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The Wizard of Oz (1939)

A Review of the MGM Classic Musical

By Tom BakerPublished 10 months ago Updated 10 months ago 8 min read
Left to right: Jack Haley, Ray Bolger, Judy Garland, and Bert Lahr.

The Wizard of Oz is a film so endearingly perfect in every way, it has, in the eighty-four years since its release, transcended cinema to become a cultural archetype, an icon for all that is fantastic, playful, terrifying, hopeful, beautifully dark and dream-like. It is a film, much like Star Wars, that everyone or nearly everyone has seen once, and to many, it will recall the more carefree and less-burdened age of their childhood, where the young and the young at heart could come together and dream of a world, "over the rainbow," wherein life made sense, tragedy did not lurk like a beast of prey, and the Kansas twister of TIME was not so brutal and devastating a force of nature.

Of course, tragedy stalked the film, as well as the life of star Judy Garland (born Frances Ethel Gumm), who suffered debilitating mental and emotional stress and trauma, turned to drugs, and died in 1969, in London, her fame vanished,m her finances destroyed, her face a bitter mask of tragedy exposing the inner hardships and turmoil that finally took her soul. But here, fresh-faced and eighteen years old, she is the picture of innocent, naive radiance, a singing miniature extravaganza of energy and pertinacity, who, much like the little spitfire Mabel Normand who preceded her, one finds they can't quite take their eyes off of.

The story will be well-known to all and sundry. Dorothy and her little doggie Toto live in the grim, monochromatic plains of Kansas, with Auntie Em (Clara Blandick), Uncle Henry (Charlie Grapewin), and three dopey farm hands (Bert Lahr or "Zeke," Ray Bolger as "Hunk," and Jack Haley as "Hickory Twicker"); each farmhand will be playing dual roles as the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, and the Tin Woodsman. But you already knew that.

Dorothy begins the picture running down the road, running from the wrath of the wicked Ms. Gulch (Margaret Hamilton), a spinsterish old Victorian school marm of a woman on a bicycle. The problem? Toto, the innocent, plucky little dog, has been in her garden, and, well, Mrs. Gulch is afflicted by one of the worst cases of cynophobic hatred the unremittingly bleak and colorless (in the literal sense) Land Of Kansas has ever seen.

Confronting Auntie Em about Toto (apparently, the old witch of a snitch has gone to the sheriff to get a restraining order, allowing her to take the dog), Dorothy panics and runs away from home. Happening upon a "Professor Marvel" (Frank Morgan), a kind of medicine show miracle worker with a crystal ball (and a coat that once belonged to L. Frank Baum, although the wardrobe department didn't know it when they first acquired it), Dorothy becomes increasingly distressed about Auntie Em and decides to take Toto and, come what may go home. But, there's a twister brewing, a Kansas cyclone, and well, just like in Night of the Living Dead, everyone goes DOWN TO THE CELLAR. And with good reason.

Except for Dorothy, who for some reason I can't quite recall goes up to her room. There, she hits her head, and sees people flying by the window: old ladies sewing, men a-rowing, and Ms. Gulch, riding a ...broomstick! Yes, yes, we knew it all along.

The house is twisted and tossed by the cyclone until finally, it comes to rest in a land far, far more colorful than plain, dreary old Kansas. It's the candy-colored Land of Oz, presided over by creepily-attired munchkins in bright costumes, with flowery caps and loads of high-pitched, squeaky songs.

Glenda, the Good Witch (Billie Burke) comes floating in on a green glowing UFO orb and announces that the Wicked Witch of the East has been crushed by Dorothy's flying house. Her stripe-socked legs sort of shrivel and curl up and recede in a manner guaranteed to give every child in the audience uneasy dreams if not screaming, bawling nightmares for years to come (hell, they may even need therapy afterward).

The Munchkins, as well as Dorothy and the seemingly unflappable and constantly smiling Pollyannaish Glenda the Good Witch, who assures us, in a very offensive, un-PC fashion that, "Only bad witches are ugly," are at first overjoyed that the Wicked 'Ol Witch that has ruled over their lives for so long is finally, gone, gone, gone! However, all is still far from well in Munchkinland, Oz, and all points far and sundry. In a cloud of scarlet or pink or some damn color of smoke comes...The Wicked Witch of the WEST! Margaret Hamilton, otherwise known as the Midwestern Schoolmarm from Hell, Mrs. Gulch.

She wants those ruby slippers, baby. B-A-D.

But Glenda, thoughtfully, has magically placed them on Dorothy's feet, "Where they'll stay," she reminds the Wicked Witch of the West, who attempts to get them but whose fingers get buzz-shocked with electric sparks when she tries.

