My 100 Favourite Films In Review – Number 74, The Wizard of Oz

74 – The Wizard of Oz:

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It’s very unfortunate. We all know that there’s a fine line between fiction and reality. What happens in real life shouldn’t tarnish our enjoyment of fictional stuff. After all, real life usually has nothing to do with entertainment. But there are a select few films and TV shows – I’m talking complete fiction here – that can be a little hard to watch because of a set of real-life circumstances. I was going to include Aladdin on this list, but I quickly realised I just wouldn’t be able to review a Robin Williams movie. It was even hard-going for me to get through Sin City because of Brittany Murphy. Animated features such as The Land Before Time and All Dogs Go To Heaven become even bigger tear jerkers because of the tragedy of young Judith Barsi. To a lesser extent, it’s hard to watch The Parent Trap knowing it was how Lindsay Lohan was introduced to Hollywood – and was undoubtedly the start of her dangerous path towards addiction. The Wizard of Oz is a family classic and a landmark of childhoods across generations. But it too is surrounded by the tragedy of Judy Garland. The girl who enchanted us with her voice was under intense working conditions – and on a mountain of different pills. She was one of many child stars chewed up and spat back out by the system. The Wizard of Oz would be almost unbearable to watch if it weren’t for the fact that Judy is at her best – bringing Dorothy Gale to life, singing classic songs and going on a memorable journey. The film itself is also a celebration of everything that audiences loved about her. There’s also the fact that it’s Hollywood’s first fantasy film. So I guess I should say that we’re off to see the wizard.

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Although I touched on Judy Garland’s life being tragic, it would be interesting for people to know that a lot of it was overblown by the media. We know that the tabloids have their own story to tell and they assign characters and narratives to real people so their readers can relate to it. Take the infamous Aniston/Pitt/Jolie story from years ago. One couple simply split up and another started. But the tabloids turned it into a tale of the evil Angelina stealing Brad from the sweet Jennifer. Judy Garland was merely a woman who suffered some hardships in her early life. The media loved to paint her as this tragic figure to be pitied. If you ask anyone who knew her, Judy was actually a very positive person. She suffered hardships of course, but she was known for keeping an upbeat look on life. And she didn’t care much for the press trying to portray her as a walking tragedy. Her daughter once saw her prepare for an interview by putting alcohol bottles and pills on the table – saying she was just giving the press what they wanted to see. Judy was apparently someone with a great love for fun and silliness. One reporter told a story of how he was waiting to interview her, she came backstage and told him to wait while she called up the White House to sing “Over The Rainbow” for the president. A lot of interviews with Judy usually had her telling a funny story of some kind. So Judy was really someone who tried not to let her sadness and tragedy get her down, and always try to have as much fun as possible. That sounds rather like…

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“somewhere under the Deadpool…”

That actually sounds a lot like Dorothy too. But back to the film. The Wizard of Oz is based on a very successful fantasy novel by L Frank Baum. The book was first published in 1900 and was an immediate hit. There was a Broadway adaptation within two years. And the famous MGM film was the seventh time it had been adapted for the big screen. You’d be surprised to hear that the book had about thirteen sequels because children just had to get more adventures in the land of Oz. The book was called the first true American fairy tale, so it’s no surprise that Hollywood wanted to make a film of it. It was very nearly produced by Disney – as a sort of animation/live-action blend. Dorothy would presumably be live-action, while Oz would be animated. Scheduling issues caused Disney to stop working on the project, and MGM went ahead with their version.

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We open in Kansas with the start of our framing device. The biggest change the filmmakers made from the book was in how they presented the land of Oz. In the book, Oz is actually a real place. The tornado literally carries Dorothy all the way there. Studio heads worried that the audience wouldn’t accept a straight-up fantasy land – and instead changed Oz to be an elaborate dream. Probably borrowing from that *other* Victorian story about a girl going to a fantasy world.

