A magical masterpiece deserving of all its accolades
We’re off to see the wizard in what could be the most beloved film of all time, “The Wizard of Oz”. It is so popular that if you’ve seen just one classic Hollywood film, the odds are pretty good this is the one. Even after many repeat viewings “The Wizard of Oz” retains every inch of its enchantment and heart. This film is about as magnificent as one can make. It tells the tale of “Dorothy Gale”, a young girl from Kansas who finds herself traveling in a spellbinding Technicolor world with a “Scarecrow”, “Tin Man”, and “Cowardly Lion”, searching for the “Wizard of Oz” to help her return home. Filled with witches, munchkins, a tornado, and endearing characters, it is a feast for the eyes and heart. This musical fantasy is so rich it can be enjoyed on many levels: a philosophical look at life; a fable; a feminist allegory; or simply exquisite entertainment. "The Wizard of Oz" is ranked at #10 on AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movies list of “The 100 Greatest American Films Of All Time”.
With mesmerizing style, “The Wizard of Oz” sends a message that what we long for already resides within ourselves. I’ll speak a bit more about this in the TO READ AFTER VIEWING section below so I don’t spoil anything for first time viewers. Each of “Dorothy’s” traveling companions is searching for something: the “Scarecrow” wants a brain; the “Tin Man” a heart; and the “Cowardly Lion” some courage. “Dorothy” is helping everyone at the center of it all, while searching for a way back home. A strong female character who never loses her vulnerability or emotion, “Dorothy” is the strength in the story and the glue holding it together. Because it’s such a spellbinding production one can easily overlook that this movie musical is quite a powerful film.
Based on L. Frank Baum’s tremendously popular children’s book "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" from 1900, the film itself took quite a journey to get made, with casting changes, fourteen writers, and five directors. The film’s fourth director, Victor Fleming (who I mention in the “Red Dust” post) shot the bulk of the film. The film’s third director, George Cukor (who I mention in the “The Philadelphia Story” post) didn’t shoot any footage but made important creative changes including finalizing the now iconic look of “Dorothy”. Separately, both Cukor and Fleming would leave “The Wizard of Oz” to direct “Gone With the Wind”, and I wrote about both in that post as well. Fleming’s friend, first class director King Vidor, finished “The Wizard of Oz”, shooting the last few scenes. Only Fleming gets screen credit. The first two directors on the film were Richard Thorpe (who shot about one sequence), and Norman Taurog (who left before shooting any of the film’s actual footage).
This film was released in 1939, the year considered preeminent in history for producing the most number of stellar classics. As a result “The Wizard of Oz” had lots of stiff competition at the box office with films such as "Gone with the Wind", "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington", "Wuthering Heights", "Goodbye Mr. Chips", “Stagecoach", and “Ninotchka”, to name a few. Even though “The Wizard of Oz” was a success, due to its competition, and the fact that it cost over two million dollars to make (a huge amount at that time), it did not make its money back on its first release. It was released again theatrically but was truly rediscovered when aired on television - first in 1956, and again in 1959, both times to huge ratings. It was then aired on American television every year just before the holidays. This was when TV consisted of only three main national TV stations and television was the only way to see older movies. There was no VHS, BETA, DVD, BluRay or way to record TV programs. They used to advertise it as a “television event”, and it was. As a kid I remember watching “The Wizard of Oz” year after year with my sister. I also remember being absolutely terrified by the “Wicked Witch of the West”, the angry apple trees, and the flying monkeys. The annual trip to Oz was indeed a highly anticipated event. “The Wizard of Oz” would be seen by millions of Americans each year of all ages, and it quickly became part of the American psyche and a cultural phenomenon.
