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The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Young Dorothy Gale and her dog Toto are swept away by a tornado from their Kansas farm to the magical Land of Oz, and embark on a quest with three new friends to see the Wizard, who can return her to her home and fulfill the others’ wishes.

The Wizard of Oz (1939) Trailer

 

The Wizard of Oz (1939) Reviews

As a child I simply did not notice whether a movie was in color or not. The movies themselves were such an overwhelming mystery that if they wanted to be in black and white, that was their business. It was not until I saw “The Wizard of Oz” for the first time that I consciously noticed B&W versus color, as Dorothy was blown out of Kansas and into Oz. What did I think? It made good sense to me.

The switch from black and white to color would have had a special resonance in 1939, when the movie was made. Almost all films were still being made in black and white, and the cumbersome new color cameras came with a “Technicolor consultant” from the factory, who stood next to the cinematographer and officiously suggested higher light levels. Shooting in color might have been indicated because the film was MGM’s response to the huge success of Disney’s pioneering color animated feature, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937).

If “Wizard” began in one way and continued in another, that was also the history of the production. Richard Thorpe, the original director, was fired after 12 days. George Cukor filled in for three days, long enough to tell Judy Garland to lose the wig and the makeup, and then Victor Fleming took over. When Fleming went to “Gone With the Wind,” King Vidor did some of the Munchkin sequences, and the Kansas scenes.

There were cast changes, too; after Buddy Ebsen, as the Tin Man, had an allergic reaction to the silvery makeup, he was replaced by Jack Haley. Musical numbers were recorded and never used. Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch of the West) was seriously burned when she went up in a puff of smoke. Even Toto was out of commission for two weeks after being stepped on by a crewmember.

We study all of these details, I think, because “The Wizard of Oz” fills such a large space in our imagination. It somehow seems real and important in a way most movies don’t. Is that because we see it first when we’re young? Or simply because it is a wonderful movie? Or because it sounds some buried universal note, some archetype or deeply felt myth?

I lean toward the third possibility, that the elements in “The Wizard of Oz” powerfully fill a void that exists inside many children. For kids of a certain age, home is everything, the center of the world. But over the rainbow, dimly guessed at, is the wide earth, fascinating and terrifying.

There is a deep fundamental fear that events might conspire to transport the child from the safety of home and strand him far away in a strange land. And what would he hope to find there? Why, new friends, to advise and protect him. And Toto, of course, because children have such a strong symbiotic relationship with their pets that they assume they would get lost together.

This deep universal appeal explains why so many different people from many backgrounds have a compartment of their memory reserved for “The Wizard of Oz.” Salman Rushdie, growing up in Bombay, remembers that seeing the film at 10 “made a writer of me.”

Terry McMillan, as an African-American child in northern Michigan, “completely identified when no one had time to listen to Dorothy.” Rushdie wrote that the film’s “driving force is the inadequacy of adults, even of good adults, and how the weakness of grownups forces children to take control of their own destinies.” McMillan learned about courage, about “being afraid but doing whatever it was you set out to do anyway.”

They’re touching on the key lesson of childhood, which is that someday the child will not be a child, that home will no longer exist, that adults will be no help because now the child is an adult and must face the challenges of life alone. But that you can ask friends to help you. And that even the Wizard of Oz is only human, and has problems of his own.

“The Wizard of Oz” has a wonderful surface of comedy and music, special effects and excitement, but we still watch it six decades later because its underlying story penetrates straight to the deepest insecurities of childhood, stirs them and then reassures them. As adults, we love it because it reminds us of a journey we have taken. That is why any adult in control of a child is sooner or later going to suggest a viewing of “The Wizard of Oz.”

Judy Garland had, I gather, an unhappy childhood (there are those stories about MGM quacks shooting her full of speed in the morning and tranquilizers at day’s end), but she was a luminous performer, already almost17 when she played young Dorothy. She was important to the movie because she projected vulnerability and a certain sadness in every tone of her voice.

A brassy young child star (a young Ethel Merman, say) would have been fatal to the material because she would have approached it with too much bravado. Garland’s whole persona projected a tremulous uncertainty, a wistfulness. When she hoped that troubles would melt like lemon drops, you believed she had troubles.

