Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Wizard of Oz, The (1939)

Director: Victor Fleming

-National Film Registry

It is a motion picture full of beautiful color and unforgettable sound that stands as one of the very most treasured pieces of cinema ever produced. The Wizard of Oz was a huge jump forward in the creative genius of motion picture production in Hollywood. This “children’s movie” would go above and beyond with artistic direction, make-up, special effects, creativity, and artistic use of color creating a cultural icon that will last far into the history of film. In the essence of every conversation of fantasy pictures The Wizard of Oz will stand as one of the finest films of the genre and of all time. Through its creative childish whimsy the feature is packed with details that audiences are still discovering and appreciating generations after its release, claiming new fans with each passing day.

Dorothy dreams of being "Over the Rainbow"
The Wizard of Oz is a fantasy film of a farm girl whisked away to a vibrant land of colorful characters as she fallows the yellow brick road to the one person said to help her back to her Kansas home, the great and powerful Wizard of Oz. Dorothy (Judy Garland), Kansas naïve farm girl with thoughts of running away from home, is knocked uncurious during a great tornado and her imaginative dream takes her to a new and colorful place known as Oz. Bewildered by this new faraway place of fancy she befouls the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) who blames Dorothy for the death of her sister, the Witch of the East. Now wishing to return home Dorothy is set on the yellow brick road to find the Wizard of Oz (Frank Morgan), who she hopes can return her back to Kansas.

Along her travels she befriends three new companions, Scarecrow (Ray Bolger) who wishes he had a brain, Tin Man (Jack Haley) who pines for a heart, and the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) who seeks the bravery he lacks. The new friends all make way to the Emerald City with a few bumps along the way set by the Wicked Witch in hope that the Wizard will solve all their problems. Upon arrival the foursome discover the great and powerful Oz is nothing more than a man of illusions rather than a powerful wizard. Despite this discovery the Wizard shares that Scarecrow, Tin Man, and the Lion all had what they wanted inside them all along. While attempting to aid Dorothy, the  Wizard and Dorothy become separated when he attempts to guide her home. Glinda the Good Witch (Billie Burke) appears to her and manifests the lesson Dorothy has learned that “there’s no place like home,” allowing Dorothy to send herself back to Kansas by the power of her enchanted ruby slippers and wishing herself a return home. Upon waking up Dorothy is more appreciative of her family and loved ones as they are there by her side.

The film is full of the most colorful and elaborate art decoration ever seen in any fantasy motion picture produced to that time. With a record budget of over $2 million for MGM the production is fully on display as the world of Oz blasts its way through the silver screen towards the audiences in an experience not quite shared like this before. The film sets new high marks for elaborate make-up, creative sets, masterful cinematography, and imaginative means to tell a story.

The Wizard of Oz as a motion picture begins in 1937 when Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs becomes an immediate smash hit in Hollywood. For Disney, it catapulted the small cartoon studio into the Hollywood limelight and with its vast profits helped to finance the construction of a state of the art studio of Walt Disney’s dreams. MGM looking to make a similar kind of money maker in the fantasy film genre immediately purchased the rights to the popular L. Frank Baum novel and began the task of bringing the beloved story to the movie screen.

As the elaborate pre-production ran into filming both cast and the role of director went through multiple changes. Originally MGM greatly attempted to attain the use of child star Shirley Temple to fill the role of Dorothy, but with the difficulty of 20th Century-Fox’s control over young Temple MGM was forced to look elsewhere. After the consideration of acquiring the use of Universal’s own powerfully voiced juvenile starlet Deanna Durbin, MGM dived into their own well of actresses and cast 16 year old Judy Garland, whose voice talent was seen as more beautiful than her appearance. Having played primarily smaller roles, most notably the shy and unassuming love interest in Andy Hardy films, Garland was handed her first major starring role in what would be the part of her lifetime. To make the 16 year old Garland look younger and more innocent filmmakers had her put in a tight girdle and a patterned dress to flatten her chest and hide her womanly figure to make her appear more child-like.

The lovable foursome follow the yellow brick road to Emerald City.
Apart from Garland most of the cast was filled with character actors instead of headline names. The major part of the Wizard was cast with the grandfatherly vibrant Frank Morgan. Originally intended to be filled with Vaudvillian Ed Wynn, then comic star W.C. Fields in the role of Oz, both actors felt the role too small and overshadowed by Dorothy. To combat this idea for the actors in question the part was expanding, or rather added to by playing many other roles to prolong this actor’s time on screen to include Professor Marvel at the beginning and end of the feature, as well as many other Emerald City’s inhabitants Dorothy runs into along the way. After much difficulty with both Wynn and Fields, Frank Morgan was cast in the title role.

Stage dancer and vaudeville performer Ray Bolger would be cast as the Scarecrow. At first Bolger was set to play the Tin Man, but he always longed to be the Scarecrow, because, as he stated, it that role he saw as a child that made him want to be a performer. After much convincing Bolger was recast as Scarecrow and through his creative acting and marvelous make-up it became one of the most memorable roles of the film.

