The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Directed by Victor Fleming
In 1939, after years of speedbumps that almost halted production altogether, director Victor Fleming’s adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” finally made its way to the big screen. Now, 75 years later, “The Wizard of Oz” remains as wildly popular and universally successful as it was way back when.
More realistic and, in my opinion, more satisfying than the original story, the film begins on a sepia-toned Kansas farm. With her hardened Auntie Em (Clara Blandick) and unemotional Uncle Henry (Charley Grapewin) raising her, innocent farm girl Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) lived an unsatisfactory life. When a twister separates Dorothy and her dog Toto (Terry, one of the most popular dog actresses of all-time) from her family, Dorothy is lifted high in the sky and lands in the far-off Land of Oz. From there, the frightened Dorothy meets a mindless Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), a heartless Tin Man (Jack Haley), and a cowardly lion (Bert Lahr) on her way to see the Wizard of Oz (Frank Morgan) and find her way back to Kansas. But of course, she’s met with challenges when the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) promises to stop her.
No review of “The Wizard of Oz” would be complete without mentioning the prolific, unforgettable casting. Judy Garland, notably second choice after then-ten-year-old Shirley Temple, breathes life into Dorothy in a performance that will never be forgotten. Vaudevillian performers Bolger, Haley, and Lahr make comedy with even their most minor facial expressions. Bolger, especially, captures the lanky, floppy look of the scarecrow like no other performer of his day could have. Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West could be described in one word – iconic. To this day, witches are supposed to have green skin, a pointy black hat, and an unsightly mole. Hamilton’s witch met an untimely fate, but her influence lives on.
In 1939, a cyclone was made using only a long stocking on a miniature replica set. Yet, this terrifying twister (with sounds made using a cylindrical metal machine and a canvas sheet rubbing together) blew audiences away with its realism. Throughout the film, inventive special effects made Oz the most beautiful place a film has ever been set. To this day, few places rival it. Sure, it isn’t what it could look like using today’s technology – but nothing hampered the unshakable spirit of “The Wizard of Oz” – not then, and not now.
At the time, the film only won two Oscars, both for music. This is due entirely to the fact that it went head-to-head against another cinematic giant, often considered the best of all time – “Gone with the Wind.” The four-hour epic became an instant critical darling, leaving the crew of Oz to pick up their meager remains on Oscar night. Yet, at only two hours “The Wizard of Oz” does have one strong advantage over the four-hour ar epic. Watching it now, it felt shorter than it did the last time I watched it. It covers a grand amount in a relatively small amount of time.
“The Wizard of Oz” will remain one of the greats, one of the first truly classic films of the American film era. A visit to the Land of Oz is never one worth missing, even if there’s no place like home.