The Wizard of Oz (1939)

I bought tickets for this TCM-sponsored screening of The Wizard of Oz on the Thursday before the Sunday showing, and only the front row was open. It was a matinee and there were a mixture of old farts and youngsters, which makes for a noisy crowd. And then Judy Garland sang “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” and theater went quiet.

Stupid dog, you make me look bad.
“Toto, stop looking at the camera. Toto. TOTO!”

I claim no objectivity (if there is such a thing) about this film, as a long time lover of Judy Garland: Pre-kids, we would rent every Judy Garland movie we could find, Meet Me In St. Louis, Easter ParadeIn The Good Old Summertime, the Andy Hardy flicks with Mickey Rooney, and we loved them all, just like we loved the Decca years of “Zing! Went The String Of My Heart” and “Embraceable You” and so on.

What was interesting to me, however, is that much like our recent screening of John Carpenter’s The Thing, I found so much to admire in the technical aspects of the film. Before I get into that, though, I have to say that as corny and comic as the characters are, by the end of the 102 minutes, you feel like you know them and care about them. They tend to be unforgettable even if they’re on the screen for just a few seconds.

They tend to be unforgettable, even if after several decades of not seeing it, you haven’t thought of them. Like, when you think of the movie, you may not think of the cranky apple trees pelting the scarecrow with apples after he insults them, but you can probably picture it near perfectly now. (If you were a kid in the past 60 years, you may have watched it every year when it aired on TV, too.)

I said it.
Trees are jerks.

This is a movie that, for all its troubled production, never wastes your time. When the Tin Man (Jack Haley) does “If I Only Had A Heart”, he gets to do his (kind of amazing) dance number while Dorothy and The Scarecrow talk about inviting him along. But The Scarecrow also had a great dance number, less than three minutes long and chock full of special effects—cut. The only scene I’ve ever felt was (sorta) gratuitous was Bert Lahr’s “If I Were King Of The Forest,” but on viewing it anew, I think it gives us space for the Wizard’s minion to come back to tell them they weren’t going to be able to get in to see him, and to make their disappointment (however temporary) more stark.

Technically, this is a beautiful film. This is the last great gasp of Art Deco in cinema, and it’s perfect for the rounded towers of Oz. Every matte is lovingly detailed, and sold with utter conviction. (There are many times, in a modern high-def theater, you think they’re going to smack right into the wall.) Hundreds of hand-made flowers—never mind the field of poppies, there are flowers the camera pans past in Munchkinland that are amazingly detailed and on screen for literally two seconds.

Or am I reading too much into it?
Sleek and stylish but also sorta reminiscent of Kansan grain silos?

As I always say the test for special effects is not if they’re “realistic”, but whether they read. Do they communicate what you want them to, and nothing else, and do they fit the aesthetic of the film? But even 80 years later, the makeup on Dorothy’s three companions amazes. Not so much the plain silver of the Tin Man—though his costume conveys “metal” than I feel it should—but it’s hard to tell where the makeup starts and ends on the Cowardly Lion and Scarecrow.

I hazily recall being able to see the string for the Lion’s tail, though I could not detect it at any point here. I’d suspect digital trickery but there seemed to be no serious indication that the copy we were viewing had been cleaned up in any way. (The sound was actually a little muddy and muted; AMC dropped the ball, I think.)

The witch flying out of her tower is a little comical, but the flying monkeys? Still freaky close up with some damn clever marketing. And definitely one of the all-time great scares in a kiddie movie. I think The Barbarienne remarked that there was a lot more murder in this kid’s movie than she expected (but it’s only two wicked witches, and they don’t count).

It's one of the millions of great quotes.
Fly, monkeys!

Of course the songs are literally iconic, not iconic in the way everyone throws the I-word around these days. But I bet you can also remember the Wicked Witch’s theme, and the guard’s chant (Oh-lee-oh, Lee-OH-oh!).

The performances, of course. Our four heroes were all veterans of Vaudeville. They say Vaudeville stank, and they’re not wrong: But the best of it survived to give us some of the best and most memorable moments in film and television. I mean, you could just look at virtually everyone’s feet and be amazed by the choreography, then crank that up to 11 as you realize Lahr’s costume weighed 100 pounds.

Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West is arguably the most imitated and referenced performance in history. The famously sweet lady was so frequently accosted by children asking her why she was so mean to Dorothy that she went on Mr. Rogers to explain that WWW was just a character.

No more brains than you.
Nor was it without biting satire. This whole scene is emblematic of “The Establishment” of any era.

I know that like It’s A Wonderful Life, a lot of people don’t like this movie and, well, de gustibus and all that. But it’s a hard film not to admire just on a technical and aesthetic level.

But, as I said, I am biased.

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