Classics reviewed: a critical look at ‘The Wizard of Oz’

Ubiquity often shields works from critical review. Since its 1939 debut, MGM’s musical classic The Wizard of Oz has been one of the most popular and most-watched films in cinema history. And it has become a tradition to watch the film on television for over 50 years, becoming a family tradition to watch The Wizard of Oz on TV during the holidays. Like Gone with the Wind, it has ceased merely being a film and has become an institution and a cultural icon.

But does all of its legendary status add to the quality of the film? Does it stand up to a deeper look?

After watching The Wizard of Oz without the innocence of my youth, I saw the movie with a critical eye. After more than 70 years since its release, the movie often stands for viewers’ childhoods – some look at the movie and think of a time as children or connecting the movie with a pleasant memory of family time. I too have fond memories of the movie, and remember the awe and wonder when I first watched it – I even remember the case my VHS copy of the film came in – it was red with a close up of Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch, and Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Lion and the Scarecrow marching through the field of poppies inside her glowing crystal ball. And somewhat predictably, I fell in love with the film’s star, Judy Garland, like many young gay viewers, who identified with the superstar-in-the-making.

The cover of the copy of the VHS I owned

Based on L. Frank Baum’s classic children’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the 1939 film was written in tandem by a trio of screenwriters – Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf – that shredded subplots and characters and whittled the story into the classic tale we’re all familiar with: Dorothy (Garland) is a young Kansas girl who is whisked away in a tornado to a magical land of Oz, where she meets a scarecrow (Ray Bolger), a tin woodsman (Jack Haley), and a cowardly lion (Bert Lahr), who join her on a journey to the Emerald City to meet the mythical wizard (Frank Morgan), who would help them. On the way they tussle with vindictive and angry Wicked Witch of the West (Hamilton), who is trying to stop them and steal Dorothy’s ruby slippers.

Directed by Victor Fleming, who also helmed Gone with the Wind, the film was a popular and critical hit that lodged itself into the collective affection of this country. With good reason – boasting an incredible score and music by Harold Arlen, the songs, performances, and the screenplay all have stood the test of time.

When I watched The Wizard of Oz as an adult, I finally appreciated the fine craftsmanship and talent involved in making the film, starting with the iconic performance of its lead, Judy Garland. Garland was a contract performer for MGM, popular enough because of her incredibly powerful and mature singing voice. Playing a kid of indeterminate age, Garland was actually a burgeoning young woman of 17. Costumers had to bind her growing curves and pigtails and a gingham dress infantilized the young performer. But there is a tension in her physical appearance – despite being a plain girl from the Midwest, when in dazzling Technicolor, she’s done up in candy-red lipstick and bruising rouge. There’s also that deep, emotionally resonant voice that sounded incongruously out-of-place coming out of the throat of a young girl.

Garland’s performance was ranked among the greatest juvenile performances – Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet, Roddy McDowell in Lassie, Natalie Wood in Miracle on 34th Street. And she’s achingly vulnerable in the film, but we don’t get a glimpse of the talented genius she’s become – for that, we’d need to watch A Star Is Born. In fact, despite some wonderful highs, there are some moments when Garland is allowed to indulge in the throbbing-voiced cries and laments that plague her at her most undisciplined. Her saucer-huge eyes seem perennially marred by years, and she’s forever reaching to her mouth with a balled up fist. It’s this Garland that starts to wear on the viewer, though.

The closest indication we get to the depth of Garland’s abilities is during her “Over the Rainbow” number, filmed in sepia, in a fake Kansas farmland. After being chastised by her Aunt Em (Clara Blandick) to go somewhere where she “wouldn’t be any trouble” Dorothy settles on a large bale of hay with her terrier, Toto, and she sings of a place that she can get away – escape from the harsh and mundane realities of the black-and-white Kansas. The song, written by Arlen and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg is deservedly hailed as one of the greatest tunes of the 20th century. It tells of a place far away, a Xanadu of sorts, where there is no stress and trouble.

It’s during the performance of the song – which would become Garland’s signature tune and theme song – that we get keyed into the feelings of restlessness and ennui that Dorothy feels in Great Depression Kansas. Fleming stages this musical number beautifully – very simply with loving and affectionate close ups of Garland (an interesting contrast to the loud and busy staging of the other scenes in the film).

But outside “Over the Rainbow,” Garland’s talent isn’t used to its potential. Her wonderful comedic timing is almost absent – in fact it’s her costars that are allowed to inject the humor into the film. The trio of vaudeville vets – Lahr, Bolger, and Haley – get lots of opportunities to be funny. Bolger, a genius at his patented rubber-limbed dancing is perfectly cast as the Scarecrow; Lahr, on the other hand, is a master clown, his malleable and expressive face managing to shine through the layers of prosthetics.

But as important as the heroes are in this tale, Hamilton’s performance also remains legendary. The Wicked Witch of the West is one of film’s most frightening villains. Hamilton not only plays the witch, but she also plays the sour-faced Miss Gulch, the mean-spirited spinster that terrorizes Dorothy back in Kansas, threatening to destroy Toto. It’s clear that Hamilton’s double duty is the script’s way to show viewers how scary, mean villains aren’t just in the fairy tales. As cruel and mean as the witch is, Miss Gulch is just as frightening (on her journey to Oz via tornado, Dorothy sees Miss Gulch riding on her bicycle, before she morphs into the cackling witch, flying on a broom). The scenes in Kansas with Hamilton aren’t only meant to show how scary adults can be to children, but we’re also meant to understand the sometimes-impotent helplessness that parents represent: when Miss Gulch orders the surrender of Toto to be destroyed, Dorothy’s Aunt Em and Uncle Henry (Charley Grapewin) can do nothing but sputter uselessly, and hand over the dog. The best of fairy tales show the limits of society as well as its pitfalls – children aren’t meant to be shielded from these frightening realities; in The Wizard of Oz, despite its candy-coated loveliness, Dorothy has to face a formidable and powerful foe.