Her friends on the Yellow Brick Road (the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion) were projections of every child’s secret fears. Are we real? Are we ugly and silly? Are we brave enough? In helping them, Dorothy was helping herself, just as an older child will overcome fears by acting brave before a younger one.

The actors (Jack Haley, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr) had all come up through a tradition of vaudeville and revue comedy, and played the characters with a sublime unself-consciousness. Maybe it helped that none of them knew they were making a great movie.

They seem relaxed and loose in many scenes, as if the roles were a lark. L. Frank Baum’s book had been filmed before (Oliver Hardy played the Tin Man in 1925), and this version, while ambitious, was overshadowed by the studio’s simultaneous preparation of “Gone With the Wind.” Garland was already a star when she made “Wizard,” but not a great star–that came in the 1940s, inspired by “Wizard.”

The special effects are glorious in that old Hollywood way, in which you don’t even have to look closely to see where the set ends and the backdrop begins. Modern special effects show *exactly* how imaginary scenes might look; effects then showed how we *thought* about them. A bigger Yellow Brick Road would not have been a better one.

The movie’s storytelling device of a dream is just precisely obvious enough to appeal to younger viewers. Dorothy, faced with a crisis (the loss of Toto), meets the intriguing Professor Marvel (Frank Morgan) on the road. She is befriended by three farm hands (Bolger, Haley and Lahr).

Soon comes the fearsome tornado. (What frightened me was that you could see individual things floating by–for months I dreamed circling around and around while seated at the little desk in my bedroom, looking at classmates being swept mutely past me.) Then, after the magical transition to color, Dorothy meets the same characters again, so we know it’s all a dream, but not really.

There are good and bad adult figures in Oz–the Wicked Witches of the East and West, the Good Witch Glinda. Dorothy would like help from her friends but needs to help them instead (“If I Only Had a Brain,” or a heart, or nerve, they sing). Arriving at last at the Emerald City, they have another dreamlike experience; almost everyone they meet seems vaguely similar (because they’re all played by Morgan).

The Wizard sends them on a mission to get the Wicked Witch’s broom, and it is not insignificant that the key to Dorothy’s return to Kansas is the pair of ruby slippers. Grownup shoes.

The ending has always seemed poignant to me. Dorothy is back in Kansas, but the color has drained from the film, and her magical friends are mundane once again. “The land of Oz wasn’t such a bad place to be stuck in,” decided young Terry McMillan, discontented with her life in Michigan. “It beat the farm in Kansas.”

  • Roger Ebert –  Roger Ebert
  • Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

For veteran director Victor Fleming, who began making movies during the black-and-white, silent era, 1939 represented the pinnacle of his career.

Not only did Fleming’s Gone with the Wind claim the Best Picture Oscar, but his other big feature, The Wizard of Oz, took its first steps towards becoming one of American cinema’s best-known and most beloved motion pictures. (It’s worth noting that Fleming had help from several other directors on Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, but, in the end, he was given sole credit for both.) Indeed, The Wizard of Oz is one of only a handful of films that nearly everyone is familiar with.

Throughout the years, there have been dozens of live-action films, stage plays, animated features, and TV programs based on L. Frank Baum’s classic Oz stories. To one degree or another, almost all have been influenced by Fleming’s telling of the tale.

Although the 1939 version was not the first filmed adaptation of the book (the Internet Movie Database lists at least two silent movies, including one with Oliver Hardy as the Tin Man, that preceded Fleming’s), it is without a doubt the definitive one. When anyone thinks of The Wizard of Oz, they see Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, and Jack Haley, and hear “Somewhere over the Rainbow” and “Follow the Yellow Brick Road.”

1998 has already seen a theatrical re-release of Gone with the Wind, and now The Wizard of Oz joins it. This version of Oz is being touted as a “Special Edition,” although those expecting to see new scenes of Toto gnawing at the Scarecrow’s legs or Dorothy playing Hide-and-Seek with the Munchkins will be disappointed. No extra material has been added.

The print looks great, but the Technicolor was already re-invigorated for a previous laserdisc release. The only really noticeable improvement this time around is the soundtrack, which has been converted from the original mono to digital surround sound. Still, is that enough to justify calling this a “Special Edition?”

