Vatican film list honoree The Wizard of Oz celebrates its 75th anniversary with a 3D IMAX release in late September and a new collector’s edition October 1st.
“Why are there so many songs about rainbows, and what’s on the other side?” What was Kermit talking about? There’s only one song like that…and one movie that embodies the childhood magic Jim Henson wanted to evoke.
Hollywood attempts to recapture that magic with similarly whimsical stories, children traveling to magical, dangerous worlds, colorful sets, little people in costumes, and song-and-dance numbers have seldom if ever succeeded. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory have their fans, but I’m not among them.
Small wonder, then, that The Wizard of Oz—not a big hit in its day—has become (per the Library of Congress) the most watched movie in history, ranked #1 on lists of fantasy films by the American Film Institute and The Guardian, and numbered among the 45 films of the 1995 Vatican film list.
How singular is The Wizard of Oz? So singular that when Star Wars exploded into pop culture in 1977, film writers were driven all the way back to 1939 to find points of comparison, however tenuous: Luke as Dorothy, See-Threepio as the Tin Man, Chewbacca as a not-so-cowardly Lion, etc.
Actually, the comparison isn’t so strange. Star Wars is essentially a fairy tale in sci-fi clothing, and The Wizard of Oz is the quintessential Hollywood fairy tale, adapted from the quintessential American fairy tale written by L. Frank Baum. Real cinematic fairy tales are rare creatures.
This year’s unofficial prequel, Oz the Great and Powerful, despite impressive visuals honoring the Technicolor charm of the original, only underscores the 1939 film’s achievement. Among other things, the new film weakens the iconography of good and evil. Glinda, originally a figure of almost Marian beatitude and benevolence, is diminished in the prequel. As for the Wicked Witch, her origin story is about as convincing as Hayden Christensen becoming Darth Vader.
J.R.R. Tolkien, in On Fairy-Stories, opined that the dramatic arts are hostile to true fantasy. He was skeptical that stagecraft could do any justice to the world of Faerie—unless it were a play actually staged by elves, which would seem so real that it would feel like dreaming, albeit “a dream that some other mind is weaving.” Human fantasy, according to Tolkien, can never achieve the same effect, but merely aspires to it.
Filmmakers aren’t elves, yet cinema does have a special power to evoke that sense of a dream woven by some other mind. We sit in a darkened theater, and a stream of larger-than-life images washes over us, with no concession to the exigencies of set changes and so forth. That’s why The Wizard of Oz, with Dorothy waking from her Technicolor adventures as if from a dream, has been taken as a metaphor for the magic of cinema itself.
Not that The Wizard of Oz is an allegory of cinema—or of anything else for that matter, notwithstanding a never-ending parade of interpretations of both the book and the film, from all possible angles: economic, Freudian, feminist, religious, etc. None of these, in my view, explains the story as well as Baum’s own contention that it “was written solely to pleasure children of today.”
With its colorful production design, vaudeville showmanship (Ray Bolger’s Scarecrow is particularly delightful), and classic songs, The Wizard of Oz is a joyous film; it is also, of course, a frightening one. Not only Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch, but also the Flying Monkeys are the stuff of countless nightmares. Why does it have to be so scary?
Both Tolkien and C.S. Lewis wrote about Fairy-land as a realm of peril and terror. Ironically, Baum claimed in the preface to his novel that the modern fairy tale, unlike its old-fashioned medieval counterpart, “gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident.” In this respect Baum was as much a humbug as his Wizard (a humbug wizard-king—just the sort of wizard-king an American would create). And his book, terrors and all, is much the better for it.
For Lewis, the wish to abolish terrors from fairy tales was a mistake. Children know, he wrote, that they are “born into a world of death, violence, wounds, adventure, heroism and cowardice, good and evil…. By confining your child to blameless stories of child life in which nothing at all alarming ever happens, you would fail to banish the terrors, and would succeed in banishing all that can ennoble them or make them endurable.”
Curiously, this is sort of what has happened with the recent trend of dark, joyless fairy-tale inspired movies: They haven’t banished the terrors, only the beautiful and noble elements. In these days of monotonously gritty big-screen fare, The Wizard of Oz shines more gloriously than ever.