‘The Wizard of Oz’ turns 80

1939 was a great year for Hollywood. Some of the most enduring, inspirational films ever made were released, including “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Goodbye Mr. Chips” and “Stagecoach.” “Gone With the Wind” made history by winning 11 Academy Awards, a record that has since been matched by two films but never surpassed. Still, with all of these triumphs of cinema, one film has shined above the rest, working its way into the hearts of people around the world and becoming one of the most beloved movies ever made: “The Wizard of Oz.”

Based on “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” by L. Frank Baum (the first of 14 books in his “Oz” series), this was not the first time Baum’s book had been adapted to the screen. In fact, there had been four other films based on the novel before MGM began work on their version, yet none of these have enjoyed even a sliver of the reputation garnerd by the 1939 film.

The story of “The Wizard of Oz” is fairly simple. A young girl named Dorothy lives with her Auntie Em and Uncle Henry on a small farm in Kansas during the Great Depression. Dorothy is a strong-willed girl who attempts to run away from home to save her dog, Toto, from the cruel Mrs. Gulch, but upon her return is swept up into a massive tornado which carries her off to the magical land of Oz. There, she is told by Glinda (the good witch of the North) to seek out a powerful wizard in the Emerald City who can send her home to her family. Along the way, she is joined by a scarecrow who hopes the wizard can give him a brain, a tin woodsman who hopes the wizard can give him a heart and a cowardly lion who wants courage. All the while, the group is hunted by the Wicked Witch of the West, who desires a powerful pair of ruby-red slippers given to Dorothy when she arrived in Oz.

In the true fashion of a great film, no one element of the movie stands out above the rest. Everything comes together perfectly to create a film that feels like a fairy tale come to life.

The actors do an incredible job across the board, all turning in completely distinct, memorable performances regardless of the size of the role. Judy Garland gives Dorothy a childish sense of innocence while still showing her to be very determined and compassionate. Ray Bolger, Jack Haley and Bert Lahr are all iconic as the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion, respectively, using movement and dance to breath a unique sense of life into each of their characters. One of my personal favorite performances comes from Frank Morgan, who plays five separate characters in the film while somehow making them all feel distinctly individual. Possibly the most influential of all, Margaret Hamilton’s portrayal of the Wicked Witch laid the groundwork for basically all pop culture depictions of witches since.

Just like the performances, the songs in the movie have also become iconic. There isn’t a single forgettable number in the whole soundtrack. “Over the Rainbow” is probably one of the most easily recognizable songs ever written, and “Follow the Yellow Brick Road,” “We’re Off to see the Wizard,” “If I Only Had a Brain” and “Ding, Dong! The Witch is Dead” have become such staples of American culture that, even if you’ve never seen the film, you can probably hum some of the tunes just by reading the titles.

The other area where this movie triumphs is in its visuals. In the 80 years since its release, this is still one of the most beautiful films ever shot. While there had been other Technicolor films released before it, “The Wizard of Oz” really proved what this new medium was capable of. Every shot is filled to bursting with gorgeous production design and vibrant colors. Munchkinland, the Emerald City and the Witch's Castle all have their own whimsically distinct visual styles and color schemes that carry over both in location and costuming, providing stark contrast to the gritty realism of the Kansas sequences. The shot of Dorothy opening the door upon arriving to Oz and the film’s transitions from sepia to color remains one of the greatest shots in cinematic history, not only providing a beautiful way to show that Dorothy is in a new land apart from the drab bleakness of the Depression’s reality, but also symbolizing the change in the film industry as a whole from the limitations of black and white footage to life-like color.

Ever since “The Wizard of Oz” was released, it has continued to entertain and inspire generations of children and adults. The effect that this movie has had on Western culture is too great to measure. Its songs have been covered countless times by other artists. Props from the movie are housed in the Smithsonian alongside some of America’s greatest artifacts. If you have never seen this film, I cannot recommend it enough. This is not just a movie for children. It contains humor for people of all ages and I constantly find new things I had never previously seen every time I re-watch it.

This movie has a power that very few others contain, transporting viewers back to their own childhoods and taking them far away over the rainbow....


Evan Burns is campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at evan.burns@uconn.edu.