The Wizard of Oz (1939)


“If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with! Is that right?”

There is the learning of Dorothy Gale, one of cinema’s most enduring heroines, as she, with her friends, receives her gift from the Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Her adventure is one of the most recognized and beloved adventures in cinema, and has lived a long life that has not slowed one bit as we work through the new millennium.  She lives with her dog, Toto, in a sepia Kansas, on her Auntie Em’s farm.  She has a quaint and happy Midwestern life that includes a friendship with loving farmhands (played by Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, and Jack Haley), and a vile enmity with the rich and odious Miss Gulch (played by Margaret Hamilton), who has it out for her and the cute terrier.  Dorothy dreams, though, of magic and beauty beyond the cornfields of her aunt’s farm, a place that must be “Over the Rainbow.”

The rainbow is color.  All the colors can be found within some beam of that prismatic arch, and what in the world is more magical than color?  That each object has it’s own hue lends personality to all you see.  It gives life where there is none.  We all know what happens next.  She wakes up after a twister rips its way through her Kansas town and finds herself no longer in a world of black and white, but one of radiant Technicolor.  Like Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy finds in Oz a place where even the bricks of the yellow road seem to breathe.

I could continue, but you’ve seen the movie already.  If not, you absolutely need to; to see the film is a cultural and societal imperative.  What I want to focus on, rather, is a common misconception that the movie brings.  With all the campish hoop-la that has surrounded Dorothy and her Ozian crusaders over the generations, we have developed some rather mixed understandings of the world of Oz.  Our conceptions of the film’s undergirding moral fall—with our casual film-watching—flat.

But, with some film competency, we are suddenly made aware of far deeper and more important things.  This is not a movie about some sort of campish revival.  It is a movie about home, and what we make of it.

Let us refer, in order to build up our foundation of film competency, to the theories I have introduced thus far in my blog.  Films are, for all intents and purposes a slice of cake.  They do not pretend to bring us slices of life…that is something that you can get on your own.  They are, by their very nature, interpretations of a life outside that of the viewer.  They are meant to be consumed, with some action on the part of the spectator.  With true film competency one becomes what Roger Ebert referred to as “an active movie-watcher.”  This is a person who enjoys watching—almost reverences—the particular virtues and ideas of a given film’s creator.  The film acts as a window into themselves.  It also acts as an escape, a surreal adventure, if you will, for the viewer.  To demand reality in our films is to request art to come down to our level, rather than expect our own selves to rise to the occasion before us.

What we get in The Wizard of Oz is not only a slice of cake, but a slice of cake within a slice of cake.  It’s like one of those Pinterest brownies with little Junior Mints hidden in each square.  No one ever approaches it as a film-within-a-film, but that is exactly what it is.  The slice of cake, for us, is the movie itself.  The land of Oz, though, is a slice of cake for Dorothy.  It’s the surreal land of magic of which she has long dreamed.  And, whether or not her journey actually was a dream is beside the point.  Like that ambiguous ending to Inception that has caused so much strife on forums all across the worldwide web, the nature of dreams versus reality is a mere issue of interest.  Film isn’t concerned with reality, it’s concerned with imagination.  It’s when we are deep in a world of untainted thought that we find the most magic in our movies.  That is Oz to Dorothy: a manifestation of her unadulterated and childlike imagination, a fulfillment of her dreams, and a channel for her growth.

I have heard people wonder why Dorothy ever wanted to go home.  Why would she leave this manifest dream, this fulfillment of her longings, this world of magic and color?  Why would she ever want to go back to that dirty, boring, black-and-white bear-trap of rural servitude?  Why go back to that place from which she came?  Characters are supposed to have arcs…they are not just supposed to go back to where they were at the start.

Well, with the principles of film competency arming our analysis, we can find an answer to these questions.  First, there’s the importance of visuals.  This is probably the most important of the principles to which we will refer.  Second, there is the point of screenplay, a point which has taken center stage in recent months as I have reviewed the “Great American Screenplays”, from screwball comedy to the American Western, and where we now linger in this series on films from 1939.

