THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)

  • Director: Victor Fleming
  • Writers: Screenplay by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allen Woolf, Music by Harold Arlen and Y.P. Harburg, based on the novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
  • Starring: Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Margaret Hamilton, Billie Burke, Charley Grapewin, Clara Blandick, and Terry the Dog
  • Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 list (#10), 3 Oscars (“Academy Juvenile Award” – Judy Garland, Best Original Song – “Over the Rainbow,” Best Original Score), 3 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Art Direction, Best Special Effects)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming (with cable subscription) on TBS and TNT apps, stream with subscription on HBO Max, buy or rent with Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

The Library of Congress estimates that The Wizard of Oz has been watched by more people than any other movie in history. I’m not sure what evidence they used to come to that conclusion, but it seems like as good a guess as any. First released in 1939, it is among the earliest movies that can likely be watched by kids today without any translation or intervention to modern times. Many of its songs and lines have reached levels of recognition far beyond the confines of the movie itself, and of course there have been numerous sequels and re-imaginings over the years, but the original movie’s influence likely extends far beyond that. One tidbit on the movie’s Wikipedia page is that Salman Rushdie claimed that seeing the movie as a kid made him want to become a writer, and that his first short story was titled “Over the Rainbow.” There are likely a dozen more stories like that which we don’t know about for every one that we do.

For all this, The Wizard of Oz was a remarkably troubled production. If 1939 is now remembered as one of the classic movie years, it is mostly because this movie and Gone With the Wind were being made simultaneously on the MGM lot at that time. While that movie’s production was the subject of lurid gossip throughout, the true extent of craziness that the cast and crew went through to make The Wizard of Oz only became known later, when film historians took an interest in the making of what had become one of the most famous movies. The production went through four separate directors, though in the end only Victor Fleming received screen credit. Fleming took over from Richard Thorpe, who was fired by the producers and most of whose scenes were likely re-shot, and he left before production was over to take over the troubled shoot of Gone With the Wind. This left the movie to be finished by King Vidor (that was his real name), who was royalty in classic Hollywood but you don’t hear mentioned much today. Vidor had survived the 1900 Galveston Hurricane as a child and brought that experience to directing the surprisingly realistic tornado sequences.

More to the point, the makeup and special effects used to such great effect in this movie were not advanced as you might expect, technologically. Margaret Hamilton, the Cleveland native who plays the Wicked Witch of the West, suffered third degree burns on her face and arms after a firework accident in one scene, taking months to recover. Buddy Ebsen, who had originally been cast as the Tin Man, had to leave the movie after he suffered an allergic reaction to the silver paint used in his costume and nearly died. He was replaced by Jack Haley, and production continued. Judy Garland, who gives her most iconic performance of an iconic career, was pumped full of drugs by the studio despite being only 16 at the time, in order to keep her ready and alert for the long hours of shooting. This is thought to have led directly to Garland’s long-time dependency on drugs, which would eventually lead to her early death.

Despite all of this, the movie is, you know, famous for being really good. I am not going to sit here and argue that it is not. It has never been one of my personal classics, even as a kid. I do think that it works very specifically on the level of a kid. There are some famously scary bits, but they all work out entirely within a few minutes. The message of the plot, where various characters seek outside intervention to gain positive traits, only to learn that they actually had those traits themselves all along, is a universally good one. The music is memorable and catchy. With a couple of exceptions, the songs move the plot along instead of bringing it to a grinding halt (and one of these exceptions, “Over the Rainbow,” is considered an all-time-great of a song). I don’t have anything bad to say about it, it’s just not something that ever caught my imagination, either as a kid or as an adult. I will say that I had not watched the movie since having dogs, and enjoyed Terry the Dog’s performance as Toto much more this time. However well he may have been trained, however, the constant presence of an actual dog was another one of the things that made the shoot drag to a crawl. For example, the famous scene where Dorothy and her friends sing “Off the See the Wizard” and dance down the Yellow Brick Road had to be re-shot dozens of times because the dog kept not quite getting it right. To be fair, this is probably what would happen if my dog had to be in a movie, too.

