The 70th anniversary of this all-time classic is being celebrated with a beautiful new DVD release, a great chance for the family to sit down and watch what is probably the all-time greatest family film again.
Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) lives in Kansas with her aunt and uncle and her dog, Toto. Mean Miss Gulch (Margaret Hamilton) swears she will have Toto taken away. Auntie Em and Uncle Henry support Dorothy, but they are too distracted by the coming tornado to pay much attention to her. Dorothy dreams of a place “over the rainbow” where everything is beautiful, “troubles melt like lemon drops” and “the dreams that you dream really do come true.” She starts to run away to protect Toto, but is sent back home by the kindly Professor Marvel (Frank Morgan), a traveling fortune-teller.
When the tornado arrives, Dorothy is outside the shelter. She goes to her room, where she is hit on the head by a piece of wood torn loose by the wind. The whole house rises, and is carried away by the tornado.
The house lands with a crash, and when she opens the door, she finds she has landed in the colorful world of Oz (the movie, black and white until this point, becomes technicolor). Her house has landed on the Wicked Witch of the East, killing her, and the tiny Munchkins celebrate Dorothy as a great heroine. Their friend Glinda the good witch (Billie Burke) arrives and gives her the Wicked Witch’s magic ruby slippers, just as the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) arrives to take them. The Wicked Witch of the East was her sister. Furious, she swears revenge. Dorothy wants to go home and is told to seek out the Wizard of Oz, who lives in the Emerald City, for help.
On the way to the Emerald City, she meets a talking Scarecrow (Ray Bolger) who wants a brain, a Tin Woodsman (Jack Haley) who longs for a heart, and a cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) who wants courage. They all join her, to seek the help of the Wizard. At the Emerald City, the Wizard at first refuses to see them, then finally tells them they must earn their wishes by bringing him the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West. They are captured by the Witch’s flying monkeys, and just as she is about to kill them, Dorothy douses her with water, trying to protect the Scarecrow from fire, and the witch melts.
They return to the Emerald City only to find that the Wizard cannot help them. He is a fraud, just “the man behind the curtain” whose terrifying displays of smoke and light hid a “humbug” who had no magical powers at all. But he is able to show the Scarecrow, Tin Woodsman, and Lion that they really did have what they were seeking all the time, and he promises to take Dorothy back to Kansas in his hot air balloon.
Toto jumps out of the balloon’s basket. Dorothy runs after him and misses the balloon launch. But, just as Dorothy despairs of ever going home, Glinda arrives and shows Dorothy that she had the means of getting home all the time. Back in Kansas, Dorothy wakes up to find her aunt and uncle, the farmhands, and Professor Marvel (who strongly resemble the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, Lion, and Wizard), and tells them that “there’s no place like home.”
This movie is an ideal family film, superb in every aspect, with outstanding art direction, music, and performances. It is still as fresh and engrossing as it was in 1939, and improves with every viewing. If you ever have a chance to see it in on a big screen, in a theater with a good sound system, you will enjoy it even more.
It is hard to imagine what it would have been like with the original intended cast, including Shirley Temple as Dorothy and Buddy Ebsen as the Tin Woodsman. But 20th Century Fox would not loan its top star, and Ebsen was hospitalized when he inhaled the aluminum dust in the Tin Woodsman’s make-up. Judy Garland is a perfect Dorothy — vulnerable, sensitive, completely believable. On the brink of leaving childhood, her dreams of a place “over the rainbow” are in part a yearning to escape the concerns of adulthood.
There is something especially satisfying about the way that the main characters find what they need within themselves. Talk with children about the way that the Scarecrow demonstrates his intelligence, the Tin Woodman demonstrates his heart, and the Lion demonstrates his courage. Even the humbug Wizard finds that he had the means to go home all the time. Dorothy, who in the first part of the movie runs away from home to try to solve her problems, spends the rest of the movie trying to get back. Even if the story is just a dream (in the book, it is a real adventure), this makes a great deal of emotional sense, a way of working through her inner conflicts.
It is also worth talking about the scene in which Dorothy and her friends disregard the Wizard’s plea to “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” and discover that he is really just an ordinary man. This can be a touchstone or metaphor for many kinds of challenges children face. It can help them recognize that the overpowering figures in their lives (parents, teachers, adults, sports figures) are just imperfect human beings. And it can also help them recognize attempts, by themselves as well as others, to distract people in hopes of hiding our imperfection and vulnerability.
NOTE: There are a number of different scenes in this movie that may be scary for children. Many adults still remember the flying monkeys or Dorothy looking into the crystal ball and seeing her aunt turn into the witch. Parents should talk to children about the story before seeing the movie, and watch with them to gauge their reactions.