The Wizard of Oz, co-directed by Victor Fleming and King Vidor, is often cited as one of the most beloved films of all time.  There is good reason for this, as the film is a spectacularly colorful, infectiously musical, witty and –at crucial moments– deeply heartbreaking work.  Yet it is also the perfect example of a deft symbiosis between literature and Hollywood, a true adaptation that takes the cherished plot points from a popular children’s novel and gives them a glittery, Technicolor, silky-voiced makeover.  The Wizard of Oz only needs the roadsigns (tornado, ruby slippers, scarecrow) from L. Frank Baum’s work– the rest is pure, unabashed celebration of all that is magical about classic Hollywood.

An in-depth plot summary is far from necessary, as the story of The Wizard of Oz is high concept in its own right.  Yet a brief recap of the truly inventive tale can be illuminating and rather fun.  Dorothy Gale (unbeatable Judy Garland– more on her in a minute) briefly runs away from her Kansas farm home with her dog Toto who, interestingly, is the scruffy catalyst for most of the action in the film.  Dorothy and Toto get locked out of a storm cellar at the pivotal moment when a tornado comes rip-roaring along, and the young lady, her dog, and her house get pulled up through the eye of the cyclone and land in the mesmerizingly colorful Oz, and on a pair of shriveled, ruby slipper-adorned witch legs.  Dorothy quickly becomes the inheritor of these shimmering slippers, and is directed to see the powerful Wizard of Oz about getting back to Kansas.

She follows the yellow brick road, and on her way collects a couple of eclectic friends: a gumby-legged scarecrow (Ray Bolger) who claims he doesn’t have a brain despite his constant insights, a sweet, weepy tinman (Jack Haley) who worries about his lack of a heart, and a frightened lion (Bert Lahr) who seems to have arrived in Oz via the Bronx.  Dorothy also has a maniacally cackling, green-faced Wicked Witch of the West after her ruby slippers, which adds a dash of peril (poisonous poppies! threatening sky-writing!) at every turn.  The arm-linked quartet arrives in the Emerald City only to be told by the Wizard that they must retrieve the broomstick of the Wicked Witch in order to have their wishes fulfilled. They are ultimately able to do this with ingenuity, and a bucket of water.  As the Wizard later booms at Dorothy in a punny, post-Depression line, “SO YOU LIQUIDATED HER, EH?”

Judy Garland’s performance in The Wizard of Oz is one of the greatest of all time, though perhaps under-acknowledged as a true acting accomplishment because her character’s deepest desire is so simple: she wants to go home.  Aside from her celluloid-perfect features (vivacious eyes, rosy cheeks, a pleasantly plump physique) and her knock-out singing talent, Garland is always completely immersed in the role of Dorothy.  If one removes their eyes from all that is beautifully distracting about The Wizard of Oz and just watches Garland at work, the nuance and range of emotion the young actress endows in her character becomes strikingly apparent.  When she is held captive in the witch’s castle, her trembling lower lip and tear-glazed eyes are astonishingly heart-wrenching.  When she acquires a strange crew of similarly wanting friends in Oz, her hopeful, giddy smile is adorable.  And when she watches her three companions awkwardly sing and dance about their maladies, her vaguely confused and concerned expression betrays a gift for comedy that is constantly present though never flashy.

The Wizard of Oz cleverly equates the most flamboyant Hollywood characteristics of the film (the showstopping Technicolor, the song-and-dance routines, the grandiose sets and cast of hundreds) with the dreamlike qualities of Oz, while the Vidor-directed Kansas scenes remain elegantly spare, naturalistic, and washed of color. Another smart addition to MGM’s dream-like land of Oz is the recurring use of actors– the farmhands Hunk, Hickory, and Zeke of course return in disguise as Scarecrow, Tinman, and Cowardly Lion, and Frank Morgan famously juggles five different roles in the film, not least of which is the Wizard himself.  Meanwhile, Margaret Hamilton morphs from the venomous Miss Gulch into the terrifying Wicked Witch, adding the delicious hint of nightmare to a land brimming with surreal déja-vous.

It is delightful that the near-final sequence in such a wholesome film is a humorous yet surprisingly wry skewering of social conventions and authority.  When the almighty Wizard is outed from his curtained chamber, he is forced to award the quartet the difficult honors they requested.  Yet he merely says aloud what we as viewers have pleasantly known all along: Scarecrow is an intelligent fellow, Tinman has as much heart and delicate emotion as anyone, and Cowardly Lion, though a little shaky-legged, is able to overcome his fear if a dear friend is in trouble.  The Wizard is a crafty chap and realizes that all he needs to convince the three of their inner strengths are a few tokens that the people he knew “back home” received– a diploma, a ticking clock in the shape of a heart, and a medal.  The Wizard’s logic suggests that normal people have no more brains, heart, or courage than a beast in the jungle or a man made out of tin.  The only things humans and scarecrows alike need to convince them of their mental and emotional fortitude is a sheet of paper or a shiny piece of bronze.  And we all, without even batting an eyelash, will pay a tremendous amount of respect to the man behind the curtain.

But what about Dorothy?  Returning home cannot be supplanted with a souvenir.  The Wizard silently knows the difficulty of fulfilling the girl’s request, and we as viewers silently know the heartbreaking possibility that the half-rate Wizard may be of no help to our heroine.  Luckily, Dorothy does get back to Kansas with the click of her ruby heels.  This, for Dorothy and for hankie-clutching viewers, is a tremendous emotional relief.  Again, the brilliance of Garland’s performance manifests itself: the simplest desires have the most urgency.  In her plucky yet vulnerable way, Garland fully embraces the simple desire of returning home– she becomes one with that desire– and this may be the film’s greatest achievement.

Advertisements