Childhood is remembered as a time of innocence and trust. But it's also filled with primal fears, often triggered by the people and events of ordinary life. As we grow up, we learn not to be so afraid of what seem to be small things. Yet, at the same time we still want to retain the wide-eyed, youthful sense of hope.
Few movies have dramatized a child's wild emotional swings with the imagination of The Wizard of Oz. This 1939 classic, based on L. Frank Baum's short story, presents audiences with a fanciful re-creation of the fears and wonder of childhood as we walk with Dorothy down the Yellow Brick Road to Emerald City. In addition to be included on the Vatican's list of 45 noteworthy films from 100 years of cinema, it was voted 6th best film of all time in the American Film Institute's recent poll.
Dorothy (Judy Garland) is an orphan raised on a Kansas farm by her stern but goodhearted Aunt Em (Clara Blandinck) and Uncle Henry (Charles Grapewin). She's always getting herself into jams despite the best of intentions. The farmhands — Hunk (Ray Bolger), Hickory (Jack Haley), and Zeke (Bert Lahr) — are usually on her side, much to the consternation of her aunt who urges her to “find a place where you won't get into trouble.”
To an adult, these childhood scrapes and scoldings seem like no big deal. But director Victor Flemming (Gone With the Wind), producer Mervyn Leroy, and screenwriters Noel Langley, Florence Beeson, and Edgar Allan Wolf realize their importance to young people. Dorothy fervently wishes to be in a place where she won't always feel like she's a bad girl. To express this longing, she sings Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harberg's memorable tune, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
But the worst is yet to come. Anasty neighbor, Mrs. Gulch (Margaret Hamilton), has a sheriff's order permitting her to take away Dorothy's dog, Toto. She claims the pup is destroying her property. Dorothy calls the elderly woman “a wicked old witch” but to no avail.
Toto escapes from Mrs. Gulch, and Dorothy decides the only way she can save her beloved pet is to run away. The first person she encounters on her flight is the con man, Professor Marvel (Frank Morgan), who despite his bluster only wants the best for the little girl. He uses his tricks to persuade her to go home.
A twister begins to tear up the landscape as Dorothy returns. Unable to find her aunt, she seeks shelter in a farmhouse, where she passes out. Her unconscious is possessed by a fevered dream or vision. Its contents bring to light her hopes and fears about herself and all the people in her life. The movie plunges into a series of fantastic adventures which reveal certain truths to Dorothy.
The young girl awakes in the land of Oz. The film's images change from black and white to color. “Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore,” she remarks.
A tribe of little people called Munchkins welcome her as a conquering heroine. The farmhouse in which she was carried from Kansas to Oz has landed on the Wicked Witch of the East and killed her, and Dorothy is now wearing the sorceress' magical ruby slippers. But the dead witch's sister, the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton), promises to take her revenge. The evil creature looks exactly like Mrs. Gulch, who made Dorothy's life so miserable in Kansas.
The young girl, afraid her Aunt Em may be worrying about her, wants to get back to Kansas. A good witch, Glinda (Billie Burke), advises her to take the glittering Yellow Brick Broad to the sparkling Emerald City. There resides the all-powerful Wizard of Oz, the only one who can help her get home.
On her journey, Dorothy encounters a trio of fairy-tale-like characters who look like her aunt's farmhands back in Kansas. Each is a needy individual who lacks a virtue that seems important to her youthful mind. The Scarecrow (Ray Bolger) wishes he had some brains; the Tin Man (Jack Haley) wants a heart; and the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) lacks courage. They all believe the Wizard of Oz (Frank Morgan), who resembles the con man Professor Marvel, will somehow give them these interior qualities.
The Wicked Witch of the West casts spells and throws other obstacles in their way. Her awesome powers are a skillful magnification of the fears Mrs. Gulch evoked in Dorothy's psyche in Kansas.
Dorothy's natural charity and compassion are shown to be strong weapons against evil. She and her companions learn not to depend on exterior magic to solve interior problems of character. All of these escapades unfold with humor and charm, accompanied by wonderful songs and joyful dancing.
The Wizard of Oz allows us to see the world in all its mystery with the eyes of the child. Viewers of all ages will be enchanted.
Arts and Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Washington, DC.