Wednesday, 24 May 2017

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Fig 1 - The Wizard of Oz Poster
Based on L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of OzThe Wizard of Oz (directed by Victor Fleming) follows the story of a young Kansas girl named Dorothy (Judy Garland) who is unwittingly transported to the fantastical land of Oz during a tornado. Her house is ripped from it's foundations and, much to the glee of Oz's tiny inhabitants (the Munchkins), lands on one of their greatest threats, the Wicked Witch of the East. Dorothy is then confronted by a 'Good Witch' named Glinda (Billie Burke), who tells her of a great wizard residing in the Emerald City that can send her back to Kansas. After a bizarre interlude that would make even Keith Richards double-take, the Munchkins rejoice and encourage Dorothy to "follow the yellow brick road" to the Emerald City. On her way, she recruits a floppy-limbed Scarecrow (Ray Bolger) who requires a brain; a clunky Tin Man (Jack Haley) who wishes for a heart, and a Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) who wants nothing more than a bit of courage. Their journey is met with encounters from The Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton), who swears to enact her revenge on Dorothy for her sister's murder once she isn't protected by a pair of enchanted ruby slippers. However, upon arriving at the Emerald City, the hapless group come to realise that the Wizard of Oz isn't all he's cracked up to be, and requires a great task of them before granting that which they most desire...

The film won for Best Original Song ("Over the Rainbow") and Best Original Score at the 12th Academy Awards, where it was also nominated in another four categories. Ever since, it has reportedly become "the most watched film of all-time", with subsequent parodies and references found in all manner of media.

The Wizard of Oz is a film of such pop culture grandeur that it is difficult to begin even discussing it. Famous for it's quotability, costume design, soundtrack and the all-round production nightmare that it faced, the L. Frank Baum adaptation has cemented itself as one of the all-time cinematic classics. Not to mention it's groundbreaking practical effects, which even by today's standards are incredibly impressive. For example, a scene in which the Wicked Witch of the West writes a message in the sky was achieved by attaching a miniature of the character to a hypodermic needle and writing in reverse using a syringe filled with milk. A bonkers resolution to what today would be accomplished with CGI, but in the 1930's was a genius workaround to an otherwise unattainable shot. It is complications like this that Oz was fraught with on paper, though somehow the creators were able to pull off feats that had scarcely been dabbled with in film until that point.

Fig 2 - The Wizard of Oz - Tin Man, Dorothy, Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion
Of course, the film is laden with outlandish characters that just about get an equal share of focus. The performances are turned up to eleven in most cases, in particular Bert Lahr who was already known for his eccentric brand of comedy. Lahr's snarling demeanor and cross-eyed expressions make the Cowardly Lion endlessly watchable as he inhabits the stage with (literal) leaps and bounds, made even more impressive by the ninety-pound lion skin suit engulfing him. In addition, Ray Bolger gives a great performance as the straw-man oddity by his side, who's agile choreography skills and prosthetics transfigured the actor into a Scarecrow for the ages. And of course, Jack Haley as the Tin Min whose aluminium coating and unforgiving costume (that would give Anthony Daniels a run for his money) gave the character a unique contrast to his elaborate counterparts.

Margaret Hamilton's role as the Wicked Witch of the West is a true joy to behold. Not least due to the fact that she never held back in her 'wickedness', much of which was deemed "too scary" for young audiences and had to be cut. Hamilton truly gives the film an edge that would go on to define the typical mannerisms of 'witch-like' roles to follow, miraculous as it was the she continued working on the film after pyrotechnics merged with her copper makeup. As her antithesis, Judy Garland gives a career-defining performance as Dorothy, whose naivety and sweet nature make the character worth rooting for all the way to the final act.

Overall, I think the film is actually pretty great. It often strays into a degree of absurdity that I find completely captivating (and sometimes unintentionally humorous). Saying that, there are definitely jokes that really got me and, even without the strength of it's script and music, the production design is clearly a remarkable milestone. The Wizard of Oz is every bit the timeless classic it is known to be and stands the test of time in almost every way.


Fig. 1 The Wizard of Oz Poster (1939) From: The Wizard of Oz - Directed by: Victor Fleming

Fig. 2 The Wizard of Oz Screenshot (1939) From: The Wizard of Oz - Directed by: Victor Fleming

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1990) (Making-Of Anniversary Feature)

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