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The movie has more of an ongoing plot in the Kansas framing device than the book. There it just opens with the tornado carrying Dorothy to Oz. Here we’ve got a subplot where Dorothy’s dog Toto has been antagonising the grumpy spinster Ms Gulch. This framing device also serves to give Kansas counterparts to the various friends Dorothy would make in Oz. In the book, it’s a small farm with just Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. But the film has a larger farm with plenty of helpers. I feel as if this part of the film doesn’t really get as much praise as it should. The book is able to tell us why Dorothy desperately needs to get home – as she does love her family dearly despite their poverty. The film instead creates this framing device to establish Dorothy’s family – and thus the audience knows why she wants to get home. On an unrelated note, you’d be surprised at how star-studded this film’s cast was. Judy Garland had spent years singing as a trio with her sisters on stage, Bert Lahr had been a burlesque comic and singer, Frank Morgan and Ray Bolger were Broadway performers, and Jack Haley had been a song-and-dance vaudeville comedian. This was around the time when many noted vaudeville stars jumped ship to films.

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After Dorothy’s aunt tells her to find a place where she won’t get into any trouble, we get our first song of the movie. “Over The Rainbow” came to define Judy Garland’s career and she never had a bigger song. Wild rumours circulated that she frequently called JFK to sing the song for him – until they were eventually confirmed. The funny thing is that the song was so close to being cut. Partially because they were worried about the film’s pacing, and because they thought it might be disrespectful for Judy to sing in a barnyard. Who knows how her career might have turned out otherwise? Anyway, from a story POV, this song is actually pretty important. It’s the old ‘I Want Song’ – where the protagonist sings about their motivation. Usually the narrative goes like this: protagonist starts off wanting X but then they realise that Y is what they really wanted – and usually end up with both to some extent. In Dorothy’s case, it sounds as if she wants to have adventures. You can bet half the Disney Princesses owe their famous songs to this particular number.

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Showing them all would take up way too much page space.

Miss Gulch arrives at the house with a warrant from the sheriff – that Toto needs to be put down. The dog escapes from her, and Dorothy decides that the two of them will run away. The first person she comes across is a carnival magician called Professor Marvel. Once he guesses that she’s running away, he offers to do some fortune telling for her. He sneakily looks at a photo in her basket to fool her into thinking Aunt Em has fallen ill. I didn’t quite get the brilliance of this until I was much older; Professor Marvel sees a teenage girl running away from home, so he makes up a story about her aunt falling ill. And he convinces the girl to go home safely instead of running off into Kansas. And it’s a good thing too, because…

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“Auntie Em, we’ve got cows!”

I have to say that the special effects to simulate the tornado actually hold up really well. The effect was pulled off by first getting a simple muslin stocking – about thirty-five feet long and wrapped around chicken wire. A car and crane helped move it along the soundstage, with painted glass to simulate clouds and miniatures to create the prairie. Some wind machines and dust topped it off. This was then used with rear projection for the shots where the actors would have to be on screen with it. The effect was so impressive that several meteorologists credited the film’s tornado with making them want to go into that field.

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Dorothy arrives home after everyone has gone into the storm cellar, and she’s hit in the head by a window frame. By the time she wakes up, the tornado has lifted the entire house off the ground. It drops her down safely and…

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The filmmakers’ decision to go with this idea is actually very in line with the books. There, Kansas is a grey and dull place. It’s literally described as grey and nothing else. Oz meanwhile is a beautiful place and full of colour. So they decided to do that literally. Just put yourself in the POV of an average 1939 movie-goer. You’re seeing black and white turn into colour before your very eyes. It was only eleven years ago that movies started to have sound. The emotion at seeing Oz for the first time is just overwhelming. Remind yourselves that audiences had never seen anything like this before. Neither has Dorothy of course and, oh does she even *need* to say it?

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Dorothy is greeted by Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. There were two good witches in the book – one for the north and the south. I’m guessing they picked Glinda to represent since she’s the pretty one. Glinda rather slyly asks if Dorothy is a good or bad witch, before telling her that only bad witches are ugly. But Glinda’s ambiguous cattiness aside, she tells Dorothy that she just dropped her house on the Wicked Witch of the East. That’s good because she has ‘Wicked’ in her title. Dorothy’s now freed the Munchkins from her tyranny – and they come out to sing. I think “Munchkin Land Medley” is the official name for this song. But most people know the one famous lyric.

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Dang, this movie might be more quotable than Mean Girls. What’s notable is that the songs that happen in Oz are a little different from the ones in Kansas – at least from a musical POV. We can assume that “Over The Rainbow” isn’t Dorothy ‘really’ singing in her barnyard. It’s just a representation of her inner thoughts and desires, taking the form of a song. But in Oz, the numbers are a lot jazzier. There’s a lot more dancing involved and everyone usually joins in. So we can assume that Oz is just a place where people burst into song when they feel like it. But they quickly stop feeling like it with the arrival of one individual.

