by Sam Juliano
It is arguably the most beloved film ever made in this country. It was based on one of the most venerated children’s stories ever written. It launched the career of the greatest female thespian to ever appear in a musical film, and it remains the one film she is most reverentially identified with. The movie’s celebrated score is woven into our popular culture, and it’s unforgettable screenplay has produced lines of dialogue that are ingrained into the consciousness of anyone and everyone who has watched the film countless times, and have come to value it’s themes of home, family and friendship as cinematically conclusive. The film’s most coveted song is probably the most popular number ever written during the twentieth century, and has been covered time and again by renowned artists. The story of it’s changing directors and cast auditions remain as fascinating to movie lovers as anything else about the film, and more has been written on the making of the picture than any other in history. The story of the little people who appear early in the film in one of it’s most celebrated sequences, remains a stand alone curiosity for many to this very day, with the old age passings of this unique fraternity a major news item. Every supporting member of the film’s distinguished cast will eternally be remembered firstly for the role they played in this film, even with exceptional careers to their credit. No film has been more referenced in other movies, and the final black-and-white sequence set in the bedroom of a Kansas farmhouse may well be the most emotionally moving scene in the history of American cinema. With the advent of home video in the late 70’s the film became an incomparable favorite, and to this day has been released more often on the many video formats up to a recently-released blu-ray box set. The smash Broadway hit Wicked is hugely indepted to the 1939 film. While it has come to represent homespun family values and the most vivid realization of one’s dreams, The Wizard of Oz is imbued with humor and humanity, two qualities that more than any other have contributed to it’s enduring, even spectacular appeal over decades all around the world. Much like the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the day astronauts first stepped foot on the moon, many Americans will never forget the day, the month and the year they first remembered watching the film, and in whose company they were with. Just two years ago, the seventieth anniversary of the film’s opening was celebrated to national fan-fare, with the original city of it’s first appearance being honored – Oconomwoc, Wisconsin.
For baby-boomers like myself The Wizard of Oz first took hold during the famous run of CBS holiday showings, which initially were offered around Easter time in the 60’s and early 70’s. In those exceedingly impressionable days watching The Wizard of Oz was the highlight of my week, month and year. It was a time when I was frightened by the wicked witch, the haunted castle and the winged monkeys, was reassured by the dismissals of the good witch Glinda, and was intrigued by the bizarre appearance of the Munchkins, whom had me asking question after question about. When Toto escaped over the draw bridge, when Glinda provided a snow panacea for the poppies that felled our beloved brood, when the tin man used his axe to help free Dorothy from her prison and drop a chandelier on her persuers, when the witch -made of sugar- is destroyed by a bucket of water, and when Toto unmasks the well intentioned but weak-willed charletan, by pulling open a curtain, I was exhilarated and relieved, even though I knew what would happen. Like so many other kids I took an immediate liking to the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion, all who added to the security of our young heroin, who was in this seemingly unsolvable dilemma from the beginning. I always shed tears -even to this very day in fact- when the Cowardly Lion wrenchingly tells Dorothy that although she is stranded on Oz, he and the others didn’t want her to go anyway. And the final scene is a sure-firer tear-jerker, broaching the concepts of home, love of family and the idea that happiness can be realized within your own borders.
The Wizard of Oz represented for many the technological advancement that brought color into many homes at a time when black and white televisions were the only real option for working class families. Discussion in grammar school playgrounds invariably reached the point where some kids bragged to others that they saw most of the film in color, with of course only the sepia-toned bookends standing apart for obvious intrinsic reasons connected to the storytelling. My wife Lucille recalls a close friend excitedly relating to her that “the witch was green!” and that “Munchkinland was as beautiful a place as anywhere she had ever seen.” More than any other single reason The Wizard of Oz can be credited with causing many to take the plunge and bring the wonderful world of Zenith and Magnavox into their living rooms. After-viewing quizzes though often brought conflicting reports of the colors of certain objects and clothes items, due to the non-conformity of different color tubes at a time when the changeover was in it’s earliest stages. The biggest compliment and validation of The Wizard of Oz’s hold on film (and television) watchers was that it was the main barometer of color control, and the example to be used against all others.
