#469) The Wizard of Oz (1939) – Part 1

#469) The Wizard of Oz (1939)

OR “Friends of Dorothy”

Directed by Victor Fleming

Written by Noel Langley & Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf. Based on the book by L. Frank Baum. Songs by Harold Arlen & E.Y. Harburg.

Class of 1989

There’s no way I can cover every aspect of “The Wizard of Oz” in one post, so we have another Horse’s Head three-parter!

The Plot: Kansas farmgirl Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) and her dog Toto (Terry) are swept up in a tornado that drops their house in the Technicolor fantasy world of Oz. Dorothy learns that her house has crushed the Wicked Witch of the East, and East’s sister the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) vows revenge. Glinda the Good Witch (Billie Burke) aids Dorothy and recommends that she follow the yellow brick road and seek help from The Wizard of Oz (Frank Morgan) to return to Kansas. Dorothy is befriended along the way by a Scarecrow who wants a brain (Ray Bolger), a Tin Man who wants a heart (Jack Haley), and a Cowardly Lion who wants courage (Bert Lahr). And if I have to explain any more of this plot, I welcome you to our planet.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “[a] genuine American classic”, citing the film’s “[o]utstanding performances – particularly by Judy Garland – fanciful sets and an unforgettable score”. An essay by film critic Peter Keough crams as much dissection of the film’s possible symbolism into two pages, and reveals the author’s surprising attraction to Margaret Hamilton.

But Does It Really?: There are untouchable classic movies, and then there’s “The Wizard of Oz”. The film stands out thanks to its memorable characters, emotional songs, stunning production design, and an attention to detail that bypasses most routine studio fare of the time, with the result being a classic that continues to hold up. “Oz” has gone beyond its status as a classic Hollywood movie to become a cultural touchstone (practically every element within the film’s brisk 100 minute runtime has become a perennial icon), and possesses a magical quality beyond the wizardry on the screen. No movie is guaranteed to live forever, but “The Wizard of Oz” may be the one American film that becomes the exception.

Everybody Gets One: All three of Dorothy’s on-screen companions started out as vaudeville performers, then moved to Broadway, and were just getting started in the movies when “The Wizard of Oz” came into their lives. Of the trio, Ray Bolger was the only MGM contract player; Bert Lahr signed a specific contract for this movie, and Jack Haley was on loan from Fox, famously replacing Buddy Ebsen two weeks into filming (more on that in Part 2). The three of them never had another movie that matched the impact of “Oz”, but as Bolger once said about their takeaway from the movie: “No residuals, just immortality”.

Wow, That’s Dated: The only aspect of “The Wizard of Oz” that dates it is the Emerald City’s art deco aesthetic. The film originally attempted to court the teen demographics with a “Jitterbug” number, but the song was cut after previews, never to be seen again.

Seriously, Oscars?: One of the biggest hits of 1939, “The Wizard of Oz” entered the 1940 Oscars with six nominations, including Best Picture. The film lost in most of its categories to “Gone with the Wind” (and egregiously lost Visual Effects to forgotten disaster film “The Rains Came”), but ultimately took home two well-deserved statuettes: Original Score and Original Song for “Over the Rainbow”. In lieu of a Best Actress nomination, the Academy gave Judy Garland a special Juvenile Oscar for her performance.

Production Notes

  • Film adaptations of the Oz books were nothing new: there had been at least six silent versions predating the 1939 film, many of them produced by L. Frank Baum himself. By the 1930s, Samuel Goldwyn held the film rights to “Oz”, with the hope of making a vehicle for Eddie Cantor (the singer ultimately passed). Meanwhile, MGM was eager to make a big-budget fantasy musical in an effort to cash in on the mega-success of Disney’s “Snow White“. MGM purchased the “Oz” rights from Goldwyn in January 1938, just one month after the release of “Snow White”.
  • “The Wizard of Oz” is notorious for having five directors and 14 writers, but these numbers weren’t too incredible for a film from the studio era. All of these people were under contract with MGM, and could be assigned and re-assigned on a whim. Of the screenwriters, Noel Langley gets most of the credit for the final film, deleting the extraneous comic subplots of earlier drafts, always steering the story back to Baum’s original. But Langley’s most important change: converting the silver slippers of the book to ruby slippers, capitalizing on the film’s Technicolor cinematography.
  • As for those five directors: Norman Tauroug was reassigned after only filming a few color tests. Richard Thorpe filmed for two weeks before the producers became dissatisfied with his footage. George Cukor was a “creative advisor” with a few days off from the pre-production of “Gone with the Wind”, and although he didn’t shoot a frame of “Oz”, he is responsible for much of the film’s final look, particularly Dorothy’s hair and makeup. Victor Fleming helmed the bulk of the movie, filming for three months before somewhat ironically being called in to replace Cukor as director of “Gone with the Wind”. Fifth and final director King Vidor took over for the final month of shooting (mostly the Kansas sequences), and out of respect for his predecessor requested that Victor Fleming receive the final credit. The film’s bonus sixth director was producer Mervyn LeRoy, who oversaw the film’s reshoots.
  • Let’s get this whole Shirley Temple thing out of the way. Yes, Shirley Temple was considered to play Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz”, BUT Judy Garland was always the first choice. Producers Mervyn LeRoy and Arthur Freed lobbied for Garland, but Loew’s Inc. (which owned MGM at the time) felt that a bigger box office draw was needed and suggested Temple. There was an informal audition at Fox (Temple’s home studio), and it was quickly determined that Temple was not up to the vocal demands of the songs. This story tends to get conflated with an unrelated “Oz” project in 1937 that Temple was also considered for. Shirley Temple would go on to appear in an “Oz” adaptation as Princess Ozma in a 1960 episode of “Shirley Temple’s Storybook”.
  • Not really a production note, but still worth thinking about: Can you imagine if a movie came out today based on a beloved children’s book from 40 years ago that took as many liberties with its source material as this movie does? Message boards everywhere would be furious! All Caps for days!

On to Part Two and the movie itself!

51 thoughts on “#469) The Wizard of Oz (1939) – Part 1”

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