SXSW Film Review – The Slippers
Morgan White’s documentary, The Slippers (2016) tells the tale of the infamous ruby slippers that adorned Judy Garland’s feet in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Known to be one of the most prized treasures of cinematic memorabilia, White traces the history of the slippers throughout the decades: the journey it took between owners and across the country, the myths and mysteries surrounding them, and why they’ve become so iconic to movie collectors. But broadening into a wider spectrum, White examines the dynamics of pop culture, the life and death of the studio system, and why people connect to memorabilia so much so that they’re willing to pay thousands (even millions) of dollars for them.
There’s a special kind of feeling that comes with being a movie fan. It’s hard to describe fully. A lot of it has to do with nostalgia. We place a lot of our memories of childhood in the movies we see, and every time we revisit them we’re reminded of the feeling that came with that first viewing. Memorabilia is an extension of that. Whether in posters, t-shirts, autographs, costumes, or props, it all acts as a memento of those early days. White understands this, and places a deep nostalgic feeling into his narrative. Of all the pieces of movie history, the ruby slippers have gained a notoriety that goes far above most others. Surprising, then, that there was a chance they would never have seen the light of day.
White doesn’t just focus on the slippers, though. With an easy-going, carefree approach, we travel back in time to the thirties and forties, where big studios pumped out films with factory-like efficiency. Much of the first half acts like a history lesson, as we’re guided along a brief tour of Hollywood during the so-called “Golden Age.” Obviously, one of the main pictures discussed is The Wizard of Oz. One of the greatest and most popular films ever made, The Wizard of Oz transcended time and cultural boundaries. It was a perfect blend of talent and luck, with Judy Garland and the ruby slippers acting as the central point.
As the studio system started to suffer financial woes in the 60’s and into the 70’s, many of the old sets had to be torn down. Props and costumes from these classic films were stored away in warehouses for decades. It wasn’t until costumer Kent Warner realized that these items could be gathered and sold at auctions. The first major one, the MGM Auction, would turn out to be a hit, effectively jump starting the culture of memorabilia collecting as we know it today.
The second half highlights this peculiar world. Interviewing collectors, archivists, and historians, White paints a picture of what it means to be a collector. Some collectors display characteristics similar to a hoarder, but a very lucrative one. This would explain why there is a lot of resentment and jealousy between collectors. The ruby slippers are the Holy Grail for these people. In one of the funnier archival scenes during an auction, Kent Warner holds a pair displayed on a red pillow. Because of the fragile design and uniqueness of the slippers, many duplicates had to be made. White follows a number of them through their various travels: one ended up in the Smithsonian, another found its way onto a display case in Walt Disney World, and the most notorious pair were mysteriously stolen from a small museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan, rumored to have been tossed into one of the nearby lakes.
Obviously, The Slippers isn’t just about the slippers. The grander theme involves movie preservation. There’s a feeling of melancholy when we’re told that of all the major U.S. industries, there still isn’t an “official” film museum. Many of the items we see in those old movies have been lost to time. That’s where we get to meet Debbie Reynolds. The actress best known for her role in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Reynolds is also a passionate fan and collector. Through a combination of archival and recent footage, White shows Reynolds’ various attempts to fund an official museum using her own collection. However, these attempts go to little avail, as reluctance from investors never allow Reynolds to see out her dream the way she envisioned. Her story is the saddest here. She clearly strives for a museum to happen not just for her own benefit, but to the benefit of fans around the world.
I’m not going to say that The Slippers is any kind of groundbreaking documentary. In fact, it may actually work better as a special feature on a video release of The Wizard of Oz. But what it does do – in terms of using the slippers to talk about movie history, preservation, and the culture of fandom – is entertaining and insightful. Movie geeks will get a kick out of this one.