Probably the most interesting aspect of The Wizard of Oz comes from interpreting what really happens during the bulk of the film. The story opens by introducing us to Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland), a young girl in Kansas who finds her wanderlust stirred by dreams of going “somewhere over the rainbow.” When a tornado strikes the farm where she lives with her aunt and uncle, she is knocked unconscious.

Upon waking up, she finds herself in the magical land of Oz, where she journeys in the company of a Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), a Tin Man (Jack Haley), and a Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) to defeat the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) and find the all-powerful Wizard (Frank Morgan), who has the power to send her home.

But is this a real trip, or is it all a dream? A strong case can be developed for either possibility, although it’s ultimately up to each viewer to make up his or her own mind. Whichever way you lean, it doesn’t detract from the movie’s boundless capacity to entertain.

The Wizard of Oz belongs in that exclusive category of films capable of equally enchanting children and adults. In fact, the basic formula was so successful in The Wizard of Oz that Disney borrowed it as the framework for their recent wave of animated pictures.

If there’s something familiar about the structure of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, etc., that’s because the approach of mixing light comedy and adventure with catchy musical tunes (while frontloading the music and concentrating on adventure late in the story) is not original. Recognizing how well Oz played to all audiences, Disney adapted the skeleton of the classic for their own use.

Of course, there’s more going on in Oz than just that. At the core of the story is a theme that speaks to children and adults in similar, yet different, ways. Dorothy’s dream may be to travel to a far off land, but, when she finds herself there, all she wants is to go home – to a place where she’s safe, loved, and warm.

This is a dilemma that all children face – the desire to cut the apron strings balanced by the overpowering yearning for the comfortable and familiar. As adults, we can watch The Wizard of Oz and fondly remember our own pilgrimage from childhood to adulthood and how, in many ways, it mirrors the one Dorothy is taking.

Another aspect of The Wizard of Oz that immediately arrests the attention is the film’s use of black-and-white (actually brown-and-white) and the vivid hues of Technicolor. All of the scenes that transpire in our mundane world are presented in the most drab manner possible, but, when the setting shifts to Oz, the grays and browns are replaced by brilliant reds, blues, oranges, and yellows.

It takes a rare movie to make a viewer even think of it as “black and white” or “color,” but, because The Wizard of Oz puts meaning into appearance (much like the recently-released Pleasantville), the nature of the visual composition become crucial.

The special effects in The Wizard of Oz do not look like the special effects in Armageddon or Godzilla. No computer animation was used, so they’re far less elegant. In many cases, they look like special effects. You can see where the yellow brick road ends and the matte painting begins.

When the Scarecrow has been torn apart, you know exactly where Bolger’s body is. The Wizard’s balloon is clearly not real. It doesn’t matter, though. These effects are good enough to sketch the outline; our minds fill in the rest. The Wizard of Oz takes on a life in our head that it never quite attains on the screen. Because of the power of imagination, the film transcends the limitations of the techniques used to craft it.

Over the years, The Wizard of Oz has been subjected to the kind of scrutiny reserved for only the greatest of motion pictures. Volumes have been written about it, analyzing everything from its look to the urban legends that have sprung up around it.

(The best known, that there’s an electrocuted stage hand in the background of a forest scene, has been thoroughly debunked.) Ultimately, however, it doesn’t take a lengthy study to understand why multiple generations find the movie so compelling. Not only is it wonderfully entertaining, but the issues it addresses, and the way it presents them, are both universal and deeply personal. And therein lies The Wizard of Oz‘s true magic.

  • A movie review by James Berardinelli

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The Wizard of Oz (1939) Credits

The Wizard of Oz movie poster

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Rated G

101 minutes

Cast

Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale

Frank Morgan as Marvel, Wizard, etc.

Ray Bolger as Hunk/Scarecrow

Bert Lahr as Zeke/Cowardly Lion

Jack Haley as Hickory Twicker/Tin Woodman

Margaret Hamilton as Miss Gulch/Witch of West

Billie Burke as Glinda, Good Witch

Pat Walshe as Nikko

Charley Grapewin as Uncle Henry

Clara Blandick as Aunt Em

Screenplay by

  • Noel Langley
  • Edgar Allan Woolf
  • John Lee Mahin
  • Florence Ryerson
  • L. Frank Baum

Music by

  • Harold Arlen

Directed by

  • Victor Fleming

Produced by

  • Mervyn LeRoy

Edited by

  • Blanche Sewell

Photographed by

  • Harold Rosson

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The Wizard of Oz (1939) Plot

Teenager Dorothy Gale lives on a Kansas farm owned by her Uncle Henry and Aunt Em, who are assisted by three farm hands: Zeke, Hunk and Hickory. When Dorothy’s dog Toto bites the wealthy Almira Gulch, Miss Gulch obtains a sheriff’s order authorizing her to seize the dog to be euthanized. Toto escapes and returns to Dorothy, who runs away to protect her dog.