First, let’s address this issue of the film’s visual component. Visuals are, after all, the grand key to film.  They are the main element to film’s beautiful and complex language.  The entire nature of film is that of recorded image; and the way that the creators of the film choose to record that image (montage, framing, setting, and lighting, etc.) are what gives a film its life.  So, in all things, ask yourself first this important question: “What is the visual component of the film trying to express?”  Therein lies the answer to most every question, particularly when it comes to analysis of film’s that follow the “seventh art” element to my “A Slice of Cake” corollary—(please see my revisit of the theory, or the conclusion of my section on film score for more on this corollary).

Applying this to The Wizard of Oz, what do we learn about Dorothy and her relationship to the various settings in the film?  A simple answer would be that she likes Oz more, because Oz is filmed in color while Kansas is filmed in black-and-white, but that can’t be the case.  At no point in the history of cinema has it been decided that color is a superior medium, as a matter of fact, many film enthusiasts (myself included) see it as the other way around.  Despite my opinion, though, it is still not a sufficient enough answer to the question.  The reality is that, while color may be more exciting, it is not, strictly by virtue of its richness, better.  Nor is a more colorful world a better world.  Imagine that our concept of light is limited here on earth, and that there are more colors out there for us to behold of which we are, simply, unaware in this life on this planet.  What if we ignorant to a whole realm of new color, unseen by any man or woman in this or any age?  Would the world, by virtue of this color, all of a sudden become a better place?  Probably not.  Might it be a cooler place to be for a while?  Might it be a place to which we’d like to return?  Like the pristine waters off Antigua, we can long for those beautiful colors, but they are not the ultimate end to happiness or quality of life.  Film has, at no point, proven that color is a superior medium because that would be a deceptive way to manipulate the emotions of a viewer.  True film doesn’t deceive.  Nor has film, at any point, ever decided that to be black-and-white is to be bland or unsophisticated.  Just watch Citizen Kane.  That should prove my point.

So, no, the world of Oz is not a better world merely because it’s a world of color.  As a matter of fact, the visual component would say the exact opposite.  Dorothy wants to return to the black-and-white of her native land.  She loves Oz, at least at times, but her heart is, as the quote above says, in her own backyard.  The visual component of the film is showing us that it’s not about the campish land of magic and wizards, but about the mundane comfort of home and family.

Which leads us into the second important facet of film competency: an application of the script, or screenplay.  This film was, after all, a product of the era of “Great American Screenplays”, and a masterwork of that era, no less.  If you want to understand what makes Dorothy want to go back home, just listen to what she says, not just during her time in Oz, but during her time in Kansas.  Oz is a dreamland, for sure, but Kansas is her home.  Her longings for Oz are obviously different than her longings for home in the middle section of the film.  After all, what is there to dream about if you live already in a dream-land?  There is no “Over the Rainbow” in Oz.  Only in Kansas can you have the best of both worlds.  One world exists as a result of the other.

What makes The Wizard of Oz so special in this period of great screenplays is that there is a special lyrical component to the scripts that differentiates itself from the other screenplays of the era.  This is the first musical that I have covered in this blog (besides the Christmas musicals, Scrooge, White Christmas, and Holiday Inn), and that is particularly significant because the musicals of the ’30s and ’40s replaced the witticisms and repartee that was so indicative of the era with a sort of limerick quality.  That these rhymes were set to music would give the film’s special pacing.  Where sexual wordplay and political satire took center stage in movies like Ninotchka, Duck Soup, and Sullivan’s Travels, it was music and lyrics that would give the film its tonality and vibrance.  While these are not screenplay elements, per se, there is an undeniable element of good writing that makes the songs of this era so memorable.

