By the time the door opens and Dorothy (Judy Garland) finds herself over the rainbow, The Wizard of Oz has already completed one full narrative arc and is starting another. The film opens with Garland in a crisis–she’s a teenage girl on a farm where no one has time for her (it’s a busy farm, after all)–and events quickly fall into place forcing her no alternative to run away. Events just as quickly get her to reconsider that decision and set her back home. Full narrative gesture; all it needs is a resolution scene….
Only there’s this tornado and it has other ideas, like whisking Garland up and away into the far off land of Oz.
The opening sequence, set in Kansas, is sepia-toned. Oz is Technicolor. Cinematographer Harold Rosson does both gorgeously, but there’s also a difference in composition (probably because the Kansas sequence has an uncredited King Vidor directing)–Kansas is expansive, familiar, and sort of empty. The horizon is just sky. Oz is expansive, sure, but its not familiar at all and its packed. Garland quests through this beauteous landscape, initially by herself, but soon with friends; there’s the easy constraint of having the yellow brick road to guide her. Everything alongside the yellow brick road–corn fields, apple trees, dark and dangerous forests–is wild and expansive. The Wizard of Oz has phenomenal matte paintings, which director Fleming and cinematographer Rosson stretch into the foreground. The art direction, set decoration, all of it is wondrous.
Matching that wondrousness is Garland’s adventure, which is full of song, occasionally dance, and the pursuit of happiness. While Garland just wants to get back to Kansas, the friends she soon makes have entirely different desires.
The Wizard of Oz runs just over a hundred minutes. Almost twenty are spent on the opening Kansas scenes, the final quest–different from Garland’s initial one–takes up the last half hour. So in the remaining fifty minutes, the film has to introduce Oz to both Garland and the audience, but then also bring in her sidekicks, allies, and nemesis. It does so steadily, never hurriedly. These sidekicks become teenage Garland’s wards, some more so than others; she’s already on her quest to meet the Wizard and she has the idea of inviting others in need along with her.
First is Ray Bolger’s Scarecrow, who’s in need of a brain. He’s just got straw. Then it’s Jack Haley’s Tin Man, who needs a heart. Bert Lehr’s Lion needs some courage. All the while, Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch is out to get Garland for dropping a house on her sister and stealing her shoes. Actually, Garland’s innocent–I mean, the house-dropping isn’t her fault and it’s Billie Burke’s idea to swipe the shoes (to protect Garland from Hamilton). All Garland’s got to do is get to see the Wizard.
Hamilton haunts this first quest, keeping tabs on Garland and company’s progress, threatening them when possible. The second quest has Garland and her friends having to mount a direct assault on Hamilton’s castle and her army of flying monkey soldiers. The Wizard of Oz, in its hundred minutes, is three very different films.
The performances are uniformly fantastic, though Garland, Bolger, Hamilton, and Frank Morgan are the best. Garland’s Dorothy is never youthfully callow for long, she’s thoughtful and determined. Even in the Kansas sequence, where she gets into it with aunt and uncle Clara Blandick and Charley Grapewin over her misbehaving dog–basically, everything in Oz is the adorable dog’s fault, but he also saves the day more than once (and is awesome just to watch amid the singing and dancing on the ornate sets)–Garland navigates getting in the way, both in terms of the narrative and just physically, quite well. Once she gets to Oz, she’s got to stand back and observe, then switch immediately into a more active role; Garland keeps her performance even between the two extremes.
Bolger is one of Oz’s secret weapons. Unlike Haley and Lehr, he’s less Garland’s responsibility than her partner. In the last third, it’s up to Bolger to pick up the slack when Garland is separated from her sidekicks. All three–though most Lehr because he’s in a huge lion costume–do astoundingly well in their costumes and makeup. The makeup’s excellent, which should make it even harder for the actors humanity to come through, but Bolger, Haley, and Lehr do it. The Wizard of Oz is great at its character introductions; Bolger getting a little more agency in his introduction than the others carries him through the entire film.
Hamilton’s exceptionally evil, which is kind of the point of being wicked, I suppose, but she never lets up with it and also never goes over the top. She’s threatening this teenager and Hamilton keeps it in check. Part of Wizard’s magic is no one goes over the top.
Except Frank Morgan. And Frank Morgan knows how to chew through the scenery and director Fleming knows exactly how to feed it to him.
Great songs, beautiful production values, exceptionally luscious photography–The Wizard of Oz opens with a title card acknowledging the source novel’s legacy and promising a majestic film experience.
It delivers, again and again.
Directed by Victor Fleming; screenplay by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf, adaptation by Langley, based on the novel by L. Frank Baum; director of photography in Technicolor, Harold Rosson; edited by Blanche Sewell; music by Harold Arlen; produced by Mervyn LeRoy; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Starring Judy Garland (Dorothy), Ray Bolger (Scarecrow), Jack Haley (Tin Man), Bert Lahr (Lion), Margaret Hamilton (The Wicked Witch of the West), Billie Burke (Glinda), Clara Blandick (Auntie Em), Charley Grapewin (Uncle Henry), and Frank Morgan (Professor Marvel).
THIS POST IS PART OF THE JUDY GARLAND BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.