There has been so many documentaries, and volumes written on the film, that anyone taking up a new discussion will be fearful of repetition. Suffice to say that The Wizard of Oz was a huge hit from the very beginning. Reviews were almost unanimous in their praise of the film and all its components, and it was one of the top-grossing films of that golden year of movies, 1939, though surprisingly, it didn’t initially make a profit–mainly because the majority of tickets sold were children’s admissions that asked for only a nickel or a dime. In addition, the usually lucrative foreign market was undermined when war broke out in Europe. Of course subsequent releases and television sales earned MGM a tidy sum, and as broached earlier the videotape, laserdisc and DVD sales have generated one of the most profitable returns ever in that department.
Any attempt to frame The Wizard of Oz in any capacity, artistic or otherwise, must surely include at least an outline of it’s famed production. This was a true product of the studio system (in this instance MGM at the peak of its influence and powers) and a melting pot of creative ingedients. We all know from ample accounts about “Over the Rainbow” being cut three times during advance screenings and how Arthur Freed fought tenaciously to have it restored. We’ve read that Buddy Ebsen’s poisoning from the Tin Woodsman’s makeup forced him to drop out of the film. We are well aware of the revolving door of directors that included Victor Fleming, Richard Thorpe, George Cukor and King Vidor. Well documented too, are the seemingly endless teams of screenwriters who took their turns at the script. And few aren’t aware that Shirley Temple and Deanna Durbin were considered for the role of Dorothy, W.C. Fields and Ed Wynn for the Wizard, and Gale Sondergaard for the Wicked Witch. Arthur Freed, who was depending on the film to help him land a full-time producing role at MGM was looking for the ideal, even perfect cast and creative team to make The Wizard of Oz an instant screen classic. Stories relate that in 1937, while he was checking out the latest new releases on Broadway, Freed attended a musical called Hooray for What! starring Ed Wynn. When he heard the song “In the Shade of the New Apple Tree” by Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg, he sensed he had found the perfect songwriting team. He really wanted Ed Wynn to play the title role, but the star demanded too much money. Freed continued his full-court press with Louis B. Mayer to be given the green light to make the movie, but initially the studio head and other top brass couldn’t envision a fantasy film making money. Purportedly what finally gave Freed clearance was the huge success of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1938. That film convinced the bigwigs that fantasy could indeed make money, and could attract an audience of adults as well as children.
Further complications set in. Samuel Goldwyn owned the rights to the Oz stories, which he thought might make a good vehicle for Eddie Cantor (as the Tin Man). Twentieth-Century-Fox, also noting the success of Snow White, joined the hunt, envisioning the property as a perfect opportunity for Shirley Temple. MGM, however,unsurprisingly won the bidding war, paying Goldwyn $75,000 for the rights. Mayer then showed cold feet with Freed, who he felt was untested to produce Oz, and instead inked Mervyn LeRoy, who boasted many directorial credits, but few as producer. Freed was still signed on in a vital role as LeRoy’s associate. Although the picture had been Freed’s idea in the first place and he oversaw the casting and the musical aspects of the film, LeRoy took complete credit, especially after the film was a critical success. For the role of Dorothy, Freed had Judy Garland in mind from the very start. Metro had signed the youngster but didn’t know exactly what to do with her. She had connected with audiences when she sang “Dear Mr. Gable,” Roger Edens’s introduction to “You Made Me Love You” in Broadway Melody of 1938, so Freed had been assigned to find Garland’s next property and make her a star. He immediately thought of The Wizard of Oz. With a score, cast, and script in place, the grueling but professional work followed. MGM had to create new forms of makeup for the Cowardly Lion, Flying Monkeys, Tin Man, Scarecrow, and assorted witches and Munchkins. As one would expect at this early time in the use of color, endless Technicolor tests had to be performed. The performers, burdened by their heavy costumes and makeup, were purportedly wilting under the extraordinarily hot lights. For a film with so many chefs making the soup, it’s remarkable how everything melded together artistically with hardly a mistep. It could be argued that the witch’s flying monkeys were too sinister and grotesque for this film, but even that judgement is borderline.
The Oz phenomenon began at the turn of the century when Lyman (L.) Frank Baum was busy entertaining children at his Chicago home with stories he had written. According to family legend, one young girl asked the writer where the characters might have lived, and Baum glanced around the room and saw filing cabinets with the letters “A-N” and “O-Z.” And so the fantastical home of Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion was born. Eventually the success of the story convinced Baum to transfer it to the musical stage. It morphed into a comic opera and a vaudeville work, and finally wound up on Broadway. After Baum passed on in 1919, a young female writer was assigned to continue writing follow-up adventures of the same characters and settings. Oz was poised to be picked up by film producers, and Freed was the first to express serious interest.
