CAPSULE: THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Victor Fleming (credited), King Vidor, Mervyn LeRoy (uncredited)

FEATURING: Judy Garland, , Frank Morgan, Bert Lahr, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley

PLOT:  A cyclone carries a Kansas girl (and her little dog, too) to a magical land over the rainbow.

Still from The Wizard of Oz (1939)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: In creating a list of the 366 best weird movies of all time, The Wizard of Oz presents a huge challenge.  After all, this Technicolor extravaganza contains such trippy imagery as a bizarre cyclone that hurls snatches of a young girl’s fears past her spinning window; a land of doll-like little people threatened by a witch; talking apple trees; a giant floating green head appearing and disappearing before a curtain of flame; knife-nosed, green-faced Cossack guards; and of course, flying monkeys—never underestimate the weirdness of flying monkeys.  These should be the building blocks of a stunningly psychedelic pic, but if this magical movie only seems fantastic, never weird, it’s because the entire adventure feels so safe.  The musical numbers, the comedy, and the deliciously stagey sets serve to remind all but the very youngest children that we’re in an artificial, sheltered environment, and that no harm can ever come to Dorothy.  We’re invited to sit back and soak in the spectacle, not to experience it directly.

COMMENTS: Most reviews of The Wizard of Oz could be distilled down to two words: “me too.”  Are you a viewer who loves the movie?  Me, too.  You admire the immaculate casting and performances?  The unforgettable music?  The clever nonsense wordplay of the lyrics?  The marvelous color sets, with each frame packed with too much visual information for the eye to take in in a single viewing?  The way the narrative flows seamlessly from set-piece to set-piece, never bogging down at any moment?  The way the simple fairy tale draws psychic water from some deep well of childhood fear and desire? The flying monkeys?  Me, too.

Are you a writer who’s been stymied by the prospect of writing an analysis of one of the most pored-over films of all time, and has resorted to reciting recycled trivia tidbits?  Me, too.  Did you know Shirley Temple was originally intended to play the role of Dorothy, W.C. Fields was slated to assay the Wizard, and Buddy Ebsen actually played the Tin Man, until a reaction to the aluminum oxide paint hospitalized him?  Did you know that The Wizard of Oz has inspired a number of crazy urban legends, from the intellectually dubious (L. Frank Baum composed his fairy tale as an allegory about monetary police and the gold standard) to the purely pot-addled (Wizard “syncs-up” perfectly with Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” dude) to the enduringly morbid (a lovelorn Munchkin can be seen hanging himself in the background of one scene)?  Me, too.

Are you just a bit saddened by the moral of the story: that we should happily reject a life of adventure in a wondrous  foreign land, pining to return to our dull Kansas homestead so we can tend endless crops of wheat until we die, purely out of a sense of familial obligation and duty?  Me, too.

Although we’ve decided that The Wizard of Oz is too childlike and innocent to be ranked among the truly weird, we should also point out that it’s the major touchstone of the fantastic on film.  Wizard was voted the #1 fantasy film of all time by the American Film Institute.  Homages to this film recur in all sorts of weird fare, from the scripted sex farce One Million AC/DC to Ishirô Honda’s Latitude Zero to the Dr. Phibes movies, and knowledge of the film is thematically central to Zardoz, After Hours and David Lynch‘s Wild at Heart.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A fairybook tale has been told in the fairybook style, with witches, goblins, pixies and other wondrous things drawn in the brightest colors and set cavorting to a merry little score… we must mention the talking trees that pelt the travelers with apples, the witch’s sky-written warning to the Wizard, the enchanted poppy field, the magnificent humbuggery of Frank Morgan’s whiz of a Wiz and the marvel of the chameleonlike “horse of another color.” They are entertaining conceits all of them, presented with a naive relish for their absurdity and out of an obvious—and thoroughly natural—desire on the part of their fabricators to show what they could do.”–Frank S. Nugent, New York Times (contemporaneous)

3 thoughts on “CAPSULE: THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)”

  1. But then again didn’t we all see it as very young children? The film is imprinted on our psyches, no doubt the characters populate our dreams and I still experience at least a sense memory of dread when the witch appears among the munchkins. Perhaps I’m a overly sensitive soul…

  2. It’s true most of us first saw Wizard as children, but I, for one, appreciate it much more as an adult. I see flaws in most of the films I liked as a child but look back on as a grown up. Many of them can be enjoyed only for their nostalgia value. When I re-watch Wizard, I realize that as a kid I didn’t have the full set of tools to enjoy it properly. I took the amazing sets, costumes, and effects, which now awe me, for granted; then, they were just part of “Oz.”

  3. I hate this movie. Hate hate hate, and it’s precisely because of the “safeness” element you point out. Baum deliberately wrote the novels to create a purely American set of fairy tales that were safe to read to children (because the European ones were, indeed, gruesome and scary). Perhaps a less safe take on the Wizard of Oz, and one that would actually qualify as weird — and no less spectacular — is The Wiz.

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