Return to Oz

I’m old enough to remember seeing The Wizard of Oz on a black and white TV. I only had my parents’ word for it that Oz was in color. At that age, I didn’t mind anyway. And I didn’t mind being scared by the witch or the winged monkeys, though the sheer noisiness of “the great and powerful Oz” was always daunting. (Later on, when I learned that at least 90 percent of the world operated on the basis of “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” I felt my unease was justified.) All that mattered for years was that it was The Wizard of Oz. It was an institution of American childhood for years—something that in pre-home video days you could look forward to happening every year around Easter.

My best experience with it was probably in 1974 (I’d have been 19) when I saw it in my own place for the first time, dying Easter eggs with the neighbor’s kids and a very Californian hippie girl, whose name I’ve forgotten, but who had pitched a tent nearby. I suspect most of us—especially those of us who knew the movie strictly as a once a year treat of childhood—have some favorite personal Oz experience, despite the fact that CBS kept trimming the endings and beginnings of scenes at commercial breaks a little more each year to squeeze in extra advertising space.

Now, of course, you can pop in all manner of DVD incarnations — restored versions, versions in THX sound, versions with scads of extras with gushing interviews and (wisely) deleted scenes — anytime you like. But for the real deal, nothing beats seeing Oz on the big screen, where it’s finding a week-long home at Asheville Pizza and Brewing — in more than one kind of incarnation.

That said, seeing the film on the screen is a double-edged sword — but then looking at the film as an adult without the patina of nostalgia is another matter to begin with. No matter how much you love the film, it’s hard not to admit that it really isn’t all that good. We’ve become used to it as a “classic” because…well, because we’ve been told it is.

Face it, the movie is clunky. The story moves in chunky slabs and occasionally just stops dead for a song. Personally, I’m inclined to take the same view of Dorothy’s pals — the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), the Tin Man (Jack Haley), the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) — that 1939 reviewers had: namely referring to them as “three overstuffed vaudevillians.” And truth to tell, apart from “Over the Rainbow” and “Optimistic Voices” (heard to better advantage as the intro to Bette Midler’s recording of “In the Mood”), the songs are of the undistinguished variety. (We know them so well and so fondly that we overlook it.)

The production design is pretty good, but who chose those colors? In 1939 and in the early days of color TV, it was novelty enough that it was in color (good Lord, I knew people who didn’t like Bonanza at all, but watched it religiously because it had “such good color”), but that’s not enough now. For that matter, Munchkinland with its fake flowers and foliage is frankly cheesy, but there are compensations in the Witch’s castle and the Kansas scenes — not to mention the Wizard’s sanctum sanctorum. All of these things are magnified for good or ill when you see the movie on the big screen. The real shock, however, lies in seeing that if our heroes take about six more strides down the Yellow Brick Road, they’re gonna run smack into the Yellow Brick Backdrop. Similarly, it’s even more distressing to all-too-clearly see the square reinforcement in the seat of Bert Lahr’s lion suit when his tail is being used as a rope in the mountain-climbing scene.

None of this detracts from the film’s qualities. Judy Garland’s “Over the Rainbow” (the scene directed by King Vidor and not the movie’s credited director, Victor Fleming) is charmingly handled. Frank Morgan’s roles as both Prof. Marvel in Kansas and the Wizard in Oz are very fine. There is no greater — or creepier — witch than Margaret Hamilton, and the scenes in her castle (not to mention those flying monkeys!) are positively nightmarish. So much of the film is so iconic that it becomes hard to fault. (The imagery is so burned into our collective conscious that the Coen Brothers were able to evoke it in the Klan rally in O Brother, Where Art Thou? with just a few shots.) In the end, it’s basically critique-proof. It is what it is — and what it is really ought to be viewed on a movie screen when the chance arises.

If just seeing the movie isn’t enough for you, this round there are a couple of alternatives. There’s a singalong screening (make of that what you will) for starters, but of perhaps more interest there are showings that hook the film up to the Pink Floyd album Dark Side of the Moon — a presentation familiarly known as “Dark Side of the Rainbow.” If you’re unfamilar with this, the concept is that the album in question follows the film and can be used in place of its soundtrack. At the very least, it’s an interesting idea that sometimes works. Personally, it’s always seemed a bit of a stretch to me — one requiring either a vivid imagination, or a large quantity of contraband substances (possibly both). But at the same time, it’s an experiment worth trying and judging for yourself. And who am I to judge? After all, I played Beatle albums backwards to ferret out all the “Paul is dead” clues, but that’s a generational story for another time.

The Wizard of Oz sceens at the Asheville Pizza and Brewing Company from Friday, Dec. 14, to Thursday, Dec. 20. “The Dark Side of the Rainbow” screenings are on Tuesday and Wednesday, Dec. 18 and 19, at 10 p.m. The “sing along” screenings are on Wednesday, Dec. 19 and 20, at 7 p.m.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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