Blogathons, Fantasy, Films I Love, Musicals, Page To Screen

The Wizard Of Oz (1939)

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1939 truly was Hollywood’s Golden Year. There were so many cinematic masterpieces released in America that year. Two films stood head and shoulders above all the other gems from this year though. One was a little picture called Gone With The Wind, and the other was a musical called The Wizard Of Oz. Both of these films were technical marvels at the time that they were made. Both films have also gone on to become beloved by generation after generation of film viewers.  

Wizard Of Oz Poster

I think that both films are actually quite similar in terms of their stories and overall themes. Both films have a strong and determined heroine, both films show the importance of love, family and home, and both films depict ordinary people being caught up in extraordinary events – the horrors of war in GWTW, and trying to survive in an unfamiliar land and fight evil in The Wizard Of Oz. 

The Wizard Of Oz is a film I love so much. As an Autistic person, I particularly  appreciate how the four main characters accept each other completely for who and what they are. There is no judgement between them, and the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion all try their best to help Dorothy and protect her. I also love how Dorothy stands up to bullies, cruelty and evil. Dorothy is someone who always fights against injustice and tries to do the right thing. The film shows us that ordinary people are capable of making a stand against evil and those with more power, you just have to find the courage within yourself to be able to do this.

This film absolutely blew my mind the first time I ever saw it. I first saw it back in the 1990’s and I remember that this was the first film to really open my eyes to what film was capable of presenting to us. This film also got me interested in learning about how films were made and what went on behind the camera.

                               Dorothy opens the door to Oz. Screenshot by me. 

I have never quite gotten over my shock at the truly jaw dropping moment when Dorothy opens the door of the house, and both she, and us in the audience, moves out of a sepia coloured world and into a stunning Technicolor one. It is a moment which still has the power to make audiences gasp in awe when they see it. I can only imagine how audiences of the 1930’s must have reacted when they saw that stunning scene for the first time. 

The film is based upon L. Frank Baum’s book, The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz, which was published in 1900. The book would become one of the most popular and acclaimed children’s books in history. Baum would go on to write 13 sequels about Dorothy’s time in Oz. After Baum died in 1919, the author Ruth Plumly Thompson was tasked by Baum’s publishers to write more books set in the land of Oz. 

Baum’s original story was turned into a very successful stage musical in 1902. This ran in theatres until 1904. MGM Studios bought the rights to the book in 1938. Producer Mervyn LeRoy, who had been handpicked by Louis B. Mayer as the successor to the great Irving Thalberg, wanted to direct the studios musical film adaptation of the novel, but Mayer made him the producer of it instead. He worked alongside uncredited associate producer Arthur Freed, who would soon become best known for his work on all those fabulous musicals. The films score would be composed by Herbert Stothart, with music and lyrics for the songs by Edgar Harberg and Harold Arlen.

The film would end up winning two Academy Awards, one would go to Stothart for Best Original Score, and the other would go to Harberg and Arlen for Somewhere Over The Rainbow as Best Original Song. As happy as I am that the music and songs won awards, I do wish that the film had won for its special effects. The tornado sequence is remarkable and still looks real today. I also love the witch’s image ball and the scene where the ruby slippers burn the witch’s hands. 

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This film had some great special effects. Screenshot by me.

The big question was who to cast and who to get to direct the film? The world famous Shirley Temple was the first choice for the role of Dorothy Gale, but it was felt that Shirley’s singing voice wasn’t good enough for what was required in the film. So 16 year old Judy Garland was cast instead. I’m so glad Judy got cast because she is perfect in the role. I also doubt that the film’s hit song Somewhere Over The Rainbow would have made such an impact if she hadn’t been the one to sing it. The emotion and sense of yearning in her voice is what makes that song in my opinion. 

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Dorothy dreams of a happy place. Screenshot by me.

The glamorous Gale Sondergaard was initially cast as the wicked witch, and Gale made two screentests in costume and makeup. Originally the idea was to make the witch slinky and beautiful, like the evil queen seen in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs the previous year, but then it was decided to make her look ugly instead. Gale Sondergaard was reluctant to make the film wearing the disfiguring makeup so she left the project. Character actress Margaret Hamilton was then cast in the role of the witch. I can imagine nobody other than Margaret in this role now. The witch is one of the most evil and memorable screen villains and Margaret plays the role to perfection. 

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Publicity photo for the film. Image source IMDb.

