Revisiting “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) directed by Victor Fleming

By on September 11, 2013


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In response to my review of “Oz the Great and Powerful”, John posted this comment:

Thanks for confirming what I thought about this movie and saving me time. I had no desire to see this. I am not attributing not seeing it to your review only that you confirmed my thoughts about it.  In lieu of a prequel or sequel, I prefer watching something original like the movie “Return to Oz” which was truer to the book. I think the beauty of the 1939 film, despite the fact that it was not true to the book, was that it was made without the aid of computers.

You mentioned “making of” documentaries and I wanted to add to that list the documentary, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: 50 Years of Magic”, this along with the ones you mentioned are delightful to watch.

There were so many other marvelous tidbits in your review, that I am happy they made “Oz The Great and Powerful” because in your review, you share other stories and bring back fond memories, Red Buttons, in particular. You confirmed in my mind that he was a genuinely nice person. One of my favorite Red Buttons performances is as the D-Day parachutist who lands on the church and gets tangled in his parachute in “The Longest Day”.

TWOOz 50th VHSThanks, John.  You’re really good about filling in my blanks, this time by suggesting 1990’s making-of documentary, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz:  50 Years of Magic”, hosted and narrated by Angela Lansbury.  The documentary was on the 50th anniversary VHS (which also included an informative booklet), which I gave away as I transitioned from the medium to DVD.    I also owned and gave away the book commemorating the film’s 50th anniversary.

For the first time since its 50th anniversary theatrical re-release in 1989, I watched “The Wizard of Oz” in its entirety this past weekend.  In 1989, I saw it at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, which is one of my all-time favorite places to watch movies.  (Others are Grauman’s Chinese in Hollywood – I lived three blocks away – and the Zeigfeld Theater in Manhattan on 54th Street near 6th Avenue.  My office on Park Avenue was a quick 15-minute walk from the Ziegfeld and I took advantage of that proximity often.)  The Castro opened movies by playing the Mighty Wurlitzer that rose from under the TWOOz 50th bookstage then descended when the movie started.  The crowds there were knowledgeable and enthusiastic and would always give David Hagerty, who played the Mighty Wurlitzer (below), a raucous round of applause when he’d play his ground-shaking final notes.  What a way to start a movie.  I also saw the 50th anniversary release of “Gone with the Wind”, the Frank Sinatra-approved re-release of “The Manchurian Candidate”, and a lot of other great movies and animation festivals at the Castro.  In looking it up, I just found the owners are thinking about selling the Mighty Wurlitzer, which would be a tragedy and strip the theater of a huge part of its character and appeal:

Castro WurlitzerHere’s a YouTube clip of Hagerty from November 2011.  The applause is polite and subdued compared to my experiences.  This took me back thirty years:

Here’s a short clip of him playing “We’re Off To See The Wizard” and a pan of the theatre:

Castro vintageThe one good thing about watching “Oz the Great and Powerful” was that it inspired me to see Fleming’s version and the contrast made the 1939 classic seem that much more phenomenal and my appreciation similarly greater.  What a magnificent, thoughtful, and well-crafted production.  As you imply, there’s something satisfying about the film’s creative backdrops and visuals as opposed to the sterile perfection of the CGI effects we’ve become used/numb to.  All the performances were great and, for the first time (because it never occurred to me to do it before), I ranked them as I watched, and in this order:

TWOOz hamilton 1TWOOz hamilton 4 TWOOz hamilton 3

Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West

Hamilton was a perfect choice – after beautiful Oscar®-winning (for “Anthony Adverse”) and later blacklisted Gale Sondergaard refused to wear makeup and costume that made her look ugly – for the role and it’s hard to imagine anyone doing it better.  Hamilton put every ounce of herself into the role and her voice/delivery and body language, especially her hands and fingers, set the standard for witches (and all screen villains) afterward.  Especially because I watched the movie on a 10-foot screen with full sound, her performance was almost as powerful as it was the first time I saw the film and, in some ways, more so.

TWOOz Lauer 1TWOOz Lauer 2

Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion

TWOOz Lauer 3 splitLahr’s performance easily transcended what anyone who read the book could have envisioned and he really milked his two singing performances, “If I Only had the Nerve” and “If I were the King of the Forest” (he was the only character in the film with two solo songs).  In the 2001 TNT documentary “Memories of Oz”, Lahr’s daughter Jane explained that her father’s presence when he was unrestrained on film was overwhelming to audiences but was a perfect fit, under the costume, for the character of the Cowardly Lion.  The combination worked for me and, like with Hamilton, it was as enjoyable to watch him as it was the first time.

Frank Morgan as Professor Marvel, the Emerald City Gatekeeper, the “Horse of a Different Color” Coachman, the Wizard’s Doorman, the apparition in the smoke, and the Wizard.

