Why “The Wizard of Oz” Is My Favorite Movie

In high school other boys had posters of sports teams and rock groups hanging on their bedroom walls. I had classic comedians — and this

A tribute today to my favorite movie The Wizard of Oz (1939). I mentioned it ad nauseam in my book No Applause, but I’ve never spouted at length on the topic itself. We recently stumbled across these ads from an old TV Guide from March 15, 1970. That particular broadcast is likely the first time I ever saw the movie! (At age four)

Sponsored by the Sewing Machine manufacturer? Or the midgets?

It was the second or third time that I watched the film, when I was just a shade older, that it truly made a mark on me. These were the days before home video. Broadcast television held the monopoly on home video entertainment. Far more than today, television screenings were events. The Wizard of Oz was among a sacrosanct number of classic films and tv specials that were aired annually. These occasions had the aspect of holidays. Saying that I watched The Wizard of Oz a dozen or fifteen times when I was a kid means that I watched it at the rate of once a year over 12-15 years. Because of this, it always remained special. It made deep marks. Every aspect of the film got absorbed. I not only learned the movie, but I memorized where the network normally cut to a commercial!

I’ve written some (but not exhaustively, there’s more to say) about the first movie I ever saw in a cinema The Poseidon Adventure and the impact it had on me. But The Wizard of Oz may be the first movie I consciously sat and watched ever. It has always been the central aesthetic experience of my life. It led me to vaudeville ,where most of the cast and some of the artists and others involved in the film got their start. And it set the bar for what I am constantly hoping to see. I want ALL lyrics to be that clever and ALL music to be that charming and ALL comedians to be that clownish and bizarre. My heart responds to all manner of Americana and kitsch. I require the big, the outlandish, the strange — I want tornadoes and flying houses and flying monkeys and midgets! Anything else makes me yawn. And you know what? You get these effects in some measure and in some combination more often than I bet you think you do. In fact you get them all over the place — in Shakespeare, the Iliad, in comic books, paintings at the Met, in Warner Brothers cartoons and at your favorite local burlesque show.

As I’ve already blogged about the various personnel associated with the film, I’ll only say a few additional words here. I hope you will follow the links to read my full post on each.

Judy Garland was my first crush. Her performance was so high strung and affecting that on one of my first screenings of the movie I wept inconsolably when it was over, for so long a time that my parents became alarmed. Ostensibly it’s a happy ending — she gets where she’s been trying to go, but it’s also sad because she has left the fantasy world and returned to her previously bleak existence (you must admit). But mostly I think I was just overwhelmed by the experience. Garland was so sympathetic in the role, she takes you to where she is at emotionally, and she is constantly distraught, a raw nerve. There was much about her plight that I related to, that all kids relate to, especially kids back then when parenting styles were harsher. The meanness of parents and authority figures. Being locked in a room as punishment. Having your beloved pet harshly yanked from your arms to be “destroyed”. In emulation of Dorothy, and no doubt inspired by this film and the book it was based on, I literally ran away from home as a small child (four or five years old), filling my small town with panic for a few hours. The occasion was my first experience of the euphoria of escape and freedom. Being found a few miles away, and returned to a yard full of concerned strangers, was my first experience of the rush that comes from getting lots and lots of attention. Who cares what kind? (I didn’t say it was healthy!)

The younger, more adorable Shirley Temple had been considered for Dorothy. As great a star as Shirley was, it would have been a very different movie.

For Garland was also beautiful — and 16. She was in point of fact my first crush. At, like five years old, I dreamed of marrying her. When I learned that she had recently died (she died in 1969), I dreamed of putting roses on her grave. She became my ideal in the Platonic sense, or to use Dorothy’s term, my “heart’s desire.”  This is all pre-sexual, of course. It was simply a vision of beauty that made me happy. I think it no coincidence at all that my first high school crushes were long-haired brunettes. None of them could sing, though.

Of Dorothy’s three cohorts, like all children, I revered them in this order: Bert Lahr (Lion), Ray Bolger (Scarecrow), Jack Haley (Tin Man). We used to re-enact the film on the playground the next day after a tv showing, and the Lion and Scarecrow were always the plum roles. Haley’s work is subtler. It was only as an adult that I truly began to appreciate his work in the movie, and when you learn the backstory, you learn that he contributed much of the film’s comic business, often generously sharing stuff that made his colleagues look good.

