We're Off to See the Wizard

Still shaking from the tornado, Dorothy steps through the shadowy door. She gasps, seeing a sight that had only come to her before in dreams. A sparkling world of vibrant color greets her, complete with a road of yellow brick. The green leaves, blue water, and even her own dress seem to glow, the colors brighter than ever before. Mind spinning, Dorothy looks down at her only companion, her dog, and breaks the iridescent silence. “Toto,” she says, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.” In the seventy-two years since first spoken, this line has become one of the most iconic of all time. Based on a classic novel, The Wizard of Oz paved the way for modern filmmaking with its phenomenal actors and special effects, and became one of the most beloved, critically acclaimed films of all times.

In 1900, L. Frank Baum wrote down a story about a little girl named Dorothy who lived on a farm in Kansas with her Auntie Em, Uncle Henry, and beloved dog Toto. All was well on this tiny farm until a malicious tornado uprooted Dorothy and plopped her down in the middle of a mystical fairytale world called Oz. In the Land of Oz, Dorothy accidentally kills a witch, makes an enemy, and meets a new group of friends as she embarks on a journey to find the fabled Wizard of Oz and ultimately return to Kansas. Baum titled this story The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but in its pre-publication phase, it was known as everything from The Great City of Oz to From Kansas to Fairyland. Although originally intended as a children’s story, the book instantly became a hit with audiences of all ages. In his introduction, Baum says: “[It] was written solely to please the children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairytale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heart-aches and nightmares are left out.” (Randall 191). This story of happiness and pleasure appealed not only to the people of the early 20th century, but has entertained audiences for over one hundred years. Baum even turned the beloved book into a series, writing thirteen sequels until his death. When he died, his wife sold the book rights to Ruth P. Thompson, who proudly continued the series.
Little did most people know, the happy fairytale also had an unexpected underlying meaning. In the book, Baum subtly pokes fun at typical 20th century life. Dorothy symbolizes an average Midwest American, while the Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, and Wizard of Oz symbolize farmers, industry, politics, and technology subsequently. Several characters, especially the Scarecrow, are rumored to have originated in a childhood nightmare of Baum’s. While trying to decide on a name for his fairytale, Baum looked upon a filing cabinet labeled “O-Z” and thus the Land of Oz was born. No matter how allegorical, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz became a classic American fairytale, longing premiere on the big screen.

From the start, a big-screen appearance was eminent. Baum himself helped produce a hit musical version of the book, starting in 1902 and running until 1910. A one-reel long, black and white, silent film premiered on March 14, 1910, with a basis leaning more toward the musical than toward Baum’s novel. In 1925, another silent film was released, this time feature length. Even an Oz-based radio series came out during the Great Depression in the 1930’s. On one fateful day on January 26, 1934, Samuel Goldwyn bought the film rights to Baum’s book for $40,000. He assigned writers Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allen Wolf to adapt the book into a script, and the modern Wizard of Oz was born.

A cast was assembled soon after, including 16-year-old Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale, Frank Morgan as the Wizard, Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow, Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion, and Jack Haley as the Tin Man. Shirley Temple was the original choice to play Dorothy, but due to a contract with Fox, she could not partake in the film. Judy Garland stepped up to the challenge, and played the role successfully. Jack Haley was not the first, nor was he the second actor cast to play the Tin Man. Originally, Ray Bolger cast to play the role, but decided to switch roles with Buddy Ebsen. Ebsen began filming, but was soon poisoned by the aluminum makeup, and was then replaced by Haley. Although directing credit goes to Victor Fleming, he was actually one of four directors to work on the project. Prior to Fleming, Richard Thorpe and George Cukor worked on the project. With three weeks of filming left, Fleming went to finish directing Gone with the Wind, another blockbuster, and King Vidor finished the movie.

The Wizard of Oz carved the path for the special effects that define modern movies. Although not the first movie filmed in Technicolor, it helped ease the transition into modern all-color moviemaking. Perhaps the most stunning part of the movie is the iconic transition from sepia to color. In fact, the Dorothy seen opening the door and stepping into the brilliantly colored world of Oz was not Judy Garland. Instead, a stand-in in a sepia-colored costume opened a sepia-toned door, and as the cameras zoomed into the brilliant world of Oz, the real Garland stepped into the shot wearing the classic blue gingham dress. Although the vibrant colors of Oz mesmerized audiences, filming in Technicolor was not easy. The cameras required several bright lights that made filming uncomfortably warm for the cast and crew. Colors also looked different on camera than in real life, and it took hundreds of paint samples to make the famous yellow brick road look realistic.

With a cast of 4,000 members, make-up and costuming posed another challenge. Head makeup artist Jack Dawn struggled with exactly how to create the silver makeup for the Tin Man. Initially, the makeup contained aluminum powder and white glue. The original Tin Man, Buddy Ebsen, could not help but inhale the powder, which poisoned him. Ebsen would survive the poisoning but be unable to continue filming the movie. After the incident, Dawn incorporated the aluminum powder into a thick paste that the new actor, Jack Haley could not inhale. The Lion and Scarecrow had foam and rubber pieces placed on parts of their face and neck and then painted over to create realistic looks. Another huge makeup challenge was presented by the 350 actors portraying the munchkins. It would take twenty makeup artists at a rate of nine munchkins per hour to get through the entire cast. With an almost unheard of budget of nearly three million dollars, the film was costly. However, it would pay for itself when it became successful and made millions.

