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The Wizard of Oz Review

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by Chris McEneany Nov 1, 2005 at 12:00 AM

    The Wizard of Oz Review
    “We're off to see the Wizard ... the wonderful Wizard of Oz!”

    It's surprising to think that this evergreen classic, a much-loved tale even before its 1939 movie premier, actually opened to mixed reviews and fared quite miserably at the box office despite having a massive core-following from L. Frank Baum's celebrated series of fantastical books. In fact, it wasn't until American television first transmitted it back in 1956 that its popularity began to grow, with each subsequent airing an annual event that families eagerly looked forward to on both sides of the Pond. And its legacy has spawned generations of film-goers and filmmakers who all strive to break the bounds of the imagination and embrace its limitless and time-defying magic. An epic leap of optimism created at a time when the world, embodied by a Depression-recovering America on the brink of joining the Second World War, needed a heady dose of hope and splendour.

    “Toto, I have the feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.”

    The script was virtually written by committee, with at least eight people working on it, and although Victor Fleming received the director's credit, an assortment of others, including King Vidor and George Cukor, reputedly had their hands on the project, but their combined efforts actually remained quite faithful to Baum's original story of a troubled young girl called Dorothy, played exquisitely by Judy Garland, isolated and bored on her Kansas farm/homestead, who dreams her troubles away when a twister comes calling and appears to whisk her and her little dog, Toto, off to a distant land of pure make-believe. The story is so well-known it is scarcely necessary to outline much of its time-honoured plot, except to say that Dorothy's metaphorical quest in Oz will see her encountering a race of jolly little people called Munchkins, unwittingly incur the wrath of the truly terrifying Wicked Witch of the West, join forces with the iconic trio of the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion and show the illustrious, and mighty, Wizard, himself, up to be nothing more than an egotistical charlatan. Gaining, and more importantly, helping others to gain noble attributes along the way - a brain for the Scarecrow, a heart for the Tin Man and some courage for the Lion - Dorothy will, in effect, grow up and learn to stand on her own two feet and face the fears that plagued her back in the real world.

    “Lions and tigers and bears ... oh my!”

    Over-the-top, but vigorously spirited and infectious performances from the three-man vaudeville act of Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow, Jack Haley as the Tin Man and Bert Lahr as the Lion provide the backbone of the movie. Their timing is immaculate; the pure pantomime of their bravado a joyous mixture of slapstick, giddy one-liners and musical farce. The Lion is the best of the bunch and an absolute dead ringer for TV's Shagrat Dingle in Emmerdale. (Go on, check it out!) His physical comedy is a powerhouse marathon of madcap antics, a Norman Wisdom in a furry suit. I love the bit when he takes a crazed and death-defying plunge through the Wizard's window. Scarecrow brings a soul to his raggedy man and a weightless agility to his routines that makes us mourn the fact that his big dance routine was given the chop. And, speaking of the chop, how about Haley's rusty woodcutter? It's the daftest costume, especially when he lets off a little steam with a couple of toots, but he still manages to navigate the idiocy of his encasing with enough sprightly ease to bring a warmth to his heartless condition. Just as much fun, of course, is Margaret Hamilton's archetypal wicked witch. Even as a horror-fixated adult, I shudder at the sight of her - her cackling green countenance totally lacking in any humanity or compassion, pinched and angular with a cruelly pointed nose, blazing hell-spawn eyes and nasty talons. She is the epitome of pure evil, culled from caricature but drawn with a diabolical intensity that brings her to an unholy life that exists in the subconscious long after she has melted away from the screen. Her sadistic taunting of Scarecrow with flames and fireballs has a truly despicable edge, and then when she orders her army of airborne monkeys to take flight, just look at her standing on the edge of her tower, urging her demons on. Their bizarre winged formations clouding the skies look positively welcoming in comparison to this screeching silhouette. It is such a wilfully bravura performance that poor Hamilton was typecast as a witch, or suitably demonstrative character, forevermore. Mind you, she certainly had the looks - even without the makeup.

    “Pay no attention to that man ...”

    The stuff of nightmares is conjured up frequently in Oz. Besides the flying monkeys - so vividly realised as they swoop down upon our stricken heroes in the middle of the Haunted Forest - we get the hook-nosed, Samurai-like Winkies, guarding the witch's foreboding castle, their busbies as incongruous as their ornate scimitars. These guys always scare the beejeezus out of me, until they wimp out at the end, that is. The Mekon-headed image of the Great Oz, spouting forth from between roaring jets of flame is a tremendous image too, turned literally to stone in John Boorman's wacky sci-fi take on the same story, Zardoz. But by far the creepiest things in the movie are the Munchkins. There's definitely something about little grinning people that makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. They possess a mischief that evokes the myths surrounding fairies and the little folk from the Emerald Isle. Mind you, they've got an Emerald City in Oz, suggestive perhaps of the Irish migration to the States?

    “It's a horse of a different colour.”

    The only sour note, performance-wise, is that of Billie Burke as Glinda, the good Witch of the North, whose portrayal is simply terrible. Everything about her acting here is cringe-worthy - her voice (so irredeemably twee ) and posture stick out like a sore thumb, her delivery so sickly that she, alone, reminds us of the era in which the film was made, almost derailing that “timeless” quality with an overt theatricality that literally makes the teeth itch. But then again, Burke is saddled with the most cloying and patronising role in the film - that of the veritable fairy godmother. But, to compensate for this we get the delightful Frank Morgan who plays the Great Oz, as well as a fair few of the klutzy minions of the Emerald City, too. That Dorothy proves to be the catalyst to his sham is another trick that Baum and the screenwriters managed to pull off. Ingeniously, they see to it that power and magic are often exposed as mere fraud, or dime-store trickery in the hands of a showman. This is a radical move for a fairy story to distil its sorcery in favour of true heart and soul - which, of course, is the celebrated point of the whole thing. The only real magic in the story is in the fertile imagination of Dorothy. All else is deceit. This is one of the core ingredients of growing up and coming to terms with the truths that are often hidden from us as a child, or else dressed up within some cunning device for our protection. The association of Dorothy's childhood and innocence with a land of small, childlike people, a quest to gain respect and friendship, and a battle between good and evil to win over her soul, all played out against a swirl of chaotic emotion - it's just teenage, pure and simple. Listen to the grownups and stick to the right path, child - a yellow brick road, for instance - and you'll be alright. And if you stray from the path ... well, this is where the darkness comes in, folks.