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I dare anyone to come forward and say that they weren’t terrified of the Wicked Witch of the West as a child. I can still remember my first reaction when the witch popped up from the ground. Margaret Hamilton was actually a huge fan of the Oz books and practically went through the roof when she heard MGM wanted her to play the witch. She had been in the film business for seven years prior to this – getting plenty of work precisely because she looked nothing like the glamorous Hollywood starlets of the day. She was Hollywood’s favourite grumpy old spinster – and thus perfect for the witch. But this wasn’t always the case…

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The above picture is the original choice, Gale Sondergaard. Early in production, MGM wanted to go for a glamorous Wicked Witch – inspired by the evil queen from Disney’s Snow White. They quickly realised that went against Glinda’s line that only bad witches were ugly – so they decided to go with the hook-nosed hag. Sondergaard dropped out, not wanting to deal with the heavy make-up process, and Margaret Hamilton came in. Fans who were pretty terrified of the witch will probably be shocked to hear that Margaret Hamilton had been a beloved kindergarten teacher before her film career. Afterwards, she got endless amounts of kids coming up to her asking why she was so mean to Dorothy. She had to guest star in an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood to explain that the witch was only a character, and that she was perfectly pleasant in real life.

 She also guest-starred in an episode of Sesame Street, where she learns to be nice. It got banned because it frightened children too much. You would be surprised to hear that the Wicked Witch of the West barely features in the original book. She’s mentioned early on, but doesn’t come into the story until the Wizard sends Dorothy off to find her. And most of what we associate with the witch comes entirely from the film. The book’s description is of a wizened old hag with one all-seeing eye. No broom, no black hat and cloak, no green skin etc. Actually, Oz: The Great & Powerful takes Evanora’s true form from the book’s description of the witch. Anyway, this is another good example of how to successfully adapt book to film. In the book, there isn’t really that conflict of why Dorothy needs to get home. She’d like to get home of course, but there’s no urgency. She’s happy to have her adventures and she’ll go home when she’s ready. The film makes the Witch a more menacing presence – after revenge for Dorothy killing her sister, and after the Ruby Slippers. So the film creates some conflict that gives the story some urgency; Dorothy needing to get back home before the Witch gets her. As an aside, people seem a little too hard on Glinda in this part. Some of her detractors claim she puts the witch on Dorothy’s tail by giving her the shoes. But really, Glinda is actually keeping Dorothy safe from the witch. She doesn’t kill Dorothy right away because she can’t be sure she’ll get the shoes. So that buys Dorothy a little more time.

Glinda suggests that Dorothy go to visit the Wizard of Oz. He’s bound to be able to get her home. After all, the movie is named after him. All Dorothy has to do is follow the Yellow Brick Road. You’d be surprised at how many interpretations are about what the Yellow Brick Road represents. The most popular opinion is that it’s a metaphor for the ‘gold standard’ – a money system that got thrown out during the Great Depression. This was apparently underlined in the book by Dorothy having to walk the road wearing silver shoes to get to the Emerald City. The movie underlines why Dorothy should follow the Yellow Brick Road with a song – which has wormed its way into the heads of moviegoers of all ages for the past sixty years. Dorothy decides to skip down the road, wearing the Ruby Slippers. I’m going to have to assume there’s some additional magic that allows her to do that. After all, who could do so much activity in inappropriate footwear?

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….never mind.

Dorothy comes across a cornfield with a sentient scarecrow. Despite being able to talk and possessing some wicked dancing skills, he doesn’t have a brain. I could punchline his “some people without brains do an awful lot of talking” with a picture of any acceptable public figure, but I do try to avoid the most obvious jokes. Dorothy helps him down from his perch and says he should come with her to see the Wizard. After the jolly “If I Only Had A Brain” that is. That was mostly put in there to show off Ray Bolger’s dance talents – and why the hell not? The dance ran longer but it was cut down for time reasons. Bolger had originally been cast in another role, but longed to play the Scarecrow and so that was that.

