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The Wizard of Oz

Posted by keith1942 on December 29, 2010

This was the second of two MGM musicals discussed on a recent course. It too seems to be illuminated by Richard Dyer’s  ideas around ‘utopian entertainment’ and the categories of feeling that he identified.

Of course, The Wizard of Oz is utopian in the basic plot, as it is in the original novel by L. Frank Baum. The heroine, Dorothy, seeks happiness ‘where the grass is greener on the far side of the hill.’  But she is finally happy to return home: though the idealisation of home is certainly stronger in the film than in the book. The film’s device of having the same actors play both characters in the Kansas and in Oz gives Dorothy’s final return an added potency.

What is common to both book and film is the idea that the ‘wonderful world of Oz’ turns out to be less magical and less desirable than at first seems. The land is divided between two [or four in the book] witches: two are good, two are evil. The paramount Wizard turns out to be a fraud with far less sorcery at his disposal than the witches. And added twist [not in the film though] is that the Emerald City is a con. All the inhabitants, and visitors like Dorothy and her companions, have to wear special spectacles, supposedly to protect their eyes from the dazzling views. But we learn that the spectacles are actually part of the illusion created of the city.

There has been a critical argument relating L Frank Baum’s book to nineteenth century populism. The film has received a similar analysis, in this case relating it to F. D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. Certainly the film’s production and release co-incided with the USA’s slow emergence out of the Great Depression, as re-armament fired up the economy.

One of the most brilliant devices in this extremely well designed and produced film is the use of sepia for Kansas and Technicolor for Oz. The opening sepia farm and landscape conjure up the world of the Great Depression. The images are reminiscent of the famous photos in Let us Now Praise Famous Men, and the setting redolent of Steinbeck’s memorable depiction in The Grapes of Wrath.

The categories of feeling apparent in the non-representational aspects of the film, like the mise en scène, serve to strengthen and reinforce this effect. Technicolor Oz clearly offers abundance apparently lacking in Kansas. Its apogee is the Emerald City, which on the surface is a surfeit of colour and happiness: and surrounded by a landscape with an abundance of floral beauty.

As with most musicals much of the energy inn the music and dance, notably in the celebratory actions of the Munchkins. But an important source of energy is also the ‘twister’ which acts as a disruption, whirling Dorothy and Toto [her dog] away to the adventures in Oz: adventures which cause Dorothy to realise ‘that home is what matters most’.

Intensity resides firstly in the songs, and as always in the persona of Garland herself. This would seem to be one of the major factors in the long-lasting popularity of ‘Somewhere over the rainbow’.

Transparency resides in certain characters, in the good witch in Oz, but also in the larger farm family that greets Dorothy’s return. Here we also encounter community as a crucial component of the final home. In some ways Dorothy’s comrades on her journey to the Emerald City and in the battle against the wicked witch also embody these feelings. All three characters, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Lion, seem to offer a transparent persona: and it as a newly formed community that they are able to complete their journey and achieve their goals.

But there is also a conflict between the values represented by the different categories of feeling. I think this is quite common in the musical genre. For example, Gene Kelly’s films usually embody a conflict between his desire for abundance and the need for transparency in his relationships. The conflict in The Wizard of Oz seems to be partly about the conflict between abundance and transparency, but equally between abundance and community. Part of the problem of Oz is the lack of transparency. This is clearest round the Wizard character, exposed as a charlatan. The film resists exposing the sham of The Emerald City itself, perhaps that seemed to dystopian. Oz’s communities are equally problematic. The Munchkins are terrorised by the wicked witch until their salvation by Dorothy. And the citizens in The Emerald City are the victims of a sham. Again Dorothy’s arrival leads to a change in their situation.

Both the situations presage the final return to Kansas. Dorothy appears to be working out the contradictions of her world in the troubled dream she experiences. Thus her three companions who participate in the salvation of the inhabitants of Oz surround her bedside when she awakes at home. He joy at her return is cemented by the news that Miss Gulch, the teacher and local misery, has gone away. The ‘wicked witch’ of repression and depression has been banished.

The Wizard of Oz shows that the utopia of the musical has its darker shadow, a dystopia. In this film the dystopia is provided by the memories of depression USA. In overtly romantic musicals, like An American in Paris, the dystopia is the absence of the love figure, e.g. Lise. One of the more intriguing examples is from the dying days of the MGM musical; It’s Always Fair Weather. Here the reunion of the trio of friends from On the Town discovers its dystopian aspect in the soured friendship and alienation of the three companions. The Wizard of Oz occurs at the start of the golden period of the MGM musical, which two decades later appears to have exhausted its utopian visions. Presumably a reflection of changes at MGM, in Hollywood but most of all in the wider culture. 

Production: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Corp.; 1939; Technicolor, 35mm, opening and closing sequences in black and white; running time: 101 minutes. Released 25 August 1939. Re-released 1948.

Produced by Mervyn LeRoy; screenplay by Noel Langley, Flor­ence Ryerson, and Edgar Allen Woolf; from the novel by L. Frank Baum; directed by Victor Fleming; photography by Harold Rosson; edited by Blanche Sewell; sound recording directed by Douglas Shearer; production designer: Edwin B. Willis. art director: Cedric Gibbons. music: Harold Arlen. lyrics: E. Y. Yarburg. special effects: Arnold Gillespie. costume design: Adrian. assistant to Mervyn LeRoy: Arthur Freed. makeup: Jack Dawn.

 

Awards: Oscars for Best Song (“Over the rainbow”), Best Original Score, and Special Award for Judy Garland.

 

Cast: Judy Garland (Dorothy); Ray Bolger (Hunk; the Scarecrow); Bert Lahr (Zeke; the cowardly Lion); Jack Haley (Hickory; the Tin Woodsman); Billie Burke (Glinda); Margaret Hamilton (Miss Gulch; the Wicked Witch); Charles Grapewin (Uncle Henry); Clara Blandick (Auntie Em); Pat Walsh (Nikko); Frank Morgan (Professor Marvel; the Wizard); the Singer Midgets (Munchkins).

 

 

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One Response to “The Wizard of Oz”

  1. Theresa said

    this was an extremely thought provoking blog of one of my childhood favourites

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