“The Wizard of Oz” is one of those things I can’t remember not knowing. I think every family has its handful of favourite Saturday night movies, and for me and my sisters, “The Wizard of Oz” alongside “Matilda”, “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”, “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Sound of Music” rounded off our top five. Mum has kept a project I did in kindergarten where I described what happens in “The Wizard of Oz” and she typed it up for me. I did the pictures myself.
I loved the story, I loved the magic, I loved the characters (especially the Wicked Witch), I loved the action, I loved the songs and I loved the familiarity of the whole thing that was as warm and welcoming as a favourite blanket. I haven’t seen the movie for at least fifteen years, and it’s only this time round and having done a little reading up on the production of the film that I properly understood how much of a beautiful and miraculous accident it was that “The Wizard of Oz” happened at all, let alone turned out the way it did.
The production of “The Wizard of Oz” was largely an unmitigated disaster; the film’s final director, Victor Fleming, was the fourth director appointed, Dorothy was originally dressed with a blonde wig and cutesy “Shirley Temple” make up, Jack Haley was cast as the Tin Man after Buddy Ebsen suffered a severe allergic reaction to his aluminium face paint, the Wicked Witch was initially written as a beautiful seductress like the evil queen in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”, Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch) experienced severe burns from the burst of flames used in her exit from Munchkinland, the munchkins caused delays in filming by constantly turning up drunk, the Oscar winning “Over the Rainbow” was only added in the last minute as it was thought to distract from the story and the original draft of the script had no fantasy elements to it at all.
The set design is distinctive and magical in that wonderful way old fashioned way that existed before modern special effects. I love that the backgrounds are painted on and the colours are a little too bright and garish, because the way we see things in our dreams isn’t like the real world. Actors in make up and wings being hurled through the sky on fishing wire is somehow so much more horrifying than any digitally created flying monkey could ever be. Even after eighty years, the simple transition when Dorothy opens the door to Munchkinland and the picture switches from sepia to technicolour is still such a glorious moment. I can’t imagine the excitement it would have generated in 1939 when colour in film was still a novelty.
Even now there are a number of sequences which are unsettling; Miss Gulch transforming into the Wicked Witch in the middle of the twister, the winged monkeys shrieking and ransacking Dorothy and her friends, and the Wicked Witch herself still stands as probably one of the best villains of any film since. Everything about Margaret Hamilton’s performance was phenomenal, from that sensational cackle and the way she cricked her fingers when she was being wicked, to her voice and to the way she genuinely relished it when she taunted the heroes. It’s a pretty intense thing for a kid’s film to lock the heroine in a dark room and tell her she’s going to die by time all the sand trickles through the hourglass, but the darker elements are important to the story because it cuts through the treacle and provides balance to the town of tiny people with flowers growing out of their shoes and hats.
What I think is so special about “The Wizard of Oz” is how perfectly it encapsulates a child’s imagination. As kids, we always fantasised that there was somewhere more exciting and extraordinary beyond our own backyards. But just like our imaginations and the worlds we created, not all of Oz is beautiful. There was nothing terrifying than the monsters we created in our own minds, and the movie doesn’t shy away from that or assume that the kids in the audience can’t handle some of the scary stuff. I’ve mentioned this before, but its what Roald Dahl did so well; he didn’t pander to kids, he gives them the credit they’re due and they loved him for it. And again, when we were kids we see the world in a very simplistic way; the Wicked Witch is wicked, Glinda the Good Witch is good, you can make lifelong friends in a matter of moments and there’s nothing and nowhere more wonderful when you’re tired and scared than your own bed.
“The Wizard of Oz” represents how we perceive the big wide world as children; its a beautiful, terrifying but wondrous thing and I’m so happy that I’ve been able to experience it again. I love everything about this movie, and is one of the choice films I can’t wait to share it with my own children one day. Whether they want to or not.
By Jock Lehman