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RetrOZpective: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

In 1900, author L. Frank Baum published a children’s book called The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The book was a huge success, becoming known as the quintessential American fairy tale. Baum would write fourteen Oz books in total, other authors adding their own tales to his ever expanding world. The story of young Kansas farmgirl Dorothy Gale travelling via tornado to a magical land has touched the hearts of generations. The Oz franchise has a lasting history and legacy, spawning many different adaptations in film, television, and literature.

We are celebrating that legacy with what I call the RetrOZpective; a look back at some of the most notable adaptations of Baum’s beloved books. Amongst these are great films, cult classics, and a few more quirkier and even controversial entries too.

Our journey down the yellow brick road begins with both the book that started it all, and its most famous film adaptation: The Wizard of Oz. The book was published in 1900 by Baum, with illustrations by W.W. Denslow. It is a modernised fairy tale that carries a lot of charm, drawing from Baum’s colourful life. Prior to writing children’s literature, Baum was a playwright, shop owner, journalist, and newspaper editor. His father built him his own theatre, though it later burnt down during a production of Baum’s ironically named play Matches. Baum was a feminist, his mother-in-law being the famed campaigner Matilda Joselyn Gage. A lot of Baum’s ideas later were realised in the modern day, including television, augmented reality, robots, feminism, and a transgendered character in the form of Princess Ozma.

Most people probably know the book’s story, even if they’ve never read it. Dorothy Gale is a young farmgirl living in a bleak, all-grey Kansas with her aunt, uncle, and dog Toto. We spend very little time in Kansas, but the descriptions are enough to envisage the drab world Dorothy lives in. She and Toto are soon whisked away to the Land of Oz, her house crash-landing on the Wicked Witch of the East. The Good Witch of the North tells her that the only way to get home is to meet the Wizard of Oz in the Emerald City. The witch gifts Dorothy with the dead witch’s Silver Shoes, which were turned into the Ruby Slippers in The Wizard of Oz, to take advantage of the then-new Technicolour process.

On her way down the yellow brick road, Dorothy meets the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion. Each seek a brain, a heart, and courage from the Wizard. The Emerald City is described as so mesmerising, that all the characters have to wear tinted glasses to look at it. The Wizard, who appears in several forms, tells Dorothy’s group they must kill the Wicked Witch of the West.

The witch isn’t green like her iconic film counterpart, but an old woman sporting an eyepatch, possessing an eye that can see all. She sends out flocks of crows, swarms of bees, and evil wolves to kill the heroes, who all butcher the animals. At times, the book is surprisingly violent. The Tin Man and Scarecrow even have body counts. Tin Man’s backstory is pretty horrific; slowly hacked to pieces by his own enchanted axe by the Wicked Witch of the East. In a later book, he meets his own living human body; a reworked, Frankenstein-esque character named Chopfyt!

After the witch is melted and the Wizard makes his departure from Oz, Dorothy’s group travel south to meet Glinda, encountering fighting trees, giant spiders, a city made of china, and weird people called the Hammerheads. Dorothy returns home, whilst her friends all become leaders in Oz. the Scarecrow becomes king, Tin Man rules over Winkie Country as an emperor, and the Lion becomes king of all beasts. Dorothy would return to Oz in later books, eventually moving there with her family to become an honourary princess.

The book had early theatrical adaptations, but The Wizard of Oz is the most famous. Perhaps the most beloved of family films, some could say it is the greatest film of all-time, which I am inclined to agree with in some respects. It is very easy to just gush about how heartwarming, charming, and the sense of timelessness the film has. It is perhaps best known for launching Judy Garland into stardom, the iconography of the Ruby Slippers, and Dorothy’s moving song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”.

The film was co-produced by Mervyn LeRoy and Arthur Freed, both diehard fans of the books and wanted to direct the film themselves. Early on, it was decided to change Dorothy’s silver shoes to the Ruby Slippers to take advantage of the then revolutionary Technicolor process. The film was one of the first in Hollywood to use the technology, beautifully bringing Oz to life to mesmerise downtrodden and impoverished audiences. Another major choice was to make Dorothy’s whole journey a dream, as the producers felt viewers would be too sophisticated to believe in a fantasy world. How bizarre.

