Monday, April 1, 2013

The Wizard of Oz (MGM, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I stayed in all night and watched something I especially wanted to see: the last network TV showing of The Wizard of Oz, closing a tradition that has been going since (and I acknowledge John P. for supplying the starting date) December 1, 1956, when CBS (which also showed it last night) inaugurated it with Red Skelton as host. (Other hosts over the years included Dick Van Dyke and my favorite, Danny Kaye — who, incidentally, was also on that Groucho Marx record that featured Jimmy Durante and Jane Wyman. Indeed, Kaye — the best singer of the four — really dominates the show with his rapid-fire scatting and sense of both musicianship and comedy!) By now there’s really little more that needs to be said about The Wizard of Oz (though it’s still interesting to fantasize visiting the parallel universe where it was made with Shirley Temple as Dorothy and W. C. Fields as the Wizard) except for the marvelous supporting performances (particularly Bert Lahr’s as the Lion, Frank Morgan’s as the Wizard and Margaret Hamilton’s as the Witch) and the incredible special effects, which despite the advances in motion-picture technology in the last 60 years remain stunning even today. The cyclone (done with a wind-sock filmed in slow motion), the flying house, the winged monkeys and Margaret Hamilton’s flights and sudden disappearance remain utterly convincing, though looking closely at the film today the glass paintings used for many of the backdrops are readily recognizable as such (except for the ones on the Witch’s castle — according to Aljean Harmetz’ book on the making of The Wizard of Oz, the entire castle was made of glass paintings except the parts you actually see actors walking on), even though Charles still likes making fun of me because as a boy I was quite disappointed that the Lion was not borne out of the poppy field on a flatbed cart pulled by 100 field mice, as he was in L. Frank Baum’s novel.

Wizard had its last network showing in a print with a surprising number of dropouts, though at least the opening and closing segments were printed in sepia instead of plain black-and-white (which was not only the way they were shown in the film’s first release but also makes the transition from the sepia of Kansas to the color of Oz less jarring), and bits and pieces of the additional footage (notably Ray Bolger’s extended dance down the Yellow Brick Road and Harold Arlen’s home movies of the now-lost “Jitterbug” sequence) were shown during some of the breaks, as were clips from filmed interviews with Judy Garland and Ray Bolger (no, they did not show the clip in which Judy talked about her most difficult acting challenge in the role being making it look as if she loved the dog — it was actually three dogs, all from the pound and all stinking to high heaven, and in fact Judy actually couldn’t wait to put the dogs down between takes — nor did they show the clip in which Judy recalled that Bolger, Lahr and Jack Haley all kept cutting in front of her and director Victor Fleming called down to them from his camera boom and said, “You three big hams, get out of the way and give that poor little girl a chance!”). — 5/9/98


