The Legacy of “The Wizard of Oz”
- Reports of “The Wizard of Oz” being a financial flop are inaccurate. “Oz” was one of the highest grossing films of the year, but its massive budget guaranteed the film would not make a profit. The movie finally landed in the black after a 1949 re-release to capitalize on Judy Garland’s continued popularity.
- In an effort to compete with the live family-friendly musicals that aired on TV throughout the late ’50s, CBS bought the TV rights to “The Wizard of Oz”. The film’s first broadcast was on November 3rd, 1956, and became an annual TV tradition for the next 40 years. The airing on February 24th, 1988 was taped by my parents, and may in fact be the first National Film Registry entry I ever watched.
- Everybody has attempted to make this movie’s unofficial sequel. Disney owned the film rights to the original Baum Oz sequel books, and in 1985 (faced with the prospect of losing those rights) brought us cult classic “Return to Oz”. Combining “The Marvelous Land of Oz” and “Ozma of Oz”, “Return” is closer in tone to the original books, and therefore darker than the colorful musical it is ostensibly a sequel to.
- Other noteworthy follow-ups are “Journey Back to Oz”, a 1974 animated sequel with Liza Minnelli filling in for her late mother, and 2013’s “Oz the Great and Powerful”, Disney’s stab at a prequel with a totally disinterested James Franco as the Wizard.
- There is no more iconic costume piece in filmdom than Dorothy’s ruby slippers. Over the last 80 years, four of the alleged six pairs created for the film have been sold, auctioned, lost and found. There’s a pair in the Smithsonian Institution, and another will appear at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Hollywood, should that ever actually open.
- I’m always a fan of when a movie on this list has a video game adaptation, and “Wizard of Oz” joined this elite group with a Super NES game in 1993!
- There have been countless stage adaptations of “Oz” dating back to the 1900s, but the movie didn’t get its official stage production until 1987 courtesy of the Royal Shakespeare Company. A 1995 concert staging in New York was televised on TNT, and showed Nathan Lane assuming his place as Bert Lahr’s heir apparent.
- To add some confusion, there’s another stage version of the movie that premiered on the West End with new songs by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. What is happening?
- Even more successful are two completely unrelated “Oz” stage musicals. 1974’s “The Wiz” modernizes the story with an all-Black cast, and spawned a wonderfully awful movie. 2003’s “Wicked” is an adaptation of the 1995 novel telling the story from the witches’ perspective. “Wicked” is still playing on Broadway (COVID pending), and I will admit is a well-crafted (if overly praised) piece of theater.
- Every fantasy movie owes a debt of gratitude to “Oz”; without it, would there even be a “Star Wars“?
- There are thousands of references, allusions, and parodies of “The Wizard of Oz” out there. Various costumes and set pieces found their way into other MGM movies of the era, but the homages really pick up once the film became a television staple.
- While we’re on the subject: can we put the kibosh on sketch comedy shows doing a “long lost deleted scene” Oz sketch? We get it: it’s funny watching these characters say and do dirty things. Move on.
- I’ve also noticed that “Oz” tends to get mentioned either in period pieces as a reference modern audiences would get (see “A League of Their Own“), or in futuristic dystopias as the only piece of pop culture that has survived (see “Avatar” and “The Matrix“). For a reversal of the former, see this exchange from “The Avengers”.
- “Mystery Science Theater 3000” riffed on “Oz” in almost every episode, but for whatever reason their go-to was the Wizard’s line “I can’t come back, I don’t know how it works! Goodbye folks!”
- “There’s no place like…I wanna be a witch!”
- The film’s behind-the scenes production was covered in part by the TV miniseries “Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows”, with Tammy Blanchard as young Judy.
- 1981’s “Under the Rainbow” is a fictional account of how 124 little people arrived in Hollywood to play the Munchkins, and is considered one of the worst movies ever made.
- Every song from “Oz” has been covered throughout the years, and Judy could never get through a concert without belting “Over the Rainbow”. Speaking of, people seem to love the Israel Kamakawiwoʻole mashup of that song with “What a Wonderful World”.
- Most of the cast lived long enough to see the film become a classic, and many of them would appear in conjunction with the annual television airings. Ray Bolger reprised the Scarecrow on an episode of “Donny & Marie”, and Margaret Hamilton turned up as the Wicked Witch in “The Paul Lynde Halloween Special”!
- “Oz” was the grand finale to the dearly departed “Great Movie Ride” at Disney MGM Studios, with the Wicked Witch animatronic being the most technologically advanced of its time.
- But the greatest “Oz” reference in history, possibly better than the original film itself: 1974’s “Zardoz”.
And now the Odds & Ends of “Oz” references I haven’t mentioned yet in these three posts:
- The three vaudevillians Aunt Em hired as farmhands.
- The Wicked Witch theme music
- Professor Marvel
- “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”
- Adriana Caselotti’s weird cameo
- Everyone’s insufferably extensive costume/makeup ordeal.
- “Surrender Dorothy”
- Pat Walshe as Nikko, the head winged monkey.
- For that matter, Nikkō Tōshō-gū.
- The Scarecrow carrying a gun through the haunted forest
- The Winkie guard’s Rorschach test chant
- “Oh what a world, what a world.”
- “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”
- The inaccurate definition of an isosceles triangle
- “And you and you and you…and you were there!”
- Russell Maloney’s New Yorker revue of the movie calling it a “stinkeroo”.
- And of course, the copious amount of gay coding throughout the whole film.
Bonus Clip: Margaret Hamilton appeared on a 1975 episode of “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” as herself, talking about how she was only pretending to be a Wicked Witch and that no one needed to be afraid of her. Thanks Maggie.
Listen to This: Judy Garland’s rendition of “Over the Rainbow” is a classic, though weirdly it’s a Decca recording she sang as a single that has made the National Recording Registry.
Listen to This Too: For those who don’t understand why I’m mentioning Pink Floyd’s 1973 album “The Dark Side of the Moon” in this post, drop the needle after Leo the Lion’s third roar and you’ll thank me later for the most amazing coincidence in the history of art.
Further Reading: There is so much more fascinating history to uncover about the production and legacy of “Oz”, and countless books on the subject. I’ll recommend the “50th Anniversary Pictorial History” by Oz/Judy Garland expert John Fricke, and Aljean Harmetz’s aptly named “The Making of the Wizard of Oz“.