It’s hard, if not impossible, to think of a movie more famous than this one. According to the Library of Congress, The Wizard of Oz is the most seen film in history. It’s among the first 25 movies that were added to the added to the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” back when they started that catalogue in 1989. It shares this honour with movies like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Star Wars, Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Gone with the Wind and a number of others.
Originally released in August of 1939, it’s the oldest live-action feature film I’ve looked at on this blog (Gone with the Wind released in December of that year). I doubt I’ll be looking at an older movie any time soon. It received 6 nominations at the Academy Awards that year, including Best Picture (lost to Gone with the Wind). Interestingly enough, both movies were directed by Victor Fleming. Wizard of Oz did win the Oscars for Best Original Song (Over the Rainbow) and Best Original Score.
Also, today happens to be the 82nd anniversary of The Wizard of Oz. I didn’t know that until I started researching for this review, after I watched the movie. Happy accident there. Also heads up in advance, this post will be talking much more about the film’s development than what I think of the movie itself … more so than usual for these blog posts.
The development for Wizard of Oz began shortly after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs proved that film adaptations of popular children’s stories and fairytale folklore could still be successful. In January of 1938, MGM bought the rights to the film adaptation from Samuel Goldwyn. Interestingly enough, MGM stands for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, with Samuel being the Goldwyn in the company name, yet he never actually had any connection to the management or production at MGM. Regardless, he bought the rights to the film years earlier, but his version of the film never saw the light of day, nor was Goldwyn involved in the filmmaking process of the movie we ended up with.
The script went through several major revisions before shooting began. The first story outline, written by William H. Cannon, would have the scarecrow as a man so stupid the only job he could hold down was scaring crows. The Tinman was a heartless criminal sentenced to his tin suit for an eternity, of which the punishment would eventually soften his heart. This version was similar to the 1925 silent film version. A number of other screenwriters were brought in, with the final version written by Edgar Allen Woolf and Florence Ryerson, with further revisions by Victor Fleming and John Lee Mahin. Meanwhile, the songs were mostly written by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg. Trying to sort through the rest of the writing team is a confusing mess.
The producers felt that 1939 audiences were too sophisticated to accept Oz as a straight fantasy, so they reconceived it as a lengthy dream sequence. Feeling the need to attract younger audiences, they also wanted to feature a scene with musical contests, and a song called “The Jitterbug”, neither of which made the final film. There were also debates on exactly how to colour the land of Oz. It took the art department almost a week merely to settle on the yellow brick road being yellow.
Several actresses were considered for the role of Dorothy, including Shirley Temple, the most prolific child star at the time, Deanna Durbin, a newcomer with an operatic voice, and Judy Garland, the most experienced of the three. They selected Garland, partly over contractual issues with the others. Originally, Ray Bolger was cast as the Tin Man and Buddy Ebsen received the Scarecrow role. However, Bolger longed to play the Scarecrow, as his childhood idol Fred Stone did so on stage in 1902. When Bolger begged for the switch, Ebsen didn’t object. Sadly, Ebsen grew really sick from the aluminum dust in his makeup and had to drop out, to be replaced with Jack Haley. Even though Ebsen dropped out, his voice can still be heard in several of the group musical numbers.
Bert Lahr signed on as the Cowardly Lion, Frank Morgan joined the cast as the Wizard of Oz. Gale Sondergaard originally joined the cast as the Wicket Witch of the West, but withdrew when they changed the witch’s persona from sly and glamorous (similar to the Evil Queen in Snow White) to the familiar “ugly hag”. She was replaced days before filming began with Margaret Hamilton. Hamilton played a very similar witch character in the Garland film Babes in Arms, also released in 1939.
The search for over a hundred little people to portray the Munchkins was extensive, and even stretched into the filming. Most of the filming had finished by the time they finalized the Munchkin casting.
