30s Review: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

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Only bad witches are ugly, but only good witches invade your personal space!: MGM

A couple of weekends back I attended my first ever outdoor film screening as part of Film 4’s Summer Screen at Somerset House in London. It was a dream-themed double-bill of LABYRINTH followed by what I think most of the audience were there for, THE WIZARD OF OZ. Both films looked stunning projected into the walls of a neoclassical mansion, the wind seemingly dropping picking up again in time with events on screen, and at one point a massive flock of seagulls , highlighted in the night sky by the floodlights below, made a dramatic appearance.

Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) is swept away from Kansas to the land of Oz, where along with her friends the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), the Tin Man (Jack Haley) and the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) she quests to the Emerald City for an audience with the Great and Powerful Wizard. Along the way they must all overcome their weaknesses and defeat the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton).

First, Labyrinth-in-very-brief. You really need nostalgia to enjoy this. Despite some imaginative staging (the hand-faces and the Escher stairs at the end) it’s mostly just David Bowie thrusting his package forward, occasionally warbling lesser material and young, wooden Jennifer Connolly playing with less witty Muppets.

From cult curiosity to cinematic royalty. The Wizard of Oz might well be the greatest of Hollywood’s Golden Age output. With spectacular musical numbers (made all the more joyous if everyone sings along), an unimpeachable ensemble of character actors and vaudeville talent and effects that still haven’t aged that badly 80 years on by virtue of being creative (non more so than a stocking around chicken wire standing in for the tornado). The film of course also features one of the all-time great visual gimmicks employed as Dorothy arrives in the Merry Old Land of Oz, the world transforming from agricultural sepia to fantastical Technicolor on stepping through a door. This really is one that has stood the test of time.

Judy Garland is great in almost every way Jennifer Connelly wasn’t in Labyrinth. It’s a joyous performance with such easy chemistry with her co-stars and such natural charisma. Before the Wicked Witch of the West was over-explained and retconned to be simply misunderstood by WICKED and OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL, she was a crafty, cruel force of evil nature in Margaret Hamilton’s hands.

The preeminent exponent of “the power was inside you all along” / “it’s all about the journey” storytelling. Such clichés prompt groans when they’re used today, but in their classic form, as the pure and powerful meaning behind Dorothy’s journey, they really land. It also somehow manages to get away with the “it was all a dream” twist in a way so few stories have, because it’s so thematically essential to this tale.

I think it’s underestimated how influential Oz was on fantasy films in general. I can’t not think of Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS aesthetic when we get to the scenes in the Wicked Witch’s castle at the end. On arriving in Oz, the story doesn’t stop dead to give us a load of expository information, but we almost immediately understand how this strange and colourful world works, and we take in the land’s wonders with new eyes just as Dorothy does.

It hasn’t all aged perfectly of course, with the Cowardly Lion’s limp-wristed gesture accompanying his self-description as a “dandy lion” now prompting a wince (though his archaic obvious sexual coding has apparently since been reclaimed by the LGBT community), realising how seriously Margaret Hamilton injured herself in a fire effect or that Toto was paid much more than the munchkins all prompt no small amount of discomfort. Staggeringly, the producers wanted to cut the superlative “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” when they should have probably cut the decidedly naffer “King of the Forest”.

The Wizard of Oz is near-perfect dream-musical extravaganza and has barely aged a day in 81 years. What more is there to say? There’s no place like old Hollywood? SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

I'm not paid to write about film - I do it because I love it. Favourites include Sam Mendes, Guillermo del Toro, Bong Joon-ho, Steven Spielberg, Danny Boyle, Edgar Wright, Taika Waititi and the Coen Brothers. All reviews and articles are original works owned by me. They represent one man's opinion, and I'm more than happy to engage in civilised debate if you disagree.
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