Nothing proves the quality of a classic film more than the critically acclaimed awards it has won or been nominated for. At the 1940 Academy Awards, composer Herbert Stothart won the picture an Oscar for “Best Original Score,” and the memorable “Over the Rainbow” won “Best Original Song”. The picture was also nominated for “Best Art Direction,” “Best Cinematography,” “Best Special Effects,” and “Best Picture.” It narrowly lost the Oscar for “Best Picture” to the other blockbuster of the year, Gone with the Wind. The Wizard of Oz also won a 1989 award from the National Film Preservation Board, a Saturn Award in 2005 for its release on DVD, and a Sierra Award in 2009 for the 70th anniversary DVD edition. Besides official awards, critics have found other ways to recognize the brilliance of The Wizard of Oz. When listed under the National Film Registry’s “treasured” films, laws protected the movie, stating any editing from the original format is illegal. In 1989, the film’s fiftieth anniversary, it was honored by Macy’s, Downy, and many more influential companies. The same year, it ranked sixth in the American Film Institute’s 100 Years, 100 Movies program. It was the first film shown annually on television, and the American Film Institute rated Judy Garland as eighth most influential star in a 1999 television special. In 2004, Animal Planet listed the 50 Greatest Hollywood Animals in a television program, and Terry, the dog who portrayed Toto, topped the scales at number one. It was critically acclaimed from the start, but the public had a different opinion of the movie.

While The Wizard of Oz turned into one of the most beloved classics of all time, it was not originally a hit. Originally, the blockbuster Gone with the Wind overshadowed The Wizard of Oz, as the two films debuted the same year. The year 1939 also marked the onset of World War II, and the small market for children’s movies disappeared with the stress of the war. After its premiere, the movie came almost one million dollars short in profits. Not until the mid-1950s did the movie turn around and make a profit. This is mostly due to its yearly appearances on television and numerous re-showings in theaters. After it became the classic it is today, The Wizard of Oz spiraled into a marketing legacy that included everything from glassware to dolls, greeting cards to Christmas ornaments, plates to figurines, music boxes to clothing items, and even a postage stamp. Originally designed with an Oz theme, The MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas included a rainbow and green color scheme to make customers feel as if they had stepped into the fabled Emerald City. This legacy would continue through modern times with many new twists on the characteristic fairytale.

One of the earliest of these remakes was the 1978 film The Wiz. The film starred big-screen superstars Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. This put a new twist on the classic storyline because Dorothy, played by Ross, was a 24-year-old schoolteacher born and raised in Harlem in New York City. One Thanksgiving, Dorothy was chasing her dog, Toto, and found herself swept up in a blizzard and set down in a strange land named Oz. She meets friends, including a scarecrow played by Michael Jackson, and journeys to the Emerald City, just as Baum’s Dorothy did. With the majority of the cast being African-American, the film captured the essence of a culture before unseen to the American public. Another version came in 1995, when author Gregory Maguire wrote a novel entitled Wicked. This was a prequel to Dorothy’s trip to Oz, and was from the perspective of the Wicked Witch of the West, Elphaba, whose name sprung from the initials of L. Frank Baum. In 2003, this book became a Tony Award winning Broadway musical of the same title. It starred Broadway legends Kristen Chenoweth and Idina Menzel. In 2005, Oz was remade by perhaps the most famous group of puppets ever to grace the television screen, the Muppets. It starred rising actress Ashanti, as well as several of the classic Muppets including Kermit the frog, Gonzo, and Fozzie Bear, and Miss Piggy. The story focused on Dorothy, played by Ashanti, who lived in a trailer park in Kansas and aspired to be a singer. She and her pet prawn, Toto, were swept up into the Land of Oz where she achieved her dreams. Oz has also been referenced in classic films from Star Wars (1977) to Wild at Heart (1990), covered by a variety of musicians including Willie Nelson, Tori Amos, and even spoofed on the Disney Channel children’s series, Phineas and Ferb. The Wizard of Oz forever changed popular culture with its many remakes, spoofs, and twists.

The Wizard of Oz revolutionized the early film industry in every category from special effects to Technicolor filming. Another one of the most iconic moments in The Wizard of Oz is one of the last, when Dorothy returns home to Kansas. Dorothy is distraught because the Wizard has left without her. She thinks she’ll never go back to Kansas, to the family that loves her. Then, Glinda the Good Witch appears and tells her of an alternative. If she clicks the heels of her ruby slippers together three times and thinks of home, she can return. Hopeful, Dorothy clicks her ruby-red heels together three times and whispers, “There’s no place like home.” Tears pour down her face as she anxiously awaits her transition back into reality. Her head starts to spin and she starts to feel herself leaving Oz, the magic pulling at her very insides. With all the passion and intensity she can muster, Dorothy whispers, “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.”





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