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  • Writer's pictureCarrie Specht

The Wizard of Oz on the Big Screen!

Presented by the American Cinematheque at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica as part of their ongoing Weekend Matinees. Saturday, July 22 at 3:00 PM. With a Costume Contest!

This weekend the American Cinematheque is presenting The Wizard of Oz at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica. This is a special movie going experience that shouldn’t be missed, especially for the classic film enthusiast. It’s well known that 1939 was an exceptionally prolific year for quality cinema with the likes of Gone with the Wind, Wuthering Heights, Stage Coach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Ninotchka filling the screens, and this fanciful musical held its own among those heavy weights, receiving several Oscars (Music Score, Song, and a special statuette for Best Juvenile Performance) and many nominations (Best Picture, Art Direction), even inspiring the inception of a new category for Special Effects.

Most everyone has seen The Wizard of Oz sometime in his or her life. An older generation grew up watching it annually on television, younger generations have seen it again and again on video (a staple most parents keep in the family film collection), and the oldest generation may have actually seen it on the big screen! Can you imagine? Think of what it must have been like to sit in a darkened movie theater experiencing the newly perfected technology of Technicolor through a fanciful fairy tale with startling new special effects.

The plot’s a simple one: a young girl wishes for more from life and gets it in a big way, ultimately realizing that the simple life is a pretty good one after all. The very young and, at the time, inexperienced Judy Garland gives a star making performance as Dorothy the energetic girl with a vivid imagination whose best friend is her little dog. She lives in Kansas where a cyclone comes along, picks her up (house and dog in tow), and drops her in the strange and beautiful Land of Oz. As new and exciting as things are, Dorothy desperately wants nothing more than to get back home. Moral: be careful what you wish for, and cherish what you have because you never know when you’ll no longer have it.

Thus begins Dorothy’s quest to find the only person she believes can help her – the mysterious Wizard of Oz played by the tireless Frank Morgan. The flamboyant and jovial character actor has his hands full with no less than five roles, and although his performances varied little from his trademark characterization of a befuddled eccentric, he carved out his own niche of immortality by playing the title role. SPOILER: It’s a wonderfully reassuring moment when the scary looking Oz is revealed to be nothing more than a kindly old man trying to live up to the expectations thrust upon him, once again promoting the qualities of living the simple life.

But before discovering the secret that will take her home Dorothy must travel between Munchkinland and the Emmerald City, meeting a group of loveable misfits in search of their own heart’s desires. A rubber-legged Scarecrow is in search of a brain, a Tin Man with a hollow chest wants a heart, and a Cowardly Lion is in much need of some courage. The group bands together in pursuit of their dreams, hoping the all-powerful Wizard will fulfill them, only to discover that they themselves are the only ones who have the power to make their dreams come true. Moral: believe in yourself.

Today it seems that the unforgettable actors selected to portray the beloved characters were a given for their roles, but in truth it was only Bert Lahr who was an immediate choice for the Cowardly Lion. Lahr was a vaudevillian trained actor with an expressive face and a gurgling laugh, whose movie career never caught on because his gestures and reactions were just too broad for the growing sophistication of feature film audiences, but he was unforgettable in a role he was destined to play.

Furthermore, as many people already know it was Shirley Temple who was originally slated to play Dorothy until scheduling problems made it necessary to recast. And Buddy Ebsen had begun production as the Tim Man before an adverse reaction to the metallic make up required for the role caused him to be hospitalized (the make up was later replaced with a safer product). Lesser known is the fact that Ray Bolger (well known for his unique puppet-on-a-string dancing style) was to play the Tin Man, but convinced Buddy Ebsen to switch roles with him in order to play the better suited role of the Scarecrow, thus inadvertently paving the way for the affable Jack Haley to be forever remembered as the sweet bucket of bolts.

And of course let’s not forget the wicked witch! Described lovingly as beaky nosed and beady eyed with bony features (no prosthetics used here), Margaret Hamilton to this day is the epitome of the quintessential evil witch. An amusing fact since her first job in society was as a much loved kindergarten teacher who doted upon children. She too suffered from a production mishap that could have severely injured, even killed her. During a scene in Munchkinland where she appears and then disappears her copper based makeup actually caught fire from the special effects explosion used to mask the illusion. For the rest of her life she credited an agile technician for grabbing her and quickly removing the smoldering make up that would have scared her for life. Although she was off recovering for more than a month, she did return to complete her legendary performance. In recent years her role as the Wicked Witch of the West was ranked #4 on the American Film Institute’s villains list of the 100 years of The Greatest Screen Heroes and Villains.

Surely the ever-lasting popularity of the 1939 classic is the result of an amazing collaboration of unparalleled talent, both in front of the lens and behind it. Victor Fleming was the versatile and gifted director who helmed the immortal classic. That same year he received the Oscar as Best Director for Gone with the Wind. Ironically Fleming was brought in on both pictures to replace other directors and smooth out the troubled productions, a feat he accomplished masterfully. Known for being a man’s man with a rough and dogmatic nature, he was a focused taskmaster who loathed every minute he spent on the fantastical set, but loved being a director regardless of the project. Disliked personally by many, but respected professionally by all, he is the only director to have two films (the afore mentioned) listed in the top 10 of the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American films.

Finally, one must give a respectful nod to the evolving technology of the times as an important contributing factor to the film's success. The advancement of the color process inspired the Academy to present a special Oscar that year to Technicolor for bringing three-color feature production to the screen. Although Gone with the Wind gets most of the credit for that acknowledgement (considered by many and Technicolor itself to be the most beautiful color film ever made in the US), it cannot be overstated the tremendous impact The Wizard of Oz created when little Dorothy opened up her front door for the first time and crossed over from her squalid sepia toned existence into the colorful, kaleidoscope world of Munchkinland.

Celebrating the rich history of cinema, the American Cinematheque is a non-profit film society that strives to make quality cinema accessible to the Los Angeles audience, presenting the Moving Picture in all its forms, screening the best of film and video ranging from the classics to the outer frontiers of the art form. Their main endeavor is to share the best of cinema with the world. With the presentation of The Wizard of Oz the cultural organization lives up to its goals and principals. Due to the American Cinematheque generations of film enthusiasts can enjoy this film gem on the big screen, the way it should be seen by. If you love movies, then you should catch the screening this weekend, and consider becoming a member of the American Cinematheque. Then you too can help honor the American indigenous art form of Moving Picture.

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