"By courtesy of the wizards of Hollywood The Wizard of Oz reached the screen yesterday as a delightful piece of wonderworking which had the youngsters' eyes shining and brought a quietly amused gleam to the wiser ones," begins Frank Nugent's review of The Wizard of Oz in The New York Times. Produced and distributed by MGM at a cost of $2.5 million, the film is a tribute to the Hollywood style and system of filmmaking. It was a bit of "wonderworking" indeed, as this fantasy film would forever alter the course of the Hollywood film musical.
Begun in 1938, The Wizard of Oz was produced at the apex of the classic Hollywood era, when MGM had at its disposal the foremost technical experts available in Hollywood at that time. It was this standby of talent that made the production of a film like Wizard feasible. To mount such a project today would cost at least $50 million. Ray Bolger (the Scarecrow), then a contract player at MGM, explains: "Working at MGM during that period was the ultimate in motion picture making, musical or otherwise."
Wizard was photographed in a little-used three-strip technicolor process. In this process, three separate strips of black-and-white film were exposed through a prism which segregated the three primary colors. It was an extremely intricate process to handle and required enormous amounts of light to properly expose. While it was the most expensive process available to Hollywood at the time, it yielded an unequaled color quality. The studio chose the three-strip process because it worked out well with black-and-white stock. The framing of Dorothy's fantasy was processed in black-and-white, heightening the effect of the technicolor journey to Oz. The fact that the three-strip process originated in a black-and-white stock made this easier.
For these reasons the production of Wizard occurred entirely indoors on the sound stages of MGM. Because the film was studio-bound, a lot of responsibility fell on the special effects department. Mattes were used extensively to give depth to the Kansas landscape, and a sense of distance to the Land of Oz. Intricate trick photography was employed to allow a bicyclist and a man rowing a boat to float helplessly in a tornado.
No less important was the MGM art department. It was headed at the time by Cedric Gibbons whose career garnered 11 Academy Awards while at MGM. Elaborate sets were conceived and constructed in full scale to create Oz, the Wicked Witch's sanctuary, and the throne room of the Wizard of Oz. Working with the limitations imposed by the tri-color film process, Gibbon's department had to create a color scheme that the film stock could exploit. The result was a beautiful, color-conscious mise-en-scène.
Perhaps most miraculous was the role played by Jack Dawn and the MGM makeup department. It was Dawn's task to take three nonhumans – a scarecrow, a tin man, and a lion – and bring them to life. He had to give them personalities and human characteristics that would evoke an humanity amidst the costumes dictated by their roles. This was done convincingly, resulting in three of the most elaborate makeup/costume designs to date in Hollywood: the costumes did pose certain critical problems for production, however. Bert Lahr's costume for the Cowardly Lion, for instance, weighed nearly 100 pounds. This, coupled with the intense heat caused by the lighting needed to shoot, made filming for long durations impossible, and the film had to be shot in segments with a day's shooting often ending before a scene was complete. As a result, before the next day's shooting could begin, makeup had to be meticulously matched and perfectly recreated to retain consistency. Daily rushes were used to aid this process. While this precision slowed down the production, the commitment to perfection became a trademark of MGM.
For their efforts both Jack Dawn and Cedric Gibbons received Academy Award nominations (though Gibbon's contract insured that his name would appear in the credits of all MGM films regardless of his involvement). This recognition, while falling on individuals, was no less a tribute to the system. It was a recognition of the elaborate collaborative nature of Hollywood filmmaking.
Though Wizard remains an elaborate technical achievement for its time, the technology involved has since become obsolete. Perhaps the longterm contribution of the film is the precedent it set for the type of Hollywood musical identified with MGM. Wizard was perhaps the earliest example of what came to be called the "integrated musical." Traditionally, music in films had been incorporated in a performance setting, establishing logical moments in which to include musical numbers, such as the review films of the thirties, including Golddiggers and Forty-Second Street. In The Wizard of Oz the music became another dimension of the characters' language, an extension of their personalities and feelings. There is no intrinsic logic in Dorothy's singing "Somewhere Over The Rainbow," but it is understood as a viable expression of some inner longing. The film narrative is advanced by musical numbers. Songs often replace dialogue as when the Munchkins pay tribute to Dorothy for killing their nemesis, the Wicked Witch of the East. In Wizard, music isn't a digression, but instead a fundamental part of the narrative structure.
The Wizard of Oz has witnessed more than 20 years of revival on both television and in theaters, remaining widely popular. Internationally, the film has enjoyed wider distribution than any other American film in history – fantasy, musical or otherwise. It would seem that the directness of the film's message – "There's no place like home" – and the sincerity of its presentation is the key. However, beneath the fantasy is one of the most polished and elaborate productions ever mounted in Hollywood. The film remains a reminder of that as well.
Release Date: 1939
Starring: Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Billie Burke, Margaret Hamilton, Charles Grapewin, Clara Blandick, Pat Walsh, Frank Morgan, and the Singer Midgets
Director: Victor Fleming
Writers: Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allen Woolf
Source Citation: Winning, Robert. "The Wizard of Oz." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 1322-1325.