by Matt Levine
Not many movies can claim to be a beloved landmark in our pop-culture consciousness as well as a personal favorite of such iconoclasts as Salman Rushdie and David Lynch. Such is the paradoxical nature of The Wizard of Oz, which is both a masterpiece of lavish, big-budget entertainment and a nightmarish journey into the uncanny—a shining example of how movies make our deepest childhood dreams and terrors come true. I remember first seeing The Wizard of Oz at five or six years old and being unable to sleep for days because of the Wicked Witch and her Flying Monkeys; even now, when the green-hued witch appears in a red fireball to destroy the peace of Munchkinland, or when her devilish monkeys flit across the ground and abscond with Dorothy into the sky, I shudder at such a primal image of horror, of untarnished innocence besieged by monstrous evil.
Director: Victor Fleming, George Cukor (uncredited), Mervyn LeRoy (uncredited), Norman Taurog (uncredited), King Vidor (uncredited)
Producer: Mervyn LeRoy
Writers: Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, Edgar Allan Woolf, L. Frank Baum (novel), various (uncredited)
Cinematographer: Harold Rosson
Editor: Blanche Sewell
Music: Harold Arlen, E.Y. Harburg (lyrics), Herbert Stothart (musical adaptations)
Cast: Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Billie Burke, Margaret Hamilton, Charley Grapewin, Pat Walshe, Clara Blandick
US Theatrical Release: August 25, 1939
US Distributor: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
There had been many adaptations of L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz before (and since), but despite the numerous changes between the book and the 1939 film—Oz is a real place in Baum’s novel, not a dream world, and the Wicked Witch has a much more dominant and villainous presence in the film--The Wizard of Oz seems like the purest expression of Baum’s fantastic vision. The story retains a somewhat conservative moral: there really is no place like home and nothing like family to protect young people from the horrors of the world, as Dorothy ultimately realizes when she vows never to leave her Kansas farmhouse again. But this parochial worldview makes sense as a symbolic counterpart to the evil that roams free in Oz; the movie has as much in common with William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience as with Baum’s source novel.
The sepia-toned prologue set on the Kansas farmland of Dorothy’s Auntie Em and Uncle Henry is both drab and ravishing, the studio sets and background matte paintings imbuing the setting with dreamy provinciality. Tracking shots sidle up to and away from characters, a gentle breeze floats in from somewhere off camera—real life has never seemed so perfectly sculpted. As Judy Garland starts singing “Over the Rainbow,” Hollywood offers perhaps its greatest vision of dreamers’ frustrated fantasies—a lonely protagonist in an isolated world, envisioning a paradise far beyond her own knowledge (a wish that Dorothy soon discovers might backfire). As Martin Scorsese brilliantly realized when he recycled this musical number for the beginning of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1975), Dorothy is a surrogate for every viewer who dreams of a life beyond their own, although Scorsese emphasizes the feminist impulse implicit in Dorothy’s restlessness; in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy remains a damsel in distress, albeit one with more agency than many female characters in Hollywood movies at the time (she is, after all, the one who stands up to Elmira Gulch, the Wicked Witch, and the blustery Wizard of Oz).
A plot synopsis seems somewhat unnecessary, as most people know at least the broadest outlines of the story: a twister carries Dorothy and her dog Toto to the land of Oz, conveyed in a three-strip Technicolor process that’s so vibrant it’s almost garish. Through her friends the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion, Dorothy learns the value of loyalty and compassion; by defeating the Wicked Witch and learning of “the Great Wizard’s” relative powerlessness, she learns that her strength (not to mention the brains, heart, and courage desired by her friends) have existed within them all along. The sparkling power of The Wizard of Oz lies not in its thematic complexity but its propulsive story, outsized characters, and the unbridled imagination of its sets, costumes, and special effects; in other words, it's the perfect Hollywood vehicle, the ne plus ultra of the cinema of attractions.
And yet, it’s not so simple. For one thing, big-budget entertainments sometimes have a healthy surrealist streak, which is absolutely true of The Wizard of Oz. From curmudgeonly talking trees to hypnagogic poppy fields to the gruesome blue makeup of the Flying Monkeys, the film exploits the uncanny nature of childhood fantasies, seeming to burrow deep into a collective unconscious. Such a fondness for surrealism and absurdity also contributes to a goofy sense of humor—for example, the moment during the tornado when Dorothy looks out the window and sees two men rowing a canoe, or an interlude late in the film when Dorothy and her fellow travelers stop off at the Wash & Brush Up Co. before visiting the Wizard, with the Tin Man being buffed and waxed and the Scarecrow being refilled with straw. Surrealists of the early 20th century (Louis Aragon and Robert Desnos, for example) lionized Hollywood movies precisely for their commercialism, their reflection of a new modernity intensified by technology and rapid movement; The Wizard of Oz reveals how seemingly straightforward entertainments might in fact offer the most surreal visions imaginable. (It’s not hard to see how the film has influenced David Lynch’s oneiric style.)
The Wizard of Oz also offers a case study in the auteur theory, specifically because the guiding authorial voice in this case seems to be the production studio, MGM. A cavalcade of writers (at least eleven screenwriters contributed drafts) and directors (including Mervyn LeRoy, George Cukor, Norman Taurog, King Vidor, and Richard Thorpe along with credited director Victor Fleming) had a hand in guiding the film, which partially explains its chaotic production (cast members injured and replaced at the last minute, reshoots and rewrites drastically changing the tone, and so on). In many cases, this too-many-cooks background might have been disastrous, but classical Hollywood at the peak of its power functioned more as an assembly line: pre-production might have been the most significant step in the process, when producers (in this case Mervyn LeRoy) would conceive the project and hire a director to follow orders (to varying degrees). There remains great debate as to which artists were mostly responsible for the Wizard of Oz we see today—LeRoy and George Cukor are largely credited with fine-tuning the project—but in any case there has probably never been a better demonstration of that marvelous epithet for Hollywood, “the dream factory.”
But we hardly think of these things when we watch The Wizard of Oz. We think of its reiteration of our childhood fears and dreams—what happens when I leave home? what oddities await me beyond the confines of this small town?—and its unabashed depiction of good and evil. Its simplicity lends it tremendous flexibility: Salman Rushdie saw it as a reminder to young people that they can wrest their destiny away from disinterested adults, while some LGBTQ critics see it as a parable for coming out—escaping a narrow-minded Kansas into a more tolerant, harmonious Oz. Stoners, meanwhile, can start Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon at just the right time and experience it as a pure visceral rush of sound and image. For me, The Wizard of Oz is the sublime epitome of Hollywood’s paradoxical nature: straightforward and surreal, artistic and commercial, conservative and subversive, simple and boundless.