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Friday, October 25, 2013

MGM's The Wizard of Oz

Wizard of Oz cast, Bert Lahr, Ray Bolger, Judy Garland, and Jack Haley.
The title character was a bit part played by Frank Morgan, who also
had four other minor roles in the film.
Judy Garland read the book
but MGM's screenwriters seem
to have barely skimmed it.
Several years ago, my then eight-year-old granddaughter was chosen by her school to play the lead role in their children's operetta of The Wizard of Oz. My wife was called upon to sew her iconic light blue "jumper" dress. What a pleasure it was for me to explain to our talented young actress the long, colorful, indeed iconic, role she was stepping into. There will only be one Dorothy. Having said that, MGM's 1939 Wizard of Oz is very far down my list of favorite movies. I guess part of the reason has to do with the fact that I'm no great lover of children's movies. I guess I'm kind of fond of Spielberg's 1991 Hook which was something of a grown-up sequel to Peter Pan, but apart from that I can't think of a single such film I'd really like to see or see again. Quite apart from that, Wizard of Oz always struck me as being so syrupy sweet and "cute" as to drive up my already high glucose level by a hundred points. However, 1939 was a landmark year in Hollywood moviemaking with films such as Gone With the Wind, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Stagecoach, Wuthering Heights, Dark Victory, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Oz was, of course, a bright star in that galaxy. It was such a banner year for great films AMPAS was forced to increase the number of Best Picture nominations from seven to ten, not that it mattered much with Selznick's GWTW the hands-down favorite in that category. While winning Best Picture, it also copped seven other Oscars on the side. Wizard of Oz was nominated for six Oscars but won only two (Best Musical Score and Best Song).

How it all began--a sepia and white tornado--no simple feat in 1939.
Victor Fleming with his Dorothy
Ironically, Victor Fleming sort of found himself competing against himself, having directed Oz before being hastily "borrowed" from MGM by David Selznick to fix the multitude of sins plaguing GWTW during its first weeks of production. He won a well-deserved Oscar for directing GWTW. He wasn't even nominated for Oz, which brings to the fore one of the unfortunate difficulties of this third film version of Frank Baum's best-selling 1900 children's classic--the Oscar competition in all categories was cutthroat. Nearly 150 feature-length films were released that year. Wizard of Oz was quite competitive, though. Like GWTW it was a Technicolor extravaganza. It's budget of nearly $2.8-million was huge, though about a million less than that of Selznick's winner (a record at the time) but well above that of most of the other 1939 Oscar slate. Beyond that, Fleming was arguably the best director in Hollywood at the time, with a cast that was pitch perfect.

For MGM, the yellow brick road was not paved with gold.
A budget--$2.8-million got them only $3-million with the film's initial release.
Socks? With high heels?
Speaking of pitch, that brings up the film's major Oscar liability--it was a musical. Yet, Oz could only be called one of the great Hollywood musicals of all time. With an exorbitant song list of eighteen ditties such as the Oscar winning Over the Rainbow, followed closely by We're Off to See the Wizard, Ding Dong, the Witch Is Dead, and the unforgettable "classic," If I only had a Brain, to name just a few, Oz would be near the top of anyone's list of great film musicals. Yet, the film was seen by Hollywood against a backdrop of "serious" works as merely an expensive juvenile vehicle for some quite "hummable" musical numbers. Despite Victor Fleming's outstanding direction, it was not deemed to be in the same category as its powerful competition. Oz was simply overwhelmed, and not just by Gone With the Wind.

Judy Garland with Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West.
Witches, wizards, and windstorms...Harry Potter in pigtails?
Maybe this explains the movie's
enduring popularity around
Christmas time.
Moreover, despite the excellent cast, a tuneful score, Frank Baum's storybook plot, Victor Fleming's firm direction, Judy Garland's talented sidekicks and incredible singing voice, not to mention munchkins, witches, and wizards galore, Oz did little for MGM's 1939 balance sheet. It was not until a re-release ten years later that the studio listed it as profitable. Perhaps more than any other film, (with the possible exception of It's a Wonderful Life), has any motion picture so greatly owed its success to television. First shown on TV by CBS in 1956, since 1959, Wizard of Oz has become a perennial holiday classic even though it has not the slightest reference to Christmas, Thanksgiving, or New Year's Day. Halloween, maybe...

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