If I had to pick one star in the history of Hollywood that I thought was the most talented overall, it would be the star of “The Wizard of Oz”, Judy Garland who plays “Dorothy Gale”. A legend, icon, and one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, she was an extraordinary singer, a comedic and dramatic actress of incredible depth and range, and a fully competent dancer. She was voted number 8 of the women on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years...100 Stars” list of the "50 Greatest American Screen Legends”. Even at the age of 16 when making “The Wizard of Oz”, her skills are finely tuned. Just watch as she feels and listens, and takes in the world around her. When you add Judy’s wholesome, somewhat innocent, girl next door quality she is flawless as “Dorothy”. Judy provides realism in a dreamlike, sometimes nightmarish world. So much has been written about Judy Garland. Probably no other movie star’s life and death (other than Marilyn Monroe) has been more talked about, written about, dramatized or debated. Judy was born Frances Ethel Gumm, and when she was about two years old she became part of a vaudeville act singing and dancing with her two sisters. Frances would come to be known as the “little girl with the big voice”. The sisters changed their last name to Garland, and Frances became Judy. By the time she was 13 years old, Judy had a contract with MGM Studios - an awkward age, as she was too old to be a child star and too young to play adults. She went to school at the little schoolhouse on the MGM lot, and her classmates included such stunning beauties as Elizabeth Taylor and Lana Turner. Not being a traditional beauty, this instilled Judy with major insecurity about her looks, compounded by the studio constantly hounding her about her weight (she wasn’t skinny like most actresses). To make things worse, according to Gerald Clarke’s fabulous biography on Judy, “Get Happy”, studio chief Louis B. Mayer called Judy “my little hunchback”. All of this, along with studio prescribed pills for weight, energy and sleeping, contributed to life long emotional and addiction issues. In spite of her troubles she poured her soul into her work. She was already known by the time of “The Wizard of Oz”, having appeared in musical shorts and features including two films opposite Mickey Rooney (with whom she would make a total of ten films, becoming an especially popular screen duo). “The Wizard of Oz” launched Judy into full out stardom, and she was awarded an honorary “Academy Award” for her outstanding performance as a screen juvenile that year. She would continue to act in musicals, scattered with a few non musicals, and her classics include "Babes in Arms", "Meet Me in St. Louis", "The Harvey Girls", "The Clock", "Easter Parade", "Summer Stock”, "A Star is Born” (for which she earned her only “Best Actress” Oscar nomination), and “Judgement at Nuremberg” (for which she received her only “Best Supporting Actress” Oscar nomination).
Always with a wide range of emotions at her fingertips, there was such an ease and authenticity to her acting, and she was a great listener reacting so naturally with whomever she appeared. I think perhaps since she was a musical star and because she made it look so effortless, her acting abilities were (and are) completely under appreciated. In fact, I credit her with the greatest single piece of film acting I’ve ever seen onscreen. There is a scene in her final film, “I Could Go On Singing” in which she is in an emergency room acting opposite costar Dirk Bogarde. It is one continuous, unedited shot, which I once timed at a very lengthy 5 minutes and 43 seconds. In it she runs the gamut of emotions from laughter to anger to crying to love, and is astounding every step of the way. It is a shining example of her brilliance as an actress, and I don’t know of any other actor or actress now or in the past, who could perform that scene with such real feeling, vulnerability and intensity. Judy had a famously tumultuous life. She was continuously late, sometimes not showing up on a set, was fired from MGM, unable to get hired in films, lost all her money, and had multiple suicide attempts. Having trouble getting film roles, she worked in television through much of the 1950s into the 1960s, giving interviews and making guest appearances, on musical specials, and even had her own now classic 1963 TV series for one season, “The Judy Garland Show”. Her one constant was her indelible and indisputably moving singing voice. She had an extremely rare quality when she sang - her heart and soul came through her voice loud and clear, hitting the audience with all its power. Just like in her acting, pure emotion translated to the audience. She gave concerts to make money, most famously in 1961 at Carnegie Hall in New York City. It was recorded into a double LP and spent 13 weeks on the Billboard music charts at #1. Listening to it, you can feel the electricity of the night, understanding why this concert was often called “the greatest night in show business history”. Judy won two Grammy Awards for it, “Best Female Solo Vocal Performance”, and becoming the first woman to win a Grammy Award for “Best Album of the Year”. My mother saw Judy in concert and told me she was sensational and knew how to connect with the audience in a special way.
The very end of Judy’s life was made into a film in 2019 titled “Judy”, starring Renée Zellweger who won a “Best Actress” Academy Award for playing Judy Garland. I realized watching that film (if the facts are accurate), Judy gave up on life when she realized she lost her children to her ex. That makes sense to me, as the two constants people say when interviewed about Judy is that she had a fantastic sense of humor and she was a marvelous mother. It seems her children were the most important thing in her life. In her career, Judy Garland introduced many songs that would become standards, and would forever be closely associated with “The Wizard of Oz” and in particular the song “Over the Rainbow”. That song is a perfect blend of voice, music and emotion, and the scene of her singing it in the barnyard in “The Wizard of Oz” is a classic in itself, and it was almost cut from the film. It became her signature song. By my recollection less people have sung “Over the Rainbow” than just about any other standard. The reason must be because it is near impossible to sing it better than Judy. She was married five times, including a marriage to film director Vincente Minnelli (with whom she had a child - singer, dancer and actress Liza Minnelli, a legend in her own right), and once to film producer Sidney Luft (with whom she had two children - Lorna and Joey). Judy Garland died of an overdose of barbiturates in June of 1969 at the age of 47. She had a large gay following and some note her death as playing a part in the gay rights movement. After her funeral on June 27, several gay, grief stricken, die hard fans went to get drinks at a bar in New York City called The Stonewall Inn. Early that morning, as police raided the bar (as they regularly did back then) many patrons (in particular drag queens) fought back against the police for the first time, inciting six days of rioting and protests. That event is now recognized and celebrated as the birth of the gay rights movement, and the fight against harassment, abuse and discrimination of gays and lesbians.
