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The Wizard of Oz (1939)


Those ruby slippers have lost no luster in the 80-plus years since the original release of The Wizard of Oz, a film that pretty much defines ‘timeless classic’. In the L. Frank Baum story, a spoiled farm girl named Dorothy (Judy Garland) is whisked away in a tornado to the magical land of Oz, where a good witch (Billie Burke) sends her down the yellow-brick road to the Emerald City to find the Wizard, a man so powerful he can grant any wish — including Dorothy’s wish to return home to Kansas with her dog, Toto. Along the way, she’s joined by the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), the Tin Woodsman (Jack Haley), and the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) — who join Dorothy for their own wish fulfillment (“If I only had a Brain… A Heart… A Home… the Noive.”) But the quest isn’t without peril or set-backs, as the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) and her army of flying monkeys will stop at nothing to get Dorothy’s ruby slippers, and the wonderful Wizard turns out to be not so wonderful after all.

Oz is the quintessential fantasy adventure movie. The purity and economy of its storytelling gave birth to the formula by which countless other films have been patterned. The story and characters are now deeply ingrained in our popular culture, and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is often regarded as the best song ever written. The film is fanciful but earnest, and the entire cast bring great verisimilitude to their performances.

Everyone’s got their favorite parts.  Mine change every time I watch it, but on my most recent viewing I fell in love with Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion and Frank Morgan, who plays five different parts including the “Great and Powerful Oz” himself.  I’m still in awe of the tornado special effect, achieved by dragging a tube across the stage and blowing fuller’s earth into its wake. And of course, then there’s the flying monkeys with their feathered wings and cute little marching band outfits — I love those critters. And the escape the witch’s castle, from the falling chandelier to the witch’s watery demise, is one of my favorite action sequences in all of film.

The Wizard of Oz is the best of what escapist Hollywood big-budget studio entertainment can be.

Academy Awards: Best Music Score (Herbert Stothart), Best Original Song – “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (Harold Arlen, E.Y. Harburg)

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Color Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Special Effects