As prominent as Indiana Jones is, The Wizard of Oz is even more ingrained into popular culture. Without any reservations, I can call it the best movie for children ever made. A uniquely American fantasy, it’s imaginative and well-crafted enough to create the ravishing fantasy world of Oz, but also simple and sincere enough to appeal to the youngest of viewers.
Its hallowed spot in our culture owes much to how old it is, released in 1939 along with other classics like Gone with the Wind and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Because of its age, even grandparents recall seeing it when they were children, and it effectively brings out the child in everyone, whether to sing along to the Munchkins’ “Ding, dong! The Witch is dead!” or to shed a tear at Dorothy’s sappy but still heartwarming appreciation of home sweet home. If the film were made today (which it wouldn’t be, of course; the ingenious switch from black-and-white to color is also a product of perfect cinematic timing), I doubt it would receive the same universal praise. For many critics, sentimentality is easy to condemn, and only uncompromising nostalgia makes it into something enchanting.
Once Dorothy reaches Oz, most of the acting is, well, overacting, as was typical of the time, but rather than laughable histrionics, this lends the film an enhanced storybook quality, as if a parent were reading the lines of a bedtime story and pretending for their delighted listener. Judy Garland exudes innocent wonder as she enters the rainbow world of Oz, like a precursor to Lucy stepping through the wardrobe. She’s the Alice-like straight-girl to the unusually charming comrades she obtains in Oz/Wonderland, allowing the audience to marvel at their peculiarity while accepting them as lovable companions of childhood. Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow, Jack Haley as the Tin Man, and especially Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion are as synonymous with the film as Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West, the most iconic witch of all time, complete with broom, pointy hat, green skin, sinister cackle, pyrotechnics, and armies of memorable minions.
These aspects alone might have been enough to make it a childhood favorite, but the filmmakers outdid themselves in every way. While many scenes are obviously on an elaborate set, the set design is phenomenal, particularly the bright-hued (and very small) Munchkinland and the Witch’s cliffside castle. Plus, there’s outstanding choreography, whether with the crowds of the Emerald City or just the four main characters skipping down the Yellow Brick Road. Plus, there’s instantly recognizable quotes aplenty (“I’ll get you, my pretty…and your little dog too”; “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my”; “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”). Plus, there’s the fantastical special effects (which surprisingly did not win an Oscar), some dated but others still impressive, like the realistic twister and the fanciful costumes. Plus, there’s the most classic of classic soundtracks from Edgar Harburg and Harold Arlen, including the Oscar-winning “Over the Rainbow,” the #1 tune on AFI’s list of 100 cinematic songs, though I always enjoy the rhythmic laughter of “The Merry Old Land of Oz” as well.
All combined, this greatest adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s book is still the cinematic delight it was upon its release decades ago. Its classic status relies heavily on nostalgia, for The Wizard of Oz easily conjures the wonder, fear, and excitement that my family had when we each first saw it. It deserves to be one of the first films of childhood, so that adults can reminisce while the kids are introduced to the marvelous land of Oz.
Best line (none of the obvious): (Dorothy) “How can you talk if you haven’t got a brain?” (Scarecrow) “I don’t know, but some people without brains do an awful lot of talking, don’t they?”
VC’s best line: (Dorothy) “There’s no place like home!”Rank: 60 out of 60
© 2015 S. G. Liput
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