Frank Morgan plays five roles in the film: “Professor Marvel”; “The Gatekeeper”; “The Carriage Driver”; “The Guard”; and his most famous role,“The Wizard of Oz”. He was a terrific character actor and it is really fun to watch him in each of his parts in this film. A very likable and versatile actor who began on Broadway just before starting to appear in films in 1916, he worked in films up until his death. He always delivered a first rate performance, and appeared in many classic films, including "The Shop Around the Corner", "Bombshell ", "The Great Ziegfeld", "Saratoga", "The Human Comedy”, and "White Cargo". He was nominated twice for an Academy Award - once for "Best Actor" for the 1934 film "The Affairs of Cellini", and once for "Best Supporting Actor" for the 1942 film "Tortilla Flat”. He didn’t live long enough to see his immortal success from “The Wizard of Oz”, as he passed away before it first appeared on television. Frank Morgan died in 1949 at the age of 59.
Ray Bolger is unforgettable in “The Wizard of Oz” as the “Scarecrow” and “Hunk". He exudes such warmth and kindness that you can’t help but love him. Ray began performing early in vaudeville as a dancer and singer, and then became a renowned Broadway song and dance man in the 1930s. He appeared as himself in his first feature film, the 1936 “Best Picture” Academy Award winner, "The Great Ziegfeld”. He appeared in film and television until 1984, and is best remembered for “The Wizard of Oz”. Continuously working on Broadway, he won a Tony Award for his role in the 1948 musical “Where’s Charley?” singing “Once in Love with Amy”, the song most closely associated with him (other than the songs from “The Wizard of Oz”). Some of his other notable films include "Babes in Toyland", "The Harvey Girls” (with Judy Garland), "Stage Door Canteen", and the film version of "Where's Charley?”. He was a wonderful dancer with a super flexible body which is showcased very nicely in “The Wizard of Oz”. His classic song from the film, “If I Only Had a Brain” was originally longer than what we see today, as the studio cut much of his dancing, worried the film was going to be too long. Ray Bolger died in 1987 at the age of 83.
Bert Lahr plays the “Cowardly Lion” and “Zeke". He started out on Broadway as a comedy actor and singer. He was full of energy and larger than life, which totally enhanced and marked his iconic “Cowardly Lion” portrayal. His film career began in 1931, and he appeared in films and TV until 1968. Some of his best known films include "Rose Marie", "Sing Your Worries Away", and "Always Leave Them Laughing”, though he will forever be remembered for “The Wizard of Oz”. He continued to appear on stage throughout his career, later taking more dramatic roles. Burt Lahr died in 1967 at the age of 72.
Jack Haley plays the “Tin Man” and "Hickory". Actor Buddy Ebsen was originally the “Tin Man” but had a near fatal reaction to the make-up. While recovering in the hospital, they changed the make-up and cast Jack Haley in his place. It is now hard to imagine anyone else in this role but Jack. He is perfect as the “Tin Man”, bringing a splendid contrast to the other actors. Jack became a known comic, singer and dancer in vaudeville, and then began appearing in films starting in 1927. Some of his other notable films include "Poor Little Rich Girl", "Pigskin Parade" (also with Judy Garland), "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm", and "Alexander's Ragtime Band". He continued to appear in films and television until 1977. Jack Haley died in 1979 at the age of 81. One fun fact: his son, Jack Haley Jr. was briefly married to Judy Garland’s daughter, Liza Minnelli in the 1970s.
