense without it. As the Wicked Witch sends out her flying monkeys to apprehend Dorothy, she remarks that they will have no trouble capturing Dorothy and her friends, as the Witch has sent “a little insect on ahead to take the fight out of them.”
-“Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was nearly cut from the film as well, as some considered it to slow the pace of the film too greatly. Good thing it wasn’t: In 2004, the American Film Institute declared it the greatest film song of all time.
Finally, I thought I’d take this opportunity to utilize the multimedia nature of this site (as opposed to by original Facebook “blog”) and share some of my favorite Wizard of Oz videos:
First, some test footage of the truly phenomenal “twister” effects. The chillingly real effect is only heightened by the video’s lack of sound:
Next, here’s the video for remix maestro Pogo’s “Mellow Brick Road” melodic mashup of audio from the original film (the video itself was created by Reed Gauthier, and selected from among many contest entries):
Finally, I present “The Ozard of Wiz,” a 20-minute YouTube Poop “epic.” For those unfamiliar with the genre, YouTube Poops are heavily-edited compilations of footage from various pop culture sources mashed together into a Frankenstein’s monster of idiosyncratic humor, loud noises, and repetition. They’re not everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m sure you can find at least one good laugh somewhere in these 20 minutes if you click around a bit:
Brian Terrill is the host of television show Count Gauntly’s Horrors from the Public Domain. You can keep up with Brian’s 100 Film Favorites countdown here.