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The Wizard of Oz

The Wizard of Oz

1939. Lowe's; distributed by MGM. Directed by Victor Fleming; from the book by L. Frank Baum. With Judy Garland, Bert Lahr, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Frank Morgan, Margaret Hamilton

The Wizard of Oz is durable for many reasons, and one is that it offers an affecting allegory of the importance of the movies in American life. I think we can see this movie, made in the last year of the desperate 1930s, as a Hollywood tribute to its own efforts to distract frightened people, lift spirits, and—somewhat unconvincingly—reaffirm homey virtues.

I first saw this movie on black-and-white television in the 50s. When I finally got to a theatrical screening, I was dazzled by the switch from sepia to to color when Dorothy arrives in Oz. Color was no big deal by then, but in this case the effect was magical. Every episode was more emotional, every character more vivid. While some of this can be traced to individual color effects—the pastel Munchkin kingdom, the witch's green face, the very yellow brick road—the cumulative impact goes beyond the sum of its parts.

Suddenly it's more than a new version of a well-known classic. It's a story, meaningful to every viewer, about a person trapped in a drab and oppressive daily life escaping into a fantastic Technicolor world of spectacle and adventure.

As the tornado whisks her away from her family, Dorothy is shown a sort of orientation film about the place she is headed. Through her bedroom window, she sees a series of increasingly fantastic Melies-style visual jokes and transformations that distract her from her own terror. Perhaps the wind has picked up the chicken crates and row boats that fly by, but by the time Miss Gulch turns from a cyclist into a broomstick-riding witch, it is clear that the window has become a movie screen. As Salman Rushdie writes in his scattershot little book about The Wizard of Oz (BFI Film Classics series): "What she sees through the window...prepares her for the new sort of movie she is about to step into."

At least one writer—Kevin Starr in the book Material Dreams (Oxford Press, 1990)—thinks that this theme is implicit in the source material. L. Frank Baum was a Chicagoan who wintered in California, "the magical landscape of fruit and flowers," and in 1914 settled in Hollywood. Starr writes about Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: "The essential story line of this first Oz book functions as a prophetic probe into the inner imaginative texture of the mass migration of Midwesterners to Oz/Southern California and the Emerald City of Los Angeles...Oz is the Garden of the West, so long struggled for on the prairies of the Midwest and frequently so elusive....Baum and a million and more others were to seek it in Southern California." Baum became the quintessential Hollywood citizen: a celebrity, a self-promoter, and a devoted gardener. He even got into the movie business, launching the Oz Film Manufacturing Company and producing 10 movies before selling out to Universal. The movie finds its own way to make the connection between Oz, with its exotic foliage and garish blooms, and the state whose official flower is, after all, the poppy.

Once again we see (or maybe this is just an idee fixe of mine) the migration to California as the last gasp of the westward movement of the 1800s, and the movies as the celebration and symbolic continuation of that adventure. I've always thought that Hollywood's location on the west coast was as important in making it the movie capital as was its weather. We would have had a significantly different cinema had the industry located in Florida.

Another of the memorable gimmicks of The Wizard of Oz movie is the way the actors who play the Oz characters show up first in Dorothy's Kansas life, in mufti so to speak. Part of the charm lies in the idea people from our daily lives return, transformed, in our dreams; this strikes children, especially, as a profound insight. But there is also the moviegoer's thrill of seeing actors in double roles, of getting a behind-the-scenes-style glimpse of what these heavily made-up characters "really" look like. The farmhands and Professor MarvelI gathered at Dorothy's bedside at the end are like stage actors who pull off their wigs during the curtain call: it's really me; I was acting.

The stage-actor comparison suggests that maybe, with closely-glimpsed human faces such a staple of the movies, there's something disturbing about actors appearing unrecognizable under elaborate, theatrical-style makeup. This may be why there is so much extra-cinematic attention given to the details of movie makeup—the photo spreads showing everyone from Boris Karloff to Robin Williams being transformed step by step. Certainly we're meant to marvel at the technical achievement, but perhaps we're also being reassured about the real people presenting themselves to us on film.

(An irrelevant point, but one that I've been dying to make somewhere: For me, one of the great treats of The Wizard of Oz is Billie Burke's appearance as Glinda. Here, preserved on film, is a vanished theatrical style. Her elocution, her posture, her smile, the way she dips and sways and holds her hands offer a glimpse of how enchanting the stage stars of the Ziegfeld era must have been. It's entirely inconsistent with the "naturalistic" style the movies came to favor, but it's charming to see.)



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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein