AFI Countdown Challenge #6: The Wizard Of Oz

OK, here’s one I honestly considered skipping, but for much the same reason I considered skipping Star Wars.  Of course I’ve seen The Wizard of Oz.  I’ve seen it many times.  It used to be something of an annual tradition in my family.  This was before the advent of basic cable and home video, so The Wizard of Oz was only really available to be seen once a year on CBS in prime time.  It was one of the few reasons my siblings and I were allowed to stay up late when we were still very small.  The film would start, the whole family would watch, and then it would be gone for another year.  It was a special sort of film.

Now it’s a lot easier to find.

There’s a lot to like about The Wizard of Oz.  I think it is, without a doubt, the most beloved family film in American history, all based off the book by L. Frank Baum that may or may not have been a political allegory for concepts few if anyone even holds anymore.  There’s some delightful performances here.  Margaret Hamilton is the epitome of evil for small children everywhere.  Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow shows a lot of affection for Dorothy, and his movements have the sort of loose, boneless look that a man made of straw should have.  Burt Lahr as the Cowardly Lion actually gets two solos, unlike the other two members of Dorothy’s team, and he probably has all the best lines and the best slapstick.  And as for Jack Haley, well, the Tin Woodsman may not have the personal connection to Dorothy the Scarecrow has or the better comedy the Lion has, plus his movements are appropriately stiffer though his costume might have “helped” with that, and, well, he does project a lot of general affection through his voice.

Seriously, while the black and white opening does a lot to show how the people Dorothy knows point to the people she meets in Oz, Haley doesn’t get much.  Miss Gulch is called a witch.  Lahr shows some courage but also shakes like a leaf after saving Dorothy from some pigs.  Bolger suggests using brains.  Professor Marvel is a con man with a decent heart pulling simple magic tricks.  And Haley…well, he says they’ll make a statue of him someday, and that’s about it.  Really, the Tin Man gets the least to do in this film.  I like the character just fine, but he comes in third behind the Scarecrow and the Lion for interesting companions.

Whose first?  Depends on when you ask me.

But we can’t just skip Judy Garland in this discussion.  She’s got the vocal chops for it, starting with the classic “Over the Rainbow” and going on through every song she sings for the entire film–seriously is there a single bad song in this film?  I think not–and she was only 16 at the time of filming.

And with all that…this is a really odd film in many ways.

Let’s take aside the coloring process that makes this film more colorful than even a number of movies made today.

Before color.
After color.

No, there’s a lot here that seems weird for a family film.  Dorothy effectively (and accidentally) kills two people during the course of the film.  True, both are witches and she doesn’t intend it, but she does do it.  And that’s not getting into how the Wizard and maybe Glinda want her to do it.  An adolescent killer-for-hire?  Why not?  The Witch threatens to kill people too.  No wonder she scares kids so much!  Her crystal ball appearance just as Dorothy cries for Auntie Em, her fireball tossing, the fact she just appears at will, plus that transformation in the cyclone sure does make her one scary woman.

But here’s something else to consider, something that I never noticed until a classmate in grad school pointed it out:  there’s no love interest in this film.  How many films, for people of any age, intended for the mass audience, especially for kids, lack a love interest?  Is it because of Dorothy’s age?  How old is the character anyway?

And here’s something else:  this film had five different directors at various stages of development.  How does any film with five directors end up this good?

But it is.  We will believe in spooks.  We will chant how all we own we owe.  We will worry about lions and tigers and bears, oh my.  We will wish for being somewhere over the rainbow until we realize the message of the film might actually be “Be happy with what you have.”

Seriously.

That’s what Dorothy learns after Glinda makes a weak excuse about why Dorothy couldn’t go home right away.  She had met a witch after killing a different one.  Why wouldn’t Dorothy believe the slippers would send her home after a woman who asks if you’re a good or bad witch because only bad witches are ugly?  And why, after being in such a fantastic world, would Dorothy think Kansas is preferable?  Why not bring her aunt and uncle to Oz?  There aren’t any wicked witches left after all that.  And I think that’s what eventually happened in Baum’s books anyway.

Oh sure, it’s (probably) all a dream, but why not bring her family there?

Why go back to Kansas?

Isn’t Miss Gulch still back there?

Doesn’t she still want Toto dead?

Look, I know I’m being silly, but this is easily the most beloved family film made (suck it, Disney!), and any other adaptations of Baum’s work will be compared (poorly) to this rightfully beloved film.  I’ve seen it many times, I can quote it from memory, and if I had any kids, I would gladly watch it with them because, well, apparently that’s what my family does.

NEXT UP:  Well, we went from one I considered skipping because I’ve seen it enough times to make seeing it optional to one I really do not want to watch again with 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia.

tomk74

Defender of the faith, contributing writer, debonair man-about-town.

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