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Dorothy and the Scarecrow journey down the road, and accidentally antagonise a pair of trees – who get annoyed when Dorothy picks some of their apples. Although this results in the trees throwing apples at them, it admittedly could have been worse…

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Their grumpy(er) cousins in The Evil Dead.

They bump into quest buddy number two as Dorothy finds an entire man made out of tin. The movie spares a modest 1930s audience the backstory of how that happened. To cut a long story short, the Wicked Witch of the East trolled him by bewitching his axe to cut off his limbs one by one. He replaced each of them with tin and eventually his entire body after the head got chopped off. With physics like that, Henry VIII would have had a lot of fun if he ever visited Oz. Jack Haley was actually the third choice for the part. After Ray Bolger opted to play the Scarecrow instead, Buddy Ebsen agreed to be the Tin Man. But he nearly died when aluminium dust from the make-up coated his lungs. Jack Haley got off a little better with only an eye infection. As an aside note, during “If I Only Had A Heart”, you hear a disembodied voice saying “wherefore art thou, Romeo?” – that is none other than Adrianna Caselotti, voice of Disney’s Snow White (skip to 1:00).

The Tin Man wants a heart and of course is persuaded to join their quest to see the Wizard. And clearly no take-backsies applies in Oz, because the Wicked Witch makes her presence known. After giving them some putdowns that The Rock undoubtedly got some inspiration from, she trolls the Scarecrow by throwing fire at him (fire + straw=certain death). This witch is pretty badass for a character in a film from the 1930s. Once she’s gone, the other two swear to stick by Dorothy. She calls them the best friends anyone could ever have – which either says very much for their first impressions, or very little for the Kansas folk. She has the strangest feeling that they’ve known each other for ages.

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Only literally this time.

The Yellow Brick Road takes them into a forest where they’re likely to find “lions and tigers and bears, oh my” but they just find one lion. Dorothy hides behind a tree out of possible fear (Judy was really trying to hide hysterical giggles) but this lion turns out to be a real coward. He was actually going to be played by a real lion – Jackie the MGM studio mascot in fact – and his voice would be dubbed. They decided to cast Bert Lahr instead (and save CS Lewis some nasty accusations of plagiarism) – and compromised by making his costume out of actual lion skin. You can imagine how that smelled under the hot studio lights.

After convincing the Lion to join them so the Wizard can give him a backbone, the group now can see the Emerald City in the distance. The only thing between them and it is a field of poppies. But the flowers are enchanted by the Wicked Witch – and they put Dorothy and the Lion to sleep. As there are no handsome princes around, the Tin Man and Scarecrow have to rely on Glinda sending a snowstorm. Don’t ask me how that works but it wakes them up anyway. The book just has a group of field mice move Dorothy and the Lion out of the flowers so they’re not exposed to the perfume. But this gives Glinda a chance to be a badass too, so yay for her.

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Dorothy and friends finally reach the Emerald City and are allowed in once the guard sees that she’s wearing the Ruby Slippers. They get primped and polished for their visit in “The Merry Old Land of Oz” – one of the catchiest songs ever recorded. As an aside, getting up twelve and starting work at one is the routine of most unemployed post-graduates too. The Wicked Witch continues her tradition of interrupting catchy musical numbers; by writing a message in the sky with her broomstick.

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The lack of comma indicates that everyone else is free to do the surrendering for her.

The group need to see the Wizard immediately and pass the time while the guard goes to check if that’s possible. They do so with “King of the Forest”, the only song in the film I don’t like. It serves no purpose and it’s the main reason I didn’t like the Lion in my childhood. I can appreciate him a lot more these days but I really don’t like this song. Not even the puns can make me warm to it. The four are initially turned down, but Dorothy turns on the tears and they’re allowed in.

All four get an audience with the Wizard. In the book, they see him separately and he takes a different form each time. While that would be awesome to see, it would probably cause a few pacing problems. The Wizard memorably appears as a disembodied head surrounded by flames and explosions. Despite his bluster, he actually says he’ll grant them what they want. All they have to do is bring them the broomstick of the Wicked Witch. As in, the Wicked Witch of the West.

