The Wizard of Oz (1939 film) released 78 years ago
The Wizard of Oz (1939 film) released 78 years ago

The Wizard of Oz (1939) is everybody’s cherished favorite, perennial fantasy film musical from MGM during its golden years. It was first re-released in 1949, and then in 1955, and then for many seasons, it was featured regularly on network TV as a prime time event (its first two showings were on CBS television on November 3, 1956 and in December, 1959). The movie soon became a classic institution with annual showings for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and/or Easter time, and was a rite of passage for everyone, and probably has been seen by more people than any other motion picture over multiple decades. According to the Library of Congress, the musical fantasy is the most watched movie in history. Initially, however, the film was not commercially successful (at $3 million) with production and promotion costs set at $3 million, but it was critically acclaimed.

All of its images (the Yellow Brick Road, the Kansas twister), characters (e.g., Auntie Em, Toto, Dorothy, the Wicked Witch), dialogue (e.g., “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!”, “We’re not in Kansas anymore,” “Follow the Yellow Brick Road,” or the film’s final line: “There’s no place like home”), and music (“Over the Rainbow”) have become indelibly remembered, and the classic film has been honored with dozens of books, TV shows (such as HBO’s dramatic prison series Oz), references in other films, and even by pop groups (singer Elton John with his Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road album, or Pink Floyd’s 1973 albumDark Side of the Moon).

The film’s plot is easily condensed: lonely and sad Kansas farmgirl Dorothy dreams of a better place, without torment against her dog Toto from a hateful neighbor spinster, so she plans to run away. During a fierce tornado, she is struck on the head and transported to a land ‘beyond the rainbow’ where she meets magical characters from her Kansas life transformed within her unconscious dream state. After travels down a Yellow Brick Road to the Land of Oz, and the defeat of the Wicked Witch of the West, Dorothy and her friends are rewarded by the Wizard of Oz with their hearts’ desires – and Dorothy is enabled to return home to Kansas.

All of the featured actors and actresses – Judy Garland, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr, Ray Bolger, Margaret Hamilton, Frank Morgan, Billie Burke, Charley Grapewin and Clara Blandick – had successful, long film careers before and after the film, but this film is the one all of them have become best known for, and in some cases, the only film they are remembered for. Garland’s career was overshadowed by the film, despite appearing in many classic films and musicals, including those for which she received Oscar nominations (A Star is Born (1954) and Judgment in Nuremberg (1961).) This was the sole film for which she received an Oscar, albeit an honorary special award for her “outstanding performance as a screen juvenile.” (Garland had just completed the successful hit films Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938) and Babes in Arms (1939) with Mickey Rooney.)

The popular film was brilliantly adapted from L. Frank Baum’s venerated children’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (written in 1899 and published in 1900) by three credited writers Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and E.A. Woolf, and a team of many uncredited scriptwriters (including Arthur Freed, Herman Mankiewicz, Sid Silvers, and Ogden Nash). Langley insisted that the fantastical characters have real-life counterparts to make them more believable, as they had also existed in the 1925 silent film version.

The first line of the book follows: “Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife.” The Wizard of Oz was first performed as an on-stage musical in 1902-03 in Chicago and New York. It premiered at the Grand Opera House in Chicago on June 16, 1902, and made stars of vaudeville team members David Montgomery (the Tin Woodman) and Fred Stone (the Scarecrow). On January 21, 1903, the show opened on Broadway at the Majestic Theatre in New York. The show was so popular (the production tallied over 290 performances and was the longest running show of the decade) that it toured the country in road shows lasting until 1911. [Much more recently, New York City’s Radio City Music Hall presented an annual, limited-run, live stage version of the 1939 MGM musical.]

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