What our roommate John wanted to watch, it turned out, was The Wizard of Oz, being shown several times in succession on the TBS channel (Ted Turner’s commercial station, as opposed to TCM) in a current digitally restored print — the colors look ravishing but some of the glass paintings used for backgrounds do look more “fake” in this format. Between breaks they offered a few incredibly obvious trivia questions (one about the ruby slippers, one about Buddy Ebsen’s departure from the film) and a lot of promos for more recent productions that only looked even worse by comparison to an acclaimed classic film. At this late date it’s hard to know what more to say about The Wizard of Oz movie — though last night I looked it up in the American Film Institute Catalog and found out some things about it I hadn’t known before, including that Judy Garland had a “dancer stand-in” named Jean Kilgore, that Lois January (star of Cocaine Fiends) played the bit role of the woman in the sequence of the Wizard’s departure from Oz whose cat attracts Toto’s attention and thus causes Dorothy to miss the Wizard’s balloon flight, that Billie Burke had a voice double, and that Adriana Caselotti (who voiced Snow White in the Disney feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, whose enormous success had a lot to do with the decision by MGM to acquire the rights to Wizard from Sam Goldwyn and produce it as a major musical) has a vocal bit in Wizard as the woman who says, “Wherefore art thou, Romeo?” during the middle of the Tin Woodman’s song. The AFI Catalog also notes previous and subsequent productions of films based on Wizard and L. Frank Baum’s other Oz books — they claim that the Oz Film Corporation Baum formed in 1914 made four films, three of them based on Oz books. They also note that MGM first expressed interest in the rights to Wizard in 1933 as a vehicle for Laurel and Hardy (coincidentally Oliver Hardy had actually played the Tin Woodman in the 1925 silent version of Wizard made at Vitagraph by now-forgotten silent comedian Larry Semon, who played the Scarecrow) but were outbid by Goldwyn, who planned it for Mary Pickford as Dorothy and Eddie Cantor as the Scarecrow but abandoned it when Cantor said the role was not his “type.” (This was also the year that Mary Pickford and Walt Disney discussed a joint production of Alice in Wonderland, with Pickford as a live-action Alice and the fantasy characters done with animation; instead Alice was produced that year at Paramount as an all-live-action film, and in black-and-white instead of the color Pickford and Disney had projected, and Disney didn’t make his own Alice — an all-animated version — until 1951.) The only Wizard spinoff the AFI Catalog doesn’t mention was the 1971 animated TV-movie Journey Back to Oz, a cheaply drawn sequel with Liza Minnelli (almost inevitably) as the voice of Dorothy.

Though there are still a few things that bother me about Wizard — like the idea (credited to lead screenwriter Noel Langley) of having the entire Oz sequence be Dorothy’s dream (in the 1985 sequel Return to Oz Dorothy, played in this go-round by Fairuza Balk, finds a key she picked up on her previous trip to Oz and thus offers us the sweet revenge of proving that her adventure in Oz wasn’t a dream after all), or the fact that the Cowardly Lion isn’t pulled out of the poppy field on a dolly drawn by 100 field mice the way he is in the novel — and I still can’t help but imagine the version of Wizard that would exist in a parallel universe, with Shirley Temple as Dorothy (according to the AFI Catalog, Darryl Zanuck’s answer to MGM’s loanout request for Temple was to offer to take the property off their hands and make it himself at Fox!), Buddy Ebsen as the Scarecrow, Ray Bolger as the Woodman, Edna May Oliver as the Witch and W. C. Fields as the Wizard (according to W. C. Fields By Himself, the collection of Fields’ papers edited and published in the 1970’s by his grandson Ronald Fields, he was called back at the last minute by Universal, his home studio, for retakes on You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man and for the remaining seven years of his life was incredibly — and justifiably — bitter that he’d had to give up the role of the Wizard, which MGM contractee Frank Morgan got simply because they had nobody else available in the short time frame they had) — Wizard remains a marvelously balanced film, richly sentimental (according to his surviving memos Arthur Freed’s main contribution was to make sure it had tear-jerker as well as comedy and terror elements), sumptuously produced, not an “effects film” in the modern (pejorative) sense even though it has some of the most incredible effects put in a movie to that time, and above all with Judy Garland’s performance more than holding her own against the stellar competition of some of the finest Hollywood character actors of the time. Had Shirley Temple starred, the film would probably have been an even bigger hit in 1939 (as it was it did well at the box office, but not well enough to cover the over $2 million it cost to produce; not until a theatrical reissue in 1949 and its first TV showing in 1956 did Wizard end up in the black), but like all Temple’s child-star vehicles it would have dated badly and would not have had the “legs” it’s had since. — 11/29/02