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In the book, he outright asks them to kill her, so I suppose that’s a small consolation. Pay no attention to the Witch’s line “I’ve sent a little insect ahead to take the fight out of them” – which is a reference to “The Jitterbug”. This was a planned musical sequence from the early stages of production – where an insect would cause Dorothy and friends to magically break out into the Jitterbug dance. If you think that sounds out of place with the tone of the movie, you’re exactly right. Early drafts of the scripts had many of the adventures in Oz as a series of musical contests. One plot point would have a spoilt princess who had outlawed all forms of modern music – and Dorothy would beat her in a singing contest using jazz and the like. So it just goes to show that even back in the 1930s, studios were still worried about making their films all ‘hip’ to attract the cool kids. The sequence was scrapped both because it was out of place with the movie’s tone, and to avoid dating the film too badly.

The Witch sends her personal Flying Monkeys to the forest after Dorothy. You might see the Witch holding a gold cap in a couple of scenes in her castle, which is probably a reference to a dropped plot point from the books. There, the Flying Monkeys are only her guns for hire – because she has the golden cap. On an unrelated note, despite what pop culture leads you to believe, the Witch never says “fly, my pretties”; the actual line is below.

The Flying Monkeys swoop down into the forest and kidnap Dorothy and Toto. It’s pretty interesting if you go back to the book, and this point is where the Wicked Witch first appears. She mainly wants the Lion for a servant and is mildly interested in the shoes. What’s also interesting is that the Scarecrow and Tin Man are taken out by the Monkeys and just stay there until Dorothy has defeated the Witch. I’m guessing the filmmakers felt that it would probably be really boring for two of our protagonists to just sit there for the entire third act – so the Scarecrow and Tin Man pull themselves together and try to help Dorothy.

In the Witch’s castle, Toto manages to escape, but Dorothy is stuck where she is. The Witch wants to get the Ruby Slippers, but can’t seem to get them off Dorothy’s feet. I’m not sure if this is meant to be from the shoes themselves, or from a plot point in the book that the movie didn’t really explain. In the book, the Witch of the North gives Dorothy a kiss of protection that stops anyone in Oz from hurting her. You see Glinda kissing Dorothy right before she leaves, so that could be why the shoes don’t come off. The Witch leaves an ominous hourglass which will somehow help her get the shoes off Dorothy. All she says is that it’s how long she has to live.

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“This hourglass doesn’t do anything, I just wanted to show off my bling.”

It’s also at this point that the plan was for Dorothy to sing another song, known as a Dark Reprise. In musical theatre, a Dark Reprise is intended to be a darker or sadder call back to an earlier song. It usually comes at the character’s lowest point, and plays the earlier song ironically. The easiest target for the Dark Reprise is the I Want Song – as it’s easy to have the character sadly or sarcastically singing about how they haven’t got what they want, or what they wanted wasn’t everything they’d hoped. Dorothy would have sung a reprise of “Over The Rainbow” – the song where she wished for adventure and something more out of life. Now that’s exactly what she’s gotten, and all she wants is to be back home with her family. This song was unique in that it had to be recorded live on set – since Judy would have to do a lot of acting and it would be impossible to lip-synch to a backing track. It was apparently cut for making an already-sad sequence even more depressing. The audio still survives below. Apparently everyone on set was reduced to tears.

Toto leads Dorothy’s friends to her, but the Witch still has them in her clutches. After a lengthy chase around her castle, she corners them. But she decides to taunt the Scarecrow by setting him on fire. Dorothy grabs some water to put the fire out, and some of it accidentally splashes on the Witch. But what’s this? She’s melting! It turns out water was her Kryptonite, her Achilles Heel. For those wondering how this effect was pulled off, Margaret Hamilton was lowered down an elevator, while her cloak was stuck to the set. Dry ice was pumped upwards to give the impression that she was melting.

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The Witch’s guards are thankfully happy to be rid of her, and let Dorothy have the broomstick. But this apparently still isn’t enough to convince the Wizard…until Toto notices that there’s a man hidden behind a curtain in the side of the room. It turns out the ‘Wizard’ is just an ordinary old man relying on illusions and pyrotechnics. He’s played by Frank Morgan, who’s also Professor Marvel in the Kansas segments. Morgan also doubled up and played the doorman, the carriage driver and the herald. This has led to fan theories that it’s actually Oz going undercover so he knows what’s going on in the Emerald City – and thus can pretend to be all-seeing.

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Or they’ve just got very advanced plastic surgery in this universe.

