Those of you who read Ezra’s blog will have seen this coming.
Recently, Ezra and I watched The Wizard of Oz. I hadn’t seen it in a long time, and I’m not sure if I’d ever seen it without commercials. It’s always interesting to go back to things you consumed as a kid, especially iconic things that, whether you knew it not, played a part in shaping your life.
I noticed a few things watching the film now, and put into words some things I’d always thought but never really discussed with anyone. First off, the “black and white” segments aren’t black and white at all, they’re sepia. To me, the sepia tone achieves a number of things. It underscores the earthiness of the Kansas setting, the down-home-ness of it. It gives it a faded look rather than a sophisticated one. It’s sort of soft rust versus the polished look that black and white might render. When the tornado approaches, the sepia dust spins and billows around… The twister itself throws up a violent cloud not entirely unlike the poof of red the Wicked Witch sends up when she makes her dramatic exit from the scene at the tip of the Yellow Brick Road.
And how great is Margaret Hamilton? She sure did scare the bejesus out of many generations of kiddies (and probably some adults). The music that accompanies her riding around on the bike (when she is Miss Gulch in Kansas) is the best. I find myself using it quite a bit.
More of a revelation, maybe, is Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow. I don’t know about you, but though the Lion had a good song or two, the Scarecrow was always my favorite. He was Dorothy’s favorite as well, it seems, as she tells him right before leaving Oz that she thinks she’ll miss him most of all. I always identified Bolger’s stumbling lanky walk and dance moves with the Scarecrow character, but actually he was dancing like that for years before The Wizard of Oz, on Broadway and then in the film The Great Ziegfeld, his second film ever and first for MGM.
Ray Bolger in The Great Ziegfeld
As Ezra mentioned in his blog, I’d love to see a double feature of those two films. They’re both full of song and dance numbers, they both deal with fantasy and reality, and they both feature vaudeville and Broadway stars like Ray Bolger and Frank Morgan. Ziegfeld’s real-life wife, Billie Burke–played by Myrna Loy in The Great Ziegfeld, plays Glinda, the Good Witch of the East in The Wizard of Oz. Both films are also iconic for certain eras in entertainment. The Great Ziegfeld pays tribute to the massive production numbers of the Ziegfeld Follies. (According to Wikipedia, “The MGM blockbuster’s show-stopper was “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody”, which, by itself, cost more to produce than one of Ziegfeld’s whole shows.”) The Wizard of Oz is a hugely colorful film from an era when the vast majority of films were still black and white. And both films are, at least at times, decidedly over-the-top.
One thing that struck me watching The Wizard of Oz this time are all the parallels between Oz (I’m referring strictly to the film here, as I haven’t read the book) and Alice in Wonderland (I refer both to the book and to Disney’s Alice in Wonderland). Alice’s life is comfortable, though perhaps a bit boring. She has an animal companion, her cat Dinah, just as Dorothy has her Toto. (Alas for Alice, Dinah does not accompany her to Wonderland… at least, not exactly.) When Dorothy watches things going by outside her window as she is sucked up in the twister, it’s like when Alice watches things go past her as she’s falling down the rabbit hole. Maybe it’s just because of the Disney film, but Dorothy’s outfit looks pretty appropriate for Alice, except maybe for the shoes.
Some interpretations of Alice’s look:
(Okay, so the colors are inverted.)
Dorothy’s not sure which way to go on the Yellow Brick Road, just as a Alice isn’t sure which path to take in the woods. When Dorothy meets the Munchkins, they think she’s a witch. When Alice encounters a pigeon, it accuses her of being a serpent. Looking around at the start of the Yellow Brick Road, Dorothy says something like, “What a curious place”–much like Alice’s “Curiouser and curiouser!” And then there are double meanings or very literal meanings–a horse of a different color in Oz, for example, and “a long sad tale” versus “a long tail” in Alice (among many others). Both Dorothy and Alice are trying to get somewhere, and neither knows quite what to expect. Both are rather disappointed with what they find when they finally get there (the wizard is a bit of a sham and can’t help Dorothy get home, the tea party is full of nonsense–as is the Queen). Then, of course, there are veiled or not so veiled drug references… the caterpillar smoking, Alice eating cakes that change her, the field of poppies in the Wizard of Oz that puts Dorothy to sleep and then the snow that awakens her. In Disney’s Alice, at least, the flowers can talk. Flowers in Oz pop up and turn out to be Munchkins. In Disney’s Alice, the woods are scary and seem alive. In Oz, the trees can talk and throw things.
The Queen in Alice is a little like the Wicked Witch of the West. The playing cards are her guards, and like the witch’s guards, they do her bidding but they don’t like it or her–they’re afraid of her. Consider this sentence from Alice in Wonderland and then think about the Wicked Witch directing the guards: “Get to your places!” shouted the Queen in a voice of thunder, and people began running about in all directions, tumbling up against each other […]”
And, of course, in both cases it was all a dream that incorporated bits from real life.
AND… both stories have been examined as political satires.
And then there’s the relationship between Oz in the film and Dr. Seuss. I could go on!