Release Year: 1939
Genre: Family, Fantasy, Musical
Director: Victor Fleming
Writers: Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, Edgar Allan Woolf; L. Frank Baum (novel)
If for some reason you haven't seen this film yet, we're glad you managed to escape the rock you've been trapped under.
The Wizard of Oz—the story of a young girl from Kansas who finds herself in a magical land of Technicolor saturation—has arguably become the most popular movie of all time, as well as an integral part of cinema history and the basis for pop culture references too numerous to count. The songs have become legend ("Over the Rainbow" won an Oscar), the story has served as the inspiration for countless fantasy and adventure films, and elementary school plays the world over would have a lot more empty space on their schedules without this puppy.
And yet at the time of its release, few people considered it a classic. It took a trip almost as long and unbelievable as Dorothy Gale's to arrive at its current status.
Its production chewed everyone's faces off: grinding through writers, directors, and on-set accidents like a blender set to "gooify." One actor had to leave because the make-up was literally killing him. Another suffered an effects-based mishap that left burns on her body. It ran over schedule, over budget, and over the nerves of MGM's executives, who probably had kittens watching the production spiral out of control.
That trend didn't look to end once it hit theaters.
Though the critics dug it, the movie itself had a fair-to-middling run when first released in 1939: making its money back but not exactly setting the box office on fire. And it came out in a year that many consider the greatest in all of cinema: competing with the likes of Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Dark Victory, Goodbye Mr. Chips, The Rules of the Game, Wuthering Heights, Of Mice and Men, The Roaring Twenties, and a little number called Gone with the Wind.
It's easy to lose track of a little girl from Kansas in the middle of all of that.
Instead, the movie really earned its place in our hearts through the magic of another medium: television. On November 3, 1956, CBS ran it as a part of its Ford Star Jubilee anthology show. They were so excited about the prospect that they added another half-hour to the show's normal ninety-minute running time. It ran again in 1959, and almost every year after that until the late 1990s.
"So why was that a big deal?" you ask. "Couldn't people just rent it?"
VCRs (those primitive videotape machines your grandparents had to use) didn't come along until the 1980s, and the movie itself wasn't released on any kind of home video before then. That's twenty-plus years where you couldn't see it in any form unless your butt was in front of the TV on the slated dates. A lot of families—and we mean a lot—made an annual tradition of keeping said butts in close proximity to said TVs.
These days, of course, you can pick up any one of a dozen Blu-ray copies, as well as watch countless cable airings, videos on demand, and even the occasional return to theaters like it had in 2013 to celebrate its 75th anniversary. (We know, we know: it was only 74 years if you count. But there's no sense arguing facts with Hollywood.) But regardless of how you saw it first, we're guessing you've seen it enough times to commit most of it to memory by now.
And there's a reason for that.
MGM produced a lot of musicals in the 1930s—it was kind of their thing—and this was just one of many. It was made as part of an established production process and it didn't have any innovative filmmaking techniques. While the songs were catchy, they were just part of a glut of show tunes crowding the theaters at the time. So there was something else within it all: some weird little X factor that wouldn't have existed without the right cast and the right material coming together in just the right way. Judy Garland became forever identified with Dorothy, the girl in the gingham dress, clutching her beloved Toto and following the Yellow Brick Road.
We're hoping that this little guide will show you how that magic works.
We could fill this whole treatise on reasons to study this movie. Besides being one of the most popular, most enduring, most beloved films in history, it serves as a great example of how movies got made in the 1930s, a reflection of people's hopes and dreams during the turbulence of the Great Depression. Not to mention a one-stop-shopping location for lounge singers in search of something catchy to cover.
But the biggest reason probably has something to do with the way it's held up so well. The Wizard of Oz is a textbook example of The Hero's Journey: the one-myth-fits-all storyline first developed by author Joseph Campbell. We'd seen its tropes in movies before this one, but none of them rendered quite as well. It's the perfect embodiment of the Journey. A little girl dreams of other places, only to travel to a magical land in order to discover her true potential and engage in a little freelance de-witching on the side. Who could ask for more? Every girl wanted a pair of those ruby slippers.
Its TV airings in the 50s and 60s inspired filmmakers like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to deliver their own takes on the Hero's Journey… and in turn for other filmmakers to take their cues from them. (You can catch a few references to Oz in their stories, like Obi-Wan's cloak steaming like the Wicked Witch's in Star Wars, or E.T. who has his own catch phrase about going home.)