Among Freed’s first choice to compose the music for Oz was Jerome Kern, possibly in partnership with lyricist Dorothy Fields or Ira Gershwin. Freed reportedly idolized Kern, whose 1927 Show Boat (written with Oscar Hammerstein II) was regarded as the first major musical where the songs were integrated into the story. This was precisely what Freed was after for his new film. But Kern was recovering from a heart attack and mild stroke in early 1938, and though working again, he didn’t feel strong enough to consider an assignment as complex as Oz. After some false reports that included Mack Gordon and Harry Revel (who had completed some scores for Shirley Temple pictures) it was announced that Harold Arlen and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg would compose the score, largely as a result of Freed’s being impressed with their whimsical and sprightly Broadway songs from several preceding seasons. The composers’ first number was “The Jitterbug” the most famous song not to make the final cut of the film. Entire essays and treatments have covered this song and it’s failute to end up in The Wizard of Oz. The Arlen/Harburg “Jitterbug” was a unique, pink-and-blue, mosquito-like insect whose bite gave one the “jitters” and, as such, caused a wild dance. The idea is thought to have derived from the swarm of bees sent by the Wicked Witch to attack Dorothy and her friends during their trip through the Winkie Country in the Oz book. The finished song was accompanied by a persistent mosquito-like whine. Despite vehement protests by Harburg, the song became a cutting-floor casuality in the end, and was thought to be the least important Arlen/Harburg number in adavancing the plot. By that point the film was considered to be too long. The lyrics to this cut song are as follows:
DOROTHY: Did you just hear what I just heard?
SCARECROW: That noise didn’t come from an ordinary bird
DOROTHY: It may be just a cricket or a critter in the trees
TINMAN: It’s giving me the jitters in the joints around my knees
LION: I think I see a shadow and it’s fuzzy and it’s furry
SCARECROW: I havn’t got a brain but I think I ought to worry
TIMAN: I havn’t got a heart but I feel a palpatation
Lion: As monarch of the forest I don’t like the situation
DOROTHY: Are you gonna stand around and let them fill us full of horror? (to lion)
Lion: I’d like to roar them down… But I think I lost my roarer
SCARECROW: It’s a whosis!
LION: It’s a whosis?
TINMAN: It’s a whatsits!
LION: It’s a whatsits?
SCARECROW: Who’s that?
TINMAN: Who’s there?
LION: Who’s where?
DOROTHY: Who’s that hiding in the tree tops?
It’s that rascal
Should you catch him
buzzing ’round you?
Keep away from
Oh the bees in the breeze and the bats in the trees
Have a terrible, horrible buzz
But the bees in the breeze and the bats in the trees
Couldn’t do what the jitter bug does.
So just be careful of that rascal
keep away from
The triumverate theme “If I Only Had a Brain/a Heart/the Nerve,” for which Harburg simply wrote new lyrics to one of their old songs, was dropped from Hooray for What! released the year before. These songs in tandem represent the Arlen/Harburg musical style, which uses a bouncy, infectious main stanza that allows (in the film) for some dancing and some irresitible effects like the Tin Man tooting his top. It only takes the refrain from the Scarecrow’s segment to ensure immersion with the other characters in the encores. The combination of wry humor and a deep sense of humanity propel each character segue. The most lyrically complex structure in the score is undoutably the multi-section Munchkionland sequence, which is six minutes of song, dance and rhymed dialogue. It could well be divided into eight sections:
1) Come Out, Come Out Wherever You Are – Glinda and the Muchkins
2) It Really Was No Miracle – Dorothy and the Munchkins
3) patter/general greeting and tribute – Munchkins and Glinda
4) Reprise: Ding! Dong! The Witch is Dead – The Munchkins
5) patter/Munchkin Mayor, City Fathers, and Coroner
6) Reprise: Ding! Dong! The Witch is Dead – Munchkins
7) The Lullaby League/The Lollipop Guild/The Mother Goose Club – Munchkins
8) We Welcome You to Munchkinland – Munchkins
Harburg’s lyrics for this confection are marvelous, especially the report of the witch’s death by the coroner, the dances by the ballet-like Lullaby League girls and the Cagneyish Lollipop Guild members, or the welcome to Munchinland coda, where the little people tell Dorothy: “You”ll be hist, you’ll be hist, you’ll be HISTORY,” or “You’ll be a bust -be a bust -be a bust in the Hall of Fame!” Again it’s the humanity that is woven into these strange people, and the human qualities and aspects that define their own existence in this faraway place that validates it to a dreaming teenager looking for a kind of elusive happiness. The humor mainly derives from the undersized people speaking in deep voiced rhyming couplets, with seriousness that borders on parody, but it’s Harburg’s witticisms that ring most compellingly.
