Follow the yellow brick road, follow the yellow brick road, follow, follow....
Confession time: This movie scared the living daylights out of me when I was a kid.
I must have been about four or five when I first saw the movie, over the objections of my parents still remembering a bad freakout from viewing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. (To this day, a small part of me still believes that if I chew gum, I shall blow up into a giant blueberry, doomed to be rolled around and around FOREVER.) But I desperately wanted to see the movie—it had a dog! And singing! And dancing!
An hour or so later, I was burrowing under my father’s arm, shaking in sheer terror, absolutely convinced that those flying monkeys were going to come right out of the television and eat me. (Never mind that nowhere in the film do the flying monkeys do any actual eating. They look just like the sorts of creatures that would not hesitate to eat small terrified children.)
And yet I insisted on seeing the film through to the end. I had to know what happened to that dog.
Years later, I can report that the dog is okay. (I hope I’m not spoiling anyone here.) The flying monkeys are still pretty horrific. (Although this may be lingering childhood trauma.) And this is still a powerful film, about trying—and failing—to escape your fears.
In the 1930s, MGM Studios was riding high as Hollywood’s most dominant movie studio, the only one to make it through the Depression with continuous profits. But in one film, they did not dominate: children’s entertainment, in part because despite the continued popularity of Shirley Temple films (over at rival studio 20th Century Fox), few realized the potential profit in children’s films.
The success of Disney’s 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, however, proved that full length children’s films not featuring the adorable Shirley Temple could, indeed, make money, and appeal to a crossover audience. MGM began looking for a property that could, like the Disney film, combine the fantastic with the musical. The Wizard of Oz, already turned into two rather dreadful films, seemed a perfect follow-up.
No one had any idea of what a nightmare production and filming would be.
Even before principal shooting began, at least eleven screenwriters were rumored to have taken a hack at the script. Eventually, at least twenty people, plus actors Ray Bolger, Jack Haley and Burt Lahr contributed in one way or another to the script, most never receiving credit. This inauspicious start foreshadowed other unexpected changes. Ray Bolger, set to play the Tin Man, begged for the role of the Scarecrow instead. His replacement Buddy Ebsen developed a severe allergy to the Tin Man’s makeup (his studio bosses initially thought he was trying to skip out on work) and in turn was replaced by Jack Haley. And before the Kansas scenes could be shot, director Victor Fleming was called off the film to save MGM’s other little film, Gone With the Wind. Sets and props had to be hastily created and recreated to work with the still tricky new Technicolor process, and many of the necessary special effects initially stumped film crews.
(Alas, as it turns out, that lovely story that actor Frank Morgan just happened to realize that the coat he is wearing in the Professor Marvel scenes was once owned by L. Frank Baum himself turns out to be not so true. Upon rethinking, however, I have decided to completely believe MGM’s publicity department on this one, since it’s the sort of story that ought to be true, even if it isn’t.)
Some ill thought ideas, including the hint of a romance between Dorothy and the Scarecrow/Hunk the farmhand, had to be dropped. (Vestiges of this idea remain in the film, if not anywhere in the books, especially in Dorothy’s line, “I think I’ll miss you most of all,” and in the decision to give the Scarecrow slightly more of a leadership role. Nonetheless, Dorothy and the Scarecrow are JUST FRIENDS, thank you very much.)
All of this should have created a film of complete chaos. And yet—apart, perhaps, from the Cowardly Lion musical number designed to showcase Bert Lahr’s singing and dancing chops, the film flows together remarkably well, moving seamlessly from scene to scene, and song to song-helped by the “If I Only Had...” and “We’re Off to See the Wizard...” songs that provide musical continuity. (It also helps that most of the songs are easy to sing along with.) The actors, particularly Judy Garland as Dorothy and Margaret Hamilton as the terrifying Wicked Witch, threw themselves heart and soul into their roles, and if Dorothy occasionally comes off a bit too ingenuous for her age, it still largely works. It is, above all, a remarkably beautiful film, glowing with color.
And those Flying Monkeys? STILL FREAKY.
(If you can, try to see the film in its digitally restored version, which restored the sepia tones to the Kansas scenes and made the Oz scenes so bright and sharp that you can see the individual strands of the Cowardly Lion’s mane and tail. Alas, in an couple of shots you can also see the wire that moves the Cowardly Lion’s tail, but let us not be picky.)
With this said, some parts of the film have not dated well. The Munchkin scenes are—it pains me to say this—deeply annoying, partly thanks to a decision by the studio to redub the Munchkin voices with various recording devices that created frequently incomprehensible, and sometimes high pitched squeals. As a result, I could only sympathize with my viewing partner who said a loud “Thank God!” when the Wicked Witch finally made her appearance. (I do, however, regret to say that he spent the rest of the film cheering on the Witch.) A few of the backgrounds are too obviously soundstages and matte paintings, although I suppose that adds to the somewhat dreamlike quality of the film. And for the life of me, I cannot figure out why, if Glinda is powerful enough to make it snow on those poppy fields, she can’t do something to keep Dorothy from getting snatched up by those horrible Flying Monkeys just a few scenes later.
