Directors: Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Mervyn LeRoy, Norman Taurog
Starring: Judy Garland, Margaret Hamilton, Bert Lahr
Length: 1h 52
The Wizard of Oz is an inescapable cultural juggernaut. It has been used as political protest, been enthusiastically co-opted by the queer community, been parodied countless times by everything from Futurama to Strictly Come Dancing, and almost everyone has cosy memories of watching it with family at Christmas in a mince pie stupor. However, despite its intimidatingly ubiquitous pop cultural status, I found that this film is still able to cast its spell.
What struck me most about The Wizard of Oz, and where I’d say its enduring magic lies, is in its vivid, gloriously technicolour evocation of another world. The look and set design of the land of Oz is so hyperreal and intense, that when Dorothy opens the door of her black and white Kansas house onto the heavily saturated technicolour world of Oz, the audience is thrown right into that world with her. The sheer physicality of the set is overwhelming, with the huge, gaudy plastic flowers, the improbably blue stream, the chirping of birdsong, and of course, the dazzlingly bright yellow brick road, all making for a sensory overload.
Of course, some of the physical effects making up the world of Oz are somewhat dated. For example, the glowing-eyed vultures from the Witch’s forest, which resembled eccentric garden ornaments more than horrifying portents of doom, and which elicited more wry chuckles from the audience than shrieks of terror. However, by and large the physical effects making up the set of Oz are a strength- the artificiality (every set backdrop is clearly painted, the flowers and plants are obviously plastic) adds to the sense of being in another world, and one that hasn’t dated the way CGI would. Instead of trying to persuade you of its reality, the film shows a physical, tangible, and thus oddly fragile, magical world of its own making, playing by its own rules, not bounded by reality in any way.
I was initially worried that the film would be overly saccharine, and the first song we hear in Oz, with the squeaky voiced munchkins dancing and singing to Dorothy about their ‘Lullaby League’ and their ‘Lollypop Guild’, did nothing to ease my trepidation. However, once you get past the nauseatingly twee munchkins, the film gets the balance right, managing to be charming without being cloying, and even has moments of real darkness. Everyone who saw the film as a child seems to have memories of the parts of the film that scared them, be that the hugely creepy flying monkeys, the Wicked Witch of the West, played by a fantastically shrill, larger-than-life Margaret Hamilton, or, my personal favourite, the moment when we see the stripy tights clad legs of the crushed Wicked Witch of the East shrivel away to nothing and disappear.
The performances in this film are almost universally fantastic, but it is Judy Garland’s innocent, wide-eyed, but never twee Dorothy that really holds the film together. It is her tender, wistful performance that makes ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ such a memorable and genuinely affecting moment. In fact, all the film’s best songs owe their success largely to the brilliant performances. A clear example of this is The Cowardly Lion’s song, ‘If I were King of the Forest’, which is completely superfluous to, even disruptive of, the flow of the narrative. It is essentially just an indulgent showcase of Bert Lahr’s considerable comic capabilities, but his performance is so funny that you can’t help but go along with it.
All in all, The Wizard of Oz more than lives up to its iconic reputation, and despite its famously troubled production, which saw no fewer than four different directors, it still manages to deliver a blissful, vivid trip into the magical world of Oz. However, the film is more than just an escapist sugar rush. While Dorothy may conclude that ‘There’s no place like home’ on her return to black and white Kansas, there is an undeniably bitter twinge as she leaves behind the glorious, absurd Oz for Kansas and the nice but dull Aunt Em. This film is often seen as an analogy for growing up, and while Dorothy, and the audience, must eventually face the grown-up world of Kansas, we are still given the rare chance to experience the world of Oz in uncynical, childlike awe. The Wizard of Oz certainly isn’t perfect, it is occasionally stilted, saccharine, and dated, but in spite of these flaws it is still absolutely worth watching, and returning to, just to be swept up in its wide-eyed, joyful sense of wonder.