There’s no place like Oz

The Wizard of Oz is the ultimate American fairy tale. It still captivates us, 75 years later.

Silver Screen Collection / Getty

How many 75-year-old movies remain popular enough to get an expensive theatrical re-release and conversion to 3D? Only one: The Wizard of Oz, whose upcoming anniversary will be celebrated this year with a limited 3D run, followed by a five-disc Blu-ray edition (its second in the format) on Oct. 1. The 1939 musical fantasy, a loose adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s fantasy novel, was once one of many famous films from that year; in popularity, it was a distant second to Gone With the Wind, 1939’s other film from the same director, Victor Fleming. Today, The Wizard of Oz not only towers over every other film from that season, but is perhaps the only old movie that everyone is expected to know. “It’s an incredibly universal movie, and it’s been adopted by so many communities,” says Orange County Register film critic Michael Sragow, whose biography of Fleming, Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master, is about to be published in a new edition. “If you go to San Francisco, it’s virtually the motto movie of the Castro District. On army bases, it’s still one of the most requested movies to play for soldiers overseas.” Humphrey Bogart or Clark Gable or even Bugs Bunny may be just trivia answers for many people, but Judy Garland as Dorothy is still an icon—and that makes it a movie that defies the gravity of time, just like Dorothy’s house during the tornado.

The cultural currency of The Wizard of Oz is apparent not only in the re-release of the original movie, but in the constant stream of references and homages in other pop culture. Walt Disney Pictures’ biggest live-action hit last year, Oz: The Great and Powerful, was a prequel to The Wizard of Oz story, with many references to the 1939 film. One of the world’s most popular musicals, Wicked, is another prequel that relies heavily on the viewer’s familiarity with the style and tone of the film (if only to subvert it, by turning the Wicked Witch of the West into a misunderstood good girl). Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote new songs for the most recent in a long line of stage adaptations, whose first Canadian production cast its Dorothy via a CBC reality show. And CBS recently announced plans to produce a drama pilot that will transplant the characters from the film to a modern-day hospital, with people who, literally, need brains and hearts.

Many filmmakers have incorporated Oz references into their work, starting with the classic British director Michael Powell, who Sragow says “does the same black-and-white-to-colour tricks in one of his best-loved movies, A Matter of Life and Death.” The creators of Lost sprinkled their show with shout-outs, calling one episode “The Man Behind the Curtain,” based on the Wizard’s line after being exposed as a fraud. Director Jon Favreau told the Los Angeles Times that his film Swingers took inspiration from Oz because both were “about this outsider’s journey into this strange place, the Hollywood nightlife instead of Oz.” A Gone With the Wind reference might make people scratch their heads unless they’re regular viewers of Turner Classic Movies; when Jay Leno opened his return to The Tonight Show with a parody of Wizard’s ending scene, the writers knew the audience would get the reference.

All of this would have come as a surprise to the makers of the film. Though it was a prestige effort in its time, it was a famously troubled one: “Two major roles were replaced, preliminary footage was deemed unsuitable, directors were dismissed and production was shut down,” says William Stillman, co-author (with Jay Scarfone) of The Wizard of Oz: The Official 75th Anniversary Companion. And though it made a star of Garland, it wasn’t a big hit at the time: “It lost money initially,” says Scott Eyman, film critic for the Palm Beach Post, “not because nobody went, but because it was so damn expensive.”

What turned its fortunes around was the medium of television and its once-insatiable desire for movies to broadcast for family audiences. “The Wizard of Oz was broadcast every year, beginning in the late 1950s, and continuing until Ted Turner bought the MGM library somewhere around 1980,” Eyman explains. “That amounts to two generations being inculcated with the film. Those two generations are now parents and grandparents, and have an understandable eagerness to relive their youthful infatuation and share it with their own children and grandchildren.” It was also helped by its music: The uncredited associate producer, Arthur Freed (later to become a top musical producer with films such as Singin’ in the Rain) chose two young songwriters from Broadway, Harold Arlen and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg. Their songs—such as Over the Rainbow and Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead— became iconic, and gave the film a sophistication that many family films were thought to lack.

But there are other movies with well-loved songs or annual holiday showings, and they’re not popular enough to rate a new theatre release in IMAX and 3D. The Wizard of Oz still occupies a unique niche when it comes to family movies. Most fairy-tale films, such as the Disney movies or Pixar’s Brave, are based on European or other sources, and feature a lot of royal families and other Old World concepts, such as the distinction between aristocrats and peasants. Sragow notes that Baum tried to revolt against this type of story by creating “a new kind of fairy tale that wasn’t all European castles and princesses and things.” The film went one step further by making Oz a dream version of the Kansas town where Garland’s Dorothy lives— all the characters are what Eyman calls “American archetypes,” such as Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion, whose routines are carried over from the comedy traditions developed in vaudeville. What Eyman refers to as these elements of “Broadway showbiz and American fantasy” may help The Wizard of Oz stand out even after 75 years; most fairy-tale movies could take place anywhere in the world, but the story of a plucky Kansas girl has a special North American flavour.

Sragow says this flavour is due in part to Fleming, an expert craftsman who took over Wizard after its original director was fired, and who revised the look of the Kansas scenes to be more authentic to the small-town American experience: “He came from a hardscrabble rural background,” Sragow explains, “and he took one look at how they’d dressed Auntie Em”—she was in an inappropriately glamorous costume—“and said, ‘This is ridiculous. Go to a Woolworth’s and get the cheapest gingham dress you can find.’ ” And the message of the movie, particularly the ending, is to celebrate small-town Americana as the perfect life, one that is just as exciting and fulfilling as a magical fantasy land. “If we put the movie in context,” Eyman says, “1939 was a dangerous year—Europe was blowing up. The message of the movie was, and is, attractive on an insular, emotional basis: ‘Let the world go by, I’m hunkering down right here at home.’ ” Other old movies fall out of fashion because their messages are no longer fashionable; the message of The Wizard of Oz—what Sragow calls “a wonderful expression of that idea of American self-creation”—always works.

Still, there are questions about whether even The Wizard of Oz can avoid the increasing irrelevance of old movies in modern culture. The re-release isn’t going to as many theatres as previous reissues, when more theatres were willing to book classic movies. Network TV broadcasts have mostly been replaced by showings on niche cable channels such as Turner Classic Movies. And Sragow has found that the deliberate artifice of the film—the stylized fakeness of the sets and special effects—may be a turn-off to a generation of film viewers raised on modern computer graphics. “I find now, when I show the film to younger audiences who may not have seen it with their families, they’re so used to the seamless digital world of CGI that they can’t have the suspension of disbelief you need for fantasy movies,” he says. “I think that’s something that may be perilous for The Wizard of Oz in the future.”

But Stillman points out that the movie’s popularity has had a habit of defying trends. In the 1960s, when “the films of yesteryear became ready fodder for parody and ridicule as hokey, out-of-fashion and old hat,” The Wizard of Oz somehow “thrived as it was discovered by a new generation.” It could be that, through changes in taste and the aging of special effects, there’s something about this film’s combination of family fun and Americana that will never let it go out of style. Or maybe people just like finding out if Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon really does sync up with it.

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