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Monday, October 03, 2011

Monday Matinee: The Wizard Of Oz

Allow me to introduce all of you to the very first day of Wizards and Witches week on the Pop Culture Addict's Guide To Life.

From October 3 to October 9, we'll be taking a look at some of the wizards and witches that have appeared in various forms of pop culture. Some of them are wizards capable of casting magic spells. Some of them are witches who happen to be the star of the show. And in the case of the Sunday Jukebox, we have a singer who isn't really a wizard, but plays one on television.

I have chosen seven pop culture references that have at least some minor connection to a witch or a wizard, and as Halloween approaches, expect to see a lot more spooky entries as the month of October progresses. There will be some non-Halloween entries for October, but most of them will be positively 'spook-tacular'.

This first day...well, I suppose it doesn't really qualify as being overly scary, but it is the only pop culture reference that I have that has both a wizard AND a witch in the movie.

Before we get into that though, I would like to tell you a story about this movie as it relates to my childhood memories.

In Canada, we celebrate our Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October. In the United States, however, their Thanksgiving is celebrated around the end of November. Back in the day, many of the television networks would have special programming that aired during the American Thanksgiving. During the day, you could watch the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City, and during the afternoon, it was almost a guarantee that there would be at least one football game airing.

But during the primetime slots (at least as long as I can remember), CBS would air a screening of a particular movie that kept me glued to my seat as long as I can remember. I can even recall the very first time I watched this movie. It must have been sometime in the late 1980s, as I was probably no older than six at the time. My mom switched on the television as she made homemade popcorn on the stove (as we didn't own a microwave back in those days), and we sat down to watch a movie that was first released in 1939.

The Wizard Of Oz starred Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale, a young girl from Kansas who lived on a farm with her little dog, Toto. The farm was the home of Dorothy's Auntie Em and Uncle Henry, and Dorothy helped out by doing various chores around the farm. She was assisted by three farm hands, Hickory, Hunk, and Zeke (Jack Haley, Ray Bolger, and Bert Lahr respectively), and life was idyllic for all.

Ah, who're we kidding? Dorothy couldn't wait to get out of Kansas. I mean, it was barren, desolate, sepia-toned...a rather bland looking place. Add to the fact that the nasty, sharp-tongued, bicycle-riding neigbour Miss Gulch was lurking around, and it was understandable as to why Dorothy felt like going somewhere over the rainbow.

Can I just state that I can so identify with Dorothy Gale? I know what it feels like to be in a place where you feel like you just don't belong, or you feel out of place. I especially know what it's like to have nasty, nosy neighbours prodding around, making your life a misery, whether intentionally or not. Heck, if I were Dorothy, I probably would have gone searching for that rainbow years ago.

Honestly, there are some instances in which I want to find my own rainbow myself. A place where troubles really do melt like lemon drops, and where dreams really do come true. Of course, I guess in some ways, I can achieve this through my writing. Whenever things get too much for me, or whenever something happens where I end up feeling alone, I can always write about it, and feel one hundred per cent better.

Therapy by way of blogging. Imagine that.

Of course, this was the summer of 1939, and computers (let alone blogging) did not exist. I suppose Dorothy could have penned a journal, but somehow, I don't think it would have been much help to her in the brown, brown, state of Kansas.

No, Dorothy's motivation to head somewhere over the rainbow was inspired of all people by Miss Gulch, and not in a good way either. Apparently, Toto hated Miss Gulch just as much as the others did, and showed it by biting Miss Gulch. Miss Gulch gets an order from the sheriff, and she takes Toto away to be put down. Luckily, Toto manages to escape, and when Dorothy finds her dog, she makes the decision to run away from home so that Miss Gulch would not be able to take Toto away a second time.

On the way, she happens to come across a traveling fortune teller named Professor Marvel, who correctly predicts that Dorothy has run away from home, but is otherwise lousy at his real ability to predict the future. Once Dorothy enters the wagon, the man manages to convince Dorothy to return home after spinning a tale about her Auntie Em falling ill from grief.
Unfortunately, at that possible moment, a tornado is fast approaching the farmhouse, and Dorothy and Toto arrive back home just seconds after the rest of the family evacuates to the storm cellar. She tries to take shelter inside the house, but when the window behind her shatters, a piece of the wooden frame knocks Dorothy out cold. When Dorothy awakens, she finds that the house is inside the tornado being blown far, far away from Kansas.

