You’ve probably heard some stories about The Wizard of Oz. How it was directed by a conga line of some of Hollywood’s best, to the point that credited director Victor Fleming was not the man who finished the film. How its writing process was such a mess that Bert Lahr (Cowardly Lion) and Jack Haley (Tin Man) had to make up their own dialogue. How Margaret Hamilton starved herself to play the Wicked Witch of the West because the witch makeup would not allow her to eat, and burned herself badly on the witch-related special effects. How Judy Garland taped up her breasts and set her sleep schedule with uppers and downers at the urging of studio-employed quack doctors.
Here’s what you don’t know – or more accurately, what you knew the first time you saw this movie as a kid, and may have forgotten: The Wizard of Oz is the very definition of movie magic. I don’t care how cynical you might now be, or how cynical the movie-making system has become in the years since you first saw this film. This collection of actors and sets and makeup and special effects still has the power to be more than the sum of its parts, and to transport you to a spectacular place.
I always try to give a plot summary in these reviews, but really, does anyone not know the plot of this picture? Kansas farm girl goes over the rainbow, pisses off a wicked witch, makes some friends, learns that there’s no place like home … am I ringing any bells yet? Or, as it was re-phrased in a humor contest in the Washington Post, “A girl is transported into a surreal universe, and kills the first woman she sees. Teaming up with two cyborgs and a huge feral cat…”
The film’s Wikipedia page has some tidbits of information that offer up some fascinating “might’ve been” scenarios. Apparently Shirley Temple was considered for Dorothy, as were several opera-style singers; this seems strange because the movie’s songs are mostly upbeat. The only real exception is the Oscar-winning “Over the Rainbow”, and while an opera singer might have been good for that song, she would have been the wrong fit for “Follow the Yellow Brick Road.”
Personally I think Garland is perfect for the role of Dorothy, even though she is obviously far older than the character that L. Frank Baum had written. She was already a film veteran by 1939, and could perform standard Hollywood musical numbers like “Yellow Brick Road” in her sleep. The Wikipedia article says that Garland was originally given a blond wig and heavy makeup, but after a few rough days of filming the studio took it all away and gave her the note, “be yourself.” Now that we know the struggles she was having off-screen, that story gives her sad, longing performance of “Over the Rainbow” added poignancy.
We watched the film in Blu-Ray, and originally I thought that might pose a problem. Jet Li’s Tai Chi Master, for instance, was ruined for me by HD because I could see every single wire far too easily. That’s where the movie magic comes in, though: The Wizard of Oz looks absolutely great on Blu-Ray, and makes a fine advertisement for the format. Sure, the backdrops look painted on and it’s easy to see where the walls of the set are, but they were so lovingly painted and surrounded with such meticulous set dressing that I got drawn in anyway. It’s much more important for the colors to pop, for the tornado to look bigger and scarier than it did before, for the haunted forest to retain its moody atmosphere.
The Wizard of Oz was a failure at the box office, did you know that? It took in a lot of money, but it cost so much that MGM ended up taking a loss on it. It wasn’t until the 1950s, when the movie made its television debut, that it attained true nationwide popularity. It’s not hard to see why that happened. There is simply too much imagination and energy in this movie to be contained by the boxes of the day; if an HDTV can’t hold it all, what chance did a cathode-ray glass tube have?
Reviewed by Mark Young