Actor and dancer Ray Bolger was originally cast as the Tin Man,  but eventually Ray got his long desired wish to play the Scarecrow instead. Actor and dancer Buddy Ebsen was originally cast as the Scarecrow, but then he ended up playing The Tin Man instead. Comedian and actor Burt Lahr was cast as The Cowardly Lion. Comic actress Billie Burke was cast as Glinda, the beautiful good witch who helps Dorothy and her friends. Character actor Frank Morgan was cast in the multiple roles of The Wizard, Professor Marvel, The coach driver at the Emerald City, The gatekeeper of the Emerald City and The Emerald City guard. Character actors Clara Blandick and Charlie Grapewin were cast as Dorthy’s loving Aunty Em and Uncle Henry. Over one hundred little people were cast to play The Munchkins, the adorable and fun loving people persecuted by the wicked witch. The costume department, under the direction of costume designer Adrian, designed individual costumes for each Munchkin actor to wear.

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Some of the Munchkin actors prepare to shoot a scene with Judy Garland. Image source IMDb.

In the directors chair was Richard Thorpe. He wouldn’t be sitting there for long though. Filming began in October 1938. Unfortunately so many problems quickly arose once filming was underway. Buddy Ebsen developed a near fatal reaction to the aluminium powder makeup he had to wear as part of the Tin Man costume. Margaret Hamilton suffered serious facial burns, after something went wrong during the sequence where the witch disappears into a cloud of smoke and flame after meeting Dorothy for the first time. Terry the dog was trodden on and suffered a broken paw. 

Buddy Ebsen as The Tin Man
Photo of Buddy Ebsen as The Tin Man. Image source IMDb.

Actor Jack Haley was brought in to replace the seriously ill Buddy Ebsen in the role of The Tin Man, and the silver makeup necessary for the costume was altered to aluminium paste, rather than the troublesome aluminium powder. Richard Thorpe was fired by Mervyn LeRoy after only two weeks on the job. It was felt that the footage shot so far by Thorpe didn’t have the right air of fantasy necessary for the story, and there were also concerns that the wig and makeup he’d had Judy wear made her look far older than the character should look. 

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Judy tries on that blonde wig. Image source IMDb.

The legendary George Cukor briefly stepped in to replace Richard Thorpe and thankfully got rid of the blonde wig and makeup. Cukor didn’t shoot any footage for the film, instead acting more as a creative advisor on set. Cukor left the shoot to go and work on Gone With The Wind. He was replaced by Victor Fleming, who would be the one to direct the vast majority of The Wizard Of OzIn February, 1939, Victor Fleming was told to go and replace George Cukor as director of Gone With The Wind. King Vidor was brought in to finish the filming on Oz. King refused to take a directing credit for his part in the film until after Victor Fleming had died. 

The Wizard Of Oz tells the story of Dorothy Gale(Judy Garland), a lonely Kansas farm girl who wishes for a happier tomorrow and for something more than she has. Dorothy is loved very much by her elderly uncle and aunt(Clara Blandick and Charlie Grapewin), but due to how hard they work on the farm, the pair sadly don’t have lots of time to focus on her.

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Dorothy and her friends share a happy moment. Screenshot by me.

Dorothy’s only friends are three men who help her aunt and uncle on the farm(also played by Ray Bolger, Jack Haley and Bert Lahr), and her beloved dog, Toto(played by female terrier, Terry). Toto gets into the garden of Dorthy’s cruel neighbour, Miss Gulch(Margaret Hamilton), and accidentally bites her when she scares him. 

Miss Gulch wants the dog taken away and destroyed. Dorothy is distraught and runs away with Toto. While on their journey, Dorothy and Toto meet a travelling magician called Professor Marvel(Frank Morgan), this kind old man takes a liking to Dorothy and ends up encouraging her to return home to her family. On their way home a twister strikes Kansas. The Gales and the farmhands get to safety in their storm shelter, but Dorothy and Toto can’t get in and hide instead in the farmhouse. The twister rips out a window, which strikes Dorothy on the head and causes her to pass out. When she awakens, she and Toto find that their house has landed in a brightly coloured and unusual looking world. They soon discover that they are in a land called Oz.

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Dorothy meets The Scarecrow. Screenshot by me.
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Dorothy and the Scarecrow meet the Tin Man. Screenshot by me.
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The Scarecrow, Tin Man and Dorothy meet The Cowardly Lion. Screenshot by me.

