The Wizard of Oz has achieved a feat almost unchallenged by any other motion picture of the last century; any frame of the film is almost instantly recognizable, the imagery legendary (twisters, the yellow brick road, the ruby slippers) and is as fresh, loved, venerated and watched as it was at the time of its release over seventy years ago. In actuality, the film was not a comparatively big commercial success at the time, but its popularity has only continued to grow and become more and more ingrained in popular culture, inspiring a plethora of songs and artwork.
Everybody knows the story of The Wizard of Oz. When Kansas farm-girl Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) runs away from home to stop local stick-in-the-mud Almira Gulch (Margaret Hamilton) from confiscating her beloved dog Toto, she is whisked away by a Tornado into the magical Land of Oz. There she meets a host of magical people and creatures, including the munchkins and the good witch Glinda (Billie Burke), who hail her a heroine for landing her house on the Wicked Witch of the East. As a reward, Glinda gifts the witch’s magical ruby slippers to Dorothy which now makes her the object of envy and hatred to the other evil witch in Oz, the Wicked Witch of the West (also played by Margaret Hamilton). Now that Dorothy has got her wish to run away and go ˜beyond the rainbow,’ all she wants to do is get home again. A quest across Oz ensues; Dorothy must follow the yellow-brick road to the Emerald City to see the Wizard (Frank Morgan) who is her only hope of getting back to Kansas. Along the way she picks up three friends who are all lacking something without which they cannot be complete; the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger) wants a brain, the Tin Man (Jack Haley) wants a heart and the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lehr) wants courage.
So what is the secret to The Wizard of Oz‘s success? For one, the plot is episodic and easily digestible; after Dorothy is introduced to Oz in Munchkinland, she is given an official start to her quest (the yellow brick road) a clear objective (to reach the Emerald City) and an antagonist to provide dramatic tension (the Wicked Witch.) Then there are the songs and the dialogue, which “like the visuals- are bursting with all the optimism of technicolour, but somehow manage to avoid being overly sugary. Perhaps this has something to do with the impeccable casting; who but Judy Garland could pull off the line, ˜There’s no place like home?’ Shirley Temple was famously considered for the part (her popularity being much higher than Garland’s at the time,) but was mercifully vetoed and The Wizard of Oz entered historical history.
The Wizard of Oz is the epitome of what the industry once dubbed ˜pictures’, where marked characteristics were big names, musical numbers and elaborately designed sets, which “although spectacular- left no argument as to whether or not filming took place on a set. Perhaps they were named as such because during the golden era of Hollywood studios such as MGM and Warner Brothers, the audience was supposed to be more aware of what they were seeing and the marvel of how they were seeing it, ie on screen. Through a careful mixture of long-shots and close-ups the viewer is forced to focus their attention and to appreciate the costumes, the lighting and the set design; for instance when Dorothy arrives in Oz the camera almost does a lap of Munchkinland, giving the audience a panoramic tour of the entire set.
To say that The Wizard of Oz is a show-off piece of filmmaking is an understatement; the aesthetic aspects are highly manipulated to take full advantage of the new medium of technicolour (the silver shoes from the novel were changed to the ruby slippers for maximum impact.) Perhaps that is why The Wizard of Oz has endured the test of time; it is representation of the best of what film can achieve, in a time when filmmakers found themselves on the cusp of a new era of vitality and technology. Perhaps that is why it has endured for so long; because The Wizard of Oz‘s real magic lies in the magic of filmmaking itself.