USAmusic1939 color 102 min.
Director: Victor Fleming
CAV: out-of-print collectible
2 discs, catalog # CC1159L

Untitled Document

The Wizard of Oz is the most beloved American movie ever made. There are other films that have won more prizes and many that have taken in more money, but no other movie has managed to take hold of the imaginations and hearts of audiences as has this classic fantasy fairy tale. But the picture's immense popularity is a fairly recent phenomenon. When The Wizard of Oz premiered at Loew's Capitol in New York and other theaters across the country, 50 years ago, it did very good business, but not enough to make a profit on its then extraordinary cost of $3,500,000. (By contrast Gone with the Wind, produced the same year by David O. Selznick's independent company, cost only $500,000 more than The Wizard of Oz, but grossed $13,000,000.) The Wizard of Oz had been produced by M-G-M in the hope that it would duplicate the financial success of Walt Disney's 1937 animated classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. (That film had taken in $8,000,000, more money than any picture had ever made in the history of the film business, with the possible exception of 1915's Birth of a Nation, for which accurate records were not kept.)

The Wizard of Oz was not a new film property in 1938 when M-G-M purchased the film rights from producer Samuel Goldwyn for $75,000, who had bought the book from the estate of author L. Frank Baum in 1934 for $40,000. Baum, an ex-actor, playwright, salesman and five-and-dime-store-operator, had written the tale in 1899 when he was 43. He stated his reasons for creating the story in a preface to the original edition: "Folklore, legends, myths and fairy tales have followed childhood throughout the ages, for every healthy youngster has a wholesome and intuitive love for stories fantastic, marvelous, and manifestly unreal . . . Yet the old time fairy tales, having served for generations, may now be classed as 'historical' . . . [and] the time has come for a series of newer 'wonder tales' in which the stereotyped genie, dwarfs and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and bloodcurdling incidents devised by their authors to paint a fearsome moral to each tale . . . Having this thought in mind, the story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was written solely to please the children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale in which the wonderment an joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out."

Baum succeeded in his efforts beyond his wildest imagination, for upon its publication The Wonderful Wizard of Oz became a sensational success, selling out its first printing of 10,000 copies in two weeks. Two years later, Baum adapted the book into a Broadway musical extravaganza which was as great a success as the book had been; it toured the country for years and made stars of David Montgomery as the Scarecrow and Fred Stone as the Tin Woodsman. In 1914, Baum formed the Oz Film Co. and produced 3 five-reel Oz films based on the 13 other books he had written in the series. In 1925, popular film comedian Larry Semon produced his own adaption of The Wizard of Oz, playing the Scarecrow, with Oliver Hardy as the Tin Woodsman. None of these versions, play or film, were faithful to the original Baum story, using only the title, two or three of the main characters and one or two incidents inserted into entirely different plots.

M-G-M's definitive re-telling of the story, one of the most lavish films of its time, stays relatively close to Baum's original, though the Technicolor Oz sequences were framed with a sepia-toned prologue and epilogue set on a Kansas farm very different from the one envisioned by Baum. Unlike the book, the farm in the film version was populated by several characters who would reappear in different guises in the Oz sequences, all of which were explained away as a little girl's dream. Aside from that difference, however, this film version captures perfectly the charm, innocence and wonder of the story.

The screenplay blends elements of the novel with imaginative and amusing innovations, with special effects that are spectacular and refreshingly humorous rather than frightening. These are complemented by the splended artwork of the scenic and costume designers and makeup artists. However, it is in the casting and the music that one finds the true secret of the appeal of this version of the Oz story.

Judy Garland's Dorothy, while too big and too old to reflect truly Baum's six-year-old heroine, nevertheless brings a quality of childlike innocence to her portrayal; she is wistful and spunky, but always a warm-hearted and perfect Dorothy. Garland was awarded a special Academy Award for her work in the film, and it is this role more than any other in her long and legendary career, with which she is most closely identified. Frank Morgan's Wizard, Margaret Hamilton's Wicked Witch, Ray Bolger's Scarecrow, Jack Haley's Tin Man and especially Bert Lahr's Cowardly Lion are characters that have entered the mainstream of 20th-Century mythology, and are creations that overshadowed anything else done by these outstanding performers throughout the rest of their careers. Their success helped demonstrate that fantasy on film could be presented as successfully with live actors as with animation.

All the music in The Wizard of Oz -- the songs by Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg, the background music, and the arrangements by Herbert Stothart and the M-G-M music department -- is exceptional, and was honored with an Academy Award. "Over the Rainbow" particularly reflects a yearning that is universal and timeless, while the other songs are joyous, spirited, and humorous. Victor Fleming's direction carries the story forward with a never-flagging energy and pace, no mean accomplishment in a movie that has 40-minutes of music, songs and dance in its 102-minute running time. Fleming's handling of the relationship between Dorothy and her three unusual friends is touching and tender without being maudlin or romantic.

As pointed out earlier, The Wizard of Oz was not a financial success upon its first release. Nor did it meet with unqualified critical approval, many observers feeling that it was vulgar, garish and leaden. Time, however, has proved these critics wrong, and repeated annual screenings on television beginning in 1956 have not only made the film profitable, but have turnrd it into a true folk movie, an heirloom handed down from one generation to the next. The Wizard of Oz is now part of American culture, woven into the fabric of all our lives, an ever delightful reminder of the joys of childhood and the wonders of imagination.

--Ronald Haver



Dorothy ... Judy Garland

The Wizard/Professor Marvel ... Frank Morgan

The Scarecrow/Hunk ... Ray Bolger

The Cowardly Lion/Zeke ... Bert Lahr

The Tin Man/Hickory ... Jack Haley

Glinda the Good Witch ... Billie Burke

The Wicked Witch/Miss Gulch ... Margaret Hamilton

Uncle Henry ... Charley Grapewin

Nikko ... Pat Walshe

Auntie Em ... Clara Blandick

Toto ... Terry


Producer ... Mervyn LeRoy

Director ... Victor Fleming

Screenplay ... Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, & Edgar Allan Woolf

Adaptation ... Noel Langley

Lyrics ... E. Y. Harburg

Music ... Harold Arlen

From the book by ... L. Frank Baum

Editor ... Blanche Sewell

Photography ... Harold Rosson, A.S.C.

Recording director ... Douglas Shearer

Art Director ... Cedric Gibbons

Associate ... William A. Horning

Set Decorations ... Edwin B. Willis

Costumes ... Adrian

Character makeup ... Jack Dawn

Musical adaptation ... Herbert Stothart

Musical numbers staged by ... Bobby Connolly

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