What is interesting is that Hamilton isn’t the only actor portraying multiple characters in the film. Frank Morgan plays five roles – the shady Captain Marvel, the mysterious wizard, the doorman guarding the Emerald City, a cabbie driving the horse of many colors, and the doorman standing at the door of the wizard’s chambers; Dorothy’s pals – the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion – all appear as regular folks in the Kansas sequel as Hunk, Hickory, and Zeke, respectively. These doubling or splitting of personalities – bridge the two worlds: Kansas and Oz – two sides of a very interesting coin. Dorothy fled the stifling confines of Kansas, only to learn a valuable lesson, “if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard; because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.”

It’s a lovely-sounding line, but as an adult I find it a bit disappointing. Dorothy’s meant to learn to be happy where she is – a lesson taught to girls too much, in my humble opinion. Female ambition and the desire for more is frowned upon in the context of Middle American values, and MGM was nothing if a paragon of WASPy American values. You can practically smell the apple pie when watching The Wizard of Oz and feel the collective sigh of relief when all is well at the conclusion of the film: once Dorothy “returns” to Kansas, she vows “I’m not going to leave here ever, ever again, because I love you all! And… oh, Auntie Em, there’s no place like home!”

In my wish-fulfillment version of the end, I’d hope that Dorothy gains a new insight and maturity to how big the world is – beyond the rainbow, and that like Doctor Marvel, instead of moping about a pig farm in Kansas, she should look to the outside world. Also, her victory over the vanquished witch should also teach her that she has the wherewithal and bravery to take care of herself.

In fact, all of the characters learn that except for Dorothy. The Scarecrow feels self-conscious because he doesn’t have a brain, yet it’s often the Scarecrow that comes up with the schemes that save the gang; and Tin Man lacks a heart  because he’s a manufactured being, yet his bouts of tears and crying rivals that of Dorothy; and even the Lion learns that being afraid isn’t cowardly, but smart – and even if he is afraid, he’s willing to risk his life to save his friends. So when the group visits the wizard for their prize for killing the witch, the wizard wisely points out that they already have the qualities they feel are lacking.

But Dorothy’s single-minded quest to get home wasn’t as easily solved – except if we are to accept that her adventures in Oz were merely part of a dream brought on by hallucinations due to her head injury. When Glinda, the Good Witch of the North (an underused Billie Burke) gently admonishes Dorothy at the end of the film, she points out slyly that despite the whole convoluted journey to Oz, Dorothy could’ve gone home at any time because of the purloined ruby slippers Dorothy stole from the Wicked Witch of the East that she killed with her house when it dropped in Oz. When asked why she didn’t share this bit of helpful advice earlier (say, at the beginning of the film?) Glinda merrily points out that Dorothy needed to learn this lesson on her own. Without traveling so far away from her home, Dorothy never would’ve realized just how much Kansas means to her.

It’s these pat, easy morals that make The Wizard of Oz a bit difficult to take seriously watching it as an adult. I know it’s too much to ask for a film made in 1939 to be more subversive. As it is, the film does manage to rub up against certain standards and ideals popular and enforced in the MGM factory. It’s easy to forget because The Wizard of Oz is such a singular viewing experience, that it was one of many musicals that was churned out, assembly line style from the prodigious film studio. When remembering this fact, the film’s moments of convention stand out more – for example, the Emerald City sequence is pure MGM musical at its most standard – it almost feels like Busby Berkeley, when the cast of thousands emerge from their various hiding places to chirp merrily in perfect unison on “The Merry Old Land of Oz.” The outfits and set design of the Emerald City represent the studio’s then-fascination with art deco – gleaming, smooth columns and towers reflect the drop-cloth-like capes and high hats of the residents of the Emerald City. It’s al shiny and glossy and looks like it’s made of glass, steel, and plastic.

There are other moments that betray the film’s MGM background – the Munchkinland sequence, like the Emerald City musical passage, also recalls the other musical numbers spat out. And the casting – even though impressive – is call sheet of MGM contract players. The actors were placed into the roles already dreamt up – Garland, Haley, and Hamilton weren’t even first choice for their roles: Haley replaced future Beverly Hillbillies star Buddy Ebsen who became very ill from the silver grease paint, while Hamilton took over the witch role after original cast member Gale Sondergaard dropped the role when the witch’s character went from vampy glamorpuss to horrid hag. And Garland’s role was originally supposed to be Shirley Temple’s, except Temple’s studio refused to loan her out, and so Garland won the role. This kind of fill-in-the-blank casting means that some performers aren’t used at their best – brilliant comedienne Billie Burke has the saddest role, underwritten and razor-thin, all she does is float in and a hideously puffy pink dress, and doesn’t get to show off her daffy comedic talent.

But despite these debits, The Wizard of Oz remains a staggering work of filmmaking. The year it was released – 1939 was a banner year for film which saw the release of not only Oz and Gone with the Wind, but other classics like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Dark Victory, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Love Affair, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach, The Women, Destry Rides Again, among others. It’s it great company and required viewing for audiences. And not just because it’s an exercise in nostalgia, because Fleming and company put together a well-crafted work of art.

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