Okay, I'm going to interrupt this plot to talk a little bit about the production of the movie. The movie was based on the 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, penned by author L. Frank Baum. The rights to turn the book into a movie were bought by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (better known as MGM Studios) in early 1938, and went through a number of writers and revisions before shooting for the film began later that year, with the final script being approved on October 8, 1938.

It is interesting to note that when the script was completed, there were a couple of ideas for scenes that were left on the cutting room floor or the wastepaper bin for whatever reason, but I'll get to that a little later.

The film was officially released at a small opening at a single movie theater in Wisconsin on August 12, 1939. Over the next few days, more theaters started to show the movie, and by August 25, 1939, the film was playing nationwide. What was interesting was that when the film was originally released in 1939, it actually was considered a bomb. The film initially made three million dollars at the box office (which works out to a little over $47 million in 2011 money) against the production/distribution costs of $2.8 million (a little over $44 million in 2011 money). So, the film did make a profit, but not a big one. However, when the film was re-released for the 10th anniversary, in 1949, the profits were much higher.

The film was memorable in a number of different ways, but perhaps the reason why so many people were fond of the movie was because of the fact that it was one of the first films to ever be seen in full colour. Using a process known as Technicolor, much of the movie was filmed using this new technology. The process to colour the film was a lengthy, long-drawn affair. The process took from October 1938 to March 1939 for it to be fully completed. Add the large, elaborate costumes and complicated make-up that the actors had to wear, and it made for an rather chaotic atmosphere on set.

Although as you can see in this clip where Dorothy first sets foot inside the land of Oz, it was well worth the effort.

"Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.”

No, you most certainly are not, Dorothy. Gone are the dreary sepia-toned plains of Kansas. You're in the world of lush green trees, bright blue skies, and a gigantic yellow brick road.

Oh, and a whole bunch of little people known as the Munchkins of Munchkinland.

Dorothy looks around the weird, mystical place that the tornado seemed to drop her into, not even aware that the house had fallen right on top of somebody, killing them instantly. As it would later be revealed, this proved to be a blessing for the Munchkins, as thanks to an appearance by Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, tells Dorothy that the person who the house fell on top of was the Wicked Witch of the East, a rather nasty woman who inflicted pain and fear into the hearts of the Munchkin community.

The Munchkins come out of hiding once they hear that the witch is dead, and celebrate by singing the song 'Ding-Dong, The Witch Is Dead', proving just how broken-hearted they are to hear of the woman's demise.

But, wait! The celebration is interrupted by the sister of the dead witch. The just as wicked, if not more, witch of the West!

Who strangely resembled Dorothy's annoying neighbour, Miss Gulch.

Anyway, the reason for the Wicked Witch of the West dropping in on the scared citizens of Munchkinland was to mourn her sister's passing. Oh, and to get her hands on the powerful ruby red slippers (which in the original novel were silver, but changed to red as a result of the Technicolor filming process). Glinda, proving that she is much more clever than either of the wicked sisters, managed to magically remove the slippers from the dead woman, and place them on the feet of one Dorothy Gale.

(On a side note, wearing a pair of shoes that were just worn by a dead!)

At any rate, the witch threatens to get Dorothy and her little dog too before disappearing into thin air. At this point, Dorothy is afraid, and all she wants to do is escape this strange new world and go back home. She doesn't know how though. Glinda tells Dorothy that there is a wizard who lives in the Emerald City. He is known as the Wizard of Oz, and he has the power to grant any wish that anyone desires. In order to find the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy must follow the yellow brick road to get to the Emerald City. Glinda also warns Dorothy that under no circumstances should she ever take off the ruby slippers, or else she would be at the mercy of the Wicked Witch of the West.

And Dorothy did not want that at all.

So, Dorothy set off down the yellow brick road along with Toto, hoping against all odds that the Wizard of Oz could set her free.

What Dorothy didn't count on was the fact that she would soon be encountered by three friends along the way. Three friends who surprisingly looked like the three farmhands that Dorothy had befriended on Auntie Em and Uncle Henry's farm. Peculiar...

The three friends that Dorothy takes with her on her journey are all different backgrounds, natures, and personalities, but like Dorothy, they all feel as if something is missing in their lives, and they agree to accompany Dorothy to the Emerald City in hopes that the Wizard of Oz could help them get something.

