Monday, January 2, 2017
Following the Yellow Brick Road
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, written by L. Frank Baum, was first published in 1900. Although the original first run printing was very limited, it proved to be so popular that by 1949 it had sold over three million copies, one million copies alone by 1938 (before the classic movie was even made). The author wrote a number of sequels to the book, and in 1910 a silent film version of the first book was filmed. Another silent film version was released in 1925. Although it is considered a classic of children's literature, there has been written much to cast it as a political allegory. I won't delve too much into that aspect here, but one significant change from the book was the fact that the original slippers were silver, and this has been construed as a reference to the Populist idea of transferring the country from a gold standard to one of which silver was also used. Anyone interested in this can check out the wikipedia article which details this theory here.
In 1939, a musical extravaganza appeared on the screens. It was a fairly popular movie, especially among kids, but it failed to make a profit. This seems preposterous now, in retrospect, since it has achieved such a fan base in the 75+ years since its release, but it is true. Some of the fault for that, as I understand it, was because of the rigid standard of showing movies and getting them out of the theater as quickly as possible to make room for the newer movies that were constantly coming out.
The original movie cut ran for 2 hours. Think about that for a minute if you will. The studio execs had conniptions over the length of the film. (No movies ran that long, unlike today when it's not uncommon to have epic movies run 2½ hours or more. Lawrence of Arabia, one of the longest movies I have ever seen, ran over 3½ hours). The movie suffered some cuts, including a scene known as "The Jitterbug", that were cut from the movie. (A side note: When the Wicked Witch mentions that she has "sent a little insect to take the fight out of them", it was referring to this scene. The scene was deleted, but the line was left in, which may cause some confusion to newcomers to the film, since no insect actually appears in the movie). Remarkably one of the scenes that the execs wanted to cut was "Somewhere Over The Rainbow". They said they thought it slowed the movie down. Thankfully, clearer heads prevailed, including associate producer Arthur Freed who threatened to leave the movie production if it were cut.
Some other tasty tidbits of the production: No less than 5 directors had their hand in the pie. Even though Victor Fleming was credited with the final cut, No less than King Vidor, another prominent director finished up the last few scenes, but chose not to take credit, granting that since Fleming had directed the majority of it he should get the credit. Buddy Ebsen (Jed Clampett on The Beverley Hillbillies and Barnaby Jones on the TV show by the same name) was originally cast as the Tin Man, but got sick from the makeup (and almost died). By the time he had recovered, the part had already been given to Jack Haley (who by now had a different kind of makeup).
In 1959, television started airing the movie annually. (The first TV airing was in 1956, but it did not become the annual event until 1959). I seem to recall, in my vague memory, that it was on Thanksgiving weekend when I used to see it. It was a very good experience for a young kid. I do remember one thing in particular, however. Movie Fan Fare, a website I frequent often, once had a post asking it's readership what movies scared you, when you were young. Well, I watched dozens of old horror movies when I was young, and none of them really scared me. But I still remember one night, after having seen this movie, having nightmares about the flying monkeys from the film.
The impetus for reviewing this movie at this time comes from the calendar I bought for 2017. It features some classsic movie theater posters from the past. I hope to review all of them over the coming year (although I admit a couple of them may take some effort to find).
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
The movie begins in black and white, the better to achieve an effect of the barren landscape of Dorothy's farm in Kansas. These scenes were the ones directed by Vidor, and his feel for the starkness and desolation of the landscape is enhanced by the sepia tones of this segment. Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) is an innocent young girl whose optimistic outlook on life is threatened by Miss Elmira Gulch (Margaret Hamilton). Miss Gulch is a rich and cranky old spinster who wants to take Dorothy's dog, Toto (Terry the Dog), and have it euthanized because it bit her.
Unable to get her Aunt Em (Clara Blandick) and Uncle Henry (Charley Grapewin) to sympathize or listen to her, as well as the hired hands on her aunt and uncle's farm, Huck (Ray Bolger), Hickory (Jack Haley) and Zeke (Bert Lahr). She decides to run away. On her journey she meets Professor Marvel (Frank Morgan) who uses a bit of subterfuge to convince her to return home.
Back at the farm, a tornado is approaching. Everyone runs to hide in the storm cellar, but Dorothy, arriving a little late, can't get anyone to open the cellar, so she runs to hide in the house, and is knocked out by a flying piece of the house. The twister takes the house , and eventually drops it in Oz where it lands in Munchkin Land (a country populated by little people), killing the Wicked Witch of the East. Glinda, the Good Witch of the North (Billie Burke) arrives to ask her if she is "a good witch or a bad witch". She insists she is not a witch at all and expresses a desire to go back to Kansas.
Unable to help her, Glinda tells her she must seek out the Wizard of Oz in the Emerald City. To get there she must "follow the yellow brick road". To hamper her journey, the Wicked Witch of the West (Hamilton) seeks to stop her and take the ruby slippers Dorothy has acquired from the witch's sister, after she died.
Along the way, Dorothy gains three friends who accompany her: The Scarecrow (Bolger) who wants the wizard to give him a brain, The Tin Man, who wants to get a heart, and The Cowardly Lion, who wants to acquire courage. Through many travails (and a number of musical interludes), the four arrive at the Wizard's palace, but the fearsome Wizard insists they must prove themselves worthy and gives them a task; to get the magical broomstick from the Wicked Witch of the West.
It would probably not count as a spoiler to reveal the rest of the movie, since I doubt there is anyone old enough to read this blog who has never seen this movie at least once, but I'll refrain from it anyway.
The movie has entered the echelon of "classic" in the canon of great movies. It was ranked as #6 of the 100 greatest movies by AFI in 1998 (and has since been downgraded to #10 in the 2007 ranking). Personally, I'd put it even higher, maybe even as high as #3, but I'm far from a movie expert. "Over the Rainbow" got a much better ranking as it was ranked #1 in an AFI 2004 ranking of the best 100 Songs. In addition several quotes from the film are in the top 100 greatest quotes from the same AFI, as well as the Wicked Witch of the West garnering a #4 ranking on their list of greatest movie villains. Needless to say, the movie has left a profound impact on the viewing public. It continues to be a favorite, and you'd have to be very isolated indeed to not have had a chance to watch it, since on one or another cable channel it is still shown at least once a year.
The movie has been adapted or used in several other movies over the years. Among them, an all-black soul adaptation featuring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, which itself was a film version of a popular Broadway musical. Also a much-maligned, but personal favorite of this author, Under the Rainbow, a comedy from 1981 featuring Chevy Chase and Carrie Fisher, in which hundreds of little people from across the country converge on Hollywood to be cast in the 1939 movie.
Well, folks, I must be easing on down the road (an intentional reference to the aforementioned The Wiz). Godspeed, and keep an eye to the skies for an evil woman riding a broomstick.