Comedian Bert Lahr and Margaret Hamilton would make their indelible marks each as the Cowardly Lion and the Wicked Witch of the West respectively. Hamilton’s appearance and performance would become a most common visual of a witch in popular culture, seen every year as the standard Halloween costume of the basic witch. It would prove to be the role of the Tin Man that became the most troublesome in production. After Bolger was recast away from being the Tin Man small-time, loveable actor and dancer Buddy Ebsen was cast as the Tin Woodsman. After a couple of weeks of filming due to a near fatal allergic reaction to the aluminum dust of the makeup Ebsen was hospitalized and replaced by Jack Haley to fill in his metal shoes. At first the studio believe Ebsen was making up the illness, but as Haley took on the part the makeup would be altered from a dust to a cream with dust on top to avoid a similar reaction. An issue Haley would have to fight later in filming was a bad eye infection from the makeup finding its way into his eye. It would halt his shooting schedule for four days while he recuperated.

The decision of director would be another issue entirely for the film. First hired was Academy Award winning director Norman Taurog who was known for working well on films with children. After a few color screen tests Taurog was quickly dropped for Richard Thorpe, and Taurog was reassigned to The Adventure of Tom Sawyer. With Thorpe it became clear that the vision of the film was going the wrong direction. Thorpe dressed Garland in a blond wig with overly cute makeup and two weeks into production after producers saw the dailies Thorpe was taken off the picture. Visionary director George Cukor would be brought in to save the film after it stopped shooting. Although he would not shoot a frame of footage he did change Dorothy to the vision we eventually see on the screen and re-imagined the layout of the film for when Victor Fleming took on the role as captain of the film. Fleming became the visionary of the picture that masterfully planned and produced the stunning visuals and creative blocking of the characters, garnering some of the finest performances in this fanciful tale.

Fleming’s camera moves and sails through the scenes and spaces. The performances of the actors are attention filled to great detail. Bolger’s walk where he consistently is stumbling and needed to be lifted by the person next to him can be overlook, but it is a fine small detail that carries throughout. The tail of the Cowardly Lion is in great motion throughout, shaking fast as he gets excited and moves with purpose when he is dramatic. The sets are vast and colorful. Shot in MGM’s famous sound stages, the background seems to go on into the distance, which is accomplished with large background paintings that even a less than keen eye can spot, but worked so well the audience allows for the suspension of disbelief as they are so artfully produced.

One of the most creative elements of the picture is its use of Technicolor. The Kansas scenes are shot in sepia toned black and white. It was Baum’s writing that inspired this landscape, describing Kansas as very grey. It is when Dorothy opens her front door into the world of Oz we are welcomed to the world of color. To accomplish this most creative shot two Dorothy’s were used, a stand in for Garland in a sepia dress on a sepia house set, and when the door opens the land beyond is filled with bright colors as the double moves away Garland walks into frame in her full color dress.

Perhaps the most treasured piece of memorabilia in movie history.
Many changes were made to the story to fit the movie, but none stands out more in a positive light than that of Dorothy’s ruby red slippers. In the book the shoes are silver, but for this Technicolor extravaganza a sparkly pair of red shoes made for a more memorizing look. The few pairs of these famous slippers stand, years later, as some of the honored treasures of Hollywood movie history. The legend of The Wizard of Oz’s colorful creativity leads many casual movie watchers to believe that this feature is the very first color film, which is obliviously not the case.

The iconic song “Over the Rainbow” would become one of the most popular songs of the year and of all time. It would become Judy Garland’s theme, performed by her at many of her events. Ironically the song was nearly cut out of the picture as producers saw the moment of the movie as insignificant, but as test screenings played it was apparent that something was missing in the scene where Dorothy wished to get away from her Kansas home. The song was reinserted and the rest was history. It would win the Oscar for Best Original Song to go along with the award for Best Score. “Over the Rainbow” would be ranked by AFI as the most iconic song of all American cinema, while “Ding! Dong! The Witch is Dead!” would land as #82 on the very same list.

Surprising for many to discover, The Wizard of Oz was not a financial success originally. With a $2 million budget the feature made a little over $3 million. Despite great critical acclaim and even nominations for Best Picture it would not be until its post World War II re-release that the studio was able to capitalize on the fame of the movie. As television became huge in America The Wizard of Oz would become an often repeated film over the air, enjoyed by millions of home viewers through the years especially when color televisions hit the market.

Generations later The Wizard of Oz is a cultural icon in movie production history. With vast amounts of re-makes, re-imaginings, self appointed sequels, and countless homage’s, The Wizard of Oz is manifested to be loved and cherished by millions the world over. It would launch Judy Garland into superstar fame that carried her through her carrier and is a symbol of cinema magic. The Wizard of Oz made fantasy even more possible for live action as animation in Snow White set did before in setting new standards on the genre. Contemporary audiences continue to pay their tributes to this classic of classics. It has and will stand as a film on a different plane of cinema existence.

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