The Wizard of Oz

There’s No Place Like…

An essay by: Witney Seibold


Some trivia about “The Wizard of Oz:”

   – There is an urban myth floating around about the actor who hung himself not only on set, but on-camera. And not only on-camera, but in the final print of the film. At the end of the “If I only had a heart” number, as the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Dorothy are skipping off into the distance, the suicide ca be seen in the background. It is, in fact, a bird, I think a condor, stretching its wing (animals were called in from the L.A. zoo to wander freely about the set in many shots). The rumor started that it was a stagehand accidentally falling into frame, and, with the advent of video, became an actor, a Munchkin, hanging himself.

            – Margaret Hamilton who played the Wicked Witch badly burned her face in her first scene. As she sank into the stage, “disappearing” in a puff of smoke, she did not clear the ground in time, and the subsequent flame burned her badly. The green makeup, though, hid her injury.


            – Buddy Ebsen was originally slated to play the Tin Man, and even shot a few scenes, and recorded the heart song. He left for health reasons, as the “Tin” makeup had aluminum in it, and caused a severe allergic reaction. Jack Haley was brought on and the makeup was changed.


            – Shirley Temple was originally slated to play Dorothy. What a stupid decision. Can you picture “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” coming out of the face of that little Campbell’s kid? Dorothy is one of the purest, cleanest, and most good-hearted characters I have seen in any film, and making her cherubic would have turned her into a grotesque caricature.


            – Roy Bolger’s scarecrow makeup made his face bleed. Jack Haley could not sit down in his tin costume and had an ironing bard set up on set that he could lean against. Bert Lahr said that the lion costume was like wearing a wet bed mattress is was so heavy (reportedly, 90 pounds).


            – The film technically has five directors. Richard Thorpe was the original hire, but he left before anything was shot. George Cukor (who would go on to direct “The Philadelphia Story,” “Gaslight,” and “My Fair Lady”) worked very briefly on the film, but his only input was changing Dorothy from a blonde to a brunette, and insisting she act less cute. Victor Fleming is credited and did most of the work, but he had to leave in order to finish “Gone with the Wind,” being shot at the same time. King Vidor (a prolific silent-era director, whose most famous film is “The Crowd”) was brought in briefly to direct the black-and-white sequences. Even one of the producers, Mervyn LeRoy directed some transitional stuff. It’s amazing that the film remained so cohesive after changing hands so often.


            – This was not the first color film, although it is often credited as so. It is, however, the first to mix color with sepia.


            – The Ruby Slippers are on display in the Smithsonian. Only they are from two different pairs used.


             – Much has been made of the fact that the film’s images match eerily with the Pink Floyd album “Dark Side of the Moon.” I have watched it this way, and the coincidences are indeed uncanny. Whether or not Pink Floyd intended this is still murky, although it strikes me less as cosmic synchronicity, and more as something to do when you’re stoned.


            There’s nothing to say.


            I mean, what can I say about “The Wizard of Oz” that has not already been stated hundreds of times by critics and analysts in volumes upon volumes of film lit books and trivia tomes? This film is probably the second most talked-about in film history (“Citizen Kane” being the first, and wow, am I going to have similar troubles with that essay). It started life as a 14-book series by L. Frank Baum, and had other incarnations in film before the famous 1939 version came along (it was adapted in 1910, 1914, 1921, and 1938). It’s been subject to essays, making-of treatises, Freudian analyses (red slippers, lion = animus, etc.), countless parodies (even Mad Magazine was cogent enough to make a parody in their 300th issue), merchandising, adaptation (it was adapted to stage, cartoons, and into other films, among them “The Wiz” and the 1985 “Return to Oz” with a young Fairuza Balk as Dorothy). I saw an anime of it once, which was obviously inspired by The ’39. According to the Internet Movie Database, there are 26 film versions, including versions in German and Japanese, television specials, and an upcoming Muppet version. 84 pieces to refer to Oz and its ephemera. There’s even a TV series called “Oz.” Oh wait… That’s about a prison…


            All of these were sprung, I suspect, not from a need to retell Baum’s story – which is, if you have read it, a fanciful, but incredibly dry telling of a unique universe; one that Baum intended to be a political satire of sorts, but primarily a piece of kidlit – but is rather a throwback to the immense popularity of The ’39. The ’39 itself has been viewed in countless venues, including sing-alongs, concerts, and drag shows (this film, and Judy Garland in particular, have become staples of Queer Cinema). It has its own trivia game. Trivia just about the one film. An entire board game. Genus Edition of Trivial Pursuit, look out. Imagine what that says about the film’s popularity, that not only has someone bothered to document the film’s minutiae and present it in question form, but that a game can be marketed where people will probably know the answers to said minutiae. 

