by Brad Nelson
Movies don’t age. We do. And “Oz” is a movie that has gotten better as I’ve aged even though, strangely, it has stayed the same. As a kid, I liked it and it was a tradition to watch it at least once a year on TV, just as watching The Sound of Music or It’s a Wonderful Life remains a seasonal event to this day.
But when I grew up, “Oz” fell out of favor. The clowning antics of the Scarecrow no longer touched me. The songs seemed like an interruption of the story (which still impedes my appreciation for musicals). The story itself struck me as simplistic. “Oz” could hold my attention when I was a yute with low expectations but not when I became a “sophisticated” adult. And it wasn’t that I had grown cynical or had forgotten the joy of fantasy. It’s that the movie had become a habit. I didn’t really see it anymore.
More out of a sense of nostalgia, or perhaps momentary boredom, I sat down recently and watched it again. Having had the frequent experience of re-watching movies that I hadn’t seen in a long while — and finding them either far better or worse than I had remembered — I wondered how The Wizard of Oz would fare. I thus decided to watch it with fresh eyes — not the eyes of a yute necessarily, but the eyes of someone who had no preconceptions of the movie at all.
And, frankly, upon watching it again, I was astounded at the quality of the film from top to bottom, from the singing to the dancing, from the special effects to the set design. No, they wouldn’t produce this the same way nowadays. And that’s half the charm. What they did do in The Wizard of Oz was surrealistic and minutely artistic. Today’s filmmakers would probably overdo the special effects and substitute thirty layers of sparkles when all it really took to poof the Wicked Witch of the West from one place to another was a cloud of smoke.
Modern movie makers would most likely forget that the Land of Oz is first and foremost a dream world. It doesn’t have to be perfect. The special effects are there to serve the story, not replace it. But that said, I really was amazed how good the special effects were. The flying monkeys (Are they the ones that Mike Meyers refers to?) are very convincing. The colors — a Technicolor marvel.
Speaking of marvels, that describes Ray Bolger (The Scarecrow) to a tee. What an amazing performance. He is pure one-hundred-percent charm. Jack Haley (The Tin Man) and Bert Lahr (The Cowardly Lion) are terrific as well. But just like Dorothy said, I think I miss The Scarecrow most of all. His walk, his stumbles, and his smile are Technicolor charm. I can’t help but think of Jim Carrey (at his best) in this role if you had did a remake.
The Munchkins. What can you say about them? When I was a kid I thought they were frighteningly weird. And they still are. I didn’t know about bad acid when I was ten, but I can imagine now that that is what a bad trip would look like. It’s easy to imagine those Munchkins, after a hard day of doing whatever the hell Munchkins do, going back into their colorful little houses and drinking blood. I mean, just look at those children from the Lollypop Guild. That’s not normal. You can tell they are the worst kind of juvenile delinquents.
And Glinda herself, while undeniably good compared to the Wicked Witch of the West, seems like she lost a few brain cells in the 60’s. She’s a bit spacey. But I rekindled my love for that movie by looking at it with fresh eyes. And it was a movie that even as a kid I was always a bit standoffish towards. You’ll have to admit it’s full of strange things. And I can’t say that I understand all of that strangeness now, but I think I’m in a better position to just appreciate it.
And what an amazing mix of strange things. It’s simplistic and childish in places and cynical and cruel in others. And it’s quite witty, although most of that wit went over my head as a yute such as when the Wizard is handing out his awards and says:
“Why, anybody can have a brain. That’s a very mediocre commodity. Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the Earth or slinks through slimy seas has a brain. Back where I come from, we have universities, seats of great learning, where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts and with no more brains than you have. But they have one thing you haven’t got: a diploma.”
You would think this was written today. Wasn’t it the Wizard who handed out that cheap imitation Nobel Peace Prize to Obama?
Watching this film with fresh eyes, I saw stuff (a lot of it in the background) that I had never noticed before. I had never noticed, for instance, that the horse of a different color actually (duh!) changes colors twice as you cut to different scenes.
So what does one “get” out of a movie such as this? Well, probably the last thing I get out of it is “There’s no place like home.” That was a bit of a tacked-on ending if you ask me and is my one real criticisms. And yet the innocence of that line was in nice contrast to the bizarreness and wickedness of parts of “Oz.” Given the choice, would you want to live in the dull, but relatively safe, monochrome dust-strewn world of Kansas or the bizarre and somewhat dangerous magic-mushroom world of Oz? It seems to me that either would drive you nuts after a while.
The story is good and flows pleasingly down that yellow brick road. The songs are magnificent. And Judy Garland is wonderful. But if I have any true love for this movie, it is because of the Scarecrow. He brings such charming goofiness and life to what otherwise could have been a more oppressive picture. The Wicked Witch of the West, of course, is memorable. “I’ll get you, my pretty.” There are just so many lines that are now iconic. “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” It’s now the best way to say “ultra-bizarre,” and in an understated way.
There are some great subtle lines as well such as when the Scarecrow is caught in a sudden fall of snow in a sunny field of poppies: “Unusual weather we’re having, ain’t it?” And only now, having watched decades of Oz-like bizarreness in politics, can I appreciate the hilarity of the line, “Some people without brains do an awful lot of talking.” I think, again, Frank Baum must have met Obama.
Aside from the Scarecrow, best off all is that perverse little song sung by the Munchkins near the beginning about the death of the Wicked Witch of the East:
The house began to pitch
The kitchen took a slitch
It landed on the Wicked Witch
In the middle of a ditch
Which was not a healthy situation
For the Wicked Witch.
And this is a wonderful verse sung by the Munchkin coroner:
As Coroner, I must aver
I thoroughly examined her.
And she’s not only merely dead,
She’s really, most sincerely dead.
Sincerely dead? The reminds me of the line from The Princess Bride where Westley is “only mostly dead” as opposed to “all dead.”
All in all, The Wizard of Oz is a wonderful movie. It has arguably stayed the same, although I’ve seen it in a new way after these many years. If you’ve been making this movie a habit, sit down and really enjoy it. It’s one of America’s great films.