December 8, 2011

#10: The Wizard of Oz

"You're out of the woods, you're out of the dark, you're out of the night!"

What's that? Oh, yes, well, of course I'm going to be biased about Victor Fleming's classic fantasy The Wizard of Oz, mostly because I'm currently playing the Tin Man in a holiday production of the stage musical down the street and so the story has been on my brain daily since early October. Nearly everyone's got a frame of reference for this film -- supposedly it's the most-watched film in America -- and as I've learned over the course of this blog, nostalgia counts for a lot when it comes to our movie preferences. I don't know anyone who hasn't seen this or doesn't like this. I mean, come on!

Company: Kecia, would probably play Glinda at some point; Jeremy, played the Mayor of Munchkinland, right?

Cuisine: trashy Chinese takeout from our favorite place. Sesame chicken and fried rice. Does it get better?

The film's opening sepia Kansas sequence has a frenetic pace as each of the characters is introduced to us, and it starts with a bang as Dorothy (Judy Garland) and Toto run from Miss Gulch (seen later and played with film-stealing verve by Margaret Hamilton). I love this opening shot, in which our heroes run away from us, the impending doom, and we see the beginning of storm clouds forming over the prairie.

Dorothy's a lonely girl, with no real friends but Toto, her terrier, and the three farmhands that work her farm. I didn't pick up on it as a kid, but each of the farmhands has a moment here with Dorothy in which they parallel their characters in Oz. Jack Haley as Hickory has the least to work with, but Ray Bolger as Hunk and Bert Lahr as Zeke make the most of their quick cameos. When Miss Gulch steals her only friend, Dorothy is understandably upset, and runs away with the dog as soon as it escapes the basket on the bike. This is a major decision. I remember contemplating running away as a kid, and it's not decided upon lightly, but Uncle Henry and Auntie Em have betrayed her by letting her only friend be ripped from her grasp, and it's time to go.

The scene in which Dorothy meets a phony fortune teller (Frank Morgan, in one of many roles) isn't present in the original novel, but adds so much foreshadowing and heightens the stakes for everyone on screen. Dorothy accepts that she's wronged her guardians and dashes back home through the oncoming tornado, but if she reached home and got in the storm cellar with the others, she wouldn't really have learned her lesson. She'd only have been tricked into thinking she had caused Em physical pain by leaving the farm. Again, as a kid, I always thought Professor Marvel was really a soothsayer. Amazing what changes as you grow up.

Dorothy loses a battle with a renegade window during the tornado and drops down on the bed, luckily unharmed otherwise as she dreams of being set down in Munchkinland, where she's held responsible for accidentally crushing the Wicked Witch of the East. Billie Burke is having great fun as Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, and the Munchkinland sequence is maybe the most beautiful in the film, far surpassing the Emerald City sequence in detail and color. One thing I love about the scene is the great fascination Fleming seems to have with the Munchkins, particularly in that beautiful shot where he follows several villagers as they wake up the town with the good news of the witch's demise.

The film is so ubiquitous that it's hard not to think of all the stories about these pint-sized actors, from their backgrounds to the filming, but it's certainly a wonder of filmmaking that hasn't ever been matched.

Dorothy is told the only way to get back home is to follow the yellow brick road, and along the way she makes friends in a straw man with no brains, a tin man with no heart, and a lion with no courage. Of course, these wonderful characters are made so wonderful because they all already have the gifts they long for, and it's because they do that they're able to make it all the way to the Emerald City. Of course, the Wicked Witch (has anyone ever stolen a movie quite so completely as Margaret Hamilton does?) and her various cronies make it difficult for them, but they persevere through poisoned poppies, dark forests, monkeys and winkies and fear (oh my)!

The technicolor on display in The Wizard of Oz, which was at the time a huge step forward for film in color, has nearly come to represent cinematic innovation in itself. The images from the film (like the one above) have with time become so iconic that without even knowing it we think of this film whenever we think of movies. Right? It's such a classic story, one given a thoroughly American telling by Fleming et al, that we just can't help it. 

And the fact that the songs by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, particularly "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," have worked their way into our permanent collective conscience! It's pretty incredible. I don't have the greatest fondness for Judy Garland (though I should really watch A Star is Born), but her rendition of the most famous song in cinema is untoppable. She had a great way of communicating such deep sadness and longing with that alto register.

You know I'm tracking your every step, my pretty. Give up now!

I have a great fondness for the message of this story: the idea that we already have the gifts we long for. Wisdom, kindness, courage... these are all things we all possess, traits our trio displays on their journey without knowing it, and if the Wizard were to give us a diploma or a medal or a testimonial, none of it would really make a difference. They're placebos for the naive Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, but they work. Again, didn't pick up on that as a kid! Was I just a moron? Could be. But maybe this is a part of why the film sticks in our conscience so well -- it works on every level. It says one thing to children and it says something entirely different to adults. As a child I thought that the Scarecrow really got a brain through magic, but as an adult I realize he must have known everything he needed to know all along.

However, Dorothy's "what I have learned" monologue doesn't wrap things up quite as neatly as I wish it would.

"Well, I think that it isn't enough just to want to see Uncle Henry and Auntie Em, and it's that if I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own backyard, because if it isn't there, then I never really lost it to begin with."

Can anyone explain this to me? I always think I've got it, and then it throws me for a rhetorical loop again. If her heart's desire isn't in her backyard, she hasn't lost it? So if it is, she has it? What??

My idiocy is a topic for another blog. The point is, we all have wisdom, kindness and courage inside of us ... and we all possess the power to go back home to Kansas. We can fix our problems, and we've been able to all this time, whether or not we believe it. Kindness and perseverance can go a very long way.

What hasn't already been said? The Wizard of Oz is singular in American cinema. I love it, and if you don't, well... be gone before someone drops a house on you, too!

Next up: the last of four films by the great Alfred Hitchcock -- Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak have Vertigo.

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