Billie Burke who plays “Glinda the Good Witch of the North”, is a wonderful and unique character actress you will see time and time again in classic films. “Glinda”, for which she will forever be remembered, was not her typical role, as she most often played rich, flustered socialites. She was elegant and beautiful, with a unique speaking voice and a gentle sweetness. As “Glinda” she gives the audience comfort, even when face to face with the “Wicked Witch of the West”. Billie began her career on stage, soon becoming the toast of Broadway for her talent and beauty. She began appearing in silent films beginning in 1916. Preferring theater, she retired from the screen in 1921 and returned to Broadway. She married Florenz Ziegfeld, a Broadway producer and creator of the famous “Ziegfeld Follies”. With the stock market crash in 1929 and the death Florenz in 1932, Billie headed back to Hollywood to make money, and began a very successful film career. It began with the 1932 film “A Bill of Divorcement” (Katharine Hepburn’s first film), and continued to include such classics as “Topper”, “Father of the Bride", "The Barkleys of Broadway", "Everybody Sing" (opposite Judy Garland), and perhaps her most famous role (outside of "Glinda') as the hostess in the all-star 1933 classic "Dinner at Eight". The 1936 “Best Picture” Academy Award winner, "The Great Ziegfeld” was a biopic about her husband Florenz, and Billie was portrayed in the film by the Queen of Hollywood at the time, Myrna Loy. Billie worked in films and TV up until 1960. Billie Burke died in 1970 at the age of 85.
Margaret Hamilton who plays “The Wicked Witch of the West” and “Miss Almira Gulch” was also an excellent character actress. “The Wizard of Oz” wouldn’t be what it is without her thrilling, albeit frightening performance. Her look, behavior and cackle became the guide book for evil witches. “The Wicked Witch of the West” scared me half to death as a kid. Margaret began acting on stage when she was young, and at her mother's demand at learning a trade, became a kindergarten teacher. She returned to acting and began appearing in films in 1933. Not the glamorous sort, she quickly found a niche creating a prosperous career mostly playing no nonsense, fast talking, spinster types. Among her other best known films are "The Farmer Takes a Wife", "Nothing Sacred", "Babes in Arms" (with Judy Garland), "My Little Chickadee", and "Saratoga" (Jean Harlow's final film, also with Frank Morgan). Margaret worked in film, radio, and television until 1982. She also appeared on stage throughout her career. When I was a child, I was lucky enough to see her in a touring production of “Night Must Fall”. It was so long ago I don’t remember much about the show or production, but I do remember watching her and being a little afraid and much in awe that I was in the same room with the “Wicked Witch of the West”! Margaret Hamilton died in 1985 at the age of 82.
If you are consistently reading this blog and watching the films, you’ve already seen Charley Grapewin, who plays “Uncle Henry”. He played the “Old Father” in “The Good Earth”, and I wrote more about him in that post. His part in “The Wizard of Oz” is small, but being such a talented actor he makes the most of it, and is quite funny and endearing. He also appeared in the films “Broadway Melody of 1938” and “Listen, Darling”, both with Judy Garland. Charley was such a fine actor!
Clara Blandick who plays “Auntie Em” was yet another gifted character actress. Her part in “The Wizard of Oz” is small but incredibly memorable. Although she appeared in over 100 films, this is the role for which she is remembered. She usually played minor roles, often mothers or strong women. Her film career began in silents and she worked up until 1951. Some of her other notable films include "A Stolen Life", "The Girl from Missouri", "A Star is Born", and "Life with Father". Even though she appeared in so many films she was primarily a stage actress. Clara Blandick died in 1962 at the age of 85.
The last and certainly not least cast member I’ll mention is “Toto”. “Toto” was played by a female Cairn Terrier dog named Terry. With the success and popularity of “The Wizard of Oz”, her name was changed a few years after the film to Toto. She actually appeared in quite a number of films from 1934 until 1945, including "The Women", "Fury", "The Buccaneer", and "Tortilla Flat" (in which her owner was played by Frank Morgan). Toto’s performance in “The Wizard of Oz” made her an icon and part of cinema history. Toto died in 1945 at the age of 11, and there is a memorial for her in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, not far from Judy Garland’s tomb.
“The Wizard of Oz” is filled with songs that are as famous as the film itself. Composed by Harold Arlen with lyrics by E.Y. (Yip) Harburg, they include "Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead", "If I Only Had a Brain”, "Follow the Yellow Brick Road”, "We're Off to See the Wizard", and what is often listed as the greatest song of the 20th century, "Over the Rainbow”, for which they each won a “Best Original Song” Academy Award. That song was also ranked #1 in AFI's 100 YEARS...100 SONGS “The 100 Greatest American Movie Music” list.