Part of the personal appeal of this trio for me is that I had three older brothers, and the oldest of them is a clown and a character easily as outre as Bert Lahr (not a professional clown, he just makes people laugh). Another part of the appeal is that two of the guys (Bolger and Haley) were from nearby Boston, and Lahr was from New York. So they spoke like us. I mean, with our accent (I’m from Rhode Island). I’ve always cherished this exchange for example:

Dorothy, Lion, Scarecrow: No HAHT?

Tin Man (with a sigh): No haht.

Yet a third thing that connected me to the film was that, in watching the film with my family, we talked, and there was this: Dorothy lives on a farm with her Uncle Henry and Aunt Em and the three farm hands, and it’s the Depression. My dad grew up on a farm during the Depression. And my mom’s uncles all had dairy farms, or worked on them. And my older brothers had worked as farmhands on our great-uncles’ farms as kids. (I would work as a farmhand briefly too as a teenager). So those scenes meant something we connected to, it wasn’t some faraway abstraction, though it was prettified and idealized of course.

When the three guys switch to their dream personas they become powerfully strange in ways that are rooted in deep theatrical tradition. We wrote about these kind of grotesque effects and their impact here .

The make-up became a problem for one of the original cast members, Buddy Ebsen, who shot some scenes and recorded some songs as the Tin Man, but who become poisoned by the aluminum dust in the facepaint and had to drop out.

Gale Sondergaard was originally to play the witch, but she, too, backed out before shooting began

Frank Morgan became a sort of hero to me, not just as the Wizard, but as the traveling charlatan Professor Marvel. The American Godfather of all such characters is P.T. Barnum, whom I became obsessed with as an adult. W.C. Fields had been considered for the Wizard, but he was too busy playing a similar role in You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man that year. In honor of the character I named my theatre company Mountebanks, and tried to play similar roles whenever I could.

To this day, Margaret Hamilton remains unsurpassed as Hollywood’s most iconic witch; she truly filled us with terror as children.  Billie Burke as Glinda the Good Witch brought Broadway glamour to the proceedings. Though she was from an earlier era (she was 55 when the film was made!) I associate her very much with those gorgeous art deco stage sets of Oz in the film; she was a production value in and of herself. Follow the links, too, to learn about Charley Grapewin (Uncle Henry) and Clara Blandick (Aunt Em).

As you may know from reading this blog, I am also interested in freak shows (there is a whole section on sideshow and dime museum performers here) — this interest was no doubt first stoked by the Little People in the film who played the Munchkins: Singer’s Midgets, Billy Rhodes, Jerry Maren, Meinhardt Raabe, Jackie Gerlich, the Doll Family, and some others. Pat Walshe, who played Niko, the Main Winged Monkey, specialized in playing monkeys in vaudeville. Voice over work was done by Billy Bletcher, Pinto Colvig, and Candy Candido.

Songs were by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg. Harburg loved crafting those funny lyrics for Bert Lahr; he’d done so previously on Broadway. But the pair were also adept at timeless ballads, as you well know. I was thrilled to get to meet Harburg’s son Ernie a couple of times several years back!

Mervyn LeRoy was the film’s visionary producer; Victor Fleming the director of record, although portions were directed by King Vidor, George Cukor, Norman Taurog and Richard Thorpe. Vaudeville veteran Edgar Allan Woolf was one of the ten screenwriters.

A zillion people worked on the troubled screenplay, although Edgar Allan Woolf, Florence Ryerson and Noel Langley are credited. And Haley and other cast members contributed lots of ad libs and bits of business from their experience in vaudeville.

The edition I had

Like so many others, the film led me back to the original book, which I think I discovered when I was about seven, and it became my favorite children’s book thereafter, along with many of its sequels. I blogged about L. Frank Baum here. This post also talks about some of the previous film adaptations from the silent days, some of which Baum actually produced.

You would think the film would make me a huge fan of MGM musicals, but I am much more a classic comedy fan, I was not raised on a diet of musicals. When No Applause first came out, a man approached me about collaborating on a musical about the Freed Unit, and I only had a vague idea of what it even was. (I politely turned him down, of course). I’ve since redressed my inadequacy in this area. Though I still would never claim to be an expert or even a particular fan of the Freed era MGM musicals in general, I really love certain of them (Meet Me in St. Louis and The Harvey Girls being two examples that spring immediately to mind).

I’ll always cite vaudeville as a major reason for the artistic (and popular) success of The Wizard of Oz. And a lack of vaudeville aesthetics for how dreadful all of the Oz sequels have been. (Read my savage review of a recent one here. )

Do yourself and your kids a favor and show them the real thing. 

For more on vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on little people, some of whom appeared in The Wizard of Oz, please check out Rose’s Royal Midgets and Other Little People in Vaudeville.