If there’s one film that kids are nearly obligated to become familiar with, it’s The Wizard of Oz. Moments from that film have become like small institutions within our culture that we begin to understand at an early age. We commonly joke that small people are Munchkins, that three clicks of our heels will transport us home, and anytime we’re out of our element the phrase, “We’re not in Kansas anymore” is completely understood.
However, as a kid, I remember The Wizard of Oz to both fascinating, magical and terrifying. The tornado scene depicted one of my worst fears with stunning visuals. That first mid-cyclone transformation from Miss Gulch on her bike to a wicked witch always sent my little sister looking for somewhere to hide, and I have to admit to still feeling a little twinge of fear when I hear that first cackle. The red clouds of smoke the Wicked Witch of the West uses are always frightful. And what a creepy visual to kids to see the dead witch’s feet curl up and recede under the house that killed her. Between setting poor Scarecrow on fire repeatedly, mean apple throwing trees, creepy blue flying monkeys and The Great and Powerful Oz, this can be a real scary movie for kids. Thankfully they’ve got the Cowardly Lion to show them how silly it is to be too scared over little things.
In Kansas, Dorothy (Judy Garland) and her little dog Toto have gotten in trouble with mean old Miss Gulch (Margaret Hamilton) one too many times, now she wants to take Toto away to be destroyed. Poor Aunt Em (Clara Blandick) and Uncle Henry (Charley Grapewin) can’t stand up the the terrible old witch, but when Toto escapes back home, Dorothy decides to run away. She meets Professor Marvel (Frank Morgan), a clever, fake, but goodhearted soothsayer who tricks young Dorothy into going back home. But a twister is coming and though they call for Dorothy, Aunt Em and the gang can’t wait any longer to get into the shelter and Dorothy gets a nasty bump to the head looking for everyone.
The twister takes her up and lands her some place that must be over the rainbow, which would explain the sudden burst of extraordinary color. I swear, I’ve got some flowers blooming right now that look straight out of Munchkin land. There, Dorothy is greeted as a hero by the Muchkins and Glinda the Good Witch of the North (Billie Burke) for landing her house on the Wicked with of the East. But as the Muchkins are holding the best impromptu musical celebration, complete with the most cheerful declaration of death you’ll ever see, the Wicked With of the West crashes the party in her thunderous red smoke. She’s mad at whoever killed her sister and seeks revenge, and the ruby slippers, that have magically appeared on Dorothy’s feet. Now Dorothy must follow the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City to ask the wonderful Wizard of Oz to send her back home. Along the way she meets some whimsical friends, a Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), Tin Woodsman (Jack Haley) and Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr), very familiar to the friendly farm hands back home, and must battle the Wicked Witch of the West. And as always, Toto will both get her into and out of trouble.
Honestly, this may be one of my favorite musicals, ever of all time. The songs are familiar classics and just so catchy. To this day, I find myself singing the Munchkin songs, weird voices and all, at random times. I honestly think that the fantastic and colorful elements help me accept the fact that people here can just burst into song and dance. If that scarecrow, lion and man made of tin can talk, why not sing?
Every time I see this movie, I always notice how this wonderful world is just put on a simple sound stage. I can see when the prospective backdrop hits the ground, I’ve noticed this even as a kid how Dorothy and Scarecrow are just walking towards a wall. Yet, while I notice, I don’t care. I even forget at times and become so wrapped up in how mean that witch is. Don’t throw fireballs at Scarecrow! Or what a wonderful crybaby the Cowardly Lion is, he really steals the show. Sometimes I find myself just wrapped up in the shear enjoyment of the film that I forget to look for that infamous guy rumoured to have committed suicide on set and can see him hanging in one scene. What a wonderful piece of movie trivia, yet I’m too busy yelling at Toto, either to run or not to chase the cat toward the end. One day, that stupid dog is going to be Dorothy’s demise, but I don’t care. I’m having too much fun in Oz.
Now, I know The Wizard of Oz has been interpreted as a political allegory on the Gold Standard and other issues during the late 1800s. As a film fan, I hate to put it so bluntly, but I frankly don’t care. I don’t think the film cared either, turning the silver slippers into the ruby slippers erases some of the references. The way I see it, no matter what The Wizard of Oz is really about, it’s still a game changer in visual techniques and bringing fantasy to film. The film quality has always been so clear that my sister honestly thought it must have been made in the 1960’s, she could not believe that she loved a film that was so old. And when I think of all the kids still being introduced to The Wizard of Oz, as if it were a brand new movie to them, I think it will be one of the few films that can stay forever young.
“Who would have thought a good little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness?”