I was actually surprised to learn, especially the way that studio musicals of the 1950s and 60s would later bloat to “has an intermission” length, that this movie is only about an hour and 40 minutes long. I think it churns through enough plot in that time for a much longer movie. This thing clips along really fast, again, considering it’s a musical. Sometimes it is so chock full of lines and moments that are famous beyond the borders of this movie that it doesn’t seem to have time for anything else. Lines like “I’ll get you my pretty, and your little dog, too,” which I have heard quoted in various ways way more times than I’ve actually watched this movie, seem tossed off almost as afterthoughts. The studio reportedly wanted to cut the song, “Over the Rainbow,” thinking that the opening sequence in Kansas was still too long, but was talked into keeping it by the producer, Mervyn LeRoy. Decades later, when the AFI ranked the greatest songs in movie history, it put “Over the Rainbow” number one. I will say that, even (especially?) as a kid, there is no questioning Garland’s singing chops. She could belt one out.

In a pure moviemaking sense, The Wizard of Oz’s greatest influence may have ended up being its groundbreaking use of color. It was not the first movie in Technicolor, a claim you’ll still hear occasionally, which had actually first been used on a movie back in 1917. Nor was it the first movie shot using the ultra-bright three-tone Technicolor process that many classic movie fans will be familiar with (just of movies people today might have seen, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and the famous Errol Flynn version of The Adventures of Robin Hood are both technicolor movies predating this one). But The Wizard of Oz was the first movie to turn the use of bright colors into an art, which is why people remember it. In fact, the process was new enough, and adoption by Hollywood slow enough (mostly for cost reasons during the Great Depression) that it probably wasn’t unusual for this to be the first color movie a person would have seen.

The impression of the incredibly bright colors is heightened by the way the movie gets to them. The opening sequence in Kansas is shot all in sepia tones (not black and white, though it was often shown this way later), but when Dorothy’s house is deposited in Oz, she opens the door to find a beautiful, color fantasy world. The camera trick to do this scene using any kind of “special effects” didn’t exist, so the effect was achieved, as so much else in this movie, using elaborate, practical means. The interior of the house was painted all in sepia tones, and stand-in for Judy Garland opened the door while wearing a sepia dress, then Garland walked out into the color set wearing her blue gingham dress. 

Because the use of these sort of practical solutions (not to mention the elaborate makeup almost everyone except for Judy Garland had to wear the whole time), the movie’s production dragged on and costs spiraled well beyond original estimates. It is sometimes cited that the movie actually lost money on its initial release, but even if true this is at least a little misleading. The movie’s box office actually succeeded MGM’s expectations, it was just that it had been so expensive to make in the first place. Later on, the movie received repeated re-releases, and eventually made it to television. Starting in the 1950s, broadcasts of The Wizard of Oz were some of the highest rated TV shows of their era of any kind. It is likely because of television that the movie reached its eventual levels of ubiquity.

The Wizard of Oz is essentially impossible for an adult to watch today separate from that ubiquity. Even if you’ve gotten to this stage in your life without actually watching the movie, you likely know almost every line. Again, the thing isn’t actually that long, the parts you know are pretty much all the parts. I also think, or at least hope, that it would still work on its original level for very young kids, which is the level the whole movie is actually pitched at. Sure, there are some scary bits, and I’m not going to do your parenting for you, but maybe that’s a good thing depending on the kid. And there really isn’t another 1939 movie I know of that I’d give that endorsement to.

4 thoughts on “THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)

  1. My 7 grandchildren watched this movie every year for years at my apartment. The first time they saw the scene where the flying monkeys attack the main actors always frightened them. My oldest granddaughter comforted my youngest granddaughter when she said, “They are actors. The director yells ,”Cut” and they all go and sit together at lunch. Then they come back and finish the scene. They’re just pretending.” She remembered the explanation that I had told her many years before and it comforted her younger cousin. That’s pretty cool.

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    1. I know that scene is often cited as being very scary, but on this viewing I was struck by how short it was. I’m not sure that me as a kid would even have had time to get scared before everything turns out OK. But everyone’s different, and it’s certainly effective at what’s it’s trying to do way beyond what we would normally think of the capabilities being in 1939. All of the monkeys are dudes in makeup! It’s wild.

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