The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Let’s forget for a moment that you and I have both seen “The Wizard of Oz” more times than we can count. Let’s forget that it’s been parodied to death, that its been remade as “The Wiz,” that it kind of syncs up with Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” that “Wicked” ever happened (seriously, I’d like this one to actually be true) and that some of us have likely been over the rainbow to Munchkinland dozens of times.

No one needs to write or talk about “The Wizard of Oz” anymore than has already been done, but some people without brains do an awful lot of talking, don’t they?

I probably hadn’t seen “The Wizard of Oz” in full for a solid five years. I knew very well that it was a classic, but its one of those movies that people give carte blanche. Would I actually love it as much as when I was younger now that I could think of things I never thunk before? On the weekend of Judy Garland’s 90th birthday, I decided to sit and think some more.

My sister asked me as we began watching “The Wizard of Oz” what I could possibly write down in my notes. “It’s a timeless masterpiece,” she said, which I responded is precisely something I would write down. My goal was to see what really makes this movie tick. It is wonderful, but why? How is it different? How would I have reacted seeing it for the first time in 1939?

“The Wizard of Oz” is a wonderfully imaginative piece of Old Hollywood filmmaking at the era’s best. It’s epic and sprawling, but economical. It’s silly, but also smart and self-aware. It’s heart-warming and light, but also creepy and surreal. It’s the kind of movie that people forget also deserves the label “masterpiece” because it’s fun.

Watching the black and white opening most notably shows how “Oz” fully belongs to the Golden Age of Hollywood. These Kansas scenes are about as good, if not better, than just about anything in the rest of the film. King Vidor directed this portion, and it’s so elegant in the way it establishes character and background. All the farmhands telegraph the Oz characters they will become, the character actors of Aunt Em and Henry all have the token wit and dopey charm of the period, and the musical score for Ms. Gulch instantly delineates pure themes of good vs. evil.

Take a look again at Judy Garland singing “Over the Rainbow.” The scene is done in just five shots, cutting away only to see a glimpse of Toto or the horizon. The camera pans backwards ever so slightly as to always maintain picturesque framing. The backdrop is clearly a studio set, but it’s just right in its beauty. The scene does so little, and yet it’s the most memorable movie song in history.

This isn’t the only scene that is so economically simple. As the tornado ravages the house, the camera stays put as the backlit effects play through the window, so in one shot we get the mystified reaction shot of Dorothy and the Wicked Witch’s sinister cackle as she morphs from Ms. Gulch to her riding a broomstick.

Even the film’s famous transition between black and white and Technicolor works because it’s done in one take. There isn’t a fade to color, we don’t watch Dorothy’s dress turn blue before our eyes; she just opens the door.

In just this short time, I wondered how different “The Wizard of Oz” would be made today. The color trick would be a lost cause, and even if the film did begin in black and white, it’s likely the filmmaker would aim to make the transition more “seamless” by showing us the special effects at work. The same goes for the tornado or making the “Over the Rainbow” number a bit busier. It’s unnecessary and would only detract from the film’s simple, innocent charms.

That’s the thing about “The Wizard of Oz.” The movie hardly has any ambitions to be a masterpiece. The people in it do not know they are in a great film, perhaps only an expensive one. As they flail their arms marching down the Yellow Brick Road or as the Tin Man stumbles around in celebration of being able to move, these actors are having an immensely good time.

Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr and Jack Haley as the Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion and Tin Man respectfully all had vaudeville backgrounds, and they don’t bring any actual “talent” to the dance numbers, but rather a sense of jubilant glee. And the movie seems to know just how goofy it is. One of my favorite songs, albeit not the most memorable, is when the Cowardly Lion belts out how he’ll be the King of the Forest. The sing-talked lyrics are a larf (“What makes the muskrat guard his musk? What puts the ape in “apricot?”) and his faux-operatic singing is horribly and laughably bombastic, and yet the song hasn’t aged a day because its designed to be somewhat self-aware.

“The Wizard of Oz” doesn’t stop with these knowing winks. It goes all out until it’s completely off-the-wall ridiculous. Listen to the string section careening up and down to the image of the Tin Man leaning left and right as if to fall during his big dance number. When a soundtrack follows a movie too closely, this is what we call “Mickey Mousing” the score, a cardinal sin in the movies today, and perhaps even long out of practice since the end of the silent era. To do it here is to milk the movie’s fantasy and joy for all it’s got.

Today the film is so well known that the sheer excitement of discovering what new fantastical thing it has up its sleeve would be lost to anyone older who would be watching it for the first time. For instance, if you didn’t know that was a flying monkey, would you have any idea what that bizarre looking, stumpy thing was standing next to the Wicked Witch? Could you have even begun to imagine that the trees would start to talk or that the Wizard would be revealed by a gag as simple as, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain?”

What’s important to admire now are the film’s visual and visceral charms. “The Wizard of Oz” isn’t just in color but is in strikingly luminous color, some shots of which, such as the poppy fields or the glorious crane shot over Munchkinland, are as beautiful as any film. We can still marvel at the iconic imagery of seeing all four travel companions in full-bodied shots. The Wicked Witch is still one of the finest examples of screen villainy, continuing to terrify children with her hunched poise, high pitched shriek, sickly green fingers and taunting sarcasm.

My recommendation now is to really give “The Wizard of Oz” another look. If you have a child who knows nothing about it, now’s the time to show them. Try to avoid dancing, whistling and singing all the tunes (does anyone actually know all the lyrics to all three “If I Only Had” songs?) as if you didn’t already know the beats. Really let the film transport you to another time and place, and then you really will appreciate that there’s no place like home.