It is said that finding a ballad melody for “Over the Rainbow” gave Arlen more trouble than anything else in the score, and all things considered it’s no wonder. He needed a song that could bridge the transition between Kansas and Oz. The inspiration came suddenly as he was riding in a car with his wife, and he quickly pulled over and jotted down the phrases. The song wasn’t entirely accepted by the composers until it won extreme praise from Ira Gershwin. The story of it’s near elimination from the score has always astounded critics and audiences, insomuch as it is always identified as one of the film’s most beautiful and thematically relevent sequences. Garland’s name will eternally be attached to the song, no matter how many times it is covered, and her singing of it is a vocal landmark.
Four other songs, “We’re Off to See the Wizard,” “If I Were King of the Forest,” “The Merry Old Land of Oz,” and “Optimistic Voices” (the latter’s lyrics include ‘you’re out of the woods, you’re out of the dark, you’re out of the night…’) are spirited, cleverly-written and suffused with Arlen’s gift for melody. The first is a kind of anthem for this fantasy picture after “Over the Rainbow.”
Frank Morgan’s casting as the Wizard yielded a bumbling con man who as most people would expect is making a dire statement on the insincerity of such charletans. But the charactor’s humanity was evident throughout, in addition to the Professor Marvel bookends, where the character’s concern was evident in his being agreeable when Toto ate the hot dog, and in checking by the farm after the tornado. Morgan was also a hoot in his multiple roles that include a turn as Emerald City’s horse driver and an attendant at the entrance door to the Wizard’s grandiose meeting hall. Margaret Hamilton, admitting at a young age that she would never have good looks, effectively negotiated one of the greatest of screen villains (her Miss Gulch was no less menacing) with a splendid high-pitched voice and the proper facial features. She is most frightening in the last scenes at the castle, when she decides to do away with Dorothy and her friends one by one. Ray Bolger, who won the role after remarkable resilience, is a bundle of joy in every sense; Jack Haley as the Tin Man is the quintessential sweetheart, and Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion is a charismatic personality that brings a gruffy vaudeville shtick to his delightful lines. His one solo, the aforementioned “If I Were King of the Forest” is enthralling and a complete delight. In smaller roles, Clara Blandick as Auntie Em, and Charley Grapewin as Uncle Henry are typical but deeply loving small town farmers who desire the uncomplicated life. As the good witch Glinda, Billie Burke is gleefully disarming in her unfazed dismissals of the wicked witch of the west with her confident declarations that her adversary is powerless.
As far as Judy Garland’s performance, it is of course the stuff that legends are built on. She received a special Oscar, but she deserved at least a nomination for the real thing in a year where Vivien Leigh triumphed for one of the greatest of all performances. She possesses the naivite, vulnerability and firmness of purpose. She breaks your heart in the film’s famous conclusion when she promises to look for love and happiness no further than her own back yard. Garland’s wide-eyed frantic delivery would break the most callous of hearts, yet it’s message speaks to the universal reckoning of home and the realization that love is within the person and can never be attained by misguided feelings or yearnings. The Wizard of Oz will speak to people for the entire run of mankind, and it’s message is attainable in any culture, at any time, in any place where the family dynamic is revered.
How The Wizard of Oz made the ‘Elite 70’:
Sam Juliano’s No. 2 choice
Pat Perry’s No. 4 choice
Marilyn Ferdinand’s No. 4 choice
Dennis Polifroni’s No. 6 choice
Judy Geater’s No. 7 choice
Greg Ferrara’s No. 11 choice
Allan Fish’s No. 16 choice