One of the great joys over the last few years has been introducing my children to some of the great, classic films that I have known and loved over the years. Some of them are films that I didn’t see until I was an adult, but figured they would really like them anyway, like Bringing Up Baby and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Others are films that I have watched since I was young, like Shane, Star Wars, Duck Soup, and now today, we watched The Wizard of Oz together. It was their first time seeing the film in its entirety. I had given thought to showing them the film a few years prior, but in discussions with my spouse we had determined to wait. I actually remember being extremely scared of the witch when I was a kid, and every year when the film came on, I seemingly only remember watching until that part of the film when the Wicked Witch of the West appears in Munchkinland for the first time, before I ran off to bed deathly afraid of finishing the film. I was probably only 5 or 6 years old. My daughters are now ages 6 and 4, so about a week ago, they started to beg to watch it. We felt like it was the right time.
My girls have of course known of this film for more than a few years, and even at one point wanted to be Dorothy for Halloween without even having seen the film. I would show them little Youtube clips from time to time, as I’m a huge fan of the film, and of Judy Garland and my girls loved seeing her in Summer Stock and in Meet Me in St. Louis. Garland’s appeal in the film, has not waned a bit. Every time I watch The Wizard of Oz, I’m amazed at the range and emotional depth of her performance, guiding the audience through this strange land with the clarity and honesty of a seasoned actress despite her being 16 years of age at the time of casting. Garland was always sort of an old soul though, and gives one of that all time great performances by any actress, and it’s partly because of the innocence and transparity of her emotions. There’s this little gesture she gives to Toto at the very end of the “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” sequence where she leans over in a sort of weary moment of melancholy. I don’t think I’d ever quite noticed the brief expression before this latest viewing. There’s that pure and open graciousness as she says, “Very well thank you,” to the Scarecrow. Or how about that moment when confronting the Wizard when she brazenly says, “You outta be ashamed of yourself!” It’s such a well-rounded performance and Garland’s approach was so true to the actress that she would in fact become throughout the years. It’s amazing how singular and effective is her style already at this young age.
There were some funny things about the film that I picked up this time seeing it. I maybe have seen the film 20 times or so in my lifetime, but it’s amazing what slips past your eyes so often. Garland has a moment right after she’s slapped the Cowardly Lion and he’s beginning to whimper where she nearly breaks a smile and almost begins to laugh but is able to hold it in. Check it out for yourself at about the 51 minute mark. Then there’s the part where the Munchkins are running after Glinda in the bubble and one of them is that “kid” with the horn hair from the lollipop guild. Well, the next shot shows him behind Dorothy in a moment of poor continuity. Then amazingly, in the scene when they are putting the cape and the crown on the Cowardly Lion and they’re walking up the little green carpet up the stairs, Garland almost stumbles over the edge of the carpet that curls over a bit after the others walk up before her. These imperfections are quite endearing in that it reminds me that the films’ power does not lie in its technical prowess nor in its filmmaking per se. One can count multiple moments of script incontinuity for instance. But it’s a reminder that sincerity, human nature, and talented actors can entertain as much as or even more-so than any special effects laden blockbuster can.
Sitting down to watch the film with small children who have never seen it before became an interesting experience in and of itself. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the film for myself, but more so, enjoying watching their reactions and answering their questions. Such as, “Is this movie in black and white or color?” (“actually it’s both)…….“Which road of the yellow brick road is the right way?” (“you know what, I’m not sure”)….. “Is the witch going to come back later?” (“Yes she will definitely be back.) …… “Why is that horse turning colors” (“because it’s the horse of a different color”). I also realized that they seemingly needed a bit of assistance to understand what was happening, and why she could get to this place called Oz and why Miss Gulch had turned into the witch. We discussed that even though it felt real, it was a dream and that she was imagining that Miss Gulch was a witch. Part of the intensity of the film though, is that it feels so hyper-real. Once the film enters the dream state, one is quickly absorbed into the world, and so thorough is this effect once the film bursts into color. One almost forgets entirely that it IS a dream as it feels so emotionally real and linear. Although we talked about the film being a dream early on, my girls were so believing that Dorothy was going to die that they began to get worried once the hour glass began to empty. Thus, much of the film’s power is brought about because of its dual power to both reassure us of what we know and to challenge us toward overcoming our fears. One of my favorite elements is in fact the way that Dorothy, the heroine, leads the group. She’s not quite so meek as she calls herself, as she is a leader of a rag-tag assemblage of “misfits”. I’m occasionally surprised at how often my children become conscious of the fact that they don’t “fit in” for whatever reason. This film reassures us that it’s okay to be imperfect and to make mistakes…..and also to keep trying and to take on the challenges that come our way. These are lessons that we all sometimes need to be reminded of.