This article is being written as part of The Wizard of Oz Blogathon hosted by Rebecca of the Taking Up Room blog. Thanks for letting me take part!
Eighty years ago today, August 23, 1939, the classic MGM musical The Wizard of Oz was just two days shy of its nationwide release, having had its official premiere eight days earlier at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles. That same day, August 23, 1939, was the same day that representatives of Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR cemented the totally disingenuous “peace treaty” that precipitated the beginning of World War II in Europe. One of the most beloved films of all time, and one that plays a role in most of our childhoods, was birthed into the world during one of the most momentous weeks in world history. As such, on its anniversary it’s worth evaluating its role in both history and memory. Movies are not just about their subject matter or even the times they’re made in. They’re about how we see them, when we see them, who we see them with, and how they become a part of our lives.
This article is not a review or an analysis of The Wizard of Oz itself. So much has been written and said about this film that it’s almost impossible to add something new. The songs, the fantasy archetypes, the mythic overtones, the (supposed) drug references (which I think are totally in the eye of the beholder), the “Pink Floyd thing,” Judy Garland’s tragic life, the last-minute casting and director switcheroos–all the immense folklore and mythology we’ve built around this motion picture–I can’t add anything to that. But what I can do is show you the film through my eyes, and I’m just an ordinary guy; I’m by no means a Wizard of Oz fanatic or aficionado. One of its most fascinating aspects is how ubiquitous it is, and how it always seems to be hovering somewhere on the edge of our culture, never far from view, even if you aren’t seeking it out.
When I was a kid, my favorite of the classic Wizard of Oz characters was the Tin Man. The scene of his discovery by Dorothy and the Scarecrow is one of my fondest memories of the film.
I was born in 1972. I’m part of both the last generation that saw The Wizard of Oz exclusively on television, and the first generation that saw it on home video. The annual TV showing of The Wizard of Oz was, at the time I began watching, on CBS and usually in February or March. TV events were much more common in the late 1970s and early 80s than today, especially miniseries, and The Wizard of Oz was one of those events. My dad, who knew nothing of the video format wars, bought a CED (Capacitance Electronic Disc) player, also known as “RCA Selecta-Vision,” in 1981, and The Wizard of Oz was one of the first video discs we owned. I can’t say I was any more, or less, a fan of the movie than any other kid; I liked it, and I knew most of it by heart. By 1985, when our family bought its first VHS machine, my sister and I were teenagers, and we did not own The Wizard of Oz on VHS tape. Television events grew fewer and less frequent with the rise of cable TV and home video.
The next time I saw The Wizard of Oz, believe it or not, was 2008, when I was 36. Three days before Christmas I was stranded in a hotel room at the airport by a blizzard that prevented me from flying to the Midwest to see my family. I wrote about that story here (Part I) and here (Part II), which was undoubtedly the strangest Christmas I ever spent (and one of the last; a few years later I converted to Judaism). With nowhere to go and little to do in my hotel room, I surfed channels and came across WTBS, which has been The Wizard of Oz’s cable home since 1999. Bizarrely, at the precise moment I clicked it on, Dorothy (Judy Garland) was reaching for the doorknob in the Kansas farmhouse in black-and-white, and when she pulls open the door the Technicolor wonder of the Land of Oz was revealed. There’s nothing like it in movies with the possible exception of the Stone Age bone that cuts to a space station in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I thought, “Hm, I haven’t seen this in decades.” It held up pretty well, for being (then) 69 years old.
The color transformation in The Wizard of Oz was as trippy by 1939 standards as 2001: A Space Odyssey would be nearly 30 years later. Some images from movies truly endure.
By 2008 I was well into the process of becoming a historian, and the history of things–including cultural objects–is as important to me as the things themselves. Now when I see clips of The Wizard of Oz, like the ones I collected for this article, I think not of times I saw the movie in 1981 or 2008, but when it was new and just making its mark on the world. The late summer of 1939 was a strange and scary time. Years ago, when I first got going on this blog in a serious way, I discovered a haunting video clip from the Romano Archive which consisted of color footage taken in the Jewish quarter of Warsaw in late August 1939. I’ll embed the clip below. Many of the people you see in the footage probably died in the German siege of Warsaw which began days later, or were otherwise killed in the Holocaust; but while these images were filmed, on the other side of the world, The Wizard of Oz was playing in countless small-town American movie theaters on its first run. It was just beginning to make its cultural impression.
Warsaw, 1939. For many people in that city, the week this was taken–the last week of August–was the last few days of their lives.
It’s cosmically fitting that a movie associated with so many of our childhoods, before we lost our innocence, came out of that very specific moment in time–literally the week before World War II began–that was, for many people around the globe, the last moment of innocence before the horrors of the war. The Wizard of Oz is a much better carrier of that feeling of innocence than the other great classic picture of 1939, Gone With The Wind, which was much more cynical with its overt racism, and Gone With The Wind, in any event, came out in December 1939, after the war was already underway. The New York World’s Fair of 1939 has also been envisioned as a “last gasp of innocence” moment, with its iconic Trylon and Perisphere buildings symbolizing a bold new future for mankind, at precisely the time the future got very ugly, very quickly. I have often wondered whether we stand at such a moment now in our own time. Even if we do, I find it unlikely that a movie or any other cultural artifact quite as perfect or evocative as The Wizard of Oz was for its time will be found to mark ours. They truly don’t make them like they used to, and The Wizard of Oz is, now 80 years later, a living example.