Also, the directing chair changed multiple times during filming. Richard Thorpe was originally to direct, and even shot nine days of footage, including Dorothy’s first encounter with the Scarecrow and the only footage of Bubby Ebsen’s Tin-Man. None of that footage has ever been released to my knowledge. After the studio felt that Thorpe was rushing the production, he was briefly replaced with George Cukor. They also switched up Dorothy’s costume and removed her blonde wig, meaning everything had to be reshot. Cukor ended up not filming any scenes, but acted as a creative advisor to the already troubled production. After all, he had already dedicated himself to directing Gone with the Wind. Fleming would end up replacing Cukor on that film as well, when Cukor was fired shortly after filming began. Fleming didn’t switch the film’s direction after being selected as director, much to the studio’s satisfaction.
The version that went into test screenings was nearly 2 hours long (the average movie at the time was 90 minutes). They felt the need to cut 15 minutes from the movie. Among the cuts were “The Jitterbug” song, the Scarecrow’s dance sequence after his “If I Only Had a Brain” number, and reprises of “Over the Rainbow” and “Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead”. They almost dropped “Over the Rainbow”, feeling it made the Kansas sequence too long. Fleming fought to keep it in, and eventually won. Good thing too, considering it won the Academy Award for Best Original Song, and ended up being Garland’s signature song throughout her career. The “Over the Rainbow” reprise was to happen while Dorothy was being held in the Witch’s castle, making that moment far more dramatically intense for the studio’s tastes. That reprise is available as an extra in every home media release since 1993 though.
The Wizard of Oz earned $29.7 million in its initial theatrical release, on a budget of $2.8 million. It then vanished for nearly 20 years, until MGM sold TV rights to CBS for $255,000 per broadcast (equal to $1.65 million today). It first showed on TV in November of 1956, to massive ratings. They showed it again in December, 1959, where it enjoyed roughly 58% of total TV viewings that night. After that, it became an annual TV event. It was then released on home video in 1980, LaserDisc in 1983, and DVD in early 1997. It’s also received a 4k Blu-Ray release from an 8k transfer. Here’s a clip of the 4k transfer, in case you have a 4k screen.
Needless to say, the movie was widely acclaimed by critics and audiences alike. No need to expand further. ON top of the Academy Awards the movie won for Best Original Score and Best Original Song, Garland received the special Academy Juvenile Award for her performances in both Wizard of Oz and Babes in Arms, an award that hasn’t been given out since 1960. It would be unwise to deny the immense impact this movie’s had on the industry.
In fact, a study done by the University of Turin (Italy) looked at 47,00 films, and discovered that The Wizard of Oz may be the most influential movie in history. There are plenty of examples of movies over the years that used the contrast of mono-colour for the real world and full colour for fantasy realms since. Even Tron Legacy, released in 2010, used 3D in a similar fashion, u sing 3D within the computer world of Tron, while the real world was in 2D. A Matter of Life and Death, released in 1946, was meant to help mend the strained relationship between Britain and the United States at the tail end of World War 2. That movie actually used a clever reversal though, showing the real world in full colour, while heaven was in black and white.
As for myself, I get why this movie is popular. I get why it’s famous. I even often recognize the impact it’s had on movies that I enjoy. I understand that this movie is full of iconic songs, moments and characters. That said, this movie’s never done it for me. A lot of the acting is intentionally over-the-top. I always found it a bit odd that Dorothy, clearly portrayed by someone in their mid-teens, acts like a young child for most of the movie. It never quite sat right for me. The comedy, while smartly written, isn’t really my style. I acknowledge that this is a very well made movie, and it deserves a lot of the praise that it’s received over the years, but it’s not in my personal taste. Even if it was, what could I add to the discussions that have already circled around this movie for over 80 years?
I actually prefer the 1985 sequel from Disney, Return to Oz. That movie is much darker, not a musical, and is actually much closer to the original written works of L. Frank Baum (who wrote the entire Oz book series.) Of course, the reception for that movie was very mixed at the time, and even rated poorly among critics. It’s also not the best movie to show kids – some scenes are straight out of a horror movie. Despite all that, it’s got a huge cult following these days.
The Wizard of Oz may actually be the most famous movie in existence. Almost everyone has seen it at one point or another. Whether you love this movie or not, one cannot deny that it’s a culturally significant film and it’s been massively successful. At this point, the other films I’ll look at this month will most likely be Singing in the Rain, The Sound of Music, and Saturday Night Fever, to look at several eras of Hollywood Musicals.