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The Wizard of Oz (1939)

“I haven’t got a brain…only straw,” says the Scarecrow.  Dorothy Gale asks, “How can you talk if you haven’t got a brain?”  He responds, “I don’t know.  But some people without brains do an awful lot of talking, don’t they?”  “Yes, I guess you’re right.”

There’s no question that the 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz is a bona fide classic MGM musical.  I grew up seeing it on TV.  I remember a few years in a row where it aired on CBS the night before Thanksgiving (this had to have been at least 20 years ago).  It was always a fun yet sometimes scary film to watch, and I enjoyed how the story was brought to life (the fact that it was also a musical never bothered me).  I would finally get a chance to see this film on the big screen at the Museum of the Moving Image 10 years ago.  In December 2003, a mini-Judy Garland retrospective was being held, and The Wizard of Oz was one of the films being shown.  Out of the four screenings of the film, I attended two of them.  My good friend Zac of Yards of Grapevine even attended one of the screenings with his sister (he didn’t realize I was at the same screening until he saw me after the movie).  Roughly 10 years later, I got another chance to see The Wizard of Oz on the big screen again, but this time in “IMAX” 3D and as part of Warner Bros.’ 75th anniversary celebration/campaign to roll out the newest DVD/Blu-ray release (which I found very odd because 2013 actually marks the 74th anniversary).

Based on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, 1939’s The Wizard of Oz starts in rural Kansas, where a young girl named Dorothy Gale dreams of traveling to another place.  Miss Gulch, outraged over Dorothy’s dog Toto and his continued disturbance of her garden, comes to Dorothy’s farm to take Toto away, but Toto escapes and comes back to Dorothy.  Fearing that she might get her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry in trouble, she runs away.  She encounters Professor Marvel, who convinces her to go back to the farm.  As she returns, a twister comes through and blows the house away (with Dorothy and Toto inside).  The house lands in Oz, killing the Wicked Witch of the East in the process.  Dorothy meets Glinda the good witch, who tells her of Oz and introduces her to the Munchkins.  The Wicked Witch of the West comes to collect her sister’s ruby slippers, but Glinda magically has them placed on Dorothy’s feet.  The Wicked Witch vows to make Dorothy pay and vanishes.  Glinda tells Dorothy that the Wizard of Oz can help her return home.  Dorothy then journeys to the Emerald City, following the yellow brick road, and encounters the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion, who join her on her journey.

The memorable cast includes Judy Garland (as Dorothy), Frank Morgan (in a few roles, including Professor Marvel and the Wizard), Ray Bolger (as the Scarecrow), Jack Haley (as the Tin Man), Bert Lahr (as the Cowardly Lion), Billie Burke (as Glinda), Margaret Hamilton (as Miss Gulch and the Wicked Witch of the West), Clara Blandick (as Aunt Em), Charley Grapewin (as Uncle Henry), and the Munchkins.  Garland (who won a special Oscar statuette for this film and Babes In Arms) is excellent despite being perhaps too old for the role, but she nails the role nevertheless and the songs she performs are unforgettable (“Over the Rainbow” being the main highlight).  Hamilton is deliciously wicked in her dual role; she brings a good amount of fun to the Wicked Witch, complementing her wickedness.

Victor Fleming’s direction is solid, and the screenplay (credited to Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf) balances the dramatic and fantasy elements.  Of course, Oz is a technical marvel of a film.  The Kansas sequences are featured in sepia tone while all the scenes in Oz are in three-strip technicolor.  Hal Rosson received a well-deserved Oscar nod for his color cinematography; the sequence where Dorothy (in sepia) opens the door to reveal Oz (in color) remains one of the most iconic images in cinematic history.  Cedric Gibbons and William Horning’s Oscar-nominated production design was incredible (all the Emerald City sets were my favorites from this film).  The costume design by Adrian and the makeup design by Jack Dawn were among the best ever up until that time and were more than Oscar-worthy (it’s a shame that categories didn’t exist for those two particular areas at the time).  The Oscar-nominated special effects by A. Arnold Gillespie (photographic) and Douglas Shearer (sound) were nothing short of amazing (the projection of the Wizard of Oz is still my favorite special effect from the film).  Finally, there’s the fantastic music for Oz.  Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg wrote the timeless songs (including the Oscar-winning “Over the Rainbow”), and Herbert Stothart created a wonderful Oscar-winning score that incorporated motifs from the songs.

The 3D was well done; it wasn’t intrusive or distracting.  It’s a shame that most IMAX screens showing this film aren’t true IMAX screens; they’re just slightly larger than a normal-sized screen (not larger enough to justify the additional premium to the ticket price).  I attended a matinee showing before noon and only had to pay $14 (which isn’t bad for a movie, but I would’ve liked to have seen the film on a real IMAX screen; at least I didn’t pay almost $21 for fake IMAX).  Regardless of where you see this film, there’s no denying that it’s a very enjoyable film filled with unforgettable characters and music, as well as astounding visuals.  And of course, it captures the spirit of Baum’s book.

RELATED ARTICLE: Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)

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5 responses to “The Wizard of Oz (1939)

  1. Good review. Definite classic. And the dark side of the rainbow thing is awesome! 🙂

  2. Have you tried Dark Side of the Rainbow?

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