The Wizarding World of Non-Oz-Sense.
It’s Judy Garland’s first ever head trip! A victim of prescribed, mind-altering drugs later in her career, maybe she was just trying to recreate her glory days in THE WIZARD OF OZ?
It was 1939 and the Hollywood studio system was churning out so many “musicals” that singing irrelevantly amidst the storyline had become not only passé but expected. Keep in mind THE WIZARD OF OZ rose above the engine-pit of Hollywood dreck purely on the strength of its re-releases and television reruns. At the time of its theatrical release, it was box office mud. Though a lot of care was admittedly put into the production, it was “just another musical,” adapted from the children’s book by L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Now it’s a classic. And although it’s a fun romp through a mine field of hallucinogenic surrealism, barring a few memorable performances and iconic moments, most of THE WIZARD OF OZ is outdated, overacted and under-thought. It was voted one of the “20 Most Overrated Movies Of All Time” by Premiere Magazine. And this surreal cucumber concurs: in the sense that it has its moments, but is only a must-see childhood film because parents are indoctrinated to force it onto their kids at some point in their wretched upbringing. Entering the bloodstream at an early age, it becomes impossible to flense its influence on our credulous baby minds and view WIZARD for what it is; a mediocre musical with kooky characters and preposterous platitudes. It has become impossible to – ironically – pull back the curtain…
Dorothy (Judy Garland), a young farm girl in a sepia-toned rural Kansas, and her little dog Toto, are transported via a twister to a magical land of Oz (which hits us like a Technicolor Molotov cocktail), where she befriends three insecure characters, a Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), a Tin Man (Jack Haley) and a Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr), and they all journey down the yellow brick road to see the purportedly omniscient Wizard of Oz to ask him to grant their wishes; Dorothy’s wish: passage home.
Scarecrow wants “a brain,” Tin Man wants “a heart,” Cowardly Lion wants “the nerve.” These three cut-ups are the backbone of WIZARD, and rightly so, with such well-crafted makeup and solid characterizations, that it’s a safe bet they were doing the best drugs on set.
When Dorothy first meets Scarecrow, he advises to go down one road, then down another, then adds, “Of course, people do go both ways!” Well, you should know, fruity straw guy…
All three get a chance to sing probably the least gay song in the movie, If I Only Had A Brain, replacing the words as necessary to their idiom (Tin Man: a Heart, Lion: the Nerve – or, as he pronounces it, the “noive”). Lahr’s eccentric, mincing Cowardly Lion steals the show (he even gets an extra solo spot to vibrato comedically, If I Were King Of The Forest), and we see where those Warner Bros. cartoons we love so much cribbed a lot of their inspiration, with his twitchy oafishness and Edward G. Robinson accent.
And Toto the dog pulls one of the best animal performances ever committed to screen; a sedately cute little doggie-thesp amidst all that flummery and hullabaloo. The filmmakers don’t try for cuteness by making Toto do precious things in cutaways – everything he does is in the master shots without any specific focus on him. That’s why he’s so cute. He was trained and blocked so well that they didn’t need closeups to punctuate his actions; like dutifully following Dorothy around the spiral beginnings of the yellow brick road, whilst all those loud-colored munchkins flollop around singing and dancing like M&Ms on crack; like patiently sitting on a plough and putting his paw out to be shaken while Garland croons her signature tune, Somewhere Over The Rainbow. He even plays a pivotal part in rescuing Dorothy when he escapes the witch’s castle to find the three mincing doofuses back in the forest and lead them to the castle.
And let’s not forget: Toto is the one who exposes the Wizard! The kid’s priceless!
At every opportunity, the gang bursts into We’re Off To See The Wizard (one of the film’s many iconic songs), and traipse gaily down the yellow brick road – cutting just before they smack their noses on the painted cycloramas across the back of the sound stage.
Frank Morgan (as the Wizard) actually plays five roles, including Marvel the Magician in Kansas, a conman with a heart, as he poignantly tricks the runaway Dorothy into wanting to return home.
But it’s too late. The tornado hits the farm and Dorothy’s whole house is blown away with her in it, landing in Oz and apparently killing a “Wicked Witch of the East,” whose ruby slippers were the envy of every hooker in Munchkinland.