Professor Marvel, a charlatan fortune teller, tells her to go home because Aunt Em is heartbroken. Dorothy returns just as a tornado approaches the farm. Unable to get into the locked storm shelter, Dorothy takes cover in the farmhouse and is knocked out by a shattered window. The tornado lifts the house and drops it on an unknown land.

Dorothy awakens and is greeted by short people known as Munchkins, and a “good” witch named Glinda, who explains to Dorothy that she is in Munchkinland in the land of Oz. The Munchkins are celebrating because the house landed on the Wicked Witch of the East. Her sister, the Wicked Witch of the West, appears in a puff of smoke. Before she can seize her deceased sister’s ruby slippers, Glinda magically transports them onto Dorothy’s feet and tells her to keep them on, as they must be very powerful.

Because the Wicked Witch has no power in Munchkinland, she leaves in another puff of smoke, but only after telling Dorothy, “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too!” Glinda knows of only one person who might know how to help Dorothy return home: the Wizard of Oz. Dorothy is directed to follow a yellow brick road that goes to the Emerald City, the Wizard’s home.

Along the way, she meets the Scarecrow, who wants a brain; the Tin Man, who desires a heart; and the Cowardly Lion, who lacks courage. The foursome and Toto eventually reach the Emerald City, despite the best efforts of the Wicked Witch. Dorothy is initially denied an audience with the Wizard by his doorman. The doorman, however, relents on hearing that they were sent by Glinda, and the four are led into the Wizard’s chambers. The Wizard appears as a giant ghostly head and tells them he will grant their wishes if they bring him the Wicked Witch’s broomstick.

During their quest, Dorothy and Toto are captured by flying monkeys and taken to the Wicked Witch, but the ruby slippers protect her. The Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion free Dorothy, but are pursued by the Witch and her guards. They are cornered by the Witch, who sets fire to the Scarecrow. When Dorothy throws a bucket of water onto the Scarecrow, she inadvertently splashes the Witch, which causes her to melt away.

The Witch’s guards gratefully give Dorothy her broomstick. The four return to the Wizard, but he tells them to return tomorrow. When Toto pulls back a curtain, the Wizard is revealed to be just an ordinary man, operating machinery that projects the ghostly image of his face. The four travelers confront him, upon which he confesses that he, like Dorothy, accidentally arrived in Oz from America. He then “grants” the wishes of Dorothy’s three friends by giving them tokens that symbolize that they always had the qualities they sought.

The Wizard offers to take Dorothy back to Kansas with him aboard his hot air balloon. However, after Toto jumps off and Dorothy goes after him, the balloon accidentally lifts off with just the Wizard aboard. Glinda reappears and tells Dorothy she always had the power to return to Kansas with the help of the ruby slippers, but had to find that out for herself. After sharing a tearful farewell with her friends, Dorothy heeds Glinda’s instructions by tapping her heels three times and repeating the words, “There’s no place like home.” She is transported back to Kansas.

She awakens in her bed with a washcloth on her injured head and is attended to by her aunt, uncle and the farm hands. Professor Marvel stops by as Dorothy describes Oz, telling the farm hands and the Professor they were there too. (The actors who portrayed Marvel and the farmhands also played the characters in Oz.) Unfazed by their disbelief, Dorothy gratefully exclaims, “There’s no place like home!”

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The Wizard of Oz (1939) Box office

According to MGM records, during the film’s initial release, it earned $2,048,000 in the U.S. and $969,000 in other countries throughout the world, for total earnings of $3,017,000. However, its high production cost, plus the costs of marketing, distribution, and other services, resulted in a loss of $1,145,000 for the studio. It did not show what MGM considered a profit until a 1949 re-release earned an additional $1.5 million (about $13 million in 2020).

