Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Great Movies: "The Wizard of Oz"

The Wizard of Oz
Victor Fleming, 1939

Previous Contact: I have never seen the Wizard of Oz before. No, really. I’ve never been around TVs very much, and although I’ve of course seen oodles of clips, I had never sat down to actually watch the thing from start to finish until today. A high school girlfriend found this preposterous, and had high hopes of enlightening me, but we must have broke up or something because it never happened.

I went into the viewing expecting that it would all be familiar – that I would pretty much have seen every second in one clip or another over the years. I also thought I'd probably hate it.

- - - -

So in 1900 Frank L. Baum writes this trippy parable about monetary policy in the form of a children’s adventure story, and it turns into a runaway hit. Numerous sequels (The Prisoner of Azkaban of Oz, The Half-Blood Prince of Oz) follow, but Baum’s ability to score a good movie contract is hampered by movie contracts not existing yet. So it’s not until almost forty years later that the story hits the big screen. It becomes one of the most popular motion pictures of all time. Of all time!

It turns out, though, that there were plenty of passages in the movie that I’d never seen before. The part where Dorothy runs away and encounters a kindly traveling showman, the part where the Lion sings about being a king, all of the bits with flying monkey footmen – they were all new to me, at least as parts of the movie (although vaguely familiar as plot points -- I read all of the Oz books pretty voraciously as a child).

The real surprise, though, was that I thought the whole thing was kind of fun. None of it makes a lick of sense, of course, but it’s all so exuberantly campy that it’s hard to care too much. Baum’s vision of Oz is weird enough, but additional levels of surrealism are laid on thick in frenzies of pop modernist set design and backdrop painting. The early scenes featuring the Munchkins show every sign of having been conceived and executed with the help of plenty of drugs and alcohol. And for a mid-century children’s entertainment, Wizard of Oz brings a surprisingly unsubtle gay subtext to the proceedings. When Dorothy asks her new metal companion (“Oooh! A man!!”) where he wants to be oiled first, I’m pretty sure she’s not in Kansas anymore.

It must be said that if you took the “message” of the movie at face value, you would see a grossly reactionary kind of Conservatism. Happiness, says the film, comes from staying in your place, from looking for fulfillment no further away than “your own back yard.” Fortunately, no one pays any attention to the moralizing speeches at the end of movies, so the legacy of Oz isn’t its overt glorification of keeping yourself down on the farm, but rather its hints of the far-out possibilities of life over the rainbow.

Plot: With the Gold Standard constricting the currency supply of the late-nineteenth century United States, many Populists called for…. oh, never mind. Nobody much noticed the political-cartoon aspect of the story even at the time. As for the storyline, hell, everybody knows that. I’d be willing to make a bet that a cross section of Americans would do a better job articulating the plot of The Wizard of Oz than they would articulating the story of the life and death of Jesus Christ. It is a very powerful component of our national mythology.

Visuals: It’s not quite right to say that Oz switches from black-and-white to color, as the “black-and-white” segments are actually shot in a warm sepia tone. It’s as if Dorothy’s Kansas is already stuck in a time-worn photograph, even when she returns to it in the end. As for Oz, the sets are all quite over the top and a more than a bit mad. Nice camera work, too.

Dialog: People are forever bursting into song. Some of the songs are extremely well crafted (it’s hard to beat Somewhere Over the Rainbow) and others just some cobbled-together rhyming words sung with relish by the principal actors, or with a slight sense of I’ll-never-forgive-myself-for-this-if-the-check-bounces by the “Munchkins.”

Prognosis: Since I am the last adult in the English-speaking world to see The Wizard of Oz, it doesn’t make any sense for me to put forth an opinion on whether other people should watch it. You've probably seen it half a dozen times already.


Elaine said...

Hand up. I've never seen it. This is MORE shameful for me, because I am 62. It could happen soon, though....

d said...

my family watched this movie every year during my childhood. and every year my sister would freak out and start crying whenever the flying monkeys came on the scene. i'm still not sure why they scared her so much and why she never just left the room before they showed up.

once i became a teenager, the tradition grew moldy and we quit our annual watching, so there'd been a huge number of years gone by since i'd seen it last when it came on the television a few weeks ago and i happened to be flipping channels and caught it pretty close to the start.

what a trippy fucking movie. and for being filmed so long ago, quite the stellar special effects and camera work.

in my kiddie lit course in college, we studied the political satire/commentary that baum infused in the work. the east v west, capitalism v communism etc etc, but for me that just ruined the pure fun to be had by just letting go of your preconceived notions for how the world is supposed to work and enjoying a pretty wild ride.

DrSchnell said...

Few things screw up good art as much as allegory.... it's best not caring (or knowing) one whit about the gold standard when watching this one!

mhwitt said...

I saw this movie on television for the first time when I was in first grade. I believe I liked it and all, but I mostly remember being surprised to find that nearly every classmate seemed to have watched it too. For several days afterwards, the games on the playground involved boys pretending to be flying monkeys and terrorizing girls. Or at least that's how I remember it.

When I was in grad school, I also got to see The Wizard of Oz on the big screen at the historic Paramount Theater in Oakland, California. It really was pretty damn cool to see it in a place that looked to me like it was decorated in 1939, with a huge screen, velvet drapes and and ersatz ancient Egyptian decor. There is a scene in the sepia Kansas portion early on where Dorothy is on a swing and says something like "oh, I really like to swing both ways." That got a big laugh from the Bay Area audience!

Rebel said...

I would disagree that the message is that happiness comes from staying in your place, so much as that having adventures makes you appreciate what you've got at home. But there could be a *bit* of personal bias coming in there. ;)

Michael5000 said...

@Reb: The quote in question is "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!" I hear that as rather poo-pooing the notion of going out and exploring the world or seeking to improve your lot. But I suppose it's amenable to your interpretation as well.

Michael5000 said...

@DrSchnell: FOR SHAME! You clearly don't share my enthusiasm for the Dutch Masters.

In any event, the economic content is in the book; none of it survived in any meaningful way into the movie.

Jenners said...

I totally enjoyed reading this ... it was one of the few movies you write about that I've actually seen. I'd love to see it again though as it has been a loooooong time. The visuals are just so stuck in my brain though. I remember being freaked out by the poppy field ... and the witch. The witch flying with the green smoke. RUN!