Last night, at Charles’ suggestion, he, our friend Garry Hobbs and I watched the famous 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz, both because it’s been in the news lately due to the recent release of the Walt Disney Company’s prequel Oz, the Great and Powerful (about how the Wizard got to Oz in the first place — a film which requires us to believe that James Franco is going to grow up to be Frank Morgan). I dug it out of the elaborate 70th anniversary package, a four-DVD set containing not only The Wizard of Oz itself but also all the documentaries that have been produced about it over the years, the surviving outtakes (the longer version of Ray Bolger’s “If I Only Have a Brain” dance and Harold Arlen’s home movies of “The Jitterbug” sequence) and all the earlier extant Oz movies, including the shorts that were made in the early years (like the 1909 effort The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which despite only having 15 minutes to tell the story actually did a pretty good job with it, and which starred nine-year-old Bebe Daniels as Dorothy — so Judy Garland wasn’t the first person to play Dorothy who went on to a major adult career! — as well as the films L. Frank Baum himself co-produced in the teens and the awful 1925 The Wizard of Oz with Larry Semon directing and starring as the Scarecrow and casting his girlfriend, Dorothy Dwan — later his wife — as Dorothy: so Diana Ross wasn’t the first woman to play an adult version of the character!). The Wizard of Oz is hardly a movie that needs commentary at this late date, though the Warner Bros. transfer is an absolute joy to look at. Not only does the movie benefit from having the opening and closing sequences in Kansas sepia-tinted — the transition from sepia to color when Dorothy and her farmhouse land in Oz is much less jarring than it was in all those old prints we saw on TV in which the framing sequences were in plain black-and-white — the color itself on this deluxe DVD is absolutely shimmering, vivid and bright and probably better-looking than this film ever has since its initial 1939 release. The big package also came with some extras, including a reproduction of the original pressbook for the film which made it clear that MGM had greenlighted it mainly because the enormous success of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 had suddenly awakened the rest of Hollywood to the commercial potentials of films based on classic fairy tales. It also made clear that even though the popularity of Snow White was the inspiration for Wizard, MGM was using as a major selling point that Wizard was not an animated film but used live actors throughout — and yes, they claimed a cast of 1,000. (This may explain why some of the effects in the book that could have been done with animation — like the cart drawn by 100 field mice that pulls Dorothy out of the poppy field in the book — weren’t shown at all, though I must say that the aerial work on the flying monkeys was superb and absolutely convincing — 1939 was the first year’s work for which the Academy gave an award for special effects, and why something so lame as The Rains Came won over Wizard is one of the Academy’s bizarre mysteries.)

One of the quirky things about Wizard is just about everyone in the cast list was a second or even a third choice — it’s well known that Shirley Temple was MGM’s original choice for Dorothy (until Jean Harlow’s death queered the loan-out deal MGM and Fox had worked out for La Temple’s services: Louis B. Mayer had promised Darryl F. Zanuck the services of Harlow and Clark Gable for In Old Chicago in exchange for Temple to play Dorothy, and once Harlow died Zanuck canceled the deal, shot In Old Chicago with his own people — Alice Faye and Tyrone Power — and had a blockbuster hit anyway); it was also supposed to be Buddy Ebsen as the Scarecrow and Ray Bolger as the Tin Man (later they switched parts — a bad move for Ebsen, who inhaled the aluminum powder used for his makeup, got sick and had to give up the part; Jack Haley, who’d worked with Judy Garland before in her tacky feature-film debut, Pigskin Parade, inherited it and, judging from Ebsen’s outtake pre-recording of the “If I Only Had a Heart” song, Haley was a better choice anyway because he simply sang it, pardon the obvious, with more heart). The part of the Wicked Witch of the West was first offered to Edna May Oliver (it’s hard to imagine her in it but she was versatile enough she could have pulled it off) and then to Gale Sondergaard before it finally went to Margaret Hamilton (who was so good in it MGM cast her again in Judy Garland’s next film, Babes in Arms, playing a very similar character to her Miss Gulch in the Kansas framing sequences of Wizard: she’s a busybody who wants to take the vaudevillians’ kids away from their peripatetic parents and put them in the state work school where she says they belong — and one almost expects her to add, “Yeah, and their little dogs, too!”), and the Wizard himself was supposed to be W. C. Fields. Not only had Fields been cast, he was actually ready to shoot the Wizard’s scenes when at the last minute Fields was called back by his home studio, Universal, for retakes on the 1939 film You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (Universal’s attempt to exploit the popularity of Fields’ appearances on Edgar Bergen’s radio show by putting the two together in a movie — alas, Fields hated Bergen just as much in real life as he did in their marvelous act together) and MGM quickly plugged their own contractee, Frank Morgan, into the role.

