'The Wizard of Oz' - the 1939 Film Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

'The Wizard of Oz' - the 1939 Film

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The Wizard of Oz (1939) has been called by the Library of Congress 'The Most Watched Film of All Time'. An award-winning film beloved by many worldwide, it is based on Frank L Baum's first Oz book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900). This has been called the first American fantasy novel and one of the most popular and influential works of children's fiction of all time. Just as the original novel was one of the first children's books with multiple colour illustrations, including the road of yellow brick, a bright green Emerald City and a blue Munchkinland, the film is among the earliest colour film suitable for a family audience.

The film was directed by Victor Fleming for MGM and is 98 minutes long. The original opening and closing scenes were made in sepia, but they have been shown on television in black & white. The scenes set in Oz are shown in colour.

It's A Twister! It's A Twister! The Plot

Dorothy, her dog and the red crystal slippers.

Miss Gulch is a wealthy, independent, unmarried woman and as such is despised by her local community, including her neighbour, precocious teen Dorothy, who labels her a witch. One day when Miss Gulch is minding her own business in her garden, Dorothy's dog Toto trespasses and bites her leg. Believing the dog is a danger to the community, Miss Gulch reports this to the police and wishes to have Toto put down. She tries to take Toto away but he escapes back to Dorothy. She runs away with Toto to protect him, but is encouraged to return home by a travelling entertainer.

On arriving home Dorothy encounters a tornado, falls and hits her head. She wakes to see her house flying through the air and land in the land of Oz, where she is applauded for killing the Wicked Witch of the East, on whom the house fell. After a good witch uses her magic to make Dorothy wear the dead witch's footwear, the Wicked Witch of the West swears revenge on Dorothy, as the deceased witch was her sister.

Wishing to return home, Dorothy is advised to travel to the Emerald City in the middle of Oz in order to get help from the wizard there. On her travels she encounters an anthropomorphic scarecrow, lion and man made of tin, and promises that their wishes for a heart, brain and courage will be fulfilled by the wizard, despite not knowing the wizard's abilities. On arriving in the Emerald City, the wizard decides to send the child and her strange companions on a suicide mission to steal the Wicked Witch's broomstick.

Why is everyone in the strange world of Oz strangely familiar? Can the friends of Dorothy help her in the quest, despite the attempts of the Wicked Witch to thwart them? Will Dorothy learn the most important lesson of all, that there's no place like home, there's no place like home?

Lullaby League: Songs

The music and lyrics were by Harold Arlen and EY 'Yip' Harburg, with the score by Herbert Stothart.

  • 'Over the Rainbow'
  • 'Munchkinland Medley'
    • 'Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are'
    • 'The House Began To Pitch'
    • 'As Mayor of the Munchkin City'
    • 'As Coroner, I Must Aver'
    • 'Ding Dong The Witch is Dead'
    • 'Lullaby League'
    • 'Lollipop Guild'
    • 'We Welcome You to Munchkinland'
  • 'Follow the Yellow Brick Road'
  • 'If I Only Had a Brain/Heart/The Nerve'
  • 'We're Off to See the Wizard'
  • 'Optimistic Voices'
  • 'The Merry Old Land of Oz'
  • 'If I Were King of the Forest'

These songs were recorded before filming commenced. Various soundtrack albums of the film have been released, many including some of the songs that were excised from the film as well as sections of instrumental score.

Friends of Dorothy: Dramatis Personæ

Kansas CharacterOz CharactersActor
Dorothy Gale Judy Garland
Professor MarvelThe Wizard of Oz, Gatekeeper, Guard and Carriage DriverFrank Morgan
Hunk Scarecrow Ray Bolger
Hickory Tin Man Jack Haley
Zeke Cowardly Lion Bert Lahr
N/AGlindaBillie Burke
Miss Gulch Wicked Witch of the West Margaret Hamilton
Auntie Em N/AClara Blandick
Uncle Henry N/ACharley Grapewin
N/ANikko, Winged MonkeyPat Walshe

Tin Man was voiced by Buddy Ebsen in many of the songs, which were recorded before Ebsen was forced to leave the role. Curiously Margaret Hamilton, who plays the old and ugly Wicked Witch was only 36 years old when filming, while the young and beautiful Witch Glinda was played by 54-year-old Billie Burke.

