Monday, August 10, 2015
Film Flick: Wizard of Oz
"Many, many miles east of nowhere, lies the amazing land of Oz, a magnificent empire created in the mind of a man who wrote a great book about it. Like wildfire in a wheat field, the fabulous tale of the land of Oz spread from town to city, from city to the entire world..." So started the original trailer for MGM's fantastic production of The Wizard of Oz. Though the book was one of the first American novels to be translated into multiple languages and through it had, as the trailer went on to state, "captured the minds and imaginations of over four generations," the 1939 film would take the tale into new iconic heights. Who doesn't know the first strains of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow?" Who doesn't remember that fantastic moment when Dorothy opens the door to a land of color and delight? Who can't picture the green witch as the epitome of all things scary to childhood dreams? According to the Library of Congress The Wizard of Oz is the most watched film- Of All Time. As in- ever.
Fundamentally a simple tale, where a little girl journeys through a magical land only to find "home" is as magical a concept as anything else she finds, The Wizard of Oz has arguably gone beyond anything its creators could imagine, taking a life of its own. Its strong female protagonists (author L. Frank Baum was feminist active in groups supporting the suffragist movement) speak to women. Children take heart at the little girl saves the day- and herself. Taken up as their own story, it has strong symbolism within the LBGT community, while the pluckiness of Dorothy has come embody the American pioneering spirit for others. Yet, for all it has come to be, the film's immortality could not have seemed more uncertain or surprising to those making it.
There had actually been attempts to capture the land of Oz on film before (including by the author himself, who created his own film company in 1916), but fantasy stories still seemed a very uncertain bet in the land of movie-making. It was only with the success of Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarves that the project to put the Emerald City on screen was taken more seriously, as MGM set out to show real actors could create fairy tales as well as animated cartoons could. It was, as they were to find out, much harder than it looked. In the end, 14 screenwriters would contribute to creating the tale seen on screen, and five directors would lead the mammoth project. Most notable among them includes the uncredited George Cuckor, who, though only there a short period, insisted on making key changes to Dorothy's and other's costumes. Among the changes was the decision to have Garland look more natural and child-like. Though costume designer Adrain had already made the decision to create ruby slippers instead of the book's silver ones, bows were added to enhance the child-like quality. Ultimately, it would be Victor Flemming who directed the majority of the film until called away to rescue Gone with the Wind. It was a good year for Flemming; the latter movie won Best Director for that year.
The cast also underwent many changes. Though producer Arthur Freed had lobbied from the beginning to use the film to push that "Little Girl with the Big Voice," Judy Garland, to stardom, others were also considered, such as child actress Shirley Temple. Ray Bolger, a Vaudeville star, was originally cast as, not the Scarecrow, but the Tinman. His heart was set on the straw man though, and after many rounds with studio heads, he had his way. He switched roles with fellow costar Buddy Ebsen. Bolger would play the Scarecrow, while the Ebsen was recast as the Tinman. Though fine with change at the time, Ebsen would bitterly come to regret getting the role. The make-up used on him included aluminum powder, which coated his lungs. After nearly dying of asphyxiation, it took him nearly a year to fully recover, and would he complain of lung issues for the rest of his life. Quietly, while production was paused due to a change in directors, he was replaced with Jack Haley, with no word to anyone- including Haley- why. Ebsen would call it his greatest personal and professional humiliation. Ebsen was not the only illness or injury on set through. Though Jack Haley's make-up was modified from Ebsen's, his eye became infected for several days, and both Margret Hamilton, the actress playing the Wicked Witch, and her stunt double suffered serious burns with the witch's fiery exits. Even for those not injured, the costumes and make-up made for uncomfortable working conditions, and the three male leads would often joke about whose was worst (though most contended that the Lion's 90 pound costume, stifling hot and heavy, won that questionable honor). On more cheerful notes, 120 "small people" were contracted to portray the Munchkins, many of whom had never met another person like themselves before. Later in life, Garland would tell wild- but most likely greatly exaggerated- tales of some of these Munchkins' escapades. Their casting and scenes would play prominently in advertising at the film's release. Also cast- albeit last minute- was Frank Morgan for a total of five roles, including the Wizard and his Kansas alter-ego, Professor Marvel. Supposedly the once-elegant coat he wore in the latter role was picked up at a second hand shop, and, on set, a label was discovered stating it had been made for the author L. Frank Baum. After verifying this, the coat was presented to Baum's widow post-production.
In all, it was a costly production- and was heavily promoted. Though it would take home several Oscars- including one for best song with "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," and a Best Performance by a Juvenile Actress for Judy Garland- the film ultimately could not compete in the box offices with all the others released in 1939, the peak of Hollywood's Golden Age. So how did it get from failure to the most watched film of all time? Television, oddly enough. There's an irony in that, though The Wizard of Oz had been filmed in the new-at-the-time Technicolor technology, it would find its second life being shown yearly on the small screen, which meant, for those who grew up in the 50s and 60s, that they would see it only in black and white. My own parents had no idea until adulthood it had ever been filmed in color.
Truly though, it is a story that doesn't matter what color or screen size it comes in. We all want to follow Dorothy down the Yellow Brick Road, help the Scarecrow and his friends find a brain, a heart and "da norve." I cannot remember watching the film for the first time; it has always been with me, as I'm sure has always been with many of you. Yet it never grows old- perhaps because, we are all Young At Heart, and if we are, Oz is never far away whether you've Ruby Slippers or not. So go ahead. Watch it. Rewatch it. You're off to see the Wizard- the Wonderful Wizard of Oz!