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The Wizard of Oz (1939)

by on 2011/08/07

“Time has been powerless to put its kindly philosophy out of fashion.”

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I suspect I’ll have this issue for several classics to be reviewed throughout the month: what more can be said? What more of substance can be added?

I could write about The Wizard of Oz being one of the earliest features I saw in a theatre, at a birthday party, at a Seneca College campus. I could try to convey how scared I was by the flying monkey scenes. Or — as with The Sound of Music — how it became an annual Christmas tradition, despite not being truly festive.

I could chronicle my encounters with its legacy: my affection for the Tales of the Wizard of Oz cartoons, the awful Under the Rainbow, the practically unknown Disneyland take on The Cowardly Lion of Oz, the disappointing sci-fi Tin Man . . . even my Halloween costume. (I’ve dressed up as the Scarecrow.)

However, I further suspect that we all have such memories. As familiar as James Bond or The Beatles, I doubt there are many people on Earth who haven’t discovered the land of Oz in some form. If, like me, they were children at the time, they probably think of it fondly. If, on the other hand, they were adults instead, I’d understand them finding it saccharine, silly, or surreal, possibly all of the above.

A musical high fantasy, it concerns the adventures of Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland). Spirited by a cyclone to a faraway land called Oz, she is told she mightn’t return home unless she locates a mysterious Wizard (Frank Morgan). Along the way, she gathers a small group of allies: a Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), a Tin Man (Jack Haley), and a Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr). They help in her quest and trials against the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton).

First things first. Yes, it’s a musical, and yet I am able (mostly) to forgive it.

There’s so much else to love, and new things with every viewing. Of course I did my usual game of “spot the similar precedent”: Anne of Green Gables, Snow White, Alice in Wonderland. But beyond such — wait, Inception wouldn’t count, would it? — personal diversions, I enjoyed finding new-to-me touches.

I don’t think I ever noticed that Dorothy seems to understand her dog Toto when they’re in Oz, but not in Kansas. I was reminded of her mapping new friends to analogous farm hands Hunk, Hickory, and Zeke. I noticed a certain obsession with jewels and other precious materials: two crystal balls, an emerald city, a pair of ruby slippers (silver in the original story) and, of course, a yellow brick road, possibly gold.

The appeal to children was suddenly clear, another aspect I’d not thought of before. Provoking a foe, Dorothy needlessly travels past her home. Provoking her own guardians, she walks on a fence. She refuses to listen to others, just as they ignore her at first.

Her escape into song and fantasy makes sense given this context. It also accounts for the inconsistencies, random lunacy, and various production gaffes. Fortunately, Judy Garland is up to the task. Despite appearing too old for the role, she portrays Dorothy with a wide-eyed wonder bespeaking as much conviction as commitment.

Only once did I feel her enthusiasm wanting or, at the very least, flagging. During the Lion’s “If I Were King of the Forest” song — which brings the affair to an awkward collapse, and probably should have been cut outright — she and her original companions are visibly less than inspired.

Yes, it’s easy to overlook its flaws, blinded by the brightness of nostalgia, but The Wizard of Oz does have its shortcomings, if we are honest. Some lyrics border on Seussian for their dependence on nonsense to eke out a rhythm and rhyme. The Scarecrow’s earliest scenes show an obvious loss of synch. The Wicked Witch’s later scenes are patchy, edited together from disparate (and mis-matching) takes.

And finally, a complaint which may boil down to personal taste, the Lion is as grating as he is increasingly scene-stealing. Exasperating for, alternately, his overconfidence and cowardice, there is little to endear him, unless you are a fan of his gargling, snorting affectations. Little wonder Dorothy later says she’ll miss the Scarecrow most of all.

Heresy, right? In no way, for I enjoy this piece a lot. I’ve seen it over a dozen times, perhaps every few years, on average. Even were I to attack it intentionally, I wouldn’t reasonably do it much harm. The twister visuals alone are impressive, as is the Technicolor transition. Their age, and knowledge of how they were done, do nothing to diminish the effects.

Besides, any remaining technical glitches could be chalked up to Dorothy dreaming.

Assuming she was dreaming, that is.

* * * *

Rated G

102 minutes

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