    “First, they took my legs and they threw them over here. Then they took my chest and they threw it over there.”

    “Well, that's you ... all over the place.”

    “They sure knocked the stuffing out of you.”

    In essence, our nostalgic memories of The Wizard Of Oz are simply about coming to terms with one's own individuality, and the sanctity of the family unit - even if that family is one extended to include a trio of inept farmhands. Good old American wholesome values as depicted in folklore writ large and colourful, its painted backdrop of incorruptible morals like a fun-filled sermon decorating the cinema screen. However, in recent years there's been a strange sort of swing shift in opinion and critique surrounding Oz, with Baum's innocent little tale becoming symbolic with much darker and more grotesque designs. We shall investigate these a little further.

    “I'll get you, my pretty. And you're little dog, too!”

    The quintessential family fantasy can actually be interpreted on many different levels. It's easy to look at Dorothy's adventure through the innocence of a child's eyes - with its undoubted magic, entrancing colour and reassuring ode to friendship, home and loyalty - but it is also immensely rewarding to have a look at it through the more cynical, and world-weary, eyes of an adult - the tale is an often cruel depiction of paranoia and persecution. For, as grownups, we can appreciate the dual personas, the hidden agendas and the sometimes subversive streak that courses across Oz's sky like a poisoned rainbow. Despite the love and affection heaped upon the coming-of-age Dorothy, there is a degree of alienation too, lending her character a keener sense of motivation, and an altogether truer need to escape from the drab banality of home-life on a dull, uneventful farm. Cleverly, she seems to exist in a limbo-land even before she finds her way to Oz. The sepia-tinted Kansas homestead is drained of life and vitality in more than merely visual terms and we get the impression that, if left to her own devices, Dorothy would become the troubled teen that, all-too-easily, falls in with the wrong crowd just because of her inherent “differences” to everybody else. Of course, this comes across all-too-vividly when we compare the outsider status of the character to the real-life plight of Judy Garland who, robbed of her own childhood, exhibits the pain and confusion of someone who truly doesn't know quite where they fit in. Just check out those extremely convincing tears as the sands of time in the witch's hour-glass slip away. There's also a sexual undercurrent frequently commented on these days tingeing her relationships with the roster of surrounding characters that, if you choose to follow this particular brick road, is quite disturbing. Prof. Marvel (Frank Morgan, again) knows it. “They don't understand you at home,” he says soothingly to Dorothy when she strays into his company, taking in a gullible girl and pretending to be on her wavelength with a bogus father-figure type of charm. Later on, three strange men will allow themselves to be freed by a young travelling girl. A Scarecrow seeking liberation from his bondage, a Tin Man in need of lubrication before he can find his heart, and a beast-man in need of courage or, if you will, his libido. All of this has shades of male impotence - an affliction reversed with the arrival into their realm of Dorothy.

    “But some people without brains do an awful lot of talking, don't they?”

    The girl exposes the fraudsters and finds the truth residing within each of her companions. Thus, we have female empowerment. In fact the feminist stance is written quite broadly across the entire canvas - Oz isn't really ruled by a fool of a man but by the all-powerful witches, and even Clara Blandick's Aunty Em is top dog down on the farm, although everybody seems to answer to Hamilton's snide, dog-hating Miss Gultch. Again, with the wonder-filled eyes of a child, almost all of this delicious darkness is non-existent and I'm not suggesting for a moment that you should all probe deeper into the psychology of such an acknowledged family classic for hidden subtexts, twisted metaphors and depraved machinations - but these rogue elements are all there, just the same, whether you play Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon alongside the film or not.

    “You go away or I'll bite you, myself!”

    That Garland was too old for the part goes without saying, adding an altogether darker fantasy of a more male-inclined variety with her weight problems making her look more womanly despite the girly frock and pig-tails. Her fat-fighting diet of pills struggling to keep her pudginess in check, and the daily ration of performance-enhancing uppers and downers almost certainly aiding her to inhabit her iconic role with more dedication than any other actress could ever muster. Her Dorothy is not a fragile figure, though it is definitely a vulnerable one.

    But, Oz is remembered primarily for its wonder and beautifully etched scope. The storm sequence looks as awe-inspiring as it always did, a devastating tour-de-force, and its eye-of-the-storm swirl of images is a splendid note of surreal invasion - two happy-go-lucky fishermen in a rowing boat and a kindly old knitter whistle by with polite insanity. And when Dorothy opens up a monochrome door upon a Technicolor vista, Baum's fantasy comes supremely to life and Hollywood's finest-ever trump card is played. Everyone dreams of stepping into a bright new utopia and shrugging off the shackles of routine - and capturing this moment on film is a masterstroke that grants The Wizard Of Oz an everlasting place on the winner's rostrum of fantastic cinema. With the illogicality of Lewis Carroll, blended with the visual mania of Dr. Seuss and containing more than a dash of the Brothers Grimm, The Wizard Of Oz remains a daring leap of the imagination for each new generation. As long as there are teenagers there will always be a place for Dorothy. And, as long as we all dream, there will always be a land of Oz to welcome us.

    The Rundown

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