            I think I wouldn’t be too far off if I were to say that “The Wizard of Oz” is the most popular film ever. It has probably been seen by more people than any other film. I’ll guess close to two billion people have seen it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was more. It has been a staple of children’s cinema for decades, and even to this day, it has the occasional children’s matinee screening (The Cinematheque is having one in May of 2005), so many people end up seeing it at an early age. It’s part of countless childhoods. In fact, since it was made in 1939, even if one saw it as a six-year-old child during its initial run, that person would be 72 this year. And not to marginalize the conviviality of any septuagenarians (heck, Michelangelo Antonioni is 92, and he just directed a new short film), but the number of people alive who had a period in their lives when there wasn’t a “Wizard of Oz” is dwindling. In another 30 years, tops, “The Wizard of Oz” will become a permanent staple in most people’s vocabulary. A legitimate cultural icon that has shaped the way we think, talk, and navigate through social territory.


            Not many films can make this claim. “Star Wars” is usually noted as being near the top in this regard, as are “The Godfather,” “Jaws,” “Gone with the Wind,” “Dracula” and his crowd, and perhaps “Casablanca.” While each of these films have given us important images that have been burned into our minds, none have reached as deep as “The Wizard of Oz.” “Star Wars” has given us many familiar line of dialogue, the concept of The Force, and influenced Ronald Reagan’s Cold War policies, but is really (what with its over-ambitious sequels), only taken seriously by a certain brand of sci-fi geek (and God bless them too). “The Godfather” and “Jaws” are perhaps too recent to be considered as influential. “Dracula” is considered too often a “genre” film, and “Casablanca,” while a classic, is only intimately familiar to, once again, a certain breed of cinephile. “The Wizard of Oz” is the one. The only one. The one to have reached into all of us, and touched something. Whether we love it, or simply have nostalgia for it, the dialogue rings in our minds, and we smile:


            “Somewhere over the rainbow…” (I bet you started humming it. I bet you did.)


            “It’s a twister! It’s a twister!”


            “I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”


            “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too!”


            “Follow the yellow-brick road.”


            “We’re off to see the wizard.”


            “If I only had a heart.”


            “Poppies will put them to sleep.”


            “If I were king of the forest…”


            “Auntie Em!”

            “I’m melting!”


            “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”


            “I think I’ll miss you most of all.”


            “There’s no place like home.”


            “You, and you, and you… and you were there.”


            Dorothy. Toto. Scarecrow. Ruby slippers. Good witch. Wicked witch. Munchkins. Yellow bricks. Tin man. Cowardly lion. Technicolor. Flying monkeys. It’s with us. We know it.



            So what do I say about this film that is original? The answer is of course nothing. Anything I say about this film has already been said in countless essays, books, analyses, and casual conversations between people who have seen this film dozens of times. I can only point out my personal experiences with it, try to make a few wry observations, and stare down the gullet of familiarity, and hope that I do not sound trite. So here goes with the essay:


            Some things I observed while watching this film again after an absence of a few years:


            – Dorothy is not just a sweet innocent, but a paragon of virtue. She’s is astonished at her surroundings, but never panics. She is smacked by a talking tree and only thinks to say “I keep forgetting I’m not in Kansas!” She is caught dead to rights about letting her dog run around in Miss Gulch’s garden, and rather than bucking up against injustice, politely offers to be sent to bed without supper. She’s calm and collected. She cries when she is sad, and laughs when she is happy. She is never bitter or vindictive. The only show of violence she shows in the film is smacking the Lion in the nose, but it seems like a pretty lame retribution after the Lion offered to devour Toto (Terry, but credited as Toto). There is something not just wholesome, but angelic about Dorothy. Judy Garland, like Bela Lugosi and Dracula or William Shatner and Captain Kirk, is the only person to play Dorothy, and no one can ever embody it without invoking her.


            – Auntie Em (Clara Blandick, featured in 120 films, but known only for this one) is not a pleasant woman. She shows concern for Dorothy, but there are no tender moments with her. Maybe that’s why Dorothy longs to be whisked over the rainbow.


            – “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is a really pretty song.


            – I know that Margaret Hamilton was a kindergarten teacher, and when she’s Miss Gulch you can really see it.


            – Professor Marvel (Frank Morgan) was obviously a charlatan, but this time around I noticed he was a sloppy charlatan. I also noticed his line of dialogue “There’s a storm blowin’ up a whopper! …Just using the vernacular of the peasantry.” It’s a cute line.


            – The guys up in the cyclone (the rowboat and the cow) are pretty damn goofy. The witch, if you look closely, is wearing ruby slippers. That means it’s the Witch of the East that had the house land on her.


            – Glinda (Billie Burke) must not be too bright. She thinks Toto is a witch.


            – The “Ding! Dong! The Witch is Dead!” number is really black. Here’s a colorful army of little creatures singing about how happy they are over the death of their oppressor. It struck me as bleakly revolutionary. One of the lyrics even points out that the Witch of the East is suffering in Hell: “She’s gone where the goblins go. Below! Below, below! Yo-ho! Let’s open up and sing, and ring the bells out.”


            -The Witch of the East must not have been a good tyrant. The Munchkins still have a mayor, a coroner, houses, jobs, dancers, soldiers, a Lullaby League, and a Lollipop Guild.


            – The Munchkins have almost entirely artificially-raised voices. I thought small people just talked like that for the longest time.


            – Roy Bolger is an amazing comedian. The line “Some people without brains do an awful lot of talking” is pretty universal, and is still funny.


            – I noticed this before, but not to such a great degree: the brainless one is the smartest (he comes up with a plan to get apples from the angry trees, thinks to include the Tin Man, chops the chandelier onto the witch’s guards.), the heartless one is the most sensitive (he’s first to help, and cries at the drop of a hat), but the nerveless one really is a coward.


            – Bert Lahr is darn funny as the Lion. He reminds me of the Looney Tunes in a lot of ways. Also, the Lion, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Witch are never given names. Hm… I know in the books, Baum intended them to represent different aspects of society (farmers, technology, businessmen respectively), but it doesn’t read in the film.


            – Frank Morgan not only played Professor Marvel and the Wizard, but the doorkeeper, the cabbie, and the Wizard’s chamber guard. Call me dim, but as a kid I never caught on to that.


            – I really like the “Optimistic Voices” song, sung by a disembodied chorus right after the poppies sequence.


            – Flying monkeys are awesome.


            – Bert Lahr’s “If I were King of the Forest” number has not lost any of its peculiarity over the years. By using the DVDs subtitles, I was finally able to hear all of the lyrics beyond Lahr’s strange mispronunciation and operatic bombast.


            – The lead quartet seems a little too pleased about killing off the Witch.


            – The ending, in which the Wizard distributes the gifts to our heroes, is a bit satirical. I never noticed the bite as a kid. That the Scarecrow needs no brain, just a  diploma, is a huge dig at professors everywhere.


            – The ultimate message of the film struck me as a bit harsh. Essentially “there’s no place like home.” The film seems to be encouraging us never to go anywhere, never to explore ourselves, never to learn about the outside world. This is contrary to every lesson I was taught in school. We were encouraged to go out into the world. Add to it. Learn about it. Understand it and appreciate the myriad aspects of it. I did get the Socratic addendum that we can only be wise when we realize that we are indeed not wise. But “The Wizard of Oz” seems to be telling us that all the lessons we need are right in our own backyard.


            I suppose there is some truth to that – after learning about the world, we see just how big it is and how infinite the wells of wisdom are, and come back to where we started a bit wiser, a bit changed, but essentially the same (this story arc has been observed by Joseph Campbell as the basic structure for every Hero’s Journey story. I’m not going to get into it any more here, though, as I don’t want to bore you) – but “The Wizard of Oz” seems to enforce sedentary normality.


The Studio System:


            The Studio System is a vast and grand and largely dead Hollywood institution. There was a time in Hollywood when films were made in a very structured way. Teams of the same writers would write and improve upon scripts. Directors would be selected by their connections to producers and how quickly they worked. Studios were run by charismatic entrepreneurs like Louis B. Mayer and Carl Laemmle. Certain studios produced only certain kinds of films. MGM was known for flighty musicals and spectacle, for example. Warner Bros., I have been told, was known for comedies (The Marx Bros. Termite Terrace cartoons), and Universal for darker films (Monster films, Hitchcock).


            With today’s focus on individual auteurs, and the power of the writer/director/editor/composer/star units, it’s hard to imagine that anything of worth could have come out of a filmmaking-by-committee environment like the so-named Studio System. So it’s all the more astonishing when a film like “The Wizard of Oz” can be made. Something that can not only be successful, but good. And not only good, but a vast and important influence on human society. This film technically had five directors, and reportedly nine writers. It went through unexpected cast changes, many technical problems, and was carefully calculated to be a classic. With the humility in the era of the individual artist (and its accompanying phrases like “clarity of vision” and “the power of a single imagination”), it’s difficult to grasp the conceit involved in calculating a classic and having it work so successfully. “Casablanca” is another example of how well the System worked.


            The System has since pretty much collapsed. Studios still try it all the time (heck most of the summer blockbusters you’ll see around were carefully cast, marketed, made and packaged nationally in multiplexes in a very careful manner), but it’s not as powerful or as small a force as it once was.


            I talked to a number of friends about writing this very essay, and I was surprised to learn how many of them had not seen “The Wizard of Oz” in a while. I may take for granted familiarity with certain minutiae, but we’re still influenced by this thing, like it or not.


            Go back and see it. Be a kid again. Roll around in the warm comforting feeling of something that is classic, grand, fun, campy, beautiful, familiar, and a staple of your childhood.

             If you haven’t seen it yet… why are you wasting time reading this thing?

Published in: on June 19, 2007 at 10:33 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. well its a myth but the true is that a crew member was doing a thing and fell and got tangled into a rope or cable and got around his waiste.

  2. On the contrary, Shirley Temple would have been closer to the age of Dorothy depicted in the books. Until the movie came out she was always a blonde girl of six or seven. Her age is given in one of the sequels.

  3. they like Wizard of Oz in Japan too

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