Silver Screen Standards: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

For the very first post of a column called “Silver Screen Standards,” I can’t think of a better choice than The Wizard of Oz (1939), a film that continues to delight and amaze viewers of all ages eighty years after its original release. People often ask me to name my favorite movie, a request I find utterly impossible, but when people ask me about the first classic movie a newcomer should see, The Wizard of Oz is always one of my top suggestions.

The Wizard of Oz (1939) Frank Morgan, Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr
Character actor Frank Morgan appears in six different guises in the film, most notably as Professor Marvel and the Wizard himself. Although he acted in 100 films, Oz is by far his most memorable effort.

It’s a fantastic introduction to classic films for children (as long as they’re old enough to endure the terrifying flying monkeys), but it’s also a familiar picture that adults just getting into classic movies in a serious way should definitely go back and watch, especially if they haven’t seen it since they were kids. The Wizard of Oz rewards viewers of all ages with its delightful songs and spectacular effects, but it also offers a perfect primer for appreciating the classic Hollywood musical, the importance of character actors, and the ways in which various elements of a film, from scores to costumes to choreography, come together to create the whole.

Furthermore, The Wizard of Oz reveals new layers of nuance and meaning with each repeat viewing, which means that even those of us who’ve seen it fifty times can return to Oz and find something previously unnoticed to appreciate.

Many classic movie fans can count The Wizard of Oz as a starting point for their passion. When I was growing up in rural Georgia, classic movies were not easy to see, but every year I looked forward to watching the annual TV airing of Dorothy’s Oz adventure. The first time I remember seeing it was on a black and white television, which spoiled the Oz Technicolor reveal, but I still loved the movie even when I had no idea that most of it was supposed to be in color. Imagine my surprise the first time I saw it on a color set! That yearly TV broadcast starting in 1956 introduced generations of viewers to Oz, and it continued to be a huge annual event until the 1980s and the advent of cable.

For millions of American kids who saw the original movie on television, The Wizard of Oz offered a first encounter with the spectacle of a Hollywood musical, the powerful appeal of Judy Garland, and the unique talents of character actors like Margaret Hamilton and Frank Morgan. Today’s kids can access thousands of movies no matter where they live thanks to streaming services, Redbox, and their smartphones, but they’ll never have the same experience that previous generations did waiting every year for the return of The Wizard of Oz with the same anticipation that they awaited Halloween and Christmas. That annual airing helped the film become the classic favorite that it remains today, and its enduring popularity with those decades of TV viewers proves its timeless appeal.

The Wizard of Oz (1939) Judy Garland as Dorothy
Judy Garland glows as the sweet but determined Dorothy, a Kansas farm girl transported to the magical land of Oz. The costume department couldn’t keep her pigtail length consistent, but her performance itself is perfection throughout.

One of the reasons that The Wizard of Oz proved such a reliable hit with television viewers is that its pleasures grow with age; as we get older we begin to see and appreciate the film in new ways. We go back and watch it again for its familiarity but instead find some previously unrecognized gem in a dance step, the delivery of a line, or a performer we hadn’t paid enough attention to before. We begin to understand what a magical experience is created when everything in a film comes together. We watch for the changing lengths of Dorothy’s pigtails and anticipate the next appearance of the omnipresent Frank Morgan, especially when showing someone else the picture for the first time.

The Wizard of Oz (1939) Margaret Hamilton The Wicked Witch of the West
After terrorizing generations of children as the Wicked Witch of the West, Margaret Hamilton appeared on television shows like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood to let them know that she wasn’t scary or terrible in real life.

We also think more deeply about the picture’s persistent use of doubling in its characters and how that shapes our understanding of Dorothy’s adventure as more psychological than literal. A nasty neighbor becomes an actual witch, a sideshow huckster becomes a fraudulent wizard, and a trio of goofy farmhands transform into sidekicks full of failings but also full of wisdom, love, and courage. Why doesn’t Aunt Em have an Oz counterpart? Why doesn’t a version of Glinda exist in Dorothy’s Kansas? There’s always something else to notice and think about when we revisit the film.

As a starting point, then, for a column about the essential film experiences every fan should have, I can’t really think of a better choice than The Wizard of Oz. It’s one of the first classic movies I showed my daughter when she was little, and it’s a never fail hit when I show it to groups of seniors. Maybe it’s time you dusted off your copy and showed it to the people in your life. Who knows? You might set yet another viewer off on the yellow brick road to a lifelong passion for classic films.

–Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub

Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.

Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.

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