Harold Arlen, who wrote the music for “The Wizard of Oz”, is one of the world’s most distinguished and prolific composers. He wrote songs for films and Broadway, many of which have become standards. He collaborated with many great musicians, and his songs were (and still are) sung by just about everyone. Barbra Streisand sang many of his songs early in her singing career, especially on her first albums. Some of Arlen’s standards include "I've Got the World on a String", "Stormy Weather", "That Old Black Magic", Come Rain or Come Shine", "Down with Love", "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)", "The Man That Got Away", "It's Only a Paper Moon", and countless more. “Over the Rainbow” was his only Academy Award win out of nine “Best Original Song” nominations. Harold Arlen died in 1986 at the age of 81. E.Y. Harburg is one of America’s most impressive lyricists, writing for film, TV and Broadway. Among his Broadway credits is the show "Finian's Rainbow”. He was a liberal who fought for racial and gender equality, and socially relevant content could often be found in his lyrics. Sadly, during the McCarthy Era he was blacklisted and prohibited from working in film, TV, or radio. In addition to his Oscar win for “The Wizard of Oz”, he was nominated for two additional “Best Song” Academy Awards, one for the film "Can't Help Singing", and one for the classic film "Cabin in the Sky”. A few of the standards containing his lyrics include "Old Devil Moon", "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?", "April in Paris", "It's Only a Paper Moon", and many, many more. E.Y. Harburg died in 1981 at the age of 84.
“The Wizard of Oz” was nominated for six Academy Awards, including “Best Picture”, winning two (in addition to the Arlen/Harburg win for “Best Song”, Herbert Stothart won an Oscar for his marvelous “Best Original Score”). Also nominated was Cedric Gibbons for his meticulously designed art direction. I talk about Cedric in “The Good Earth” post. The special effects were also nominated, and to this day I think “The Wizard of Oz” contains the best looking tornado I’ve seen in a film. The special effects also include floating bubbles, crystal balls, fireballs, a falling house, and more, all executed to perfection. This film is truly a technical masterpiece of its time.
The gorgeous and inventive costumes were designed by Adrian, who I talk about in “The Philadelphia Story” post. Over 100 little people from all over the country were cast as munchkins, costumes were made for each individual, and anyone who was prominent onscreen received his or her own distinct make-up. There were a lot of myths about the little people having “reckless” behavior and drinking during filming, which doesn’t seem to have been the case.
The film became such a sensation there are "The Wizard of Oz" collectors, and lots of merchandise (dolls, figurines, cookie jars, clothing, Halloween costumes, dishes, snow globes, games, stamps, books, and more). Movie posters and lobby cards from the film fetch big bucks, and a pair of ruby slippers sold in a Christie’s auction in 2000 for $666,000. In addition, “Dorothy’s” blue checkered pinafore dress sold for $1,119,300 at the Debbie Reynolds Collection auction in 2011.
“The Wizard of Oz” was made into cartoons, other films, and stage adaptations. There was an all Black stage version titled “The Wiz”, complete with new songs, which was later made into a film starring Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and Lena Horne. In addition, “Wicked”, one of the highest grossing Broadway musicals of all time, is a prequel to the Oz story, focusing on the witches.
Whether you’ve never seen it, seen it once, or one hundred times, “The Wizard of Oz” never gets old. It is an adventure down the yellow brick road that will lift your spirits and leave you awestruck. Be sure to watch, or even rewatch “The Wizard of Oz”. Enjoy!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
A major theme of “The Wizard of Oz” is that we can find what we are looking for within ourselves. As “Dorothy” says before leaving Oz, “If I ever go looking for my hearts desires I won’t look any further than my own backyard. Because if it is isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with”. We realize in the end that the “Scarecrow” (looking for a brain) thinks up all the strategies, the “Tin Man” (looking for a heart) keeps crying throughout, and the “Cowardly Lion” (looking for courage) puts himself in grave situations time and time again despite his fear. And as “Glinda the Good Witch of the North” tells “Dorothy” at the end of her journey, “You don’t need to be helped any longer. You’ve always had the power to go back to Kansas”.
"The Wizard of Oz” contains one of the most breathtaking and iconic moments in cinema. It happens just after “Dorothy” lands in Munchkinland, and opens the door, literally, to a Technicolor world. This shift from sepia to Technicolor is unexpected and heart-stopping. In her monotone world, “Dorothy” was singing about wanting to go somewhere “over the rainbow”. As a rainbow is filled with every color, when she opens the door we now know she is there. The color in the film is spectacular and plays an important role in the film. Many meaningful plot points are named for their colors such as the ruby slippers, the Emerald City, and the yellow brick road. The entire time “Dorothy” is in this vivid, colorful place, she longs to go back to her sepia world. In the end she realizes what she searches for in her dreams (such as the Wizard) doesn’t really exist. The use of color and lack of it, emphasize the message that dreams may be beautiful, but reality is where we find fulfillment.
“The Wizard of Oz” is filled with dialogue that has become part of our culture:
"Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore”
"I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too!”
"Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!"
"I'm melting! Melting!"
"Lions and tigers and bears. Oh my!”
And the film’s last line “And... oh, ‘Auntie Em’, there's no place like home”, is one of the most famous in movie history.