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Should I Watch..? 'The Wizard of Oz' (1939)

Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.

Film's poster

Film's poster

What's the big deal?

The Wizard of Oz is a musical fantasy film released in 1939 and is the best known adaptation of the 1900 children's novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. The film follows the fantastical adventures of a young girl and her dog swept up by a tornado and left stranded in a strange world, reliant on the kindness of strangers and the titular wizard to help her back home. Mostly directed by Victor Fleming (who left the production halfway through to complete Gone With The Wind), the film stars Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr, Billie Burke and Margaret Hamilton. Since its release, the film has become a cultural phenomenon with characters and songs passing into general folklore, and it made Garland a true star. Despite positive reviews when it was released, the film failed to make a profit until it was rereleased in 1949 as the film was the most expensive MGM had ever made at that time. Nominated for six Academy Awards and winning three, the film was among the very first selected for preservation at the US National Film Registry in 1989.

Unmissable

Blu-ray release trailer

What's it about?

Dorothy Gale is living on a remote farm in Kansas belonging to her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry together with Dorothy's beloved dog Toto. One day, Toto bites their neighbour Almira Gulch on the leg and in a fit of rage, she acquires an order from the sheriff for Toto to be euthanized. Dorothy runs away from the farm in order to get Toto back (although the pooch makes a break for freedom himself) but meets a mysterious fortune teller with a crystal ball. As Dorothy and Toto meet up, they head back towards the farm but a tornado appears on the horizon, heading towards the farm. As Em, Henry and the farm workers lock themselves in a storm shelter, Dorothy hides in her bedroom as the tornado strikes. As the storm strikes, Dorothy is struck on the head by a window flung open and is oblivious as the house is swept up and carried away.

When she wakes up, Dorothy is astonished to find herself in an unfamiliar land called Munchkinland populated by diminutive people and witches. As it turns out, Dorothy's house has accidentally crushed the Wicked Witch of the East and she is hailed as a hero by the Munchkins and Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. As Glinda advises Dorothy to follow the yellow brick road to the Emerald City to see the Wizard of Oz in order to help her home, the Wicked Witch of the West arrives to declare revenge on Dorothy. With her new ruby slippers, Dorothy skips off with Toto on an adventure beyond her imagination...

Main Cast

ActorRole

Judy Garland

Dorothy Gale

Frank Morgan

The Wizard of Oz

Ray Bolger

Scarecrow

Jack Haley

Tin Woodman

Bert Lahr

Cowardly Lion

Billie Burke

Glinda the Good Witch

Margaret Hamilton

Wicked Witch Of The West

Technical Info

*based on the book 'The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz' by L. Frank Baum

DirectorsVictor Fleming, George Cukor (uncredited), Mervyn LeRoy (uncredited), Norman Taurog (uncredited) & Richard Thorpe (uncredited)

Screenplay

Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson & Edgar Allan Woolf*

Running Time

102 minutes

Release Date (UK)

26th January, 1940

Rating

U (1986 re-rating)

Genre

Adventure, Family, Fantasy, Musical

Academy Awards

Best Original Song, Best Original Score, Academy Juvenile Award (Garland)

Academy Award Nominations

Best Film, Best Special Effects, Best Art Direction

The film is a quantum leap forward in cinema history with its costumes, set design, use of colour and imagination.

The film is a quantum leap forward in cinema history with its costumes, set design, use of colour and imagination.

What's to like?

I'm ashamed to say that my childhood years are long behind me so I'm forced to assess The Wizard of Oz as a cynical and experienced adult. But even with my critic's hat firmly in place (note to self - find a hat), the magic of this film is simply undeniable. Opening in a sepia-toned setting, the movie explodes into life with dazzling colour when the action moves Munchkinland and at no point do you stop believing in it. From the candy-cane styled sets to the fantastic costumes and the unforgettable songs, the film overwhelms you in its technical brilliance. It's akin to watching something equally ground-breaking for its time like Metropolis, defying your expectations of what a film from that era should be like. As soon as it changes into colour, it is apparent that this is something special. Something wonderful.

As the doe-eyed centre of the film, Garland shines like a genuine star whether she is singing such iconic songs as Over The Rainbow or reacting to some of the incredible visuals around her. Garland also has ample support from her co-stars who are decked out in fantastic costumes and makeup which, incredibly, don't hinder their performances - Lahr, for example, is both funny and touching as the cowardly lion and looks amazing. But for me, the true star is Hamilton whose performance as the green-skinned, hook-nosed witch remains the Hollywood benchmark all these years later. Yes, it's a pantomime in places but this is unquestionably the definitive adaptation of Baum's work and frankly, it doesn't matter. It feels clichéd because it has become cliché in the years since its release. It's hard to think of a part of the film that hasn't been imitated over the years, whether its the genuinely unsettling flying monkeys to the mystery behind the Wizard himself becoming common knowledge. There are few films from this era that stand the test of time but this is undoubtedly one of them.

