Movie Review: The Wizard of OzBy Vladimir V. Zelevinsky
Directed by Victor Fleming with uncredited contributions from George Cukor, Norman Taurog, Richard Thorpe, King Vidor
Written by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, Edgar Allan Woolf, based on the novel by L. Frank Baum
With Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Margaret Hamilton, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr
What stereotypes come to mind first when you think of classical films? Modest black-and-white visuals, slow pacing, a general air of stateliness, classiness, and boredom, right? Well, here's a case to the contrary: The Wizard of Oz, the classic 1939 musical based on the L. Frank Baum novel (first in a long series), is a brightly-colored, visually bold, rapidly paced extravaganza, full of gaudy sets, outlandish costumes, and way-over-the-top acting. Now, sixty years later, it does feel very much dated (much more so than, say, Gone with the Wind, also directed by Victor Fleming and also released in 1939), but dated in a way one wouldn't quite expect.
The story, which I'm sure you are familiar with, concerns teenager Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland), whose house is carried by a raging tornado all the way from her Kansas farm to a wondrous land called Oz. To get back, she needs to reach the mysterious Wizard of Oz, and on her way to his Emerald City Dorothy is assisted by a trio of local misfits: Scarecrow, Tin Woodsman, and Cowardly Lion. She is also menaced by the Wicked Witch of the West.
After the first ten or so lazy minutes where pretty much nothing happens (Dorothy sings "Over the Rainbow," which, with the exception of the opening line, is justly forgotten), the film launches its first set-piece, a tornado over Kansas. This sequence is, I kid you not, absolutely unbelievable, one of the greatest instances of special effects on screen (director Fleming and his uncredited co-director George Cukor are also responsible for another equally breathtaking sequence, the dizzying ride through burning Atlanta in Gone with the Wind). This is no Twister, lacking telltale digital pixellation, with the perfect color scheme (sepia-toned black and white) for making the audience feel the dust-filled air swirling all around. The tight non-widescreen frame makes the storm both powerful and claustrophobic, with doors and trees being torn and tossed around with abandon.
Dorothy runs into the house, the tornado rages, the house flies into the air, and The Wizard of Oz takes a sharp turn to the worse. Not only do the special effects become less-than-inspired, style is sacrificed for the sake of cheap (and not very funny) jokes. The house plops down in the land of Oz, the film explodes in an avalanche of gaudy Technicolor, and I feel some vague discomfort, a disturbing feeling of deja vu. The first scene in the land of Oz is a huge, no-holds-barred parade, with music, marching, and a multitude of Munchkins. The sets are lavish; the costumes are outlandish; the colors are psychedelic; the whole ambiance is truly out of this world. And with this orgy of sights and sounds on the screen, my discomfort increases. The visuals are so rich and thrown onto the screen without anything remotely resembling restraint, there's nothing for the eye to rest on; the music is loud and boisterous, but is all in the same endlessly repeating progression of simplistic major keys.
Then appears the Good Witch Glinda (Billie Burke), smiling with a permanently idiotic grin; I get instant saccharin overload, and realize what is bothering me:The Wizard of Oz is the cinematic equivalent of cotton candy, something big and bright and neon- colored and sweet, which gives you toothache, feels quite bland after a few minutes, and has pretty much no nutritional value.
Of course, as cotton candy goes, this is some of the best. The visuals are varied and rich, and two sequences are done very well: The foreboding interior of the Wizard's castle, and the swooping swarm of the Wicked Witch's minions, which look very much like flying monkeys. But every time the film does something right, it follows it up with something as creative, but either insipid (the ridiculous conclusion of the poppy field sequence) or misplaced (the Cowardly Lion's song, which occurs at perhaps the least appropriate moment). To tell the truth, it is hard to expect style and coherence from a committee-made movie - and Wizard had a grand total of five directors and sixteen screenwriters (thirteen of whom are uncredited).
The worst moment, of course, comes at the very end, when Dorothy is forced to gaze with dazed eyes directly into the camera and drone about what she learned from her adventure. This moral is so awful and dreary and reactionary and stupid, and so much doesn't work with the rest of the movie, that I lost any kind of emotional involvement I still had by that point.
Yet still I'm glad I saw this movie - its reputation as a classic is truly deserved. With its high budget, rich visuals, sacrifice of meaning for the sake of style and sacrifice of style for the sake of the moment, along with a tedious last-minute attempt to turn the whole thing into a message film, The Wizard of Oz is a true predecessor of most modern Hollywood movies, and perhaps the single most influential movie of the twentieth century. That's why it feels so dated - every year hundreds of movies operate in the same manner, and are promptly forgotten before they are a year old. The Wizard of Oz is certainly not forgotten because it was first.