I caught a screening of the 1939 masterpiece The Wizard of Oz. The Wizard of Oz is one of my favorite films. It is a film so wonderfully scripted, so beautifully performed, and so utterly charming that it has not only achieved classic status, it defies objective criticism of its technical defects.
Filming The Wizard of Oz must have been a terrible experience. The film began under the direction of Norman Taurog (the youngest director to ever win an Academy Award for 1931’s Skippy), before being replaced by Richard Thorpe. Thorpe shot for only two weeks before Buddy Ebsen’s reaction to the makeup for his role as the Tin Man shut down production. When production resumed, George Cukor (director of The Philadelphia Story, Adam’s Rib, and My Fair Lady) was tapped to succeed him. Cukor left the production without actually producing any usable footage in order to direct Gone with the Wind, and Victor Fleming came on to put The Wizard of Oz together. (Victor Fleming would later replace Cukor on Gone with the Wind as well).
The revolving cast of directors is apparent to a careful observer of the film. Camera angles swing wildly. The film is edited sloppily with actors in radically different body positions between takes. At one point, the characters of Scarecrow, Dorothy, and Tin Man are arranged from left to right in that order. Reshoots were done with the characters arranged Tin Man, Dorothy, Scarecrow in that order from left to right. Fleming and his editors simply turned the film over. The characters were in the correct order, but appear as startling mirror images of themselves from the previous take. The Tin Man’s hat points in the wrong direction. The buttons on everyone’s clothes have migrated to the other side of their bodies. It’s the type of sloppiness that would produce withering critique from critics and cinema lovers in any other context, but The Wizard of Oz endures.
The Wizard of Oz endures because it is so good in all the artistic categories that its technical failures are meaningless. Like Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz has flavored our language, giving us phrases like “Follow the Yellow Brick Road, There’s No Place Like Home, Pay No Attention to that Man Behind the Curtain, and of course, I Don’t Think We’re in Kansas Anymore.” Even minor parts of The Wizard of Oz, like the Flying Monkeys, are so iconic that they get name checked more than 70 years later in The Avengers. It’s got staying power. The music is just as effective. You would be hard pressed to go anywhere in the English speaking world and find people unfamiliar with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead,” or “If I Only had a Brain.”
The Wizard of Oz is also a testament to gathering the right cast. It features one of the greatest film casts ever assembled. Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Burt Lahr, and Margaret Hamilton bring Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Wicked Witch of the West to life. Hamilton, in fact, plays the most awesome and frightening witch yet committed to screen.
But, the true staying power of The Wizard of Oz is that it tells a timeless tale of growing up, and finding the hidden powers within yourself that you might not be sure you possess. The Wizard of Oz knows that this process of self-discovery is not simple. It’s a sometimes terrifying, arduous, circuitous, and occasionally dangerous. In other words, unlike many children’s movies released since 1939, it has stakes.