Take the Scarecrow for instance (in a dual role by Ray Bolger). The Scarecrow is the first friend that Dorothy meets in her travels. He explains to Dorothy that he always wanted a brain because he didn't feel as though he was smart enough to be a scarecrow, as the crows were no longer afraid of him. Though there are a couple of instances in the film where the Scarecrow is taken apart and Dorothy is forced to put him back together again, the Scarecrow comes up with some rather intelligent ideas during the journey. Not bad for someone who didn't think that he had a brain.

The next person that Dorothy comes across is the Tin Man (Jack Haley), a man completely made out of metal. When Dorothy and the Scarecrow find the Tin Man, it is discovered that he is unable to talk, walk, or even so much as make a sound. It is only by chance that the duo find the Tin Man's oil can and use it to bring the Tin Man back to life. The Tin Man is grateful towards Dorothy, and almost immediately decides to join them on their quest to see the wonderful Wizard of Oz. Reason? The Tin Man is in need of a heart. He never had a heart inside of him, and he wanted on badly. This despite the fact that he is moved to tears when Dorothy fell under the witches spell crossing the field of poppies that put her to sleep. Despite the fact that of all the characters in the movie, he was always the kindest. A recurring gag in the film was the fact that whenever the Tin Man got caught in wet weather or shed tears, he would rust to the point of being frozen, so Dorothy would have to oil him up once again.

The final character to join the group is the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr), shortly after the group talks about how they would hate to be ambushed by lions, and tigers, and bears.

Oh my.

Of course, we all know that this particular King of the Beasts is not exactly the most bravest of the bunch by his name. As if that didn't clue you in enough, when the lion tries to scare Dorothy and her friends, Dorothy ends up scolding the lion by lightly tapping him, and he bursts into tears. It's explained that the lion wants to go see the Wizard of Oz so that he may be able to give him the gift of courage. That's despite the fact that as the movie progressed, he is able to face any fear that comes across his way. Heck, when he first meets the Wizard of Oz, his first instinct is to run away, but he came back. He is also fiercely protective of Dorothy and her friends, and eventually becomes a friend himself as a result.

So, it's have four characters in the film, of which three of them claim to be looking for a particular thing they feel they need while surprisingly showing those characteristics that they all claim to be lacking.

Poor Dorothy must be feeling a little left out. But, don't worry, we'll get to that.

After almost being incapacitated by the poisoned poppies, almost getting knocked out by apple-throwing trees, and having the witch and her flying monkeys wreak havoc on the quad every chance they get, they finally arrive at the Emerald City for an audience with the Wizard of Oz. But when they finally meet the Wizard, all they see is a giant head (which kind of reminds me of the giant head the Power Rangers used to communicate with back in the show's heyday). And that giant head tells them that he'll grant their wishes...IF they bring back the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West.

Geez...way to make it easy on them, huh?

As if that weren't bad enough, when the group approaches the witch's castle, the witch sends her army of flying monkeys to distract the attention of Dorothy's friends while Dorothy and Toto are abducted and taken prisoner inside the castle. Inside the castle, the witch cruelly threatens to drown Toto unless Dorothy gives up the ruby slippers, and Dorothy, who couldn't bear to see anything happen to Toto, agrees to hand them over. But when the witch tries to grab the slippers, the magic barrier protecting them gives the witch a rather nasty shock. The witch realizes that in order for her to get the shoes, she must kill Dorothy. An hourglass is set up while she thinks of a way to get the shoes without diminishing their power. When the time ran out, Dorothy's time would run out too.

Fortunately, Toto ended up escaping from the castle and finds the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion. From there, the group overpowers some of the guards, steal their clothes, and run through the castle in an effort to free Dorothy. In one final confrontation, the group is trapped by the witch, who immediately attacks them with a barrage of fire, which ignites the Scarecrow's arm. Dorothy tries to put out the flame and we get this iconic scene...

(Just on a side note...if water made the witch melt...could you imagine how ripe she must have been after being unable to shower or bathe with water? Yuck!)

Nevertheless, they got what they came for. They got the broomstick of the now deceased Wicked Witch of the West and brought it back to the Wizard of Oz, hopeful that now that they have brought what he requested, he could use his magic powers to bestow what each of them wanted...

...that is, until Toto whips back a curtain, and it is revealed that the Wizard of Oz is just an ordinary man (who resembles the fortune teller Dorothy visited with before the tornado hit.

The man, once exposed, is extremely apologetic towards Dorothy and her friends, and he immediately tries to appease their disappointment by insisting that all of them had the qualities they were looking for all along.