The Wicked Witch whisks away, and Dorothy (who must be ever so grateful to be FORCED by Glenda to wear the damn ruby slippers that could get her killed by a green-skinned, hook-nosed, wart-encrusted, malevolent black-clad flying broomstick rider with a bad, cackling laugh but still somehow nasally flat Midwestern accent), is sent her way down the Yellow Brick Road (a sly Marxist dig at Capital), where in a short time, she meets the wobbly-legged Scarecrow (Ray Bolger) who claims to be as brainless as they come (obviously pointing symbolically at the plight of uneducated rural farm workers). Progressing their singsong, "We're off to meet the Wizard!" happy-as-a-tree-full-of-flying-monkeys-on-nitrous selves further down that "yellow brick road," they meet up yet again with a metal-clanking, robot-looking science fiction android referred to as the "Tin Woodsman (Jack Haley)," who is in want of a ...HUMAN HEART. Yeah, but what I think he means is "compassion." Not an actual heart, like the kind saved from the body of Shelley by Mrs. Shelley and kept in a jar (or was it between the pages of a scrapbook? I can't now remember).

At any rate, the Cowardly Lion (Vaudeville great Burt Lahr), who comes off tough but is a real pussycat, joins the little party as they make their "Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!" way through the dark forest. All the time, that Bad Wicked Witch of a Snitch Hamilton is watching them from far away, in her lonely keep that Dracula couldn't pay the mortgage for after they kicked his bloodsucking butt out of Transylvania for good, and forever sending her legion of flying monkeys out to do her bidding. Along the yellow brick way, we get dark MGM studio lot forests full of talking, apple-throwing trees ("How would YOU like it if someone came and picked something off of you?"), witches with flame-throwing straw brooms, and fields full of poppies bringing about enough sedation to put the psychiatric pharmaceutical industry out of business.

The Cowardly Lion cowers and blubbers and the Scarecrow, (like C-3po in the Star Wars flicks) is always coming to pieces and being restuffed. They make it to the Emerald City (which is a weird, pastel-colored matte painting) and meet another in a long line of very weird, creepily-attired children's book fairy tale characters that come to life.

Dorothy, Toto, the Lion, and company get pampered and preened and spruced up, but the Wizard is all floaty-faced Old Testament smoke and fire and wrath of God, so they are sent to the unhallowed halls of the Witch's Castle to get her broomstick. And here come the flying monkeys again!

We won't give away the ending although everyone on Earth has seen this picture at least once I'm certain. Sure the sets are phony, the costumes tacky, the technicolor colors weird, and the characters creepy, as well as sometimes shrill (as the entire Munchkinland musical section is), but somehow this all simply ADDS to the strange, dislocating, dream-like, and strangely unnerving if completely simultaneously delightful feel of a movie so iconic, it will invade your dreams as symbology.

And the symbology is totally Marxist. Totally. The "Yellow Brick Road" of Capital, leads to the "Man Behind the Curtain" (the "International Financiers") of the "Emerald City" (financial speculation), and along comes the Tin Woodsman (heartless industry destroying the environment), the Scarecrow (agriculture and the exploitive way it manipulates the uneducated, rural worker) and the Cowardly Lion (the paper-tiger "aristocracy". Each, in his own way, is simply a metaphor for the CLASS STRUGGLE. Dorothy is a lumpenprole from the vast, dead, and grey plains of Kansas, who longs to escape her cycle of poverty and drudgery by going "over the rainbow." Obviously, this hints at Marx's maxim about religion and it being the multi-colored psychedelic opiate of the masses. Aren't you glad I've got this all figured out?

And Buddy Ebsen, who was supposed to play the freakin' Tin Woodsman? He got sick and almost died from that silver makeup. And Margaret Hamilton who played the Wicked Witch? She got sick from her GREEN makeup. And on the set, somewhere, a suicidal midget hung himself. Yeah. And they left THAT in the picture.

And the coat worn by Professor Marvel once belonged to the L. FRANK BAUM, who wrote the book The Wizard of Oz, although, as previously noted, the wardrobe dept. didn't know it at the time. And if you play Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon album, bored and stoned college hippies figured out you can kinda synch the action because all things are Infinite, Interconnected, and Interrelated in this cosmic jokester of a universe we call "home."

And as Dorothy said, "Oh, Auntie Em, there's no place like home!"



About the Creator

Tom Baker

Author of Haunted Indianapolis, Indiana Ghost Folklore, Midwest Maniacs, Midwest UFOs and Beyond, Scary Urban Legends, 50 Famous Fables and Folk Tales, and Notorious Crimes of the Upper Midwest.:

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