As much as I love Fields, though, I think Morgan was actually better; Fields would have mugged his way through the part and Morgan played it with a convincing bit of pathos, especially after the Wizard is exposed and he ruefully confesses, “I’m a very good man — I’m just a very bad wizard” (one of only a handful of lines screenwriters Edgar Allan Woolf, Florence Ryerson and Noel Langley actually carried over from L. Frank Baum’s novel, along with Dorothy’s introduction of herself to the Wizard as “Dorothy, the Small and Meek”). About the only cast members who seem to have had their parts from the start were Billie Burke as Glinda the Good Witch (a composite of the two Good Witches, one from the North and one from the South, in Baum’s novel) and Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion. Lahr’s reputation is lucky that this is by far his most seen film today — oddly, his relentless overacting makes him almost insufferable when he’s cast as a human being, but for the Lion every bit of scenery-chewing and hammery is absolutely right for the role. Despite Garland’s later recollections of the shoot — she said her biggest acting challenge was making it look like she couldn’t bear to be separated from Toto when the three dogs who played him were all smelly runts from the local pound and they reeked so much she couldn’t wait to put them down between takes, and she also recalled that Ray Bolger, Jack Haley and Bert Lahr pulled all the old vaudevillians’ tricks to upstage her and director Victor Fleming had to yell down at them from atop the camera boom, “Will you three hams move out of the way and give that poor little girl a chance?” — she had enough affection for Lahr that when he died in 1968 Garland didn’t show for her first show at a Las Vegas engagement she was due to start. Everyone in the audience — and the venue’s management — thought it was just Judy flaking out again, until the next night when she announced that she was dedicating that show “to the memory of my beloved Cowardly Lion.”

 The Wizard of Oz was actually a financial flop on its initial release, and it didn’t start actually making money until it was reissued in 1949 (with an odd poster showing an inset of Judy Garland in her red wig from Meet Me in St. Louis) and then sold to CBS-TV in 1956 for the first of 39 regularly scheduled airings every year, usually around Easter. As a result it became perhaps the most widely seen film from Hollywood’s classic period, and I can recall the evolution of my own childhood from having first seen it on black-and-white TV’s to finally getting to watch it on a color set one year, and eventually seeing it on the 50th anniversary VHS tape (with some of the outtakes also available on the current DVD package) and getting to experience the Kansas scenes (directed by King Vidor after the credited director, Victor Fleming, was pulled off of Wizard to take over Gone with the Wind from George Cukor — who had briefly shot on Wizard after replacing the originally assigned director, Richard Thorpe) in the originally intended sepia. Wizard remains a wonderful movie, though the omission of the longer dance to “If I Only Had a Brain” and “The Jitterbug” still rankle (ironically, Margaret Hamilton’s cue line for the song remains in the film even though the song itself doesn’t; it was released in 1939 by Decca Records, though, as the flip side to Judy’s first commercial recording of “Over the Rainbow”), perfectly cast, staged to perfection and with the glorious Harold Arlen-Yip Harburg songs. Ironically, Wizard had been adapted into a Broadway musical as early as 1904, just four years after L. Frank Baum’s book was published, with the vaudeville dance team of Fred Stone and Fred Montgomery as the Scarecrow and the Tin Man, respectively — and judging from his surprisingly agile performance in the 1939 Warners’ “B” No Place to Go, one suspects the Fred Stone of 1904 would have had no trouble holding his own against the Ray Bolger of 1939 as an acrobatic dancer! — 4/1/13