Christopher Finch, author of the Judy Garland biography Rainbow: The Stormy Life of Judy Garland, wrote: “Fantasy is always a risk at the box office. The film had been enormously successful as a book, and it had also been a major stage hit, but previous attempts to bring it to the screen had been dismal failures.” He also wrote that after the film’s success, Garland signed a new contract with MGM giving her a substantial increase in salary, making her one of the top ten box-office stars in the United States.

The film was also re-released domestically in 1955. Subsequent re-releases between 1989 and 2019 have grossed $25,173,032 worldwide, for a total worldwide gross of $29,690,032.

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The Wizard of Oz (1939) Critical Response

The Wizard of Oz received widespread acclaim upon its release. Writing for The New York Times, Frank Nugent considered the film a “delightful piece of wonder-working which had the youngsters’ eyes shining and brought a quietly amused gleam to the wiser ones of the oldsters. Not since Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has anything quite so fantastic succeeded half so well.” Nugent had issues with some of the film’s special effects:

with the best of will and ingenuity, they cannot make a Munchkin or a Flying Monkey that will not still suggest, however vaguely, a Singer’s Midget in a Jack Dawn masquerade. Nor can they, without a few betraying jolts and split-screen overlappings, bring down from the sky the great soap bubble in which Glinda rides and roll it smoothly into place.

According to Nugent, “Judy Garland’s Dorothy is a pert and fresh-faced miss with the wonder-lit eyes of a believer in fairy tales, but the Baum fantasy is at its best when the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion are on the move.”

Writing in Variety, John C. Flinn predicted that the film was “likely to perform some record-breaking feats of box-office magic,” noting, “Some of the scenic passages are so beautiful in design and composition as to stir audiences by their sheer unfoldment.” He also called Garland “an appealing figure” and the musical numbers “gay and bright.”

Harrison’s Reports wrote, “Even though some persons are not interested in pictures of this type, it is possible that they will be eager to see this picture just for its technical treatment. The performances are good, and the incidental music is of considerable aid. Pictures of this caliber bring credit to the industry.”

Film Daily wrote:

Leo the Lion is privileged to herald this one with his deepest roar—the one that comes from way down—for seldom if indeed ever has the screen been so successful in its approach to fantasy and extravaganza through flesh-and-blood… handsomely mounted fairy story in Technicolor, with its wealth of humor and homespun philosophy, its stimulus to the imagination, its procession of unforgettable settings, its studding of merry tunes should click solidly at the box-office.

Some reviews were less positive. Some moviegoers felt that the 16-year-old Garland was slightly too old to play the little girl who Baum intended his Dorothy to be.

Russell Maloney of The New Yorker wrote that the film displayed “no trace of imagination, good taste, or ingenuity” and declared it “a stinkeroo”, while Otis Ferguson of The New Republic wrote: “It has dwarfs, music, Technicolor, freak characters, and Judy Garland. It can’t be expected to have a sense of humor, as well – and as for the light touch of fantasy, it weighs like a pound of fruitcake soaking wet.” Still, the film placed seventh on Film Daily‘s year-end nationwide poll of 542 critics naming the best films of 1939.

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The Wizard of Oz (1939) Accolades

Awards
Award Date of ceremony Category Recipient Outcome
Academy Awards[105] February 29, 1940 Best Picture Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Nominated
Best Art Direction Cedric Gibbons and William A. Horning
Best Effects, Special Effects A. Arnold Gillespie and Douglas Shearer
Best Music, Original Score Herbert Stothart Won
Best Music, Original Song “Over the Rainbow”
Music by Harold Arlen; Lyrics by E.Y. Harburg
Academy Juvenile Award Judy Garland
For her outstanding performance as a screen juvenile during the past year. (She was jointly awarded for her performances in Babes in Arms and The Wizard of Oz).
Honorary

 

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The Wizard of Oz (1939) Movie Info

When a tornado rips through Kansas, Dorothy (Judy Garland) and her dog, Toto, are whisked away in their house to the magical land of Oz. They follow the Yellow Brick Road toward the Emerald City to meet the Wizard, and en route they meet a Scarecrow (Ray Bolger) that needs a brain, a Tin Man (Jack Haley) missing a heart, and a Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) who wants courage. The wizard asks the group to bring him the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) to earn his help.

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