The Wizard of Oz (1939) is one of those films that I recall adoring as a child, but don’t recall seeing since the countless runs our battered VHS copy received (one of the few actually bought rather than just taped off the TV VHS I recall us owning). As such, re-watching it on stunning blu-ray transfer was a delightful mix of the familiar and surprise turns that I had obviously forgotten. There were all these parts that I thought I knew what was going to take place, only for it to go somewhere else entirely.
One of the first joys when I picked it up to put in was the running time on the case – only an hour and forty minutes long. I just assumed for a film of this scope, that well over two hours would have been needed. A modern filmmaker would definitely need that long anyway (Peter Jackson would need about eight three hour films). The film is an example of where economy in storytelling can still yield ‘epic’ results. I did not recall the opening black and white Kansas sequence being quite this long. But I absolutely loved this part of the film. And my adult eyes (admittedly with an assist from my girlfriend’s gorgeous eyes) noticed that all the same actors from this sequence reappear in the Oz-set part of the narrative, which is a fantastic way of linking the two worlds. I will talk more about the shift in a little bit, but that stylistic conceit of having the Kansas part of the film be shot in black and white, with Oz in stunning technicolour, is a simple one that works so well and brings a hell of a lot to the story.
This opening section is so important to the film as a whole because it makes you care deeply about not only Dorothy, but also Toto and their strong bond. That scene where the ghastly old woman takes Toto away from Dorothy is really quite full on. Eventually, though not intentionally, Dorothy escapes from Kansas when her house is swept up in a tornado, which is a quite amazing piece of special effects work. It looks fantastic and sounds the same, with the whistling of the raging wind really increasing the atmosphere. What follows Dorothy’s tornado ride of course is one of cinema’s most famous sequences as she is forced to travel down the yellow brick road to meet the powerful Oz in the hope of making it back home. This all starts with a shot that deserves to be one of the absolutely most famous in all of cinema. Dorothy, opens the door of her black and white cottage out onto the incredible technicolour world of Oz. The camera is positioned behind her, so you see this new world at the same time that Dorothy does. Even today, this scene looks astonishingly good on blu-ray. It must have absolutely knocked the socks off people when they saw it in the late 1930s or early 40s.
The characters that Dorothy meets along the yellow brick road are some of the most iconic in film history. It is incredible how in each character’s introduction and first song, the audience manages to learn all they need to know about their history and their yearnings. Again, this is the fantastic economy of the tale, so little exposition is required to convey everything that is necessary. The Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman and the Lion all help to showcase the wonderful design of the film, in particular through their costumes that succeed in convincing the audience of the veracity of the fantastical land that they have been transported too. All three performances are wonderful too, especially at conveying the emotional journey that they go through. The characters work as fantastic ciphers, because in the end we are all missing something that we are on a journey to find, just as these characters are. Judy Garland is fantastic as Dorothy, the core of the film, nailing the emotions of a young girl thrust into a miraculous place and making her way through quite an ordeal. Garland manages to simultaneously be vulnerable yet strong, not an easy balance to maintain throughout the story. She also manages to show off some excellent comedic timing in the film. Her acting chops are matched by her singing ones, which showcase her range from the deeper, almost sultry “Somewhere over the Rainbow” through to the jauntiness of the opening song in Oz. Her offsider Toto is equally fantastic, earning his way into the pantheon of great film dogs (up there with Luke the Dog as my favourite). All of these characters mentioned don’t even mention the iconic villain, the Wicked Witch of the West, who to put it bluntly, is scary as fuck.
The script of The Wizard of Oz is a masterful dilution of Frank Baum’s rather helter skelter, delightfully anarchic novel into a heartfelt adventure tale about a journey home. It manages to remain true to the novel whilst changing just enough to make it succeed on screen too. Not all of the delightful randomness is gone though, that’s for sure – the greetings of the Lollypop Guild and the Lullaby League when Dorothy reaches Oz are just one example. The design that I have already mentioned manages to create the world of Oz. It is not just the wonderful costumes, but the hair, make-up and production design work that has gone into each and every setting.
The Wizard of Oz is every bit as good as I recall from my childhood days and then some. The film looks so sharp that it could have been shot today, the performances are great as is the script and the songs are fantastic too. If you can find a copy of this on blu-ray, grab it and prepare to be transported.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
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