Today, The Hero's Journey appears in everything from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games to those superhero films all the kids are into these days. The Wizard of Oz laid out the blueprint for everyone to see, and without it, our pop culture landscape wouldn't be the Campbellian wonderland that it became. Let's face it: we're nuts about the guy, and if we're talking movies, The Wizard of Oz was the one that kicked it all off. That makes for a heck of a legacy, and as long as movies exist, we'll always see a little bit of Dorothy creeping into their DNA.
No film this successful can escape from a few urban legends here and there, and The Wizard of Oz is no exception. The most famous (or ghoulish) states that one of the Munchkin performers committed suicide during the production, and that his hanging body can be seen on the film if you look closely enough.
As you may suspect, this is pure poppycock. The scene in question takes place at the very end of the Tin Woodsman's introduction, as the trio dances down the road towards the Emerald City. If you check, you can see that it's clearly some kind of large bird, not a hanged Munchkin. This comes on top of the fact that 1) the Munchkin scenes hadn't even been filmed yet and 2) there were literally dozens of people on set at the time, looking right at the spot where said body was supposed to be hanging. You'd think somebody would have called for an ambulance or something. Pardon us for calling shenanigans on this one.
A less gruesome though equally preposterous legend concerns the Pink Floyd album Dark Side of the Moon. Supposedly, if you sync the album up to the movie, the song lyrics match the action. There's definitely some synchronicity there if you squint hard enough, but as with the Munchkin suicide theory, it runs up against some cold hard facts. For one thing, the album runs 43 minutes and the movie checks in at over 100. (Behold the power of math to debunk the ridiculous!)
Furthermore, the band itself denies any connection to The Wizard of Oz, and while they might have been able to sync the movie up when they were recording the album back in 1973, it would have been really impractical. There were no VCRs back then, which means they would need to pick up a projector and find a copy of a film that had been out of circulation for decades. It gets the stoners excited, but we're pretty sure the notion is a lot of bunk. (And yet again proves why you should just say no to drugs.)
You can put it to the test over on YouTube if you want. We've had a look and we're definitely not buying it. (Source)
One thing we know is NOT just an urban legend: the effect this movie has had on members of the LGBT community. There's a certain campiness to all those outlandish sets and costumes, and the kitsch factor tend to draw the attention of LGBT individuals who see it as a quiet act of subversion against a culture that often wants them to just go away. They also identify very closely with Dorothy, and by extension with Judy Garland, who had a very difficult life and died well before her time.
In solidarity with her and it resolute defiance of wicked witches of all varieties, members of the LGBT community, particularly those still in the closet, sometimes referred to themselves as "friends of Dorothy."
Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch of the West, worried that her character was too scary for children. So she went on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" to reassure children that witches were just make-believe and that there was no reason to be afraid. She came on the program in her own clothes, then changed into the witch costume to make her point. What a sweet lady!
Any discussion of this movie starts with the fact that L. Frank Baum wrote the original book in 1900, along with a ton of others that remain classics in the literary field. The good people at Biography.com have the hook-up.
The International Wizard of Oz Club
The oldest and largest Oz fan club in the world!
If you need the rundown on cast and crew, IMDB has the 411.
There are so many pop-culture references for this film, we can't keep up with them all! Luckily, IMDB is there for the save.
And these guys, who actually named their band after the dog! (Sort of.)
The Oz Books
L. Frank Baum wrote 15 Oz books to kick off this whole love-fest. Amazon has a massive collection of all of them, for those in need.
Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West
After Baum himself, the most famous book about Oz is probably Gregory Maguire's subversive prequel, which paints a surprisingly different picture of the Wicked Witch. Shmoop U has all the info!
Wicked: The Musical
Maguire's book begat a smash hit musical, which in turn begat another movie. It's the great circle of life, Simba!
The Wizard of Oz (1910)
Hollywood got into the Oz game very quickly, starting with this silent short from 1910. It's common domain, so you can look at the whole thing right here!
The Wizard of Oz (1933)
Remember those creepy cartoons from the 1930s? One of them is a version of Oz. Fairly warned thee be, says we.
Tales of the Wizard of Oz (1961)
Rankin/Bass, the company behind all those stop-motion Rudolph holiday specials, produced an animated Oz series in the early 60s. It only lasted one year, but it produced over 200 episodes. They Just. Don't. Stop.
The Wiz (1978)
In 1975, Charlie Smalls and William F. Brown had the brilliant idea of updating The Wizard of Oz to fit African-American culture. The Wiz became a huge hit on Broadway… as well as an overly long and rather turgid movie adaption in 1978. We love the play, though, so if you can find it live, take a look. (And we confess that Michael Jackson's version of the Scarecrow is kind of awesome.)
