Monday, June 10, 2019

Female Power in THE WIZARD OF OZ

Iconic. That word is overused today. However, it truly does apply to the 1939 MGM release that launched Judy Garland's ascent to extraordinary film stardom and Hollywood legend status. One part of my childhood that I loved and waited eagerly for was to watch the annual network airing of THE WIZARD OF OZ.  It was usually around Easter time and always on a Sunday. This was definitely "must-see TV" for kids because this was way back in the days before cable, VHS, DVDs and such. THE WIZARD OF OZ aired once a year and only on one network. In our house, Mom always made that special night extra special by baking snack treats for us to enjoy while Dorothy Gale and her new-found friends went skipping down the Yellow Brick Road.
The movie still has a magical pull on me. I have grown to be more in awe of it as I got older. THE WIZARD OF OZ is something we rarely get today, today in the 21st Century. It is an original big screen musical with some of the most memorable, most poignant and some of the wittiest lyrics ever penned for a Hollywood film. I cannot remember and sing a single song from LA LA LAND but I can sing "Over the Rainbow," "Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead," "Follow the Yellow Brick Road," "If I Were King of the Forest" and the other songs from that gorgeous original score.

Think about the comic book-based superhero franchise films we get today. A number of those characters are caped as they zoom through the air. Dorothy Gale flew through the air too. She flew when lifted up by a twister, an occurrence of nature.

We need to watch THE WIZARD OF OZ again. We need to appreciate it with modern-day movie-goer sensibilities. 1939's THE WIZARD OF OZ is still a groundbreaker. It's an original action/fantasy musical with a strong feminist tone.  Judy Garland's Dorothy Gale shares a cinematic sisterhood with Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley in 1986's ALIENS.

THE WIZARD OF OZ highlights the light and dark of female power.  Let's look at the opening of the film with the sepia-toned scenes on the humble farm in Kansas. Who really runs the farm? Uncle Henry? No. Kind-hearted Auntie Em is the take-charge force on the farm. She gives orders to the three male farmhands. Fantasy versions of them will be Dorothy's close friends in the Land of Oz.  The burr in Auntie Em's backside is that mean ol' Almira Gulch. She's the most powerful person in the county. She has authorities give her the power to take Toto away from Dorothy. Says Auntie Em, "Almira Gulch, just because you own half the county doesn't mean that you have the power to run the rest of us." Dorothy and Toto, her little dog, will run away from the financially-struggling farm and, well... you know what happens next.
Dorothy and Toto land in Oz. Who are the two main forces of power there? Glinda the Good Witch and the Wicked Witch of the West, a green menace who resembles Almira Gulch. She is one of the most ruthless villains in a classic Hollywood film. In order to get the ruby slippers from Dorothy, slippers that will the Witch the greatest power in all of Oz, she's prepared to kill Scarecrow, Lion, Tin Man …. and Toto too. She'll also destroy Dorothy if she needs to. Dorothy, however, is more resourceful than she realizes -- especially when a friend is in danger.
Dorothy is a good human female who bravely saves a friend from an inhuman female force of evil. Think of Ellen Ripley rescuing Newt from the gigantic Alien Queen Monster in ALIENS.
Dorothy's three friends on the Yellow Brick Road are male characters. Toto is a male. In terms of Glinda and the Wicked Witch of the West having the most power, you may say "What around the Wizard of Oz?"  Remember he really wasn't a wizard at all. He was just an ordinary man behind a curtain with a special effects machine.

Wearing the ruby slippers, Dorothy had more power than he did.
The Wicked Witch of the West, Glinda the Good Witch and Dorothy Gale. These are the characters who have the most power in THE WIZARD OF OZ.
At the end, Dorothy's brave and selfless act when Scarecrow was set on fire by the Wicked Witch unexpectedly liquidates the Wicked Witch.  Jubilant Dorothy expects that The Wizard of Oz can now take her safely home. Her hopes are dashed when she discovers he's just a man with no wizard-like skills at all. But Glinda arrives to tell Dorothy, with affection, that she's always possessed the power she needed to get back home all by herself.

Female power was a golden force in making this production a success if you consider the casting of young Judy Garland. She'd been under contract for about three years when she won the role of Dorothy Gale. She wanted it but MGM, her studio, originally sought to borrow Shirley Temple from 20th Century Fox. Temple, a major movie star, was about the right age for Dorothy as she is in the books by L. Frank Baum. Garland was technically a few years too old for the role, something that became a very minor point in the long run. Fox would not loan out Shirley Temple. This turned out to be a blessing. Judy had depth in her acting. She also had that exquisite singing voice, far superior to Shirley's. Judy Garland was a 16 year old who could act and sing. She had the soulfulness, longing, sweetness, spirit and charm the character needed. She also had, as Norman Maine says in 1954's A STAR IS BORN (starring Garland), "that little something extra" that equals "star quality."

Garland started production on the film in late 1938 when she had a few film appearances under her belt. However, she was not yet a star. In those films, she was a supporting player. Temple was a star. In that regard, MGM was taking a chance giving its contract player the lead role.

16 year old Judy Garland, a screen newcomer, starts work in the lead role of Dorothy Gale. She is surrounded by show biz veterans in their 30s and 40s. Her co-stars (Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr, Frank Morgan, Margaret Hamilton, Billie Burke), the composers of the film's original songs (Harold Arlen and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg), the director (Victor Fleming) and the producer (Mervyn LeRoy) are all twice her age or older. THE WIZARD OF OZ is an expensive, A-list production with a newcomer in the lead role -- a newcomer who's just a teen-ager. If her performance in the action/fantasy original screen musical doesn't work, the whole film falls apart. If she doesn't fully commit to the character, if we cannot believe that she believes in the film's fantasy and message, it fails. On top of that, she has to learn new songs in addition to all her dialogue. That was a lot of adult responsibility to put on the shoulders of a kid.
Garland's young female power as a singer and actress came forth. The rest is movie history. She took THE WIZARD OF OZ "Over the Rainbow" to an Oscar win for Best Song and a nomination for Best Picture.

Now go re-appreciate all the female power in THE WIZARD OF OZ.

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