Quite a few other things surprised me on this viewing: just how long the film lingers in Kansas. The way the Tin Man’s feet clunk with every step—a very nice little touch—and how little he speaks in the final film, continually overshadowed by the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion. Just how terrified the Cowardly Lion is throughout the film—except when he’s singing. (I suspect this is part of what makes the film so terrifying to small children—I mean, if a LION is scared, everyone must be doomed, right?) Just what lengths a woman will go to get that perfect pair of shoes. (Although, on that note, why, if you are allergic to water, would you keep buckets of it around your house?)
And just how much that cute little dog spurs the plot along—not just in the Kansas scenes introducing the fearsome Miss Gulch, but also in Oz, where he plays a major role in the scenes introducing the Cowardly Lion, leads Dorothy’s friends to the rescue against the Wicked Witch, and exposes the Wizard as a fraud. Toto might just be the real hero of the film.
But what really struck me about this film is how it confronts the issues of its time while completely avoiding them.
Hollywood movie studios in the 1930s were acutely aware of both the Great Depression and of growing tensions in Europe, in part because the Great Depression impacted their salaries directly, and in part because so many directors, screenwriters and film crew hailed from Eastern Europe. Film studios could, then as now, choose several different responses. Some avoided any hints of war or economic trouble, focusing on light, escapist fare. Warner Bros. chose to make a series of films that managed the neat trick of being pro-war and anti-Nazi without ever mentioning the Nazis at all (the 1938 Robin Hood, ironically starring Nazi sympathizer Errol Flynn, which draws specific visual metaphors between those oppressed Saxons and Jews in Germany, is perhaps the best example of this). In direct contrast, MGM backed David Selznick’s anti-war Gone With the Wind, with its striking images of the horrors of war mingling with a deliberate and heightened acceptance of racism.
But in The Wizard of Oz, MGM took a decidedly different approach. The film opens with an unflinching look at real life tensions, of living in a world where at any moment, someone can walk into your house and take away the thing, or person, you love most in the world, and do so while citing the law. (And Dorothy and the film most certainly consider Toto at least a quasi-person.)
This was filmed during a time when people throughout the world were doing just that—entering homes and taking away people and possessions. The Wizard of Oz doesn’t show this as dramatically as Robin Hood does (which includes scenes of violence as the stereotypically Jewish looking peasants are roughly taken from their homes) but that awareness is still there.
“There’s no place like home,” declares Dorothy, and she’s right-no other place in the film, even the castle of the Wicked Witch, is nearly as dreary as her Kansas home—even if the film Dorothy appears to be wealthier than the book Dorothy, whose farm did not have farm hands or extensive furniture. But where the book Dorothy could escape permanently to Oz, the film Dorothy has no such options. Anyone can dream of going over the rainbow. No one can actually stay there outside of a dream.
All the more poignant, then, that the film Kansas is far more dangerous than Oz, book or film, ever is. For all of the very real terror that the Wicked Witch and her Flying Monkeys evoke, they do less actual harm than Miss Gulch can and does in Kansas. (Not to mention that Dorothy makes it all the way through Oz and an assault on a badly defended castle with a fire safety problem without a single bruise, while back in Kansas, she appears to be suffering from a fairly severe concussion from the cyclone.) True, the Wicked Witch and her Monkeys do scatter the Scarecrow’s straw and send Dorothy flying up into the air, but the Scarecrow cannot feel pain and is swiftly restored, and Dorothy is not injured at all.
Meanwhile, back in Kansas, Miss Gulch remains alive and well (if the cyclone killed her, no one mentions it) and able to return and remove Toto again at any time, this time presumably with a more secure wicker basket.
Not to mention the dreary restoration of all that sepia-toned reality.
For all the deserved joy at the end of the film, this is a surprisingly bleak (and realistic) ending. Fantasize all you wish about escape; in the end, you’ll be right back where you were, perhaps with a head injury added in.
This is, I think, one reason (along with the Munchkins) why some people hate this film. But I think this very bleakness beneath the joy, this contradictory tension, is precisely what gives the film its power.
With that digression said, I must admit that the Kansas scenes—even Judy Garland’s signature “Over the Rainbow” moment—are not the ones that stick with me. Rather, I remember the little moments in Oz: the Horse of Many Colors; the Cowardly Lion saying, with quivering knees, “I do believe in spooks. I do, I do;” the joyful dancing of Our Heroes as they sing their way down the Yellow Brick Road.
And, er, yes, those terrifying Flying Monkeys.
Go see it, on a big screen, if you can. It’s at turns aggravating, terrifying, inspiring, and, yes, from time to time, a bit boring. But if you can watch the sight of a tap dancing Tin Man without grinning your face off—well, I can only say that you don’t have a heart.
Housekeeping note: And yes, with this, I’m back to more or less regular blogging at Tor.com, after a too-long interval caused by some unexpected chaos in the months of August and September. Barring any extensions of said chaos, in the next few weeks I’ll be heading back to examine some of the L. Frank Baum books I missed on the great Oz reread, as well as some of the non-canonical books by the other Royal Historians and Gregory Maguire. Then, it’s on to other fantasy worlds. Some that might just happen to feature another talking lion of quite a different sort.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida, where she keeps a wary eye out for Flying Monkeys.