Following the Yellow Brick Road: Making Of

At the time filming began, the Oz stories had a reputation for being unfilmable, with adaptations consistently flopping at the cinema, as it was believed that child audiences were incapable of watching a film. When Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) became a phenomenal worldwide success, MGM gambled on making a child-friendly colourful fantasy film featuring a girl heroine and with a witch villain of their own, The Wizard of Oz. They even had a voice cameo from Adriana Caselotti, the voice of Snow White, as Juliet1. The film cost $2.8 million to make and as its release coincided with the start of the Second World War, that prevented the film being able to get a worldwide cinematic release.

The film involved four different directors, with the first ten days of the film's production written off. The first director was Richard Thorpe, who rushed filming and had insisted Judy Garland wear a blond wig and thick make-up as Dorothy, and believed that she should portray the role in an exaggerated, cartoony fashion. Thorpe was also responsible for Buddy Epsen's poisonous make-up, and his subsequent hospitalisation for six weeks stopped filming for two weeks. Thorpe was fired and briefly replaced with George Cukor, who came in the interim to build up the confidence of the cast. Cukor left to film Gone With the Wind. He was replaced by Victor Fleming until Cukor was fired from Gone With the Wind, and Fleming was called in to replace him. The final director was King Vidor, who made the sepia sequences and was there for the editing.

Pay no Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain

There have been numerous rumours associated with the film. One saying that a shadow shows one of the Munchkins hanging himself is entirely false. Another that director Victor Fleming physically abused Garland has been exaggerated; when filming the scene in which she slaps the lion she could not stop giggling and was slapped by Fleming, but he felt bad immediately afterwards and was even kissed on the nose by Garland. There have also been rumours circulated by Garland's third husband that she was molested by some of the Munchkins. However, it is true that she was put on a variety of pills in order to stay slim and forced to wear a tight corset to look younger than she actually was.

Who Would Have Thought a Good Little Girl Like You Could Destroy my Beautiful Wickedness?

The cast all suffered during the making of the film. 16-year-old Garland wore restrictive underwear to make her appear younger, and the type of drugs she was ordered to consume contributed to her becoming a drug addict, which eventually led to her death. The cloth prosthetic that Ray Bolger wore as the scarecrow left marks that took several months to heal. The snow in the poppy field sequence was actually made from asbestos. The original Tin Man actor Buddy Ebsen was hospitalised in an oxygen tent for six weeks as he was allergic to the aluminium dust the Tin Man make-up was originally made from and struggled to breathe, though his singing can be heard on the song 'We're Off To See The Wizard'. Jack Haley as the Tin Man got off lightly with an eye infection. Bert Lahr's costume was made from a real lion skin and was intensely heavy, with the make-up preventing him from being able to eat while wearing it. Hamilton's green make-up was made from copper, which was extremely poisonous if ingested and also highly flammable. She was badly burnt on her hands and face filming the scene in which the witch leaves Munchkinland in a puff of smoke and fire, when her cape caught fire. Following this, Hamilton refused to do any more stunts. The broom belonging to her stunt double, for the flying over the Emerald City scene, later exploded, although thankfully no-one was injured.

I've got a Feeling we're not in Kansas Anymore

The film originally ran 19 minutes longer, slightly over two hours, with several songs cut out or trimmed. Many of the sequences filmed have since been lost, although vocals remain. One song that was almost lost from the film was 'Over the Rainbow', until one of the producers threatened to resign if it was excised. Most film footage was destroyed, except for a longer Scarecrow dance, though audio has survived. One song that was completely cut was 'The Jitterbug', in which a magical insect forces them to dance in a contemporary jazz way until they collapse from exhaustion and are caught by the flying monkeys. This is mentioned in the final cut as the Wicked Witch tells Nikko: 'I've sent a little insect to take the fight out of them'. Dorothy also briefly sang 'Over the Rainbow' for a second time when imprisoned in the Wicked Witch's castle. One deleted scene showed that Dorothy ran away the day before meeting Professor Marvel. As the Wicked Witch was considering too scary, a scene in which she sends bees to sting Dorothy, Scarecrow and the Tin Man was removed before the bees were animated.

The ending of the film doesn't resolve whether Toto will be put down, nor explain how Professor Marvel knows where Dorothy lives, or why no-one minds that a complete stranger is suddenly looking through a young girl's bedroom window.

Terry, who played Toto the dog, was paid slightly more than the actors playing Munchkins, who had their voices dubbed. Judy Garland was paid less than Ray Bolger, Jack Haley and Bert Lahr, who were paid far more as they were more familiar names at the time.

