Starring: Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Margaret Hamilton, Frank Morgan
Words – Christian Abbott
Talking to anyone who has seen their fair share of films, The Wizard of Oz is bound to be among them. For many, it is a fond childhood memory, for others, it is the moment that sparked the wonder and imagination cinema so naturally creates. There is often the twinge of nostalgia when thinking back to it. A moment in time, a feeling once shared, and an era of filmmaking that is truly gone but because of this, will never be forgotten.
Now, 80 years after its initial release, ‘Wizard’ is as beloved and spellbinding as ever.
The story of Dorothy leaving Kansas and journeying through Oz is as well-known as it is imitated. As the decades have passed since it first graced our screens, there are few films to have had the impact this has achieved. Imitation is, after all, the most sincere form of flattery. It is fantastic in the truest sense and otherworldly in its scope.
A little girl being swept away in a storm and waking up in a strange land, it is a moment that resonates to this day. The ground-breaking visuals match the trailblazing vision, from the sepia-toned vistas of Kansas to the Technicolor dreamscapes, the story bounces with imagination.
Though that uncertain path wasn’t just contained to the screen, the history behind the production was just as tumultuous.
The film was originally to be directed by Richard Thorpe, who after only shooting a few scenes, was fired after 12 days. He was succeeded by George Cukor, standing in for 3 days and eventually handed the production over to Victor Fleming. The melting pot of creative leadership didn’t just contain itself to the director chair; it spilled over into the writing staff which consisted of no less than 20 people. The story, derived from L. Frank Baum’s source novel, was adapted by Noel Langley. The screenplay was penned by Langley, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allen Woolf respectively, along with contributions from the other 16.
The gauntlet of Hollywood excess didn’t end there. After an allergic reaction to the tin makeup, original actor Buddy Ebsen had to be replaced by Jack Haley and Margaret Hamilton was severely burned in a miscalculated use of fire. The entire production is steeped in Hollywood legend and mythology.
The mythology is earned though; the film draws you in from the very beginning. Judy Garland as Dorothy is perfectly cast, her innocence and warmth guides us through the strange and wonderful land of Oz. Her opening song, “Somewhere over the Rainbow”, is as beautiful as it is earnest.
Garland’s Dorothy represents the pure side of Oz, however, to her own admission; it does have its darker sides. The most obvious of which is Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West, an immense performance of cackling, unfiltered evil. This is the standard for all witch performances, the arguable first and unchallenged last word. Though she isn’t alone in memorability, everyone gives it their all. Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr and Jack Haley as The Scarecrow, The Cowardly Lion and The Tin Man, all are now iconic due to their everlasting performances.
Bathed in this sepia-tone, Kansas feels immediately familiar. The choice to use this colour and not traditional black and white gives the setting the sense this is a delicate and warm place – like Dorothy herself. But this is only more impressive when she arrives in Oz and the screen explodes in colour and life, one can only imagine what this must have been like when it originally screened back in 1939.
This is a true milestone in cinema history, 80 years on we are still being amazed and entertained by this legendary work and we will continue to do so for another 80. This is a film that reminds us why we love films, it is pure escapism. Sometimes we need to leave the real worth, get swept up in the storm of cinema and wake up to see the colour.