When it is taken for granted the movie as a whole is “delightful,” I think people are forgetting that the whole Munchkinland sequence, populated with kaleidoscopic dwarfs singing treacle in chipmunk-tweaked voices, should be outlawed by the Geneva Convention as torture. (In this respect, Charlie Smalls and Quincy Jones should be commended for updating the musical numbers in their 1978 “blaxploitation” remake THE WIZ. Most musical films become dated after the passage of years, as musical styles buck and trend – look at The Village People’s CAN’T STOP THE MUSIC (1980) – became dated as it was being edited! Anyone still doing The Shake? The Milkshake, The Milkshake – Do The Shake!)
Like “Play it again, Sam,” Dorothy’s quote about not being in Kansas anymore has been defiled to the point of obscurity. The correct quote: “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
As her eyes try to adjust to the ocular raping, a good fairy appears – no, not Freddie Mercury – Glinda (Billie Burke), the blonde, bubble-headed “Good Witch of the North,” with a voice that makes you want to take a crowbar to her skull. In that insufferable mewling, she asks Dorothy whether she is a good witch or a bad witch for killing the East Si-eede wiccan. Dorothy counters that she isn’t a witch at all and compliments Glinda that she didn’t know there were beautiful witches such as her, to which Glinda replies, “Only bad witches are ugly.” Which Dorothy should have read as the veiled insult it was: So you had to ASK whether I was a good witch because I’m that close to bad-witch-ugly? (Through her life, Garland would have self-esteem issues over her looks; did they subliminally start with this insensitive witchbitch?)
But though Glinda proclaims herself “good,” we realize her moniker of “Good Witch” is merely agitprop, as throughout the movie she watches idly as Dorothy endures hell to reach the Emerald City, telling Dorothy right at the end – in a deus ex machina appearance – that Kansas was two seconds away all the time! Capping it with a sophistic platitude on why she never lifted a finger to shorten the torturous journey:
GLINDA: “You always had the power to go back!”
SCARECROW: “Why didn’t you tell us?!”
GLINDA: “Because you wouldn’t have believed me!”
Someone call the Good Lawyer of The North – I’m gonna sue the wand right out from under this bitch’s dirndl skirts.
Perfectly cast as the green-skinned, cackling Wicked Witch of the West – Margaret Hamilton, who, as the phrase goes, definitely hit every branch of the ugly tree on her way down… Divorced by the time she did this movie and never remarried, one can only imagine the torment her ex endured bedding down with that horse’s face every night, and waking to that trollish, hook-nosed thing on the pillow every morning. Shudder. The story goes that a lot of Hamilton’s Witch performance was too terrifying for little kids of the time, and edited out, but it wasn’t her “performance” – it was that viridian alien fugliness that not even Captain Kirk would tap.
Humbugged as her countenance may be, Wicked Witch is no more evil than you or I when claiming our rightful inheritance. Her dead sister’s ruby slippers are magically bestowed on Dorothy by that whinnying blonde witch – stolen! – and when we examine Wicked’s actions throughout this movie, all she really wants are her family heirlooms back. Under what authority did Dorothy and Glinda snatch them up?
Even as a kid I used to wonder how Wicked was done in with water to the face. Not being as gullible as my kindergarten peers, I considered maybe it was acid, or that they foreshadowed earlier that she had some aversion to liquids – but no. When the plot calls for it, there’s a convenient bucket of water thrown over her and she “melts.” For its illogical suddenness, anything could have sufficed; you may as well throw a pillow at her or a towel or a set of decorative plates and achieve the same result with the same non-explanation as to why it was fatal to her… (The Wizard would remark “So you liquidated her” and my little child-mind connected “liquid” with “water” and I thought it best to accept that tenuous connection and keep my mouth shut because it was obvious all the grownups around me knew better, and they were telling me this movie was “delightful.”)
If anyone was evil in Oz, it was the Wizard. He promises to grant them their wishes (even though he is a charlatan who can do no such thing) if they would kill the Wicked Witch and bring back her broomstick, knowing full well he is sending them to their deaths to protect his charlatanism!