It was the truth, you know. Take our Scarecrow. He spent years believing that he didn't have a brain, yet ended up being the most intelligent of the whole group. Tin Man thought he didn't have a heart, yet he ended up being the kindest and most emotionally driven character in the whole group. And the Cowardly Lion proved that he wasn't quite so cowardly because despite his fear, he stuck the quest out until the end.

Of course, the wizard did make gifts for each of them to symbolize this fact. He made a brain for the Scarecrow, a heart for the Tin Man, and a medal of courage (which originally was a liquid of courage) for the Not-So-Cowardly Lion. As for Dorothy, it was explained that the Wizard of Oz came from Kansas as well, and had a hot-air balloon stored away for him to return to Kansas one day. He agrees to take Dorothy and Toto home with him in the balloon. But before the balloon could take off from Munchkinland, Toto leaps out of the basket of the balloon. Dorothy leaps out of the balloon after him, but when she reaches Toto, the balloon takes off without her.

Dorothy is upset, feeling as though she has wasted her one chance to go back home...or has she?

The ruby slippers hold the key to her return. And, yes, I am well aware that I am going against my policy to never reveal the ending of a Monday matinee movie, but I'm going by the assumption that most people have seen the movie, so I'm just going to reveal all. This isn't going to happen very often though, so don't expect me to reveal every ending for a film.

As it turns out, the way back home comes with a great message. A life lesson, if you will. It all comes from a special appearance by Glinda the Good Witch of the North, who told Dorothy that she had the power to go back home whenever she wanted to. She just had to realize that she didn't always have to run away from home to find her heart's desire. By clicking her heels three times and saying 'there's no place like home', she could find her way back to Auntie Em, Uncle Henry, Hunk, Hickory, Zeke, and everyone else she cared about. And when she does this, she awakens back inside the brown hued world of Kansas where she is reunited with her loved ones. Her loved ones insist that Dorothy only dreamt about the Emerald City, and Munchkinland, and the Wizard of Oz, but she insists that everything that happened to her was real. Though she promises everyone that she will never leave again, and that there is no place like home.

Life lesson learned. Never forget where you came from and realize that in most cases, you really can go home again.

In a way, I do believe this to be true, it's just that in my case, I'm not exactly sure where home really is...but that is a whole different story.

To conclude this rather lengthy look back on one of the most popular and influential films of all-time, here's some little known trivia about the movie itself, as well as some behind the scenes action.

  • Originally, the role of the Tin Man was to be played by Buddy Ebsen (who later gained fame on The Beverly Hillbillies), but after ten days, began to develop an allergic reaction to the makeup used as part of the costume, and had to be replaced by Jack Haley).
  • During the scene in which Margaret Hamilton (The Wicked Witch Of The West) was in Munchkinland, she was severely burned after a stunt involving fire went wrong.
  • The role of the Wicked Witch of the West originally went to Gale Sondergaard, but she left the project when she became unhappy with being turned into an 'ugly hag' persona.
  • W.C. Fields was originally considered as the role of the Wizard of Oz.
  • Both Deanna Durbin and Shirley Temple were originally considered to play the role of Dorothy before Judy Garland was cast.
  • In the original book adaptation, the Tin Man was originally a human being named Nick Chopper. The Wicked Witch of the East had enchanted his axe to chop off all of his limbs, which were replaced with a metal substitute. This continued until the Tin Man was entirely made of metal.
  • It took an entire week for the art department to agree on the exact shade of yellow to be used on the yellow brick road.
  • The movie first aired on network television on November 3, 1956, on CBS.
  • Believe it or not, the song 'Over The Rainbow' was almost left on the cutting room floor! MGM had thought that the segment where Dorothy sang in a barnyard was degrading, and made the Kansas scenes seem lengthy. Mervyn LeRoy (producer), Arthur Fleming (director) and Arthur Freed (associate producer) fought to keep the song in the film. Good thing they did.
  • Contrary to popular belief, no munchkin committed suicide during the filming of The Wizard of Oz.
  • It took a dozen takes to get the scene where Toto runs alongside the actors as they head down the yellow brick road.
  • A couple of scenes were left on the cutting room floor. One scene had Dorothy competing in a singing contest with a snobbish Oz princess. Another scene was left off from the ending, which saw Hunk leaving the farm to attend a school of agriculture. Dorothy promises to write to him every day, which kind of makes the finale seem more special when Dorothy tells the Scarecrow 'I'll miss you most of all...”

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