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Friday, June 1, 2012

The Wizard of Oz

Happy June!  Since it is my birth month, I am being self-indulgent and writing about all of my favourite movies.  For some of the more well-known movies out there, I will be mostly reflecting on the why it is one of my favourites, as opposed to the usual format of a plot rundown and a wee little bit of reflection.  Not all of my favourite movies are classics – some fall into the guilty pleasure category – but whatever.  It’s my birthday month, deal with it.  OK, disclaimer out of the way, let us begin…

#352: The Wizard of Oz (1939).  This is one of my all-time faves because it is one of the first movies I ever watched.  I can remember sitting in the family room, or Dad’s office, watching this movie over and over on video disk (a technology that blipped on the radar just before VHS and Beta).  This movie introduced me to Judy Garland, my lifelong role model, and who I aspired to be for a long time.  So, before I get into it too much, here are the players:


Dorothy Gale: Played by Judy Garland.  Dorothy is unhappy with her hum-drum life, and wants something more exciting and fulfilling than her life on her Kansas farm.  She has a pet dog who frequently gets her into trouble, and lives with her Aunt and Uncle.  Is she an orphan?  What’s the story there?  Anyway, her only friends, aside from her dog, are the farmhands. 

Toto: Played by Terry.  Toto is Dorothy’s best companion, and a big reason why she winds up taking her incredible adventure.

Hunk/The Scarecrow: Played by Ray Bolger.  Hunk is one of the farmhands, and in Oz is represented as a scarecrow.  He is the one who forms the strongest bond with Dorothy. 

Zeke/The Cowardly Lion: Played by Bert Lahr.  Zeke is another farmhand, and in Oz is represented as a cowardly lion. 

Hickory/The Tinman: Played by Jack Haley.  Hickory is the third farmhand, and in Oz is represented as a sentimental tinman who lacks a heart.

Miss. Gulch/The Wicked Witch of the West: Played by the brilliant Margaret Hamilton.  She is the villain of the piece, both in Kansas and in Oz.  She has an axe to grind, and she wants to grind it on Dorothy’s head…

Professor Marvel/The Wizard of Oz: Played by Frank Morgan.  Morgan also appears as various characters in Oz.  Professor Marvel is who convinces Dorothy to go home after she runs away, and the Wizard grants everyone’s wishes in Oz.  Sort of?

Glinda the Good Witch: Played by Billie Burke.  One of the only people in Oz without a Kansas counterpart.  She helps Dorothy throughout her journey in Oz.

Auntie Em and Uncle Henry: Played by Clara Blandick and Charley Grapewin.  Auntie Em and Uncle Henry are the guardians of Dorothy (again, what happened to her parents?) and are stern but love her very much.

OK, so here’s the thing.  If you’ve never seen this movie… seriously?  How can someone have never, not once, in their life see this movie?  I feel sorry for you and your childhood if you’ve never seen it.  Now, there are people who think that this movie is overrated and not their taste, and I respect that, but come on… So, because of the fact that everyone has seen it at least once, I’m skipping the recap and going to hit up personal highlights instead.

“Over the Rainbow”.  Fun fact: this song was almost cut from the movie.  Not kidding.  the powers that be at MGM thought that it slowed down the pace, and at the time Judy Garland was a rising star – they didn’t want her singing in a barnyard.  It wasn’t dignified.  However, wiser heads prevailed, and the song was kept in.  Thank GOD, because it is the single best moment in the movie.  I’ve been watching this movie over and over for about 30 years, and this one, simple little song still makes me cry.  Every.Time.  It became Judy’s signature anthem, sung at the end of every concert she gave in her later years.  It speaks to everyone who has ever searched for more in their life.  It is a simple, but beautiful and poignant song.  And I'm sorry, but no body can sing it like Judy...

The transition from the Kansas house to Munchkinland.  This is still amazing, even if you’ve seen it a million times.  When Dorothy makes her way through her house, and opens the door to a Technicolor dream world, it smacks you in the face so hard you can’t help but smile.  And all done without computer gobbeldy-gook – they had a sepia painted house, Judy’s stand-in in a sepia-died dress and wig walk through the house, so that when the door opened, you could see the colour.  That’s right – the whole thing was done with no trick-photography, no computers, not hand-coloured (as previously misunderstood by many) just plain, old-fashioned practical movie magic.  Love.

