The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Director:  Victor Fleming
Judy GarlandFrank MorganRay Bolger

Plot:  Dorothy Gale is swept away to a magical land in a tornado and embarks on a quest to see the Wizard who can help her return home.

Genre:  Adventure / Fantasy / Musical
Awards:  Won 2 Oscars - Best Original Score and Best Original Song.  Nom. for 4 Oscars - Best Picture, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Special Effects.  Nom. for Golden Palm (Cannes).
Runtime:  101min
Rating:  G

A masterpiece of the classical Hollywood studio system, The Wizard of Oz is one of the best American films ever made.  Directed by Victor Fleming, who takes sole directorial credit despite some sequences shot by other filmmakers like King Vidor (who shot the Kansas scenes in sepia tone), this highly watchable musical drama can be enjoyed by anyone regardless of age.  

1939 represents the pinnacle of Fleming’s directing career, helming this and the beloved Gone with the Wind in a one-two success unrivalled in contemporary cinema, perhaps only mirrored by the triumph that is Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park in 1993.

Based on the book by L. Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz tells the story of a farm girl named Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) who gets swept away by a tornado into the Land of Oz.  There she meets three unforgettable characters – Scarecrow (lacking a brain), Tin Man (lacking a heart), and the Cowardly Lion (lacking courage) – who accompany her to find the Wizard to get her back to Kansas.  At the same time, they have to face a nasty Witch hell bent on getting that magic ruby slippers Dorothy is wearing.

The Wizard of Oz is a story told with energy and vigour.  Its characters are live-action but seem animated because they exaggerate their movements and behave queerly.  The Tin Man gets rusty easily and needs to be oiled often.  The Scarecrow walks with difficulty as he is stuffed with straw.  The Cowardly Lion whimpers and would hide at the sight of a mouse (if there is one).  Each of them is developed so vividly that in the end when Dorothy has to part ways, it leaves us with a genuinely emotional farewell scene.

As a musical, The Wizard of Oz offers numerous song-and-dance numbers such as “Off to See the Wizard” which never fail to enlighten, almost coaxing viewers to stand up and groove to the rhythm. These occur in the scenes in the Land of Oz, bringing out the jovial, stress-free, and optimistic mood of the place which is fantastically realized through the use of beautiful physical sets and colourful matte paintings.  Although a keen observer can tell where the set ends and the matte begins, the picturesque-ness of it all eliminates any negative thoughts of the film’s visual quality.

Fleming’s picture has its moments of splendour and a fair share of quotable quotes.  Yet the most unforgettable sequence does not occur in sumptuous colour.  It occurs in Kansas and it wins the film one of its two Oscars: the nostalgic and utterly wistful “Over the Rainbow” performed by Garland. 

The Wizard of Oz is highly rewatchable and has a universal appeal.  While this is considered Fleming’s work, it is important to note that its success is largely “the triumph of the producer’s art.” (Newman).  MGM’s Mervyn LeRoy should take equal, if not more, credit for this gem of a film.

GRADE: A+ (9.5/10 or 5 stars)

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