It happened today - August 25, 2015
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VNugTWHnSfw On August 25 back in 1939, amid much that was dismal and terrifying in the world, the wonderful Wizard of Oz had its cinema debut. And it is an interesting reflection on the nature of technological “progress” that it must indeed have been wonderful to be seated in a theatre staring in astonished delight at that magical moment when Dorothy steps out into Oz and takes you into the world of colour movies. And yet today, with far better colour and special effects, we experience little or none of that wonder. And yet the movie remains wonderful.
This technological point actually hit me hard from an unexpected angle when I was reading the Harry Potter novels and thinking how marvelous it would be to have paintings that moved as they do at Hogwarts. And then I realized we had them all around us, even on our pocket telephones, and I was so jaded I didn’t even notice. Nothing gets old faster than novelty; remember film itself was a novelty in the 1890s and the first feature-length “talkie” was The Jazz Singer in 1927.
As for The Wizard of Oz itself, it was not in fact the first colour movie. Not by a long stretch. Thomas Edison hand-painted Annabelle’s Dance back in 1895, and Pathé invented a stencil roller process by 1905. But it was still crude and time-consuming.
Genuine colour movies appeared in the late 1930s and in fact The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn used the Technicolor technique in 1938 and a few months before that, something called Gold Is Where You Find It that a search party would have trouble finding now.
Still, even the fine Robin Hood film looks colourized. The Wizard of Oz looks magical. And yet, I would suggest, the real magic is not technical at all.
Years after watching the movie I tracked down the original novel by L. Frank Baum. And frankly it’s so bad flying monkeys could rip its contents out for all I care. Indeed it was intentionally bad or, at least, it was written with intentions that could not fail to produce sludge. As Baum himself wrote