Sunday, October 9, 2011

Wizard of Oz- An Enduring Saga

In an age when mind-boggling super-hits are ruling the roost, true cinematic sophistication is hard to come by. However 'wizardry' of a classic is unmistakable, when it sets the box-office cash bells ringing. What is indeed a classic? Classic is one which lays down ground rules of the most popular and cash rich genre. Classic tops the charts sixty years after the first release, and classic is a movie being seen by more people than any other motion picture. Measure it by any yardstick, 'Wizard of Oz' is definitely a classic.
When we are talking about 'Wizard of Oz', timelessness- an integral ingredient of classics, gets a concrete form in the shape of box office returns latest being the re-release in 1998. Every top-ten list of the United States carries this 1939 MGM classic. It carries a good fan following even today. The film's success is all the more remarkable in the light of the sophistication demanded by today's over-exposed children. Today a child expects much higher standard of technological display, complexity of narrative and skills from actors than earlier. Antz, Jurassic Park, Godzilla, Batman series later Cars, Toy Story and many more are simultaneously fodder for adult analysis and child entertainment. Wizard of Oz acquired this insularity from the onslaught of ever-developing technology by creating a foolproof genre of fantasy musicals for children.
The appeal of the film results from the perfect integration of musical numbers and adventures for enhancing and advancing a gripping plot. Wizard of Oz' posses all the ingredients of a perfect fairy tale. In fact, the movie laid down these rules. There were at least two earlier adoption of Baum's Oz stories (including the one with Oliver Hardy as Tin Man), but it was the 1939 version which went on to become the yardstick for fairy tale movies. Journey in the strange land, scary moments, weird characters, animals, catchy songs, talking trees, many spectacular events brew a gripping cocktail for an enchanting celluloid musical fantasy. This classic formula of frontloading music and frolic in the first half and bringing adventure late in the story has been borrowed, with profitable results, by Disney and many others.
1939 was the pinnacle of veteran director Victor Fleming. His 'Gone With The Wind' bagged Best Picture Oscar and Wizard of Oz went on to become the best known and most loved movie of all times. This perennial fantasy musical is based on L. Frank Baum's 1900 children book' Wonderful Wizard of Oz'. Opening title of the film pays tribute to the book by saying " for nearly forty years this story has given faithful service to the young at heart, and time has been powerless to put its kindly philosophy out of fashion". That was in 1939, it holds true in 1998 too - a genuine tribute to its timelessness.
Many of the characters in film play two roles, one in Kansas and one in the land of Oz. The story tells us about an episode in the life of a girl Dorothy (Judy Garland) living with her uncle and aunt at a Kansas farm. She dreams of going "somewhere over the rainbow". She is knocked unconscious by a tornado, upon waking up she finds herself in a strange land where she meets Scare Crow (Ray Bogler), Tin Man (Jack Haley) and a cowardly lion (Bert Lehr) . In their search for the Wizard (Frank Morgan), who can send her back and redress other's problems, they deal with wicked Witch of West (Margret Hamilton). All these characters have their counterparts in Kansas. In the end, Dorothy wakes up among her Kansas family and friends by following the instructions of Good Witch of the North (Billie Burke) of clicking the heels of her ruby slippers thrice while chanting "there is no place like home".
Within a decade of its release, Wizard of Oz's overwhelming special effects were way behind the contemporary level of technological sophistication. In reality Oz's indicative special effects brought in audience participation as our mind fills up the outline provided by old fashioned props. Audience is constantly re-inventing the actual action, making it pregnant with newer meaning. Wizard of Oz acquires a more vibrant imagery than merely what is happening on the screen. This active audience participation made the movie a very personal experience. This subjectivity was a factor in the endurance of the film's appeal.
Film's use of colour adds to the vibrancy of visual story telling. Sepia toned Kansas and vivid techni-coloured land of Oz underline the dichotomy between drab reality and fantasy. A recent example is Spielberg's poignant use of red patch of a girl's dress in otherwise black and white 'Schindler's List', some time later that patch is visible in a heap of bodies. Similarly Wizard of Oz puts meaning into appearance and the nature of visual composition. Striking contrast between the two settings helps in movement of the narrative and sets the mood. Plain placid ambiance of Kansas makes the decision of Dorothy to go back to home all the more puzzling.
Dorothy's journey to Oz in the movie can also be seen as a young girls' last hurrah of childhood. A straitjacketed Judy Garland (she was sixteen playing eleven year old Dorothy) must choose whether to stay in the fantasy land or return to her Kansas farm. She could go back if she had a genuine desire to do so . Finally she developed sufficient desire to actually return. Visit to a fantasy land has to be a temporary affair. Real comfort lies in the familiar and known surroundings, howsoever placid or drab. However the film does not provide sufficient basis for the thesis "there is no place like home". Dorothy draws this conclusion almost inexplicably as Kansas has never been portrayed as a desirable place. Dorothy's decision is a mature decision, almost a final adieu to childhood.
There is so much wonderful about the movies' stupendous cast, sets, music, story and frolicking script. That is probably why, Wizard of Oz continues its run with success in a truly classic fashion. With TV and satellite explosion, the magic of the Wizard is assured of winning over the hearts of generations to come. If there is some 'formula' for setting box office afire, it was concocted by the 'Wizard' six decades ago.

Dhiraj Singh

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