What most people don’t realize (but what will be well-demonstrated in my upcoming list of the great movie songs) is that most of the “standards” as we call them, had their roots in film and theater in the 1920s to the 1940s.  Of all the great movie music, i believe, not a single one of these standards rises above the beautiful Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg work, “Over the Rainbow.”  Sure, there are other great songs in The Wizard of Oz, like “We’re Off to See the Wizard” and “If I Only Had a Brain”, but none of them have the thematic power of “Over the Rainbow.”  Nor are they, simply put, as good.  But, it’s the thematic conceptualization of the song that helps us answer the questions regarding Dorothy’s desire to leave Oz and go back to Kansas.  It may be a form of dramatic irony that the longing she has for home is most revealed in the song where she shows her most longing to leave it, but consider, for a moment, where the song is actually sung.  Again, Oz is a result of home, not the other way around.  Home is where the heart is, but Oz is where the mind travels every now and again.  Not bad for a song that was almost cut from the film because the producers thought it was too boring.

This concept of home in cinema is not unique to The Wizard of Oz, and I think that is a lesson forgotten somewhat in contemporary society.  Maybe we’d be better to get back to it.  I talk about this theme a little more in depth in my review of It’s a Wonderful Life.  We so often glorify “seeing the world” that we don’t stop to think about the humble greatness of the George Baileys and Dorothy Gales who stay home.

There is another character in the cinema of that era who clung to this thematic concept of home.  Her name is Scarlett O’Hara.  We just finished a review of her film, Gone With the Wind, and the stunning similarity in the two heroines with this in mind is important to notice.  All throughout both stories, the heroines go through a miraculous coming-of-age, learning the best and worst about themselves, only to, in the end, strive for home.  For O’Hara, echoing through her mind were the words of Ashley, Rhett, and her father:

“Something you love better than me, though you may not know it. Tara.”….

“It’s this from which you get your strength. The red earth of Tara.”….

“Land’s the only thing that matters. It’s the only thing that lasts.”…

For Dorothy, she has the words of Glinda, the Good Witch, echoing in her head:

“There’s no place like home.  There’s no place like home.  There’s no place like home.”

In Gone With the Wind, we see, as I stated in my review of the film, we are shown a idyllic world of perfect agrarianism.  It is “the perpetuating force of the American myth, or experiment…the ideal world of rural pleasure.”  Then, we see that world crumble from the pangs of the Civil War and watch as Scarlett tries to pick up the pieces and return to the home of her youth.  In The Wizard of Oz, the arc may begin and end in the same place, but follows a different trajectory.  We are shown a more contemporary picture of rural life in America, only to leave it for a new world, only this one is not broken and dark.  It is quite the opposite.  It’s a world of magic, full color, songs, dances, and intriguing characters.  And, yet, for some reason, Dorothy wants to go back.  Hopefully, that all makes a little more sense now.

There is more than just this theme in common between Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz.  After all, the movies were made by the same director, Victor Fleming.  Fleming made a couple really good films other than these two, including Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Spencer Tracy and 1937’s The Good Earth, but none of his films would obtain the critical acclaim, clout, history, and prestige of these two blockbuster masterpieces.  Had Fleming decided to take a sabbatical in 1939, he never would have made my list (or anyone’s list, likely) of the greatest directors of all time.  But, in 1939, Fleming—and, granted, he had help—did what no other director had done or ever would do again.  He made two of the most popular films ever made.  Both of these films, The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, were ranked by the American Film Institute as #10 and #6, respectively, as the greatest films in American history.  This was in 2007, 68 years after the movies’ release.

How have these two movies, and The Wizard of Oz in particular, lived so well so long?  Even more than its contemporary Fleming counterpart, Wizard has aged well into the modern era.  Its tentacles have reached deep into our cultural psyche and influenced many other forms of entertainment throughout the years.  We love its characters, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, Dorothy, Toto, the witches, the flying monkeys, the Munchkins, and the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, whose deception is on one hand, indicative of the colorful world in which he lives, and, on the other hand, a gift of imagination to all who watch.  This fantastic film is a masterpiece of storytelling, and it tells its story in a way that is just as magical today as it was when it was released in 1939: through story, through color, and through music.

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