Yes, the Wicked Witch is scary.
Ditto for her Flying Monkeys.
And there may be some nightmares after kids see this film.
Let them see it anyway. There are few movies as durable, few that offer so many indelible pleasures, and even fewer that take the audience into an enchanted place so vivid they’ll never forget it after they see it the first time.
When I was a kid, I used to watch THE WIZARD OF OZ on television every year, and begged my parents to let me stay up past the next commercial to keep watching. Each year it I got further and further along, until I’d finally seen the whole thing. (This was before movie lovers had the luxury of watching movies on DVD at home, or streaming them, so the only way to see WIZARD was that yearly TV broadcast … or maybe catch it The Regency, our local temple of classic cinema, an actual revival house). The Munchkins fascinated me, with their strange voices and herky-jerky dances. Margaret Hamilton‘s green-skinned Wicked Witch of the West made such a vivid impression I could see her with my eyes closed when I lay down to bed, and hear her cackling in my head long after the movie was over. I liked the sweet Tin Man (Jack Haley) and adored the rubber-limbed Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), but the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr), with his New York street accent and put-on tough guy persona, had a special place in my heart. What kid isn’t afraid sometimes, and couldn’t use a little courage (or “da noive,” as he put it)? I wanted to walk down that same Yellow Brick Road with all of them, and as for scruffy little Toto, I wished desperately that he belonged to me.
As a child, the movie dazzled me, with what I later came to learn were rich early technicolor hues. When I was in college, projecting a 16mm print at our college film society, I remember changing reels just as Dorothy Gale stepped out of her sepia-tinted fallen Kansas house into that bright technicolor Munchkinland and realized she wasn’t in Kansas anymore. I was so intrigued by how the twister was filmed I later read up on it in Aljean Harmetz‘s marvelously entertaining book, The Making Of The Wizard Of Oz. (The twister was actually a muslin sock on a track, and the house that looked like it was caught up in the twister was actually a model house falling, with the film run backwards.)
The now classic songs are the kind you can’t get out of your mind after hearing them once. Penned by the great songwriters Harold Arlen (music) and E.Y.”Yip” Harburg (lyrics), they’re clever and funny and ridiculously catchy, from “Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead” to “We’re Off To See The Wizard” to “If I Only Had A Brain.” But there’s a special place in songwriting heaven reserved for those guys because of a single song. When it’s rendered by the young Judy Garland as Dorothy, it’s heartbreakingly beautiful, no matter how many times you hear it (give it a watch again now): “Over The Rainbow.” Allegedly even tough wheeler-dealer movie mogul L.B. Mayer wept when it was played for him. And here’s a cool bit of movie trivia: it’s the only sequence in the movie directed by George Cukor, who was fired from the film (you can read more tidbits like this in Harmetz’s book; GONE WITH THE WIND‘s Victor Fleming is the movie’s credited director, and man, was 1939 a good year for him).
Naturally, given my own history with this classic, I couldn’t resist showing THE WIZARD OF OZ to my own kids, and was delighted that they fell under its spell on first viewing. Most kids do. And though it’s got its share of frights for small fry — will anyone who’s heard it ever forget the Wicked Witch’s threat, “I’ll get you my pretty, and your little dog too!” — it has empowering moments, as when mere Kansas farm girl Dorothy destroys that evil witch with a bucket of water (“I’m melting!”), or when she stands up to the Great and Powerful Oz (Frank Morgan) and demands he live up to his word. There are magical moments too, as when Dorothy, instructed by ethereal Good Witch Glinda (Billie Burke, also famous for being the wife of Ziegfeld Follies Broadway producer Florenz Ziegfeld), clicks her ruby slipper-clad heels three times and says those immortal-in-cinema words, “There’s no place like home.” There are perhaps more classic unforgettable cinematic and pop culture touchstones in this film — great lines, amazing visuals, pitch-perfect performances, stay-with-you songs, state-of-the-art-for-the-time effects, etc. — as in any ever made.
Why should you watch it with kids? Because it’s the CITIZEN KANE of kid movies. More watchable than SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, more iconic than WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, there’s simply no movie like THE WIZARD OF OZ.
THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) Directed by Victor Fleming, Screenplay by Noel Langley & Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf, adaptation by Noel Langley from the book by L. Frank Baum. With Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Margaret Hamilton, Frank Morgan, Billie Burke.