An Appreciation – The Wizard of Oz
Unlike most people, I did not see The Wizard of Oz (1939) as a child. In fact, I didn’t see it in its entirety until I was nearing young adulthood. But even before then, I felt like there was already a familiarity. This benchmark of fantasy and adventure has reached a plateau very few films have—it has engrained itself in popular culture to the point of legend. From the iconic moments to the characters and the music, it has connected with audiences in a way that has transcended time. No surprise that it’s been called one of the most cherished and beloved of all movies, constantly watched year after year. The older it gets, the more its reputation builds. There are good movies and there are great ones, and some may even be called “masterpiece.” This film has moved beyond those labels—it has become a touchstone.
One of the biggest reasons The Wizard of Oz has captured our collective imagination is because of how simple and true its themes are. Dorothy (Judy Garland) is not only a character we root for, but is a person we can all relate to. We’ve all been young and naïve, aware of our surroundings but always curious about the bigger world. When Dorothy gets swept away from the comfort of her Kansas farm to the magical land of Oz, her journey represents the coming of age that all of us will eventually take. I grew up in a small town only thirty minutes away from Seattle. While the city was less than an hour away from me, as a kid I always pictured it as this big and different place far from what I knew. Growing up and taking responsibility can be a scary thing to a child (maybe even to some adults). But that is a part of life, overcoming obstacles to become a better version of yourself—as Dorothy here proves.
The screenplay (based on L. Frank Baum’s book) toes a fine line with how sincere its approach is. The narrative is straightforward and tidy, with characters exhibiting direct motivations for their actions. We know The Scarecrow (Ray Bolger) desires a brain, The Tin Man (Jack Haley) longs for a heart, and The Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) wants to be brave. They all represent a part of Dorothy coming to fruition as her adventure continues. We have the good witch Glinda (Billie Burke) and The Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton), with their characteristics defined in extreme contrasts. It’s a rare feat to see a film so genuine with its tale. There is no cynicism or irony hiding underneath; its intentions are worn for all to see. This may have more to do with the time it was made, but that brings with it a level of prestige. How many films can be made today in the same fashion?
The Oz story has been brought to the screen a few other times, but no other film attained the same kind of magic this one did. There was the silent version from 1925, Sidney Lumet’s New York take The Wiz (1978), the “sequel” Return to Oz (1985), and, most recently, Sam Raimi’s “prequel” Oz the Great and Powerful (2013). All of these have a certain level of quality (some more than others), and a few even translate the darker tones of Baum’s books. However, the 1939 film still remains the standard to which all are compared. Why is that? The Wizard of Oz, while telling a story an entire family can enjoy, came at a time when the cinema was really beginning to develop into the art form it is today. Sound was already over a decade in use, and there were plenty of films incorporating color photography. But it was here where the advancement of technology was used in a way integral to the story. It’s not simply used as window dressing, but as a tool to provide an experience completely unique from what came before it.
Imagine being an audience member in 1939 and seeing this for the first time. It must have been startling for those people to see Dorothy and her little dog Toto, just after the tornado, walk up to their front door, open it, and get transported from a sepia world to an unknown land full of color and magic. Granted, people had seen these styles previously, but not mixed together in such a unique and bold way. The special effects still hold up, even though we can see how everything was created. Nearly every scene was made within a sound stage, the matte backgrounds are apparent, and every visual trick can be explained. The Yellow Brick Road is obviously not an actual road. That doesn’t take away from the experience, but actually enriches it. Credit has to be given to the filmmakers, who were able to create such an elaborate world with distinguishable people and places with the tools they had. We can tell how everything was made, but it doesn’t matter. In a strange way, the fact that the special effects are dated allows us to fill in the holes ourselves. The noticeably rendered aesthetic forces us to use our imaginations to come to grips with it, just as we do when watching a stop motion or animated film.