This 1939 movie was well-regarded at the time of its release, but it didn’t turn a profit until 10 years later. Then, starting in the 1950s with annual television releases over a half-century, it became one of the most loved films of all time. Strange how things work.
Its plot comes from a popular children’s book published in 1900. In it, a girl named Dorothy (Judy Garland) is swept into a different world with good witches and bad witches, and where she sets out with three new friends (scarecrow, tinman and lion) to find a wizard who will grant their wishes — a trip home to Kansas, a brain, a heart, courage, respectively. After frustration and a battle with the Wicked Witch of the West, they learn that each of them had what was needed from the get-go.
There are all kinds of lessons here: Friendship, courage, self-reliance and skepticism toward even the most benevolent fakery. And, perhaps, a less resonant theme today: There’s no place like home.
For Dorothy, there are parallels in the two worlds: The three farmhands on her aunt and uncle’s farm become her friends in Oz. The mean woman, Almira Gulch (Margaret Hamilton,) who seizes Dorothy’s dog becomes the Wicked Witch of the West. Doctor Marvel (Frank Morgan), a kind charlatan who performs at county fairs, turns out to be the Wizard of Oz.
It is likely that this film never would have been made if Walt Disney hadn’t established there was a theater market for full-color children’s movies two years earlier with the laboriously assembled Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
This was only the second MGM film with full-color scenes. In it, Dorothy’s Kansas farm home is rendered in black and white while Oz is in full of brightly dressed munchkins, a good witch who travels in a big pink bubble, blooming red poppy fields, a dreamy emerald kingdom and a dreadful witch’s castle patrolled by green-skinned goons.
The film was well done, but its delayed popularity also may have to do with demographics. The Wizard of Oz was released toward the end of the Great Depression, when people had delayed marriage and family formation for economic reasons. Should we be surprised that that it found its audience only after the adoption of home television and the birth of the baby boom generation?
Now The Wizard of Oz is broadly available on streaming channels. I hope parents are continuing to share what they remember with their children. The only reservation, already known to adults, is that the scenes in the wicked witch’s castle still frighten young viewers.