Friday, August 13, 2010

The 100 Best Movies: #10

10. The Wizard of Oz (1939)

It is probably the most beloved family film of all-time. I cannot think of anyone I know (or know of) that has NOT seen this movie. It is one of those movies that, when mentioned, brings people back to their childhood. It delights, enchants, frightens and warms the heart of even the toughest of critics. I remember it as being one of my first film obsessions, and I mean, obsession. I wanted to know everything about this film and everything about everyone involved with the making of this film. Anything that has those two magical letters of "OZ" on it, I wanted to see it, hear about it or own it. It is such a powerful film that anytime anyone thinks of L. Frank Baum's timeless characters, they automatically think of the way they were portrayed in this classic masterpiece. And this is not the ONLY piece of Baum's OZ world. Baum wrote multiple sequels (one of which, the darker Return to Oz, was turned into a film in 1985) and there have been several versions of Baum's original (ranging from graphic novels to animated film editions to the 1975 musical The Wiz). It even has spawned a very successful prequel (ever hear of a little musical called Wicked, people?). But it is this 1939 gem that people will never forget.

In the late 1930's, inspired by the growing strength of the Walt Disney Studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer wanted to produce more movies that appealed to family audiences. Having retained the rights to L. Frank Baum's 1900 novel earlier, Louis B. Mayer entrusted the production to several writers and directors to make a musical extravaganza (directorship credit went to Victor Fleming, but other directors like George Cukor and King Vidor had made crucial contributions to the filming). In the casting process (which was long and drawn out, due to several studio politics and some production mishaps), producer Mervyn LeRoy gave the all-important role of Dorothy Gale to Judy Garland, at the time a young up-and-comer in her MGM contract. Garland, with her booming grown-up style voice, was the perfect Dorothy. She had an innocence necessary but physical power that was just right for the musical numbers (she was trained in the vaudeville houses along with her sisters as part of "The Gumm Sisters). Her amazing performance (especially of the ultimate "I Want" song "Over the Rainbow") is at the very center of this film and a major part of why it is so beloved.

Everyone knows this story. Dorothy, a Kansas farm girl, is transported to the magical land of OZ. To get home, she must go and see the titular Wizard. Along the way, she meets characters who join her in her quest to the Emerald City. They even help her defeat the Wicked Witch who is after her. It is a powerful story about finding your way and realizing that home is as much a part of you (and always will be!). In addition to Garland, the film features an array of great character actors from that era. Ray Bolger is a clownish gem in the role of the Scarecrow and Jack Haley charms as the Tin Man. My personal favorite character is the Cowardly Lion as played by the marvelous comedian Bert Lahr. There is also Frank Morgan as the Wizard and Billie Burke as Glinda the Good, both of whom are quite excellent. And who could forget the indomitable Margaret Hamilton as the green-faced Wicked Witch of the West (quite possibly the greatest villain of all-time!). With great songs (like "Over the Rainbow" and "We're Off to See the Wizard!), it is a phenomenal MGM musical that lead the studio to an entire slew of movies in that genre. No one will ever forget this film!

Next Post: #9

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