Under the Rainbow (1981)
A comedy starring Chevy Chase and Carrie Fisher, about the behind-the-scenes mayhem caused by the munchkins. Haven't heard of it? We're not surprised: it stinks.
Return to Oz (1985)
A sort-of sequel to The Wizard of Oz, featuring Fairuza Balk as Dorothy. It got crucified when first released, but has aged exceptionally well and really captures the spirit of Baum's books. Still freaky as heck though, and perhaps a bit too much for the wee ones.
The Wizard of Oz (1990)
Another short-lived animated TV series. You know, this whole Oz thing is actually a lot harder than it looks…
The Muppets' Wizard of Oz (2005)
We try not to think about this dreadful 2005 TV adaptation, featuring passing teen singing sensation Ashanti as Dorothy and a chatty king prawn as Toto. Oh Kermit, how could you?
Tin Man (2007)
Syfy (or The Sci-Fi Channel, as they used to be known) produced a darker version of the iconic story, featuring Zooey Deschanel, Neil McDonough, Alan Cumming and Richard Dreyfuss.
Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)
With the sort-of sequels covered, Sam Raimi directed a sort-of prequel covering how the Wizard (James Franco) got to Oz. It's loud and clunky, but not bad if you give it a chance.
Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return (2014)
Wait, this was actually a thing? We had no idea. Good lord, it looks awful!
This New York Times critic thought that anyone who didn't like the film should be spanked
Jack Paar Interviews Judy Garland
A famous interview with Garland late in her life. She dishes on Munchkin shenanigans among other things.
Judy and Babs
Barbara Walters interviews Garland.
Roger Ebert's Take
The late legendary film critic gives us his take on the movie. (Spoiler Alert: the thumb goes up.)
AMC lends their thoughts, as well as providing a handy list of other Oz movies.
Turner Classic Movies loves them some Wizard, and wrote a brief piece on the movie discussing it.
71 Facts About the Wizard of Oz
The Guardian collected some interesting tidbits about the product.
A famous deleted scene from the movie, comprising a snazzy musical number called "The Jitterbug." You can hear dialogue referencing it in the actual film: just before sending out the winged monkeys, the Wicked Witch refers to a "little insect" she's sent ahead to take the fight out of them.
Pop Culture References: The Avengers
You want references? How about this one from the biggest superhero movie of all time.
Over the Rainbow (Best Version Ever)
Judy Garland only performed the famous song twice on television. Here's one performance in a 1955 TV special. If you can watch this without getting teary, Shmoop wants to know why.
More Superhero Weirdness
Children's shows loved riffing on The Wizard of Oz, including the old Superfriends TV show, which once showed Superman, Aquaman and Wonder Woman getting turned into familiar characters. Yeah, it's weird.
Not weird enough for you? How about the 1974 acid-trip-disguised-as-a-movie Zardoz, featuring Sean Connery in a red diaper?
Musicians got into the act too… like Elton John, who penned a song called "Good-bye Yellow Brick Road."
And ultra-tough guy Eminem, who wrote his own version of "Yellow Brick Road."
And 90s one-hit wonders Blues Traveler, who based this music video on the movie.
In fact, there have been so many uses of "we're not in Kansas anymore" that somebody saw fit to collect them all in one place.
They Call it "Acting"
Here's a charming Margaret Hamilton in her appearance on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."
Judy Garland and Margaret Hamilton reunite in 1968 on the Merv Griffin show.
An enterprising fan collects a whole bunch of MP3s from the film.
Margaret Hamilton Interview
The Wickedest Witch of them all dishes on her iconic role.
One of the original lobby cards from the movie's 1939 release.
75th Anniversary Poster
A slightly more modern movie poster for the movie's 2013 re-release.
Behind the Scenes with Judy Garland
Garland and an unnamed gal pal study the script during the shooting.
Director Victor Fleming instructs the residents of Munchkinland on how to properly dance on a grave.
Buddy Ebsen as the Tin Man
Actor Buddy Ebsen was originally cast as the Tin Man, though he had to leave the role. (Something about the make-up coating his lungs…) Here's an image of him in costume.
"Judy? Is That You?"
An early costume design for Judy Garland. Could that belt be any higher?
Which Witch is Which?
Actress Gale Sondergaard was originally cast as the Wicked Witch of the West. The producers wanted a sexy witch to match the slinky queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. They eventually thought better of it and went with Hamilton. We concur with the decision.