But apparently Oz is originally from Kansas, and he came to this land via tornado and hot air balloon. He still has the balloon and can use it to take himself and Dorothy home. He also gives special gifts to her friends, as symbols of what they wanted – but didn’t realise they already had. The Scarecrow gets a diploma to show he has brains now, the Tin Man a pocket watch in the shape of a heart, and the Lion a medal for bravery. He also leaves them in charge of the Emerald City. But there’s a problem in his exit ceremony, and he ends up leaving without Dorothy. But worry not…

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Glinda tells Dorothy that the Ruby Slippers she’s wearing have the power to send her back home – which would have been really useful information when she first arrived in Oz. This makes more sense in the book, where Glinda only appears at the end. She knew the shoes could do that, but the Witch of the North didn’t. So here the magic of the shoes becomes a bit more symbolic – and that they wouldn’t work until Dorothy learned why she really wanted to go home.

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That being said, the part where Dorothy says goodbye to each of her friends always seems to coincide with me chopping onions in the kitchen. As we all remember, she clicks her heels and says “there’s no place like home” – and voila! She wakes up in her bed in Kansas, her Freudian escapist fantasy now over. She assures Auntie Em and Uncle Henry that she’ll never leave home again – which has become a terrifying ending for parents of millennials. Still though, everything is wrapped up nice and neatly…until you remember that old Miss Gulch. Either the tornado made her forget all about getting a dog put down, or she just got killed. Pick whichever you feel gives Dorothy a happier ending.

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A disturbing amount of people prefer the death option.

We always expect troubled productions to result in horrible movies. Take last year’s Fantastic Four or The Golden Compass for notable recent examples – or look at the mess that was Alien3. But isn’t it surprising that this – one of the biggest classics of old Hollywood – had a shoot that was just as nightmarish? Going through five different directors, actors suffering illnesses and injuries from the effects, sixteen hour shooting days on average and constant rewrites to the script – the whole thing looked like it was going to be a disaster. It actually wasn’t that successful at the Box Office, barely making its budget back. MGM didn’t make a profit off the film until a few theatrical re-releases. It wasn’t until the film was broadcast every year on CBS starting in the 1950s that its popularity really started to grow.

These days, everyone knows the film. There are constant sequels, prequels, retellings, parodies and references even to this day. Funnily enough, Disney seem really keen to make Oz-related stuff – the 1985 sequel Return to Oz and 2013’s Oz: The Great & Powerful both had to skirt around copyright on the MGM film (on a semi-related note, I loved Oz: The Great & Powerful and think it’s very underrated). You can see why Disney would want it; after all, the film almost feels like vintage Disney. It has that sentimental cheesiness to it that manages to come out the other end and move you. The scenes of Dorothy arriving in Oz, meeting all these unique characters and having to say goodbye to her friends are genuinely moving. The film has a distinct charm to it and that is why it has endured all these years as a classic. We’ve come a long way from the painted backdrops of Oz to the gritty lands of Middle Earth – but pretty much any modern fantasy feature owes a great deal to a young girl from Kansas and her crazy friends.

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There’s no place like the grading list, there’s no place like…

*Story? In terms of adaptation, this does a great job. It creates a central conflict, beefs up the roles of several characters and gives the story a nice cinematic flow. While there’s a lot of differences from the book, it’s still very faithful to the spirit of L Frank Baum’s novel. B+

*Characters? Dorothy and friends are all very memorable, but let’s face it. The movie is completely stolen by the Wicked Witch. How friggin badass is she? One of the all-time best movie villains. A

*Performances? A lot of people claimed that Judy Garland was just a voice and not an actress. I disagree, and feel she makes a very good Dorothy. She’s got a good blend of pluck and heart to her. The three supporting men – Ray Bolger, Jack Haley and Bert Lahr – complement each other nicely. As expected, Margaret Hamilton completely steals the show. A

*Visuals? The contrast of dull, sepia Kansas to bright, vibrant Oz is legendary. Iconic sets, costumes and props. A

*Special Effects? How well do the effects in this film hold up? Usually when I tell someone that this was made in the 1930s, they’re shocked. It holds up well enough to look like it could have been made two decades later. A

*Anything Else? Memorable songs, besides “King of the Forest” and it manages to have charm despite the cheese. B

Up next is Sherlock Holmes, but I’ll keep you guessing by not saying which version.

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