An argument could be made that throughout all of American film history, no film has a more beloved or longer-lasting legacy than 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. For a film with as much widespread appeal, it’s amazing that there still hasn’t been an attempt at a direct remake of this cherished classic. There have been attempts at loose sequels (Return to Oz) and even a prequel (Oz the Great and Powerful), but to this day, a big-budget Hollywood remake of the 1939 film has never even been considered, outside of the occasional cheap direct-to-DVD animated movie, or retelling starring The Muppets or Tom & Jerry. It would seem like a no-brainer for box office success in the midst of a nostalgia hungry market, but for as cynical and greedy as the modern Hollywood studio system is in regards to remaking old properties and banking on brand recognition, they even understand that the butchering of this seminal film would be committing cinematic sacrilege of the highest degree.
As the film celebrates its 80th anniversary, a milestone that not many films can claim to have survived within the public consciousness for as long, it has not only managed to remain relevant to this day by film historians as most classic Hollywood films are, but it’s become a staple in every American household as it continues to delight and entrance children and families over multiple generations, the greatest signifier of a truly timeless classic.
In attempting to create an unbelievable fantasy land with creatures and special effects on a scale that had never before been attempted at that time, The Wizard of Oz underwent one of the most infamously troubled productions in all of film history, with on-set accidents and injuries being an almost daily occurrence that continuously disrupted shooting. Complications concerning costuming was a frequent issue that came with the territory, such as Ray Bolger’s costume for the Scarecrow, which included a burlap sack over his face and a rope around his neck which often constricted his breathing, or Bert Lahr’s uncomfortably heavily costume for the Cowardly Lion. Some, however, led to much more disastrous, potentially life-threatening results.
Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch of the West, had suffered from second and third-degree burns when her cloak and makeup caught fire while filming the scene where the Witch disappears from Munchkinland in a ball of smoke and fire. Buddy Ebsen, the actor originally cast to play the Tin Man, had suffered a severe allergic reaction to the aluminum dust that his makeup was coated with, causing breathing difficulties which rendered him hospitalized for the remainder of the shoot. The role was eventually recast with Jack Haley and the material for the costume was changed to aluminum paste, which also, unfortunately, came with its own unique drawbacks, causing Haley to suffer an eye infection.
While miraculously, there were no on-set fatalities (though several obviously false rumors and urban legends of a munchkin committing suicide by hanging may say otherwise), the production of The Wizard of Oz may, in fact, have indirectly contributed to the untimely demise of one of its stars. In order to keep in shape for her role as Dorothy, Judy Garland was forced to adhere to a strict diet of nothing chicken soup, black coffee, and cigarettes, in addition to diet pills which are said to be the beginning of her struggles with drug addiction which ultimately claimed her life at the young age of 47.
It’s hard to believe that so much pain and suffering could ever be associated with one of the purest, wholesome, and joyous family films in history–a reputation that took a while for it to earn. Releasing in 1939 could not have worked more towards The Wizard of Oz’s disadvantage. As far as its competition within Hollywood, despite earning a respectable six Academy Award nominations and two wins (Original Score and Original Song for “Over the Rainbow”), no film that year could compete with the unmatched juggernaut that was Gone With the Wind, either in awards recognition or box office receipts. 1939 was also the tail end of The Great Depression, an unprecedented period of economic downturn in American history, which made it difficult for families to spend what limited income they had on going to the movies. Then on September 1, 1939, a mere week after The Wizard of Oz’s release date, Germany would invade Poland, setting into motion the beginnings of World War II. In some ways, The Wizard of Oz represents the last bit of this country’s remaining optimism and childlike innocence before entering a much more hopeless and unforgiving world, a reality that all of us must face at some point.
A film with as troubled of a production, in addition to all of the external political and economic factors that it was facing, should have been lost to time, yet it continued to survive in the hearts and minds of the American public not just for its large scale spectacle, but for its universal sentiments and themes. Even to this day, a story of four distinct outsiders who feel uniquely incomplete, each searching for the one thing that they think will make them feel whole, only to realize that they’ve had what they’ve been looking for all along, has not lost an ounce of its relatability or relevance to a modern audience throughout the course of its 80 year life span.
The duality of Dorothy’s Oz fantasyland and her Kansas homelife are interwoven beautifully in order to make this journey truly hit home. The drab, colorless sepia tone landscape of Dorothy’s Kansas homelife is a setting that probably didn’t look to unfamiliar to an American audience living throughout the 1930s, hoping as she did, to escape their mundane existences and find that somewhere over the rainbow where things might look a little cheerier. As she takes her first steps into the vibrant Technicolor land of Oz, (a transition that still manages to evoke awe and wonder to this day), it allows us to travel to this distant magical land with her.
It’s perfect escapism as all great fantasy should be, after a while, however, the realization that the home you left behind is where that sense of family and comfort that you had long been searching for, begins to sink in. It may even inspire you to begin seeing those elements of idealism you’ve been searching for in the life that’s right in front of you, just as Dorothy is able to see her fantastical Oz companions in the three farmhands that have been telling her to find her courage and think for herself since the beginning. In the same way that she’s been hoping for the Wizard to bring her back home to Kansas, Professor Marvel (played by Frank Morgan, who also plays the Wizard) is able to remind her of the family that she is leaving behind and inspires her to return home to her Auntie Em before she even embarks on her Oz adventure. Dorothy never needed Glinda the Good Witch or the ruby slippers to send her back home, all she needed was to remember what as she’s already known all along: there’s no place like home.