by Pierre de Plume
The first time a movie made me cry was in 1957 when I was 6 years old. I remember like yesterday sitting in the kid-sized rocking chair that my dad, whose hobby was carpentry, had built of oak for our Midwestern home. Because my first emotional reactions to the film remain vivid in my memory, I decided recently to take advantage of a rare 35mm Technicolor screening of “The Wizard of Oz” at a lovingly restored movie venue, the Heights Theater near Minneapolis. There, I thought, I might revisit the experience of seeing Oz as a child and report back to readers at Wonders in the Dark about why this Depression-era musical fantasy has continued to capture the hearts of so many children — young and old alike.
What I encountered on the night of the screening was a sold-out crowd of diverse ages, from parents with eager children to gray-haired elders. A patron sitting next to us in the 400-seat Beaux Arts–style theater, a thirtysomething woman waiting for her special date, soon was joined by her salt-and-pepper-haired dad. Under the glow of the grand chandeliers, we waited as the Wurlitzer pipe organist played songs from the movie we soon would relive.
My experience of seeing Oz on the big screen — in 35mm Technicolor for the first time — left me not just in tears (again) but also wishing to know more about the literary origins of Dorothy Gale’s fantastic odyssey.
The “First American Fairy Tale.” L. Frank Baum, previously a writer of children’s verse (e.g., Father Goose: The Book), wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,< his first attempt at prose. Published in 1900, Baum’s novel featured numerous color plates of illustrations by Baum’s collaborator, W. W. Denslow. The tale of Dorothy, a Kansas farm girl swept up by a cyclone to a magical, distant world, was the first to abandon the existing tradition of European fairy tales that featured princes, princesses, medieval morality and children being eaten. The book quickly became hugely successful and ignited demand for what became 13 sequels. Their popularity became more modest but publication continued until 1919, the year of Baum’s death.
The first full-length film adaptation of Oz occurred in 1910 and was based on the popular 1902 musical stage production. In 1925, a nonmusical film version was produced featuring silent film comedian Oliver Hardy as the Tin Man. After the success in 1937 of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, executives at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer reportedly recognized potential in fantasy films for children. MGM quickly launched plans for a lavish musical even before sale of the property, originally considered as a vehicle for singer Eddie Cantor as the Scarecrow, became final.
Comparison of themes from page to screen. The film’s central message remains faithful to its source. For example, Dorothy’s line, “There’s no place like home,” was lifted straight from Baum’s book. In his afterword to the 100th anniversary edition, Peter Glassman writes, “People seem to have a need to belong somewhere, to have someplace to call home. And, inevitably, when taken from that home, they find no matter how wonderful or fantastic their surroundings, they miss their home.” This theme also is consistent with the wishes and dreams of the three secondary protagonists, the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, each of whom yearns for the quantity he believes is lacking: brains, a heart and courage, respectively.
Evolution of the 1939 screenplay: Two individuals at MGM, Arthur Freed and Roger Edens, are commonly identified as the guiding creative force behind Oz although neither received onscreen credit. Freed, who headed a musical production unit at MGM, hired composer/arranger Edens from the Broadway stage and together they collaborated on all phases of the project.
The screenplay underwent numerous incarnations by at least a dozen writers, including Ogden Nash, whose 4-page treatment was shelved. Noel Langley wrote a version considered to be the basis of the shooting script. Langley also is credited for the idea of transforming all Oz sequences, which in the book were depicted as reality, into an extended dream sequence while Dorothy lies in bed unconscious. Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf revised Langley’s version, adding the character of Professor Marvel. After filming began, the script received further revision by director Fleming, with actors Jack Haley and Bert Lahr writing some of their dialogue for the Kansas sequences. The film’s lyricist, Yip Harburg, also wrote lead-in dialogue to the songs.
Thematic differences between the film and book: Although the screenwriters made several alterations to Baum’s story, the resulting film is considered to be faithful to its source. Aside from the story’s adaptation as a musical, the most significant change involves tone. The book is a lighter, more fanciful tale in which a sweet 6-year-old orphan on a drab Midwestern plain is suddenly swept by a cyclone to a magical land of adventure and peril. Baum’s Dorothy doesn’t pine for a distant dreamland nor does Toto get apprehended for euthanization. In fact, wealthy landowner Almira Gulch, Professor Marvel and the 3 farmhands simply don’t exist in Baum’s tale.
Indeed, Baum’s Scarecrow, Tin Woodman and Cowardly Lion want their brains, heart and courage. In the film, however, the nature of these qualities is more simply and exaggeratedly expressed, resulting in characters of lesser dimension and complexity. Baum’s Scarecrow, for example, may not have brains but he can still think in some ways. Similarly, the Tin Woodman, who once had a heart but lost it in a tragic accident, takes special care toward others so as not to hurt them. And the Cowardly Lion knows he scares most everyone — it’s just that he doesn’t want to kill them.
In contrast to Baum’s world of turn-of-the-century optimism, confidence and expansionist notions of invincibility, the Kansas familiar to Depression-era audiences is one of drought, poverty and apprehension over Nazism and impending war. The Dorothy of Oz is more mature, feels neglected and alienated, and longs for a world that is more comforting and fair. Unfortunately, the land she discovers “over the rainbow” turns out to be not only toxic, but downright scary and potentially lethal.
The Cultural Significance of Oz. The Wizard of Oz has achieved the status of quite possibly the most popular film of all time. A recent study at Illinois Northwestern University concluded the film to be the most influential and culturally significant film ever made. The National Film Registry in its inaugural year cited the film as “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant.” According to the Library of Congress, The Wizard of Oz is the most-viewed movie on television. The film’s Oscar-winning ballad, “Over the Rainbow,” occupies 1st place in the American Film Institute’s list of “100 Years . . . 100 Songs.”
After more than 75 years, The Wizard of Oz — as well as the lore emanating from it — has become so omnipresent in the English-speaking consciousness that the film’s images, lines of dialogue, and character names have become metaphors that communicate in immediately recognizable cultural shorthand. Writer Salman Rushdie has suggested that the film remains successful because it embodies some of our most enduring values. Writer Ilan Shrira in “Psychology Today” suggests the film’s themes and ideas involve power, powerlessness, the inadequacy of adults, and the relationship between power and gender. He goes on to suggest that the message from Glinda, the Good Witch, represents an individualistic or existential view when she tells Dorothy that she’s had the power to return home all along, she just didn’t know it. “The film is affirming that you have the ability to get what you want and that this power comes from within. We never get tired of hearing that we control our own outcomes — it empowers us and instills us with hope.”
Whatever the analysis, the film’s everlasting iconography ultimately relies on the emotional connection it triggers within ourselves. Taken as a whole, The Wizard of Oz channels an optimism. When we find that this optimism gets shaken, seeing the film again will help restore it.
TIME magazine 5-part series marking 75th anniversary:
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The Heights Theater: