The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Review

The Wizard of Oz is a classic film from an era when American studios were confident and breaking ground (within the discipline imposed by the Hays Office). Stuffed with now-amiliar tropes — the yellow brick road, the wicked witch, the emerald city — and a supply of often-quoted lines, famous songs, and gags, the film is probably as entertaining now as it was in 1939.

Oz was groundbreaking in a number of ways, most obviously in its visual impact. Movies in color had been made for a while, but most films in 1939 were still in black and white, so the gimmick of beginning in B&W and shifting to Technicolor was very effective. Some of the special effects were advanced at the time (and are still one of the movie’s strengths). One of the most famous sequences, the tornado which sweeps across the farm fields, was created by filming a windsock being blown around by electric fans. It’s more realistic and believable than the computer-generated tornadoes in the movie Twister, made 57 years later. That’s progress.

The Wizard of Oz had been around a while as a book and stage play, but the makers of the film started over with new songs and new ideas. The original book by L. Frank Baum is not one of the greatest children’s books, lacking the moral depth of C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, and so on — but it worked well on the screen, maybe because its random nonsense resonated with the sensibility of Hollywood. Supposedly, Baum’s book is a quasi-political allegory about issues, such as the gold standard, which were current in 1900: The heartless Tin Man represents big business, the brainless Scarecrow represents the farmer, and so on. Fortunately, none of that comes through in the movie, which (like the recent versions of Tolkien’s books) was more about entertainment and eye candy. Reassured by the book’s popularity, the filmmakers poured ideas and imagination into the screenplay, confidently hired all the midgets they could find, and spent a lot of creativity and money on creating weird props and effects like the winged monkeys (which are as creepy now as they were then) and didn’t worry about what audiences would react.

The filmmakers’ imaginative touches make the film memorable today, though Oz cost so much, in 1939 dollars, that it barely broke even on its first release. Fortunately, that lesson was not learned by MGM before the studio shot the works again on its next project, Gone With the Wind (which was worth every dime).

Speaking of taking risks, the first half-hour of Oz is not only colorless but slow-paced and melodramatic, the filmmakers’ idea of life in Kansas. But it’s watchable. Then the tornado delivers Dorothy from her poor, colorless family and lands her in movie-land, and she spends the rest of the film figuring out that life in Kansas isn’t as bad as the first half-hour of the film makes it look. The moral is simple (‘there’s no place like home’), but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good one.

The Wizard of Oz isn’t personally one of my favorite pictures, but it’s hard to criticize a film which did so much to open up the possibilities of movies. In a sense, most subsequent fantasy and sci-fi films are tributes, if not remakes of Oz. It’s not so much a kids’ movie as an adults’ version of a kids’ movie, but that’s OK — some of the best books and movies of all time were written for children, but with adult overtones. A morality play with sophisticated touches, The Wizard of Oz is a staple of family cinema and it’s likely to be part of our collective consciousness for a long time.

The new three-disc Special Collector’s Edition DVD is a real treasure. The film itself is restored and updated with 5.1 sound, and the remaining discs comprise a pile of deleted scenes, home movies, newsreels, radio promos, and various shorts and features — including the 1914 and 1925 versions of the film. You also get a packet of printed collectables, including reproductions of the original program and invitations from the premiere. An exhaustive and impressive set.