What a joy it must have been to sit in a theater and watch The Wizard of Oz in 1939. The classic story of young Dorothy Gale transported to the magical land of Oz by a tornado and pursued by an evil witch for her ruby slippers had been filmed before, but this version shamed the rest. Visually there had been nothing like it before, especially the breathtaking transformation from the sepia-toned scenes of Kansas to the eye-popping Technicolor scenes of Oz. The film is still spectacular to look at even after years of sumptuous Technicolor and increasingly elaborate special effects, so an audience in 1939 must have been doubly awed by the visual realization of Munchkinland, the witch’s dark castle, talking trees, an expansive field of poppies, and the Emerald City.
Aside from the stunning visual aesthetic, the movie has enchanted audiences for decades because of many other elements like its music, its memorable characters, and pitch-perfect performances. The most notable of which is Judy Garland in a wide-eyed, good natured performance as Dorothy. It has been reported that producers originally intended Shirley Temple for the role of the eleven-year-old, which made sense, but Temple would have contributed a different tone to the movie. It’s impossible to know if that tone would have been better, worse, or indifferent, but I suspect using an actual child would have rendered some of the darker scenes cringe-worthy, even with an accomplished performer like Shirley Temple. (Much like the tragically misguided 1985 Return to Oz with the appropriately aged Fairuza Balk being traumatized in a mental institution before being pursued by a queen with a detachable head, which must have terrified children.) With sixteen-year-old Garland we can see she is feigning youth and her natural strength can withstand the threats of the Wicked Witch of the West and her flying monkeys. Shirley Temple had pluck, but didn’t have the same strength of character that Judy Garland did. Besides, can we really imagine an alternate universe in which Shirley Temple sang “Over the Rainbow”?
Furthermore, Garland stood up well alongside her stellar supporting cast, who created equally iconic characters. Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow, Jack Haley as the Tin Man, and Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion weren’t defined by their elaborate makeup and costumes. They brought their characters to vivid life that matched the strength of Garland’s characterization and contributing plausibility to director Victor Fleming’s implausible world. Margaret Hamilton is joyfully evil as the Wicked Witch of the West, but, like the others, she uses the heavy makeup to buttress her performance rather than define it, and stands as a perfect villain opposite the eternally sweet Dorothy. And Frank Morgan shines as the blubbering Wizard (in addition to several other parts) handing out lessons to the movie’s characters and the audience. Their strong work, alongside Judy Garland, helps cement this movie as one of the most beloved of all time.
It’s a beautiful fantasy for both children and adults – so beautiful in fact that we wonder why Dorothy would want to return to Kansas at all. Her life there was drab and everyone ignored her, except maybe Toto, who the nasty Miss Gulch has threatened to take away and have put down. It is in Oz that she finds adventure and real friends who accept her and love her as she is. She realizes there is “no place like home,” but do we really buy it? Maybe not, but we’re happy that Fleming helped to create this world and allowed us to go on this journey with Dorothy and her friends. It is a rich and memorable film stock full of classic, hum-able songs and dynamic characters. It is the most entertaining movie of 1939, almost – missing by a smidge – the best.