The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Directed by Victor Fleming

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Beyond just a spectacle, The Wizard of Oz is about growing up and the ways in which adults can fail you.  It’s a famous story in which young Dorothy (Judy Garland), once stranded far, far away from home, must seek out the mythical Wizard of Oz only to find that he is just a man behind a curtain, embarrassed when his secret is found out.

Dorothy lives with her aunt, uncle and dog Toto in Kansas.  Over the course of a brief afternoon we watch as no one will listen to her or take her seriously and a mean-spirited neighbor demands that Toto be put down after he bit her.  Miss Gulch rides off with Toto thanks to a Sheriff’s order, but when Toto escapes and runs back home, Dorothy decides to run away with her dog to save his life.

On the road, Dorothy runs into Professor Marvel, a fortune teller, who convinces her that her aunt is sick.  Dorothy decides to return home, driven by guilt, but a tornado arrives and she is unable to join her family in the underground shelter.  Dorothy hides with Toto inside the house, and soon the entire home is lifted away in the tornado and dropped into the land of Oz.  Where the scenes of Kansas were shot in black and white, Oz is presented in color.

Once in Oz, Dorothy is celebrated because her house has landed on the Wicked Witch of the East, killing her.  The munchkins all run out alongside Glinda the Good Witch of the North and celebrate Dorothy.  Then the Wicked Witch of the West, the other bad witch’s sister, shows up and demands her sister’s red ruby slippers, now worn by Dorothy.  And, look, this is kind of rude, right?  The Wicked Witch declares her intention to get revenge on Dorothy for her sister’s death, and man she really wants those slippers.

Anyways, all Dorothy wants is to get home, and the good witch tells her to follow the yellow brick road, and you know the plot so I’m not sure why I’m taking this long to explain it.  On the yellow brick road Dorothy meets the Scarecrow who wants a brain, the tin man who wants a heart and finally the lion who wants courage.  Each of these men resemble workers on Dorothy’s farm just as the Wicked Witch resembles Miss Gulch.

At this point in the story, this is just a young girl dealing with corrupt or insecure adults.  Dorothy is the leader, marching through Oz like Captain Willard looking for Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now.  She will be saved by her three new friends before they finally arrive to see the Wizard, whom Dorothy sees as her only chance to get home safely.

The Wizard turns out to be a man resembling Professor Marvel (Frank Morgan) behind a curtain, and he confesses that this is all a ruse.  Still, he gives everyone what they’re looking for with the implication that they’ve possessed it all along.  He gives the tin man a heart, the scarecrow a diploma and the lion a medal indicating his courage.

Finally, he offers to give Dorothy a ride home, but when this doesn’t go as planned, the Good Witch from earlier shows up and tells Dorothy to say “there’s no place like home” as she clicks the heels of her slippers.

Suddenly she wakes up in bed in Kansas, back in black and white, and surrounded by all the adults in her life who we now recognize as the scarecrow, tin man, and wizard from Oz.

As Roger Ebert notes, The Wizard of Oz is touching on the key lesson of childhood, which is that someday the child will not be a child, that home will no longer exist, that adults will be no help because now the child is an adult and must face the challenges of life alone. But that you can ask friends to help you. And that even the Wizard of Oz is only human, and has problems of his own.”

I don’t think I have much to add to that.  The Wizard of Oz is a kid’s story about a capable child who must navigate a strange new world, much in the way of later adventure films, wether it’s Harry PotterThe Adventures of Tintin or The Chronicles of Narnia.  The Wizard of Oz lays down this template in its simplest form.  The plot is pretty simple and straightforward, and the more important aspect of the story is the lessons learned by each of the characters.  Returning to this film after probably close to two decades, I found that the only thing I really remembered was the end of the film, when Dorothy’s three friends receive the one thing they’ve been looking for.

The Wizard of Oz was one of the earliest films shot in technicolor and certainly the highest profile of these films.  This was done using a ‘three strip process’ in which each strip of film were sensitive to a different color: red, blue and green.

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“Two strips of 35 mm black and white film negative, one sensitive to blue light and the other to red light, ran together through an aperture behind a magenta filter, which allowed blue and red light to pass through. A third film strip of black and white film negative ran through a separate aperture, behind a green filter. The two apertures were positioned at 90 degrees to each other, and a gold-flecked mirror positioned at 45 degrees behind the lens allowed 1/3 of the incoming light to go directly through to the green-filtered aperture, and reflected the remaining light to the magenta-filtered aperture. Because of this division of light between three film strips, Technicolor photography required much more lighting than black and white photography.”

So you would have three different film negatives, like this:

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From left to right is is red, green and blue.  The three strips are printed and look just like black and white prints except that the exposures are slightly different based on the color highlighted.

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Then each print is coated with a complementary dye (Cyan for Red, Magenta for Green, Yellow for Blue)…

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And when overlayed, the final print looks like this:

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The point is, this took a lot of time, and on set it required a lot of extra lighting.  The cameras themselves were bigger and harder to operate.  In some scenes that required multiple cameras the crew had to film at night because that was the only time the lending Technicolor Corporation had that many cameras to spare.  The Technicolor Corp. also insisted a consultant be on set at all times to oversee use of the camera.

So shooting The Wizard of Oz in technicolor was a big deal.  The film was a spectacle as much as anything else, a technical achievement for its time like Avatar or, I don’t know, what other technical achievements are there?  The Arrival of a Train (1896) by the Lumiere Brothers?  Toy Story 3?

Oh, and The Wizard of Oz is also a musical.  It’s showy.  The story is simple, the emotion is clear, and that leaves plenty of room for large dance song and dance numbers to fill out the sparse plot.

Part of the reason The Wizard of Oz is so famous, beyond a second wave of public interest following repeated television broadcasts in the 50’s, is the tortured treatment of star Judy Garland.  It’s a bit hard to watch her onscreen considering what went into the production.  Only 16 at the time, Garland was forced to wear a suffocating corset to make her appear younger, and that’s just the beginning.

“Actors in the 1930s were under contract to whatever studio they signed with, and they were systemically abused and overworked. Teenage actors were often given adrenaline shots to keep them awake, and barbiturates to help them sleep. Garland was no exception… Garland was already taking pills before she was hired for Oz, but she began using them more frequently once on set. There are reports she was also molested and sexually harassed by both Munchkin actors and studio executives. Although she went on to star in a handful of other features, it was the alcohol and barbiturate addiction that began on the set of Oz that finally killed her at the age of 47.”

Other stories include actress Margaret Hamilton (Wicked Witch) suffering severe burns from the pyrotechnics on set, the poisoning of the Tin Man when he suffered an allergic reaction to the silver makeup.  In a scene in which it snows, the snow was made of asbestos fibers, which people didn’t learn was toxic until years later.  Even Toto the dog was trampled on set and broke her paw.

What a time to be alive.

On a lighter note of the chaos behind the scenes, the film had five directors.  George Cukor was replaced by Victor Fleming (the credited director) who then left early to again replace Cukor, this time on Gone With the Wind which would beat The Wizard of Oz to win Best Picture at the Oscars.

Up Next: 9/11 (2002), Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater (2013), Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

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