Monday, August 25, 2014

Follow the Yellow Brick Road

"There's no place like home; there's no place like home; there's no place like home."

Dorothy (Judy Garland)
(#23 on the
American Film Institute's list of the Top 100 movie quotes)

(1939 is widely regarded as the greatest year ever for the motion picture. Ten movies were nominated for Best Picture that year, and today I take a look at the sixth of those 10 movies to hit the theaters.)
I don't know how old I was the first time I saw "The Wizard of Oz." Probably 5 or 6. I do know that it was long after it made its general theatrical debut on this date in 1939. My mother and father might have seen it at the theater — they were children then — but maybe not. It wasn't a blockbuster in 1939. That came later.

I don't remember much about that experience — except that the winged monkeys scared me enough to give me bad dreams for several nights.

I still think of that whenever I sit down to watch "The Wizard of Oz." I thought about it back in February when I watched it during Turner Classic Movies' annual salute to the Academy Awards, "31 Days of Oscar."

And I concluded that there are some movies that are so closely linked to childhood that every time we see them, we feel almost as if we are children again. "The Wizard of Oz" is such a movie — for me, anyway.

See, there are parts of that movie that I appreciate as an adult that escaped me as a child; even so, I always feel like a child when I watch it — at least a little bit and for a little while. I suppose that is part of the movie's enduring magic.

I'm sure I don't have to recite the plot for you. Surely, everyone has seen "The Wizard of Oz" at least once — probably more than that — so I may simply refer to specific scenes. Warning: This will not, in any way, be written sequentially. I probably will jump around a lot. (So hang on. It's apt to be a bumpy ride.)

Anyway, when I watched it most recently, I found myself questioning some parts of the story — and I had to remind myself that it is, after all, a children's story. It would help if everything made perfect sense — but this is a fantasy. By definition, a fantasy doesn't make sense. Things happen in fantasies that simply do not happen in real life — like monkeys with wings.

The movie version of "The Wizard of Oz" is so familiar that the characters need no introduction, do they?

"You are under the unfortunate delusion that simply because you run away from danger, you have no courage. You're confusing courage with wisdom."

Wizard of Oz (Frank Morgan)

Oh, and before I forget ...

Dorothy said, "Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore."

She did not say, "Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore," which is how people have been misquoting it for decades.

(Wow, it feels good to get that off my chest. Kind of like knowing that Bogart actually said, "Play it, Sam," not "Play it again, Sam," in "Casablanca" but not saying anything about it.)

While we're on the subject of "The Wizard of Oz" trivia, as I said earlier, the movie wasn't successful in its first theatrical run, earning about what it cost to make. But it got in the black about 10 years later when it was brought back to theaters, and its annual airings on TV, which began in the 1950s, were moneymakers.

And this doesn't qualify as trivia, exactly, but I'd like to mention Billie Burke, who played Glinda the Good Witch of the North, Dorothy's defender in Oz. Her role didn't require her to speak many lines, but it is the role for which she is remembered — even though she is hardly ever mentioned.

She was 55 the day "The Wizard of Oz" premiered. I would never have guessed that.

For awhile, I worked in an office that encouraged employees to wear costumes for Halloween. It became a competitive thing, and groups of employees would come up with themes. Sometimes the costumes were very elaborate, very detailed. It was quite entertaining.

One year, a group came dressed like the protagonists from "The Wizard of Oz" — the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman and Dorothy (carrying a basket with a little stuffed dog doll in it). Everyone knew who they were, and they were the unanimous winners of the office contest.

As universal as those characters are, it's hard to believe that "The Wizard of Oz" was a big disappointment at the box office. And that iconic foursome might have been quite different.

Judy Garland is so closely associated with the role of Dorothy that most people probably can't imagine anyone else playing it. But it is my understanding that she was the second choice. The first choice was Shirley Temple, but she dropped out of the project. In hindsight, it's hard for me to imagine Shirley Temple singing "Over the Rainbow" as well as Garland — although it would be a mistake to assume that whoever played Dorothy would sing "Over the Rainbow." It was almost dropped several times.

She wasn't the first actress to play Dorothy, either. There were three other versions made before hers.

Buddy Ebsen was slated to play the Tin Woodman, but he had an allergic reaction to the metallic makeup he had to wear to play the part, and he was replaced by Jack Haley.

W.C. Fields was the first choice to play the wizard, but MGM couldn't meet his demands. He was replaced by Frank Morgan.

(An interesting piece of trivia about Morgan: The somewhat shabby coat he wore in the movie was a thrift–store discovery. It was later determined that the coat actually did belong at one time to L. Frank Baum, the author of "The Wizard of Oz."

(Apparently, his name was stitched inside it, and his widow confirmed that it did, indeed, belong to him.)

I notice little details now that I didn't notice when I was younger. Strangely, I never really noticed the winged monkeys flying away after grabbing Dorothy and Toto. Maybe I blocked that part out. Maybe I was too traumatized by my first glimpse of the winged monkeys to process their departure.

In general, though, I am impressed with the movie every time I see it. Color was still rare in the movies in 1939. Out of 10 Best Picture nominees that year, only two — "The Wizard of Oz" and "Gone With the Wind" — used it. And "The Wizard of Oz" only used it part of the time, bookending the color segment with two black–and–white segments.

That was a creative way to draw the line between the real world and the dream world. Dorothy's real world really was varying shades of gray as nearly as I could tell. Her dream world came alive with vibrant colors — the Yellow Brick Road, the Emerald City, ruby slippers — even though I've heard it said that we don't dream in color.

To be able to imagine the color scheme of a world that is not your own is a rare gift, it seems to me — whether in dreams or conscious thought.

I don't know if that's true. I honestly don't know if I dream in color or not.

Economically, the decision to use color is fairly easy to comprehend. Because of my experience working for newspapers, I know that the color process was — and, to an extent, still is — more expensive than black and white in print, and I'm sure that was the case when movies were being made in the 1930s and 1940s. It became more commonplace in both pursuits when it became more feasible.

In 1939, though, its very rarity made it an effective way to differentiate between the real and the fantasy.

I was unaware of the color part of it when I saw it the first time. My parents had just bought our family's very first TV. It was a black–and–white portable, and it was our only TV for many years so the color part of the movie looked black and white to me. I probably didn't see the color part in color until we got our first color TV.

The first few times I saw the movie, the Yellow Brick Road looked gray. So did the Emerald City and Dorothy's ruby slippers.

And I completely missed out on what has come to be one of my favorite sequences in the movie, the Horse of a Different Color that drew the coach carrying Dorothy and her friends into the city.

It's a subtle thing, really. The horse is a different color with each shift in the camera angle, but no fuss is made over it. It is hardly mentioned, except for a point when the coachman tells Dorothy, "That's the horse of a different color you've 'eard tell of."

The last time I watched "The Wizard of Oz," I counted the horse's color changes. There were six.

When I first saw the movie, those color changes probably appeared as varying shades of gray on our black–and–white set. I wonder what I must have thought ... if, indeed, I thought anything ... about that.

I never felt that I got the full effect of "The Wizard of Oz" the first time I saw it. People who first saw it in movie theaters in 1939 saw that horse changing color, witnessed the brilliance of the Emerald City and the Yellow Brick Road.

It was all black and white to me, and it wasn't the same. By the time I saw the horse of a different color — in color — it was anticlimactic to me.

In all, "The Wizard of Oz" was nominated for six Oscars and won two — Best Original Score and Best Song ("Over the Rainbow").