Tuesday 16 April 2013

Movie Review: The Wizard Of Oz (1939)

A colourful musical celebration, The Wizard Of Oz is a vivid children's fantasy. The film has many moments that are now cringe-worthy, but also enough innocence and good intentions to create a few warm memories.

Young Dorothy (Judy Garland) and her dog Toto live on a Kansas farm, with Aunt Em (Clara Blandick), Uncle Henry (Charley Grapewin), and a few friendly farmhands (Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, and Bert Lahr). Humourless neighbour Almira Gulch (Margaret Hamilton) does not appreciate Toto's behaviour, and threatens to take the dog away, traumatizing Dorothy. A twister moves in and causes havoc, transporting Dorothy, Toto and their farmhouse to a crash landing in the land of Oz.

In Oz, Dorothy meets small people known as the Munchkins, and with the help of Glinda the Good Witch of the North (Billie Burke) sets off along a yellow brick road on a journey to Emerald City to visit the Wizard of Oz, who can get her back to Kansas. Along the way she meets a Scarecrow (Bolger) who needs a brain, a Tin Man (Haley) who wants a heart, and a Cowardly Lion (Lahr) who seeks courage. With her three new friends, Dorothy has to fend off the evil Wicked Witch Of The West (Hamilton) and secure an audience with the reclusive Wizard.

With over-the-top performances, The Wizard Of Oz often resembles a kids' show at the local theatre company. The heroic cuteness provided by Garland and Toto is appealing to the young, while the ugly Wicked Witch and her bizarre flying monkeys are good for many nightmares among the impressionable.

Some aspects of the film have aged quite poorly. The entire sequence with the Munchkins is a lot more vexatious than fun, the annoying voices of the little people and their stiff presence reeking of a local production drifting towards catastrophe. The costumes and make-up of the Scarecrow and particularly the Cowardly Lion are pure vaudeville.

But there is an innocent sense of adventure and humour permeating throughout the film, and with the use of colour in its infancy, director Victor Fleming plays with the new medium to make the land of Oz positively pop. The Kansas scenes are filmed in sepia-toned black and white, while Oz is animated in brilliant colours, from the yellow of the brick road to the dominating green of Emerald City, and all the costumes in-between. As can be expected when new technology is still being unpacked, Fleming also takes things too far, a horse continuously changing colours crossing the border from amusing to ludicrous.

In terms of the music, Over The Rainbow is just over two minutes of movie bliss, delivered by Garland from the farm and into legend. The rest of the songs and dances are short and mostly aimed at the very young or those who find clumsy walking, tripping and skipping down an artificial pathway amusing.

The message of self-reliance and believing in personal abilities is clear, but L. Frank Baum, who wrote the book on which the movie is based, always claimed that the story carried no deeply hidden meanings. However, the search for Oz as the salvation for all that ails Dorothy and her friends remains a strong metaphor for seeking help by blindly turning to the imperiously imagined powers of religion. Oz is hiding behind all sorts of sound and fury, but his truth is revealed to be much more basic, and Dorothy and her friends find elucidation within themselves. Whether intended or not, for adults The Wizard Of Oz is more enjoyable as a sharp criticism of blind belief in ill-defined higher powers, and a reminder to find the remedies within while checking behind the curtain of any dubious saviours.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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