#469) The Wizard of Oz (1939) – Part 2 (Other Notes)

Previously on #469) The Wizard of Oz (1939)…

Other notes

  • The main difference between “Oz” and other movies of the era is money. The film’s budget was a then-record $2.8 million, and it’s clear that no expense was spared. Even the early Kansas scenes have a quiet scope about them; the landscape seemingly goes on forever, and the Gale farm looks and feels like a real place rather than a set on a soundstage.
  • “Over the Rainbow”, what can I say? It’s the ultimate “I Want” song, sung with perfect earnestness by Judy. And to think they were going to cut this song from the film.
  • I’ll take this moment to single out Judy Garland’s genuine, sincere performance. This performance is the reason the film still resonates emotionally with audiences 80 years later, and because her Dorothy believes in the fantasy elements, so do we. Now if only Garland was treated better on and off the set.
  • Miss Gulch is what we would today call a “Karen”. Too bad Aunt Em and Uncle Henry don’t have a manager she could talk to.
  • The twister is the pinnacle of practical special effects. Shoutout to A. Arnold Gillespie and Douglas Shearer for this and all the other effects in this movie that hold up better than most CG effects today.
  • That transition from sepia tone to Technicolor? [Chef’s kiss] Best shot in the movie.
  • I appreciate that Billie Burke, who was 54 at the time she played Glinda, is repeatedly referred to as beautiful.
  • “Ding Dong, The Witch is Dead” is catchy (even I sang along this time), but wow is it morbid. Most of the song consists of Munchkins discussing just how dead the Wicked Witch of the East is (“She’s really most sincerely dead.”). And listen to that chorus: “She’s gone where the goblins go/below, below, below”. They are celebrating that she is in Hell.
  • Fun Fact: Among the 124 Munchkin performers are Harry and Daisy Earles, aka Hans and Frieda from “Freaks“. Harry is the Lollipop Guild member in the blue shirt. As for the other 122, rumors of their debauchery on-set are greatly exaggerated.
  • Everyone’s great, but Margaret Hamilton is this movie’s MVP. She does not hold back, giving you the quintessential classic fairy tale villain. Shoutout to Jack Young not only for his work on Hamilton’s makeup, but also for saving her life when an on-set malfunction gave her second and third degree burns.
  • Toto is the movie’s secret weapon. Sure, it’d still be scary if the Witch just threatened Dorothy, but “and your little dog too”? That’s evil.
  • Everyone loves the yellow brick road, but my brother and I always wondered where the red brick road led to. My guess: the crafts services table?
  • “Some people without brains do an awful lot of talking, don’t they?” [Insert Your Own Political Joke Here]
  • Ray Bolger’s theatricality and “eccentric dancing” lend themselves quite well to the Scarecrow. It helps that playing the Scarecrow was a childhood dream of Bolger’s (his idol, actor Fred Stone, had played the Scarecrow on stage in the 1900s). Bolger was initially cast as the Tin Man, but successfully lobbied to switch roles with Buddy Ebsen.
  • As mentioned in my “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” post, Buddy Ebsen was the original Tin Man, but was hospitalized following his reaction to the aluminum powder makeup. Jack Haley was quickly called in to replace Ebsen, and the makeup was changed to an aluminum paste. While Ebsen doesn’t appear in the final film, his voice can still be heard during group numbers on the soundtrack.
  • It’s a crane. Moving on.
  • Arlen & Harburg wrote a song about the dangerous woods of Oz called “Lions and Tigers and Bears”, but the song was eliminated, save for the famous, seemingly out-of-nowhere repetition of the title. Oh my.
  • Like Bolger, Bert Lahr’s larger-than-life theatricality makes him an ideal Cowardly Lion. Watch closely during his first scene and you can see Judy Garland starting to break character. I will also take this time to recommend “Notes on a Cowardly Lion“, John Lahr’s touching tribute to his father.
  • As great as Bolger, Haley, and Lahr are as their characters, Dorothy does tend to take a backseat to their antics. Garland’s sheer star power prevents Dorothy from being totally overshadowed.
  • “Oz” is one of the first truly integrated movie musicals (preceded only by “Snow White“) . Songs in movies of the time were typically “performed” by the characters, and had little bearing on the story, but the “Oz” songs are all about character.
  • My dream has always been to have the “Merry Old Land of Oz” work schedule: Get up at 12, start to work at 1, an hour for lunch…
  • “If I Were King of the Forest” is another highlight, though it does weirdly reference hottentots, a derogatory term for the Khoikhoi people of South Africa. We’ll see how long before the internet latches onto that one.
  • In the book, the Wizard’s request to Dorothy is to kill the Wicked Witch of the West. This was toned down for the movie: now all he wants is the Witch’s broomstick (although the Tin Man points out they’d “have to kill her to get it”). What a giant disembodied head wants with a broomstick I have no idea.
  • Why does the Wicked Witch send a neverending army of flying monkeys to get Dorothy et al? There’s only four of them, just send in the A team.
  • They really do ramp up the scary in the third act; flying monkeys, menacing guards, the Witch’s truly terrifying appearance in the crystal ball. This is all offset by the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion suddenly turning into the Three Stooges as they raid the castle.
  • Night on Bald Mountain” is just one of many pieces of classical music sampled in the “Oz” soundtrack. Other featured compositions include “The Happy Farmer“, “Gaudeamus Igitur“, and of course, “Home! Sweet Home!“.
  • One detail I never noticed until this viewing is the massive bags under the Wicked Witch’s eyes. Maybe she’d be less evil if she got more sleep?
  • The Witch’s downfall is her arbitrary “let’s not kill the good guys immediately” stance. Also: keeping a random bucket of water in her castle. It’s like Superman keeping a box of kryptonite in the Fortress of Solitude.
  • Another thing I noticed this time: There are some major continuity errors throughout the film; characters switching positions, props coming and going. Turns out most of them were created by cuts made during previews (the original cut was 2 hours long).
  • Many big names were considered to play the Wizard of Oz. Ed Wynn deemed the part too small (hence the addition of the Wizard also playing other characters), and W.C. Fields was bypassed when he kept haggling for more money. MGM contract player Frank Morgan landed the part, and his trademark befuddlement endears him to the role, whereas a bigger name would distract from the fantasy.
  • As any fan of the Oz books will tell you, the “it was all a dream” ending is specifically for the movie. It was believed audiences were too sophisticated to accept the book’s canon of Oz as a real place. Could have been worse; could have all been in a giant snowglobe.
  • In the end, Dorothy learns that “there’s no place like home”. I’m still in quarantine: there’s no place but home.

And now for Part Three and the Legacy of “The Wizard of Oz”.

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