Dorothy learns that to get home, she must seek out the mighty wizard of Oz who lives in The Emerald City. Along the way she is given a pair of ruby slippers by the good witch, Glinda(Billie Burke), which contain magical powers and are coveted by the Wicked Witch Of The West(Margaret Hamilton). Dorothy will also meet The Scarecrow(Ray Bolger), The Tin Man(Jack Haley)and The Cowardly Lion(Bert Lahr); three individuals who will become Dorothy’s dearest friends and protectors and who will help her to get home. The foursome will face great danger and heartbreak along the way, but they will find the courage to be brave and stand up to evil. 

                             Our heroes make it to the Emerald City. Screenshot by me. 

Over the years fans have had great fun debating whether Oz is supposed to be a real fantasy land which Dorothy visits, or if it is merely a very strange dream/nightmare experienced by Dorothy after being struck on the head.  The more I’ve watched the film, the more I’m convinced it is all a dream. So many of the characters represent and resemble people she knows and loves. The yellow brick road is shaped like the dirt roads going past her farm, even the hills and fields in Oz have the same shape/layout as those at her home. The swirling pattern of the beginning of the coloured roads represent the swirls of the twister. The witch’s image ball and Glenda’s ball of light represent Professor Marvel’s crystal ball. The Munchkins represent ordinary people powerless against those in positions of power who abuse and control them. The witch’s monkeys represent those who blindly follow orders from evil leaders, and don’t have the strength and courage to take a stand against them.

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Does Glenda represent Dorothy’s mother? Screenshot by me.

I’ve often wondered who Glenda is supposed to be to Dorothy. I think that she may be her mum. Glenda protects Dorothy and is a warm and loving person, which are all very motherly qualities. It is Glenda who tells Dorothy there is no place like home and helps her get home. Glenda is sending her back to family and love. Both Dorothy and Glenda have the same shade of red hair, Glenda looks the right age to be her mum, and I’ve always assumed that Dorothy is being raised by her aunt and uncle because her mum died when she was very young. Dorothy could have some vague memories of her mum or a photo, which could be why Glenda appears as she does to Dorothy. 

The whole cast deliver terrific performances. Margaret Hamilton’s duel performance as the wicked witch and Miss Gulch, has gone down as one of the greatest villains in film history. Both characters are so cruel and Margaret makes you loath them both. The witch is an interesting character though due to how Margaret plays her; you actually miss the witch when she’s not in a scene because she dominates everything, and Margaret’s wonderful performance makes the character such a strong presence. I love her green makeup too. 

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The wicked witch is one of the most memorable screen villains. Screenshot by me.

Jack Haley, Bert Lahr and Ray Bolger are all wonderful and steal all the scenes they are in. The three all have real chemistry with Judy and do a good job of balancing the humour and poignant moments/aspects of their characters. These three men were established actors when they made this, and yet they don’t overshadow Judy with their performances, rather they all appear to happily take a back seat and just be there to support her. Like every other actor in this film, I really cannot imagine anyone else playing these characters. Of the three, it is the charming Tin Man who has always been my favourite, and I absolutely love the way Jack Haley plays him. 

Judy gives one of her best performances. The amount of emotion she brings to the role is remarkable for one so young. She poured her heart and soul into this character and it shows. I always feel afraid for her and want to reach out and comfort her when she is held prisoner by the witch, she makes me so convinced of her desperation, grief and fear in those scenes.

                                Judy is phenomenal in this film. Screenshot by me. 

I also love the way Judy sings Somewhere Over The Rainbow. It’s so hard to believe that after the second preview of the film it was felt this song should be cut! Thankfully that stupid decision was prevented from going ahead. Can you imagine this film without that song and scene? Neither can I. 

The Wizard Of Oz is the perfect family film because it’s so joyous and has something in it for everyone to enjoy. It’s also a film all about family, friendship, being separated from those you love, adventure, courage and hopes and dreams. The film gives hope to anyone who is unhappy and lonely, with its message that love and acceptance can often be waiting for you just around the next bend in the road.

The film also tells us in effect to be careful what we wish for. Dorothy may well long to go somewhere over the rainbow and escape her real life, but how does she know that that far and away place she longs for will be better than where she is right now? As that final line says so well – “There’s no place like home.” What do you think of this beloved classic?

 

This is being posted early as part of the blogathon being hosted later this month by Rebecca from Taking Up Room.  When I saw that she was hosting a blogathon devoted entirely to the film The Wizard Of Oz, I just knew that I had to take part and finally get around to reviewing this classic. Be sure to visit Rebecca’s site from the 23rd of August to read all of entries, I can’t wait to read them all myself. 

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