Follow the yellow brick road to The State of Things’ celebration of the 80th anniversary of the film adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz.” The 1939 film’s mesmerizing visuals, hit musical numbers and heartwarming characters are still revered by audiences today.
The journey of young Dorothy Gale through the magical land of Oz launched Judy Garland’s career. What makes this movie an American cultural touchstone? Host Frank Stasio along with film experts Marsha Gordon and Laura Boyes commemorate the film on the latest edition of Movies on the Radio.
Stasio also talks to literary scholar Michael Patrick Hearn about the book from 1900 that inspired the film and the life of its author, L. Frank Baum. Hearn specializes in children’s literature and is the author of “The Annotated Wizard of Oz” (WW Norton Co/2000).
Gordon is a professor of film studies at North Carolina State University and a fellow at the National Humanities Center. Boyes is the film curator for the North Carolina Museum of Art. She is also the curator of the MovieDiva series.
Boyes will be screening a new restoration of “Some Like It Hot” at the Carolina Theatre in Durham on Wednesday, Sept. 4 at 7 p.m. She is also screening a new restoration of “The Killers” at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh on Sunday, Sept. 22 at 2 p.m.
Listener Steven Goldstein shares a memory of seeing the film in London in the ‘70s:
I convinced many of my work friends and housemates — none of whom was American and none of whom had ever seen the film, even on TV — to attend with me. Some were skeptical since it had the appearance of being a kiddie movie, but I sold them on it, and they agreed to come. We partook of some weed at the beginning [and] sat fairly close to the front of the wonderful theater that they showed it in. And I was blown away, as were all my friends. Prior to seeing it on the wide screen, I had loved the movie for years, but it became positively breathtaking finally seeing it in large format.
I never — after the first time — watched that flying monkey scene. I would close my eyes and put my hands over my ears. And my parents would tell me when it was over, because I did not want to see those flying monkeys. They were so horrifying to me.
The last time I watched the movie, I said: Oh, wait a minute, those aren't really monkeys. Those are people in monkey costumes. And so I called up my daughter, and she said: Wait, what? They’re not really monkeys? And then I called up my mother. And she said: Wait, what? They’re not really monkeys? … I really thought they were monkeys up until about three years ago.
Gordon on the festive atmosphere around television screenings of “The Wizard of Oz” in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s:
This is just something you can't experience [anymore], which is when something comes on television once a year — the excitement of deferral, and it's coming, and everyone's planning around it. That is an amazing thing to experience. And we live in such a time of immediacy … And that's gone.
Listener Kevin Lewis on why “The Wizard of Oz” appeals to the LGBTQ community:
I think it had to do with the fact that everybody was outsiders in those movies. As “Wicked” brought out, the Wicked Witch was an outsider against her good sister, Glinda. Dorothy was an outsider in Kansas, and the tin man and the scarecrow and the lion are all outsiders. And even the wizard had to hide behind a curtain to be the wizard … It was about outsiders who banded together and fought the world.
Hearn on key differences between the film and the book:
I think a key scene in the film is the destruction of the Wicked Witch. How is that done? In the book, Dorothy loses her temper and douses her with a bucket of water that she's forced to use to scrub the floors. In the movie, Dorothy it throws the bucket of water on the Scarecrow who the witch has set a flame. And by accident, that wicked witch gets doused in the puss. But in the book, Dorothy is much more assertive than she is in the movie. She doesn't go around crying all the time like Judy Garland.
Hearn on the freeing nature of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”:
It's a very important point in children's literature when Dorothy is allowed to lose her temper and she's not punished. In any other children's book in American literature before that, she would have been spanked. She would have been sent to bed without her supper — something would have happened to her. She destroys the Wicked Witch, and she frees the Winkies. It's an incredibly liberating story. And I think that's one reason why it's been so popular.
Hearn on some of the barriers Baum broke with his Oz books:
Baum probably introduced the first trans character in children's literature. This is going to be a spoiler alert. In the second Oz book, “The Land of Oz,” the hero of the book is named Tip — a little boy who has been raised by an evil witch called Mombi. It turns out that Mombi had transformed Princess Ozma into Tip. So at the end of the book, Tip is transformed back into his correct form, and that's Princess Ozma. So, I think one thing that Baum was trying to point out is that Ozma has both male [and] female characteristics. She's been living as a boy, and now she has become a girl.