Better late than never? I finally watched a children’s classic this weekend. It might represent overcoming about forty years of tardiness in my case, since the British Film Institute lists The Wizard of Oz as one of the “50 Films to be Seen By 14.” Or forty years of subconscious fears perhaps.
Of course, it’s not like I was unaware of the film, or the novel it was based on. I knew its premise and the characters, I’d seen little clips from the movie here and there; I even have a Tinman ornament for the Christmas tree. No particular reason for that, I had no special affinity for the character. I just thought it looked rather neat and would fit in with other silvery ornaments. Nonetheless, I’d never sat down and watched the movie in its 100 minute glory. Perhaps that goes back to my childhood memories related to it.
One December when I was young, probably three, four at the most, I was in hospital. Coincidentally, the local theatre company in town must have been staging their version of the Baum classic. So, some outside-the-box thinker at the hospital had some of the cast visit the kids. You can see what’s coming, can’t you? It wasn’t blue-dress clad, wide-eyed Alice who popped in to see us, nor the affable Scarecrow. No, instead the hospital had the Wicked Witch of the West , green face and all, burst into our rooms cackling. (Whenever I tell stories like this, my sweetie asks “does Canada just not like kids or what?”). Suffice to say it didn’t cheer my tiny self that holiday season and in later years I lamented that they couldn’t have been staging The House at Pooh Corner at the theatre at that time. In the hospitals credit, they didn’t deliver our lunches via flying monkey.
My mom was of the age to be taken to see it when it came out in the theaters as a child, being promised it was a tale about a little girl like her. She recalled that she thought the movie was good…but why did they have an adult playing little Dorothy? It marred the experience for her, and I must say it did strike me as I watched that the reason Judy Garland was able to act the part so well was that she looked like a seasoned, mature actress rather than someone age-appropriate for the role. She was, if you were keeping track, 17 when the movie premiered. But big Dorothy or not, the movie was good. It still plays quite well but if we put it in context of 1930s audiences, it must have been a mind-blowing experience. Just the fact that most of it was filmed in color – vivid, day-glo colors by and large – would have made it stand out in the midst of the Black & White era, and the special effects – flying monkeys, the shimmery Emerald City, the floating bubbly Glinda witch – seem cheesy to us now, but back then would have been like nothing anyone had seen before. Our generation experienced the same sort of effect while watching the 1977 Star Wars. Try explaining to a Gen Z kid why that movie was then the most spectacular blockbuster with unprecedented effects and they’ll look at you with a mixture of pity and disbelief, quickly changing to an expression of joy at not being born in the Stone Age like us old-timers.
Indeed, perhaps the most surprising thing about the movie, in context of its times, was that it won only two Academy Awards of the six it got nominated for – Best Original Score and Best Original Song. It surely would have snagged more trophies had it not the misfortune of coming out in the same year as Gone With the Wind, which took home eight including Best Picture.
The movie, and the story itself, remains beloved, it would seem to me primarily because it represents one of the classic, timeless story themes. One of only six (or seven depending on which literary nerd you ask) archetypical themes that comprise all stories of note, the story of Voyage and Return. “There’s no place like home.” In fact, the theme is the same as that of one of the ’80s most decadent and popular novels and movie adaptations , Bright Lights, Big City. Frank Baum might seem to have nothing much in common with Jay McInerney and the Yellow Brick Road may seem to have little in common with Interstate 80, but both lead to big shiny cities. Cities which offer much more excitement and opportunity than Kansas, but leave the heroes ultimately wishing to return to the simpler life they once so wanted to escape.
Oddly, although I’d not seen the movie nor read the book, I had read the sort of counterpoint to it, Wicked. That one turns Oz on its tail and presents the story of Elphaba, the so-called Wicked Witch of the West, who in fact doesn’t start out as all that wicked, but finds herself rejected and scorned on account of her green color. When this new interloper (Dorothy) sails in and kills her sister, only to be rewarded with the prized family possession (the ruby slippers), it’s about the last straw. I quite liked that one and it was a good reminder of how there are usually more than one side to a story, no matter how well told.
Things may look different from the other person’s perspective; be thankful for your “home” wherever, whatever or whomever it might be to you. Great, timeless messages from a great, timeless movie. And one more great message – don’t send a Wicked Witch in to cheer up tiny sick children, people!