Friday, August 15, 2014

75 Years of MGM's Oz

The world of Oz was changed forever exactly seventy five years ago as MGM's The Wizard of Oz had its world premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theater. People had known about The Wizard of Oz before. It was a popular series of books and a major musical as well as prior film adaptations.

The stunning Technicolor of MGM's Oz and the wonderful songs gave the public a new way to enjoy L. Frank Baum's joyous fairyland. And who couldn't love the performances of Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr, Frank Morgan and Margaret Hamilton?

The film thrilled and enchanted audiences in 1939, breaking attendance records around the country. Financially, it just broke even, but MGM considered the film a success. In theatrical reissues and television airings, new generations were given this version of Baum's tale as their introduction to his world. As such, it is now the most recognizable version of Oz.

While the film has received many well-deserved laudatory
accolades, it is incredible how much sway the film has. The storytelling isn't perfect (several plot points leave fans creating theories and headcanons to this day), and many of its creature effects have easily been technologically surpassed these days. Yet even modern viewers are willing to look past that and just enjoy the magic of the film for what it is.

After reading over the production the film, it becomes clear that great care was taken in its production. Many script drafts and story ideas were dropped and revised until the final shooting script was decided on. Even then, production began and was scrapped twice before most of what we see in the finished film was shot.

MGM created a veritable fantasy world onscreen both in lavish sets and in matte paintings to create the beautiful yet unreal landscape of Oz. The songs are fun, whimsical, singable and memorable. Even if you can't accept Judy Garland as a twelve year-old, you can at least pick up on her emotions. Even if you see her friends as guys in bizarre makeup and costumes, you can see that they truly want to help Dorothy get home.

It is this that MGM gets so right. They tell Baum's story very differently than how he did, but when it comes to the very important moments, they got it right. The movie is about a girl who loves her family very much and three men who feel they are inadequate but find themselves rising above the odds. The wonderfully wicked witch serves as a memorable antagonist.

So, why does MGM's The Wizard of Oz stick around? Yes, we could do a more visually stunning version, but there's something to be said for great writing and performances. While I encourage people to explore Oz their own way, I often wish they'd leave what made this version great to itself. MGM put in their work, don't ape it.

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