There's No Place Like Home: Review

Baum created Oz at a time when fantasy and fairy tales had been viewed as unsuitable for an American audience, with such things left behind in the 'old world'. Baum's vision combined the traditional fairy tale ingredients of magic, witches and wizards with elements that would have been familiar to children growing up in America's mid-west, namely scarecrows, farmhouses and balloons. Even so it was believed that American audiences were too sophisticated for pure fantasy, and so a framing contrivance where the land of Oz was nothing but a dream was bookended on. In fact it has been said that 20th Century American fantasy novels are completely different to their British counterparts. Those written in the United States, such as by Baum or Edgar Rice Burroughs, either about exploring new worlds and encountering unusual people there, or about main characters getting second chances by digging deep and being determined, British fantasy tended to have ancient societies besieged by new, unstoppable, malignant forces – whether Sauron, Narnia's White Witch or even Voldemort.

A fairly accurate retelling of the first half of the classic tale that introduces some songs and makes a few changes, especially everything from arriving at the Emerald City onwards. It is also left open-ended whether the adaptation is set in the 1930s or at the time the novel was written. The changes range from bookending the story to imply it was just a dream, as it was believed that otherwise a pure fantasy setting would put off the audience. They also removed some of the novel's key characters such as the Mouse Queen, changed Glinda from being a southerly to northerly witch and also showing horses in Oz, which according to the novel series there aren't. The novel's Silver shoes have also become Ruby Slippers to better stand-out as this film was made with Technicolor.

The most interesting addition was that of Miss Gulch, Dorothy's neighbour who is bitten by her dog. Miss Gulch is shown as a strong-minded, independent female cyclist. Cycling was not merely considered an environmentally friendly, ethical means of transport as it is today, but a fundamental symbol of women's emancipation. Before the bicycle, women were largely reliant on men to travel far, with poor women expected to walk and wealthy women often considered too frail to travel without being accompanied. Bicycles, by being the first affordable means of independent transport allowing women freedom to travel, levelled class barriers, allowed women to change fashions to the less restrictive clothing that cycling necessitated, and showed that women could engage in sport. More importantly they were the necessary logistic tool that allowed women to organise campaigns such as for suffrage and gather in large numbers when occasions needed. For Miss Gulch to be shown as an unmarried cyclist she is almost certainly being portrayed as an active suffragist, yet is despised by her community and branded a witch.

Another strange addition is that inexplicably the Scarecrow carries a gun when witch-hunting, despite this being a film for children. Where the Scarecrow gets a pistol in a pre-industrial society is not explained.

In the United States this film has often been shown on Thanksgiving, presumably because of its 'No place like home' message. If Dorothy and the Wizard are seen in a Thanksgiving light as representing the colonisation of the Americas, Dorothy's following of the Yellow Brick Road to Emerald City represents the search for Eldorado and gold by the Conquistadors. By trickery the Wizard ends up ruling the country, the natives are seen as inferior to the new arrivals – either looked down on as Munchkins, or lacking the brains, heart or courage to be people like us - while Dorothy eliminates the country's native rulers and wipes out an entire religion. At the end she appropriates the country's precious resources, in the form of ruby slippers, for herself.

Legacy: Lions, and Tigers and Bears! Oh my!

According to the Library of Congress, this is the most-watched film of all time and it was chosen to be one of the first 25 films for preservation in the United States National Film Registry for being 'culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant', and regularly tops 'Must Watch' or 'Best Film' lists. It also easily passes the Bechdel Test with flying monkeys.

For most of the world's population outside the US, their knowledge and perception of Kansas is based predominantly and/or entirely on this film. When first broadcast on US television in 1956 an unprecedented audience of 56 million viewers watched it, and unsurprisingly the film has gone on to influence artists in all proceeding generations. Surprisingly, despite its classic status, the film flopped on original release, although the Second World War prevented it from having an international release.

The film won two 'Oscars', for Best Original Song 'Over the Rainbow', a song that was almost cut out of the film, and Best Original Score. The songs have entered world culture, for example in 2013 'Ding! Dong! The Witch Is Dead' became a Number 2 chart hit in the UK upon the death of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

1In the song 'If I only had a heart', Tin Man sings in the chorus: 'Picture me, A balcony, Above a voice sings low.' Then Juliet sings: 'Wherefore art thou, Romeo?' (From the famous Shakespearean tragedy Romeo and Juliet.)

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