Fun Facts

  • Part of the reason behind the film's production was actually Walt Disney who wanted to produce an adaptation of the novel as a follow up to Snow White And The Seven Dwarves which had become hugely successful a few years earlier. However, MGM acquired the rights before Disney so they had the initiative when it came to shooting.
  • The film's original director was Richard Thorpe, who was fired by producer Mervyn LeRoy after about two weeks of filming. George Cukor temporarily took over and made several changes to Thorpe's vision, including recasting Haley as the Tin Man. Cukor never actually shot any footage by the time Victor Fleming took over, who then spent the next six months filming. With Fleming then assigned to direct Gone With The Wind in early 1939, Fleming's friend King Vidor took over directing - mainly the sepia-toned Kansas scenes.
  • There has been a long-standing rumour that the body of a hanging crew member or one of the Munchkins can be seen in the forest scene as Dorothy, Scarecrow and the Tin Man skip away singing. It is actually a silhouette of a stork flying away as animals had been allowed onto the set to help populate the set with mysterious creatures. Warner Bros. were so disturbed by the rumours that the stork was coloured pink and the footage edited in all restored versions after 1998. However, the urban legend persists and the original footage has apparently been leaked, depicting a clearly hanging body.

What's not to like?

Nobody would argue that The Wizard of Oz is anything other than a superb family film, one that kids would be fascinated by and one adults can indulge their sense of nostalgia. But those flying monkeys are horrible to look at and terrifying to see flying into scenes so very young viewers might get spooked. But really, I'm struggling to think of anything wrong with this movie. It naturally feels very stagey as the film was shot entirely on sets but you'd expect that for a film from this era. You forgive the over-acting and pantomime feel in the film because it's The Wizard of Oz and it's supposed to feel like that. What you don't expect is the film to take as many risks as it does - even today, I can't think of many films that transition from monochrome to colour as seamlessly as this film does or generate that same level of wonder.

Garland became an instant star overnight as Dorothy and adopted the song Over The Rainbow as her signature tune.

Garland became an instant star overnight as Dorothy and adopted the song Over The Rainbow as her signature tune.

Should I watch it?

Simply magical from beginning to end, The Wizard of Oz is pure class and genuine cinema history. Whether you're a film buff or a family looking to entertain viewers for all ages, the film is a joy to watch that somehow uses its stagey production to its advantage. It naturally looks its age but it's amazing to think how ahead of its time the film is and how influential it still is. Settle down and enjoy this truly classic picture because it remains untouched as a spectacle, as a movie with unforgettable songs and as a shining example of one of Hollywood's greatest screen legends.

Great For: cinema lovers, families, viewers of any age, anyone suffering from a concussion

Not So Great For: the very youngest of children, anyone afraid of monkeys

What else should I watch?

By some considerable margin, this version of The Wizard of Oz is the most well-known and beloved version of Baum's work. The first film adaptation came in 1908 and was directed by Baum himself although other versions quickly followed in 1910, 1914 and 1925. But after this film's success, there would be a gap of thirty years before the release of Oz, an obscure Australian rock musical that didn't exactly set the world alight. Far more notable are the 1978 musical adaptation The Wiz which adapted the Broadway production for the screen and starred Diana Ross and Michael Jackson and the more recent Sam Raimi-directed Oz The Great And Powerful with James Franco in an origin tale for the titular wizard. Audiences enjoyed but critics were generally divided.

Judy Garland was just sixteen years old when she was cast as Dorothy and forged a career in Hollywood that simply never looked back. One of just twelve individuals awarded a Juvenile Academy Award (something no-one has done since 1960), you could argue that her career was curtailed by her personal demons that plagued her throughout her life but in spite of this, she remains one of the biggest stars of the silver screen. She starred in the classic musical Meet Me In St. Louis where she was directed by her future husband Vincente Minnelli for the first of five feature films, starred in the 1954 version of A Star Is Born opposite fellow Hollywood heavyweight James Mason and played a dramatic role among a stellar ensemble for the courtroom drama Judgment At Nuremberg. Her final film role in 1963's I Could Go On Singing served as a tribute to her talents as a singer and actress, almost tailor-made for her and ultimately acted as a epitaph after her tragic passing in 1969 at the age of just 47.

© 2021 Benjamin Cox

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