“There’s no place like home.”
The Classic Movie Blog Association is hosting a Films of 1939 Blogathon this weekend. Being the classic film nerd that I am, I couldn’t not participate in this one. Some of my favorite films of all time were released in 1939, and over the next two days I’ll be talking about a few of them right here at vivandlarry.com. So sit back, relax, and enjoy. And definitely head over to the CMBA (linked above) to check out the other entries!
There are certain films that stick with us throughout our lives. Films that we fall in love with as a child and remember just as fondly years down the road. These films are ones we find ourselves reaching for on a rainy day, or when we feel nostalgic about the past and want to recapture something of the lost magic of childhood. These are tried and true classics, no matter how old the film itself is.
The Wizard of Oz has always been my constant. I remember that I was 7 years old the first time I saw Victor Fleming’s 1939 fantasy epic. In fact, I know I can dig up an old photo of me dressed as Dorothy Gale for Halloween. My parents bought a VHS copy for my younger brother and I at Disneyland back in the early 90s. I remember watching it several times growing up, and it’s a film I can still quote at length. There’s something magical about Oz. Like many classic Hollywood films of its time, its themes are universal. The ideals present in the story–searching for a place “beyond the rainbow” where troubles are left behind only to realize that home is where the heart is–were poignant to Depression-era audiences. And they still apply today.
“It’s not a place you can get to by boat or by train. It’s somewhere far, far away–behind the moon, beyond the rain.”
The Wizard of Oz has been one of the most well-known American fantasy stories for over a century. L. Frank Baum published the first book in his series, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, in 1900. 12 other books followed over the next 20 years. The original book was turned into a stage production that traveled America in 1902 and 1903. Advances in the new cinematic medium at the time led Baum to establish The Oz Film Manufacturing Company, under which he produced silent film versions of his own books. None of these films were successful. It was in 1938, after the success of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves proved popular, that The Wizard of Oz was again seriously considered as a film adaptation. This time it fell into the hands of MGM producer Mervyn Leroy, who purchased the rights from Samuel Goldwyn. The job of director fell into the hands of MGM contract director Victor Fleming (who would leave the shoot toward the end of filming to take over on Gone with the Wind).
“I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”
There is so much about this film that has become iconic–namely Judy Garland, Over the Rainbow, the ruby slippers, the overly-quotable dialog that has been referenced countless times in subsequent films, etc.–but I think there is still more to it . One of the most impressive aspects of The Wizard of Oz is its technical achievements. Documentaries about the film have revealed the artistry behind A. Arnold Gillespie’s special effects (the tornado that sweeps Dorothy and the Gale home off to Oz, or the pink bubble that brings Glinda to Munchkin Land, for example) but my favorite part has always been the contrast between sepia-toned Kansas and the Technicolor glory of the Land of Oz. The scene when Dorothy opens the door to her sepia-toned room and reveals Munchkin Land bathed in bright color has got to be one of the most brilliant sequences in any film. I still marvel at little things such as the Horse of a Different Color (clever post-production coloring) and admittedly sometimes still find myself questioning whether the flying monkeys are people in scary monkey suits or something else entirely (seriously, what are those things?).
The doorman: “Can’t you read?”
Group: “Read what?”
The doorman: “The notice!”
Group: “What notice?”
The doorman: “The one on the door. It’s as plain as the nose on my face!”
Technicalities aside, what drives the film is the performances (and the songs that go with them!). I know Judy Garland deservedly gets most of the credit, and I think she does a wonderful job, but I’ve always preferred Margaret Hamilton as Ms. Gultch/The Wicked Witch of the West and Frank Morgan (my favorite bit player in classic cinema) as Professor Marvel, the cabbie, the doorman, the guard, and of course, the wonderful Wizard of Oz himself. These two do not get much screen time compared to Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley and Burt Lahr, but to me they leave the biggest impact. Hamilton has become the prototype for the image of the wicked witch in popular imagination, and I think we secretly all want Frank Morgan to be our grandpa. Of Dorothy’s three companions, the Scarecrow has always held a special place in my heart. I think he gets the best lines, such as “Some people without brains do an awful lot of talking.” And his dance moves would have given Michael Jackson a run for his money.
“I’ll get you, my pretty. And your little dog, too!”
A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to see The Wizard of Oz on the big screen at the AMPAS Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in Beverly Hills as part of the Academy of Motion Pictures’ tribute to the best picture nominees of 1939. The celebration of 10 films was bookended by the two films that continue stand as beacons representing the classical Hollywood era, and indeed, films in general. While I missed the Gone with the Wind screening, I did make a point of going to see Oz and it was well worth the trip. The theatre was packed with film lovers young and old. Judy Garland’s grandchildren were in the audience, and one of the last remaining Munchkins, Jerry Marin (whom you may know as the green member of the Lolipop Guild who hands Dorothy a giant lolipop) was invited up onstage to share his memories of working on one of the most beloved films of all time. In the film, Marin can be spotted in many of the Munchkin Land shots, perhaps getting more screen time than any of his fellow Singer Midgets. Apparently Victor Fleming got a kick out of him. Like Gone with the Wind, Oz was meant to be seen in a theatre rather than on a small tv screen.
The AMPAS screening of 2009 was also memorable for displaying props and other artifacts from the film that are stored in the Academy Archives. These included Burt Lahr’s Cowardly Lion wig and Judy Garland’s miniature Oscar for best juvenile screen performance of 1939. Being the history nerd that I am, it was wonderful to get to see these timeless treasures up close and personal. Below are come of the photos I snapped in the Goldwyn lobby.
Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion wig
Judy Garland’s Oscar for the best juvenile performance of 1939
Original lobby cards and promotional materials
The Wizard of Oz, like Gone with the Wind and other films that have withstood the test of time, is a film I will show my children and grandchildren. There’s something in it for the young and the old, and I think that’s what makes this film so special.