This marks the last week of my spotlight on musicals. The TCM Mad About Musicals course just wrapped up this week. I now have an even greater appreciation for the genre. For the final week of my look at musicals, I have chosen an all-time favorite: The Wizard of Oz. While it was robbed of Best Picture (Gone With the Wind, really?), the film has only continued to enchant generations of film lovers. It seems impossible to put the film’s greatness into words. But I will give it the old college try.
By now we all know the story of The Wizard of Oz. Based on the popular books by Frank L. Baum, it follows the adventures of Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) through the magical world of oz. She ends up there after a tornado blows through her Kansas farm. Once her house finally lands after being sucked up into the cyclone, she opens the door to the magical world full of witches, munchkins, and other fantastical creatures. The transition from the sepia tones of Kansas to the magnificent Technicolor world of Oz remains one of the most breathtaking things ever put on film. More on the technical merits of the film later.
Dorothy learns upon entering Oz that she has killed the Wicked Witch of the East (when Dorothy’s house landed it fell on her). Because of this, Dorothy sparks the ire of the witch’s sister, the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton). The Wicked Witch of the West wants her sister’s magical ruby slippers. But Glinda, the Good Witch of the North (Billie Burke), manages to put them on Dorothy’s feet first. The Wicked Witch of the West swears revenge on Dorothy. Glinda tells Dorothy her best chance of getting home is to travel to the Emerald City and enlist the help of the Wizard of Oz (Frank Morgan).
With that, Dorothy follows the Yellow Brick Road to begin her quest. Along the way, Dorothy and dog Toto meet the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), the Tin Man (Jack Haley), and the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr). The Scarecrow wants a brain, the Tin Man a heart, and the lion courage. All decide to team up with Dorothy and go to the Wizard to seek his help. Once the gang reaches the Emerald City and finally see the Wizard, he gives them a task before granting their wishes. They must bring back the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West (to do so they will have to kill her). They pull off the feat, and then find out that (spoiler alert!) the Wizard is a fraud. But Dorothy does get home. At the end of the excitement, Glinda informs her that all she has to do is click the heels of her shoes three times and repeat, “there’s no place like home.” It is in the denouement we discover the adventures in Oz were a dream brought about when Dorothy got knocked out during the tornado.
The Wizard of Oz has endured for nearly 80 years for a multitude of reasons. First, the songs are magical. There’s Garland’s rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow early in sepia toned Kansas that sets up her desire to go to a magical place away from her troubles. There’s also We’re Off To See The Wizard, If I Only Had a Brain, and The Merry Old Land of Oz. They all add to the timeless quality and charm of the film.
There’s also the fact that The Wizard of Oz introduced the world to Judy Garland. It’s remarkable that she was so great and such a young age. To this day, there are few, if any, modern artist with her versatility. It’s a rare person who can act, but also sing and dance. Garland proved over her long career to be able to do all three things at an incredibly high level. We will never see another like her.
Along with Garland, The Wizard of Oz has a rich and wonderful supporting cast. My favorite of the bunch is Margaret Hamilton. It’s thanks to Hamilton’s skill that the Wicked Witch of the West remains the standard by which film villains are measured. I also love the underrated Frank Morgan as the Wizard and Billie Burke as Glinda.
Finally, the look of The Wizard of Oz is just incredible. There’s Technicolor and then there’s TECHNICOLOR. This film takes the technical process to an art form. The look of Oz is one of the most beautiful things ever committed to film. Credit the film’s cinematographer Harold Rosson. The look of the film has not aged a day since 1939. Not many films can make that claim.
The Wizard of Oz is a touchstone of American pop culture for good reason. It has a simple but fun story, colorful characters, adventure, timeless songs, and it take place mostly in a magical land that remains one of the great technical achievements in the history of cinema. It’s a film for kids age 8 to 80. It has endured for 79 years and will likely endure for 79 more.