Judy Garland plays Dorothy, who longs for adventure and wonder in her drab, sepia tone world. After some home spun drama, Dorothy and Toto are whisked away by a twister to the magical land of Oz, landing on the Wicked Witch of the East. She is greeted by the sceptically good witch Glinda (Billie Burke) and the many, merry Munchkins, who celebrate the wicked witch’s demise. That is until the Wicked Witch of the West arrives, played by Margaret Hamilton, delivering one of the greatest villainous performances of all-time.

Glinda superglues the Ruby Slippers onto Dorothy’s feet, making her the target for the Wicked Witch, who wants the shoes because they are powerful and belonged to her dead sister. I always found it dodgy why Glinda would put Dorothy in such mortal peril whilst carrying that sweet smile all the time. To save herself, Dorothy must travel down the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City and meet the famed Wizard of Oz (Frank Morgan). Along the way, she meets the clumsy Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), the compassionate Tin Man (Jack Haley), and the neurotic Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr), who all accompany her to get a brain, a heart, and courage from the Wizard. You probably know the rest of the story, ending with the timeless words, “There’s no place like home.”

Endless praise can be heaped upon this classic movie in every element of its creation. The special effects by Arnold Gillespie were revolutionary for the time; the costumes by Jack Dawn, though nightmarish for their actors to wear, remain amongst the most iconic of all-time. The gorgeous matte paintings by Warren Newcome, both the score and songs by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg remain amongst the most beloved in film history.

“Somewhere Over the Rainbow” remains one of the greatest songs written, immortalised through Judy Garland’s heartfelt performance. The song became a symbolic representation for the actress’ career and life. Performing from a young age, Judy’s career was closely controlled by her stage mother. She was introduced to diet and sleeping pills, and often unfairly compared to other actresses; MGM chief Mervyn LeRoy even cruelly referred to Judy as his “little hunchback”. Her sense of insecurity and dependence on drugs would plague Judy Garland throughout her life, even though her career is amongst the most successful in Hollywood.

The film’s production was one of hellish conditions for all involved; it is a surprise no one has made a biopic out of it yet. The movie went through four directors – Richard Thorpe, George Cukor, Victor Fleming (credited as the sole director), and King Vidor, each bringing their own contributions to the film. Buddy Ebsen was originally cast as the Tin Man, only for his aluminium-based make up to trigger an allergic reaction. He was hospitalised, but the producers thought he was exaggerating his condition, until an enraged nurse summoned them to Ebsen’s bedside. The actors suffered in their costumes, especially under the hot lights of the sets.

Margaret Hamilton suffered from third degree burns during a botched fire stunt, her green-coloured copper make up igniting, leaving her off the set for weeks. When she returned, Hamilton refused to do a stunt involving a motorised broomstick. So her stunt double Betty Danko stepped in – a pipe exploded, leading to Danko’s time in hospital. Margaret Hamilton’s performance terrified children for generations, so much so that she appeared on both Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood to reassure children that it was just a role.

Then, we have the Munchkins, played by over a hundred actors with dwarfism. It was the first time for many that they had met other, similar performers, and were said to have been well-behaved and adored Judy Garland. Yet, in later years, fabricated slander spread claiming that the actors got routinely drunk and trashed their accommodations. In 2007, the Munchkins collectively earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. There is the urban legend of the hanging munchkin, supposedly an actor can be seen hanging themselves in the background of one scene. In truth, the obscure imagery is a trained bird stretching its wings, though the rumour persists.

The Wizard of Oz was a box office success in 1939, released two weeks prior to the start of World War II. It earned its role as a family favourite when it aired on CBS in 1959, finding new audiences to become an annual television staple. The film remains one of the most influential in history. All following adaptations of Oz having some connection to the 1939 film; being both official and unofficial continuations. Our journey down the yellow brick road continues with the first of these sequels: Journey Back to Oz.

What are your favourite moments of The Wizard of Oz? Which is your favourite adaptation? Leave a comment below, or on our Twitter feed.

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Mark Russell

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