Monday, 17 December 2007

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

On 12th August 1939 in the small American city of Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, The Wizard of Oz had its world premiere and one of the 20th century’s cultural icons was born. The film has become part of our collective subconscious; and – love it or loathe it – it is impossible to deny the importance of the film in the history of cinema.

The Wizard of Oz can be seen as a prime example of the classical Hollywood movie – a product of the Studio System, where entertainment was produced as a collective enterprise for a mass audience. This was a time when the director was considered a hired hand rather than an ‘auteur’. This can be seen in the way that Victor Fleming left the production three weeks before the end to replace George Cukor on Gone with the Wind (for which he won the 1939 Oscar). If the film has an author, then it would be the studio: MGM – where there were “more stars than there are in heaven”.

The film is based on L. Frank Baum’s novel and was not the first attempt to translate the book to the screen; MGM had acquired the rights in 1938 but prior to this there had been silent and animated versions including the 1925 feature starring Oliver Hardy. The fact that, to date, there have been over 100 film and TV versions the Oz stories demonstrates how the 1939 film transcends the source material to become a work of art in its own right (mediocre books make good movies). The film features Judy Garland in a career-defining role – the star as puppet of the system on a long-term contract – owned by MGM. The Associate Producer, Arthur Freed was responsible for the output of MGM’s musical department – producing the classics of Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age’ such as Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), An American in Paris (1951) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Art Director, Cedric Gibbon has worked on hundreds of Hollywood films that read like a potted history of the movies. The real power of the film cannot be tied down to one element – when viewed from a perspective of nearly 70 years – the plot can seem thin, the sets artificial and the characterisation stereotyped but it is the sheer effect of the Hollywood ‘Dream Factory’ that subsumes us as we watch the film. It is the musical score, the face of Judy Garland, the frightening witch and the evil flying monkeys that transport us back to our childhood – to the realm of fantasy. As we watch the film – we know what will happen but we hover between the reality (of the Depression and of Judy Garland’s tragic life) and the fantasy (of the story and the Hollywood dream) – as adults we watch the film and vacillate between our desire to lose ourselves in the fantasy and our knowledge of the real world that it reflects: 1939 – the spectre of war and the loss of innocence, a time before TV when people went to the movies as families – as communities. It is a glimpse into a world that no longer exists, the peak of the Hollywood studio empire and a reminder of its eventual decline. A place where fantasy becomes history.

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