The songs.  They are all earworms, and delightful ones at that.  The fact that a few are referenced all the time in pop-culture (most notably “Ding, Dong! The Witch is Dead!”) is a testament to their longevity.  My personal faves are, of course, “Over the Rainbow”, but also: “If I Only had a Heart”, “The Merry Old Land of Oz” and the removed “Jitterbug”.  If you don’t have the DVD with “The Jitterbug” on it, check it out on YouTube.  It’s a catchy little ditty.  I prefer the “Heart” song to the other two simply because I adore Jack Haley’s rendition. 

The Wicked Witch.  I have always been partial to villains, and she was my first.  She also used to scare the hell out of me when I was a kid, but I still love her to pieces.  This movie went through several incarnations, including one where the witch was beautiful.  When they decided to make the witch ugly, the actress originally cast walked, and in stepped Margaret Hamilton.  And she is beyond brilliant, throwing herself into the role with abandon, and making her a true threat.  Ah, the days when studios has no qualms about instilling fear into children…

The relationships.  I adore Dorothy’s relationship with the three guys, both on the farm and in Oz.  They are the big brothers everyone wishes they had – fun, helpful, and protective.  There is an innocent familial bond between them, and it is so beautifully done, and believable.  Especially between Dorothy and the Scarecrow.  Maybe it’s because she meets him first, maybe it’s because of the undeniable friend-chemistry between Judy and Ray Bolger.  Whatever it is, it is delightful.

The sets.  I want to go to Oz.  It is colourful, imaginative, scary, mysterious, and just plain stunning all at once.  Technicolor was still relatively new when this movie came out, and was used to perfection here.  The use of light/shadow and colour is dead-on perfect, the different areas of Oz are distinct, so you know exactly where you are as the journey continues.  Props to the designers who made Oz come to life so vividly.

Judy Garland.  I have seen pretty much everything this woman has been in, and she will appear a few more times this month, if not this year, but this is the Judy I love.  Mainly because this was my first Garland movie, but she is just so good in this.  You truly feel everything Dorothy is feeling, because she is so convincing.  She is beautiful, innocent, and heartbreaking.  The studio worked her hard, but you would never have guessed it from her performance.  Even at sixteen, she was a consummate professional, and a delight to watch in this movie.

I will admit, even thought I have nothing but absolute love for this movie, there are a few things which I feel they could have done better, and none have anything to do with the technology available to them at the time.  So, a couple of “lows” for me:

Glinda.  She doesn’t really do much to help Dorothy out, although that is how Dorothy learns her lesson, I guess.  Even still, she is pretty much the reason Dorothy is being hunted down by The Witch of the West, and other than causing it to snow on the poppy field, she’s not much help.  I wish they had done a little bit more with her, but then it would have cut down on screentime with the guys, so I’m ok with it.

Emerald City.  I’m always so disappointed by Emerald City.  They did such a wonderful job with the other sets, and Emerald city was just… blah.  Maybe because it appears to be completely indoor, like a mall or something, but I just wish they’d given it a little more pizzaz. 

“King of the Forest”.  OK, so they wanted to cut “Over the Rainbow” for pacing, but left this in?  Did Bert Lahr have dirt on the director or something?  This is the single most boring part of the whole film.  I guess it serves as a time-killer while they wait to hear back from the Wizard’s guard, but there could have been a better song, something sung by all four of them, or even some dialogue.  Anything would have been better than this.

This movie had a profound effect on my life, and still manages to touch me, make me smile, laugh, cover my eyes, etc.  As technology goes racing by, it makes me appreciate the effort put into this movie, a true pioneer in special effects.  The tornado is still brilliant, and sufficiently scary. 

In 1999, the movie was re-released for its 60th anniversary to theatres.  I excitedly went and saw it and was blown away.  As I walked out of the theatre, wiping the tears out of my eyes, I heard a woman talking to her kid who couldn’t have been more than about 9 or 10.  She was telling him “Well, the special effects weren’t the same back then as they are now.”  My heart dropped.  Apparently, the kid thought it was boring or something, and was disappointed that the tornado didn’t look like Twister.  This is my beef with current movie-going kiddoes.  They can’t appreciate beautiful movies with compelling stories and characters unless some really cool technical stuff is involved.  I guess I was spoiled, being raised on all of the classics.  Those of you who are parents, or plan on it, I strongly encourage you to show some of these classics to your kids when they’re young.  It will help them to appreciate film in general (I believe these old movies are the reason I am film-obsessed), as well as simplicity.  OK, climbing off my soapbox.

The Wizard of Oz is a true classic.  Like I said, if you haven’t seen it, you have led a very sheltered life, and really should rent it ASAP.  If you haven’t seen it in a while, I encourage you to do the same and re-visit it. 

Tomorrow: Another one of my all-time faves.  Bet you can’t guess which one!  And that’s a wrap!

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