TWOOz Morgan 4 charactersThe fact Morgan portrayed all those characters and seemed to have a good time doing it should be enough reason to note his performance(s).  The role of the Wizard was written with W.C. Fields in mind.  Fields wanted more money and to focus on another project and the role was given to Morgan.  Fields’ legacy was cemented by his performance in Norman Z. McLeod’s 1934 “It’s a Gift” and the following year’s George Cukor-directed adaptation of Dickens’ “David Copperfield.”   Because Morgan’s performance was so energized, it seems wrong that Fields would have been considered for the Wizard, and his presence would have overshadowed the role.

Billie Burke’s performance as Glinda was always special and it’s one of my all-time favorite one-note performances, especially how cool and in control she was, even in the most confrontational scenes with TWWOTW.  I had never seen Burke in another TWOOz Glindarole until I watched George Cukor’s 1933 “Dinner at Eight” in 1990 (below).  I recognized her immediately and was amazed at how, in a movie released six years later, makeup or not, she seemed decades younger as Glinda.  I prefer the mystery of the luminescent globe with which she used to travel over the turbo-charged and clear bubble the Michelle Williams Glinda used in OTGAP.

Garland is good at moving the story along and it’s fascinating to see Billie Burke Dinner at Eightwhat she was like before she became a legendary mess.  Like with Morgan, Garland was not the studio’s first choice for the role.  And, as with Fields, the first choice, Shirley Temple – one of Hollywood’s biggest draws at the time – doesn’t seem appropriate in retrospect and her presence would have similarly been bigger than the role.  When I watch Ray Bolger’s scarecrow performance I always think of how that role originally went to Buddy Ebsen.  Bolger, the original choice for the Tin TWOOz JudyMan, campaigned for and won the scarecrow part and Ebsen became the Tin Man (in his costume, below).  Ebsen was hospitalized when the aluminum dust used in his makeup got into his lungs and, with no fanfare or public explanation, Jack Haley took over the part.  Having learned from the Ebsen experience, instead of using the aluminum dust as a makeup component, Haley’s makeup was made with aluminum paste (which still doesn’t sound healthy).  Ebsen later said the experience was humiliating and the low point of his professional career.  According to imdb, Ebsen’s vocals still remain in the film in the song, “We’re Off to See the Wizard.”

TWOOz EbsenTWOOz BolgerTWOOz Haley

Red Buttons SayonaraThis writing is as much of a response to John’s post as it is a revisiting of “The Wizard of Oz” and I want to address his comment about Red Buttons (right, in his Oscar®-winning role as Joe Kelly in “Sayonara”).  To be honest, at the time of the call, I didn’t even know he was alive, which is another reason I was surprised when he identified The Longest Day posterhimself.  Like you said, it was a treat to find out he was, in that interaction, the same way he comes across onscreen; sincere, personable, energetic, and with an easy sense of humor.  And that distinctive voice.  I just put “The Longest Day” (1962) on my Netflix queue.  It seems odd I’ve never seen it or had it recommended to me considering this cast, in addition to Buttons:  John Wayne, Richard Burton, Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda, Sean Connery, Mel Ferrer, Robert Ryan, Eddie Albert (significant for me as a big fan of the sitcom Green Acres), Peter Lawford, Roddy McDowell, Edmund O’Brien (I can’t believe I’m going this deep), George Segal, Rod Steiger, and Robert Wagner.  Providing the imdb link with the cast listing wouldn’t have been as effective as listing them here.  Thanks for the recommendation.  I have a few more of them in my queue and the ones I’ve watched have been enjoyable.  Keep ‘em coming and thanks for the comments.


August 11, 2013

Ziegfeld original exteriorZiegfeld interior

I mentioned my favorite Manhattan theatre was The Ziegfeld, which was named in honor of the theatre of the same name built by Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. (built in 1927 and razed in 1966), who was married to Billie Burke.  According to this Wikipedia entry, Burke went into films in 1932 to pay for the debts she inherited upon Ziegfeld’s death:,_Jr.

Above is an exterior shot of the original theatre and the interior of the new one.  The exterior of the new theatre is not very distinctive.

About Dan Walker

As part of an Air Force family, I went to elementary school in Great Falls, MT, junior high in Cheyenne, WY and high school and college in the San Francisco Bay Area, graduating from San Francisco State University with a degree in business. I was fortunate to have worked for great companies in Silicon Valley (Oracle Corp) and Hollywood (Miramax Films). I also lived and worked (primarily in financial services, which has no great companies) for eight years in Manhattan, New York City. I now reside in New York's beautiful Hudson Valley.

2 comments on “Revisiting “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) directed by Victor Fleming

  1. In the days before VCRs, Amazon, Netflix and On Demand, one of my most devastating memories causing deep depression was turning on the television one night and catching only the last ten minutes of the “Wizard of Oz” – which in those days – was only shown once a year. I think the infrequency of it being shown was also part of the magic. Going back further in time, imagine those people who could only afford to see it once in a movie theater before a certain number of years passed before a rerelease or the advent of television. How the world has changed.

  2. Lucy Vilato-Walker on said:

    This is my all-time favorite childhood movie. We would gather together as a family to watch it on TV. As a child I loved Judy Garland movies and had several of her albums. Such a beautiful voice she had. Loved this article!

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