When Wicked captures Dorothy, she doesn’t kill her immediately to get the ruby slippers, rather, sets an hourglass on how long Dorothy has to live – then she rushes off to a meeting to help write the chapter in the Batman Villain Handbook on “Delaying People’s Deaths Arbitrarily.”
When you really think about it: both Glinda and Wicked have real magical powers (they can fly, appear and disappear at will, create poisons and antidotes, spy on you from afar), yet the Wizard (whom they regard with obeisance, taking it for granted he is “great and powerful”) is a mere mortal with smoke and mirrors. Have these actual witches no discernment? Wouldn’t they have tested their powers against his, or at the least requested an audience with him to curry favor, and then inadvertently exposed him when they were chatting over the latest Eye of Newt spells?
All that pouting and theatrical overacting like Shirley Temple (who was considered before Garland) doesn’t disguise the fact that Garland is a little too old for the role; 16 and playing it like a coy 10-year-old. Even her farmhands (Bolger, Haley and Lahr in human form) treat her like a girl not worth wasting askew glances on, but those strapped-down chest buds make me wonder why none of them were trying to get her into more trouble so they could “rescue” her by carrying her out of the pigpen or the horse barn or one of their farmhand nesting places…
Dorothy’s last monologue to Glinda is aimed squarely at 10-year-olds who won’t realize it’s pap-on-ice nonsense: “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look further than my own backyard because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.” And when someone figures out exactly what that means, I’ll eat my couch.
As Dorothy is lamenting that she shouldn’t have left home because everyone loves her there, all I could think of was the opening portion of the film where Auntie Em (Clara Blandick) and Uncle Henry (Charley Grapewin) didn’t give her the time of day, and gave up Toto to the horse-faced man-thing threatening them with legalities (Margaret Hamilton playing Miss Gulch), and where the three farmhands had nothing but directives for her, “use your brain,” “stay out of trouble”… which is the reason why she ran away in the first place.
Upon our return to Kansas, the audience realizes that Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion are the same actors playing her farmhands, and that in Oz they represented Dorothy’s fevered fantasy, so we must ask, Are those her deep-rooted perceptions of her farmhands; that one is brainless, one is heartless and one is gutless?
But why would she think that anyway, as it is subtly shown that each of the doofuses exhibits the exact traits that he desires? Scarecrow uses his brain to get out of jams, Tin Man cries like he’s got a breaking heart and Lion dives into the heart of danger for her. So who’s the real psychological head case here?
Dorothy vows, “And I’m not going to leave here ever, ever again!” Well, until my schizophrenia kicks in again and I perceive that I’m the only sane one around here surrounded by retards…
Five directors would eventually have a hand in the production of WIZARD (including Richard Thorpe, George Cukor, the film’s producer Mervyn LeRoy, and King Vidor), but Victor Fleming would be credited as the director who brought this glossified puling to the screen. Blame E.Y. Harburg for the fruity lyrics and Harold Arlen for the hinky-bippity music.
For 1939, it was quite effects-laden: the tornado scene with visions outside Dorothy’s window; the witch dissolving from riding her bike to a broom; both the witches’ entrances and exits; the flying monkeys, which I imagine would have been magnificently terrifying in their day.
WIZARD is revolutionary in many aspects, and it has entered human culture indelibly, but I find it hard to envision today’s youth, inured as they are with the eye-candy of TRANSFORMERS, the soul-sucking wraiths of HARRY POTTER, or the dinosaurs of KING KONG 2005, batting an eyelid over the supposedly scary flying monkeys, Wicked’s supposed disturbing performance, or the cardboard and matte majesty of the Emerald City.
Older generations who insist that WIZARD still works its wonders on modern kids have no idea what kids five generations below them are attracted to. Recently I saw a 2-year-old sitting in her father’s shopping cart playing with an iPad. I don’t even own an iPad and this little girl was tooling around on it like she was directing the sky traffic in ATTACK OF THE CLONES. If WIZARD-philes are brave enough to put their “delightful to all generations” theory to the test, sit a group of kids down to view it and see how long it takes before they plug in a Blu-Ray Disc less than three years old, start IM-ing their friends or updating their facebook pages.
I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.