Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 34: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where The Wizard of Oz (1939) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 158 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “Of the other movies I love, some are simply about the joy of physical movement.”  One of his examples includes “when Judy Garland follows the yellow brick road.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “The elements in The Wizard of Oz powerfully fill a void that exists inside many children. For kids of a certain age, home is everything, the center of the world. But over the rainbow, dimly guessed at, is the wide earth, fascinating and terrifying. There is a deep fundamental fear that events might conspire to transport the child from the safety of home and strand him far away in a strange land. And what would he hope to find there? Why, new friends, to advise and protect him. And Toto, of course, because children have such a strong symbiotic relationship with their pets that they assume they would get lost together.” – from his 1996 review for his Great Movies series

As I spent my high school and college years mostly tracking down transgressive films from the 70s, 80s, and beyond that broke away from the Old Hollywood studio system tradition, I lost touch with the merits of what that mammoth system could produce. My entry back into the strange (and often problematic) majesty of Old Hollywood triumphs has been the miracle of Technicolor, a discontinued color film treatment that produced the most intense, intoxicating hues to ever touch celluloid. My interest in Technicolor was initially piqued by giallo pictures like Suspiria and Blood & Black Lace, but as I’ve gotten further down the rabbit hole more mainstream titles like The Red Shoes & To Catch a Thief have been even more rewarding in their use of the medium. It was wonderful, then, to return to the Technicolor mecca of The Wizard of Oz by watching it on the big screen at the storied Prytania Theatre at this point in my life. Narratively, I know every beat in the Hollywood Classic by heart thanks to its omnipresence on television in my youth, but returning to its Technicolor delights after this decades-long break was a downright magical experience for me, one of my all-time most affecting trips to the cinema.

Although there are plenty of behind the scenes stories about the technical feats & real world evils that had to be pulled off to make The Wizard of Oz possible, the film still feels like a magical object that was conjured into the world instead of being made by human hands. 80s years have passed since its initial release, but the film’s bizarre energy & Technicolor beauty feel just as potent as ever, as if they were broadcast directly from a teen girl’s dream instead of being staged by a crew of hundreds on a movie studio sound stage. A production design triumph & featuring lavish costumes by Adrian (who also designed the fashion for fellow 1939 Technicolor wonder The Women), The Wizard of Oz is blatant in its artificiality at every turn, yet through some kind of dark movie magic fools you into seeing beyond its closed sets into an endless, beautifully hellish realm. I’m sure there were plenty musicals released in 1939 that have been forgotten by time, but it’s no mystery why this is the one that has endured as an esteemed classic. Even when staring directly at the seams where the 3D set design meets the painted backdrop of an endless landscape, I see another world, not a mural on the wall. It’s the closest thing I can recall to lucid dreaming, an experience that can be accessed by the push of the play button.

When recalling the visual delights of its Technicolor fantasy, it’s easy to forget that the reverie depicted in The Wizard of Oz is a stress dream, essentially a nightmare. Young Kansan teen Dorothy Gale has an especially awful day on the hell hole farm where she lives with her aunt & uncle, thanks to an evil neighbor who vows to have her dog Toto “destroyed,” as well as a tornado that threatens her home & knocks her unconscious. This early sequence is shot in the grim sepiatone of a German Expressionist film, which harshly contrasts with the intense Technicolor submersion of the dreamworld the tornado transports her to, Oz. Dorothy’s subconscious processes the terror of her day through a dream quest that reinterprets the  people in her life, good & bad, as fantasy characters: talking lions, animated scarecrows, wizards, witches, etc. Along with her newfound fantasy friends, Dorothy journeys to find qualities within herself she didn’t know she was missing: wisdom, compassion, bravery. As with other films I watched on loop as a child (especially Burton titles like Beetlejuice & Pee-wee’s Big Adventure), her journey feels much longer & more enduring in memory. Returning to it as an adult, the whole ordeal flies by and Dorothy is clicking her ruby slippers home in no time. There’s an intense energy to The Wizard of Oz that adapts the L. Frank Baum books of its 1900s source material into a kind of narrative whirlwind that tears across the screen like Kansas flatland.

The Wizard of Oz is just as terrifying as it is gorgeous. The special effects of its opening, reality-distorting twister still feels like a technical marvel, much more tactile in its impact than any modern CG disaster film. The indoor, hand-constructed sets of Oz feel like a kind of amusement park (and Oz was, indeed, made into a North Carolina amusement park that has since mostly been abandoned), but the sweeping camera movements & impossibly rich color suggest a majesty far beyond any knowable reality. The army of flying monkeys & bright red hellfire commanded by the main villain, the Wicked Witch of the West, are appropriately nightmarish, but also impressive in their construction. The massive cast of little people who populate the film’s Munchkinland sequence bear a real world horror in the actors’ mistreatment & exploitation, but the visual effect they amount to as they swarm across the screen is undeniably impressive. Even the film’s songs, which could afford to be shoddy given the visual majesty that surrounds them, are beautiful in their emotional tragedy. It’s difficult to imagine a world without Judy Garland singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as Dorothy, but the ubiquitousness of that performance’s cultural footprint has done little to undercut its emotional gutpunch or its gorgeous tones. There’s an amoral evil lurking behind The Wizard of Oz‘s ancient production history that makes both the terror & the majesty of its Technicolor allure feel eternally relevant & almost crippling.

I’d have to write an entire book (and I doubt I’d be the first) to cover the entirety of The Wizard of Oz’s merits & impact, from cultural echoes like Wicked to queer adoption of Dorothy’s travel companions to the sordid backstage rumors that taint its onscreen magic with an undercurrent of real world terror. As many people already see the film annually thanks to television broadcast cycles, I can’t even do much in the way of recommending the world give it another look. It’s always getting another look. All I can really report for now is that in terms of constructing a Technicolor dreamscape, there’s still nothing quite like it. It was one of the first and it’s still one of the best, a legacy I understand even more clearly now that I better grasp the merits of Hollywood’s studio system past and have had the chance to see it projected it big & loud with an appreciative crowd.

Roger’s Rating (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (5/5, 100%)

Next Lesson: Royal Wedding (1951)

-Brandon Ledet

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5 thoughts on “Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 34: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

  1. Pingback: The Pirate (1948) | Swampflix

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  3. Pingback: Rene Brunet Jr., Hitchcock, and the Prytania’s Classic Movies Series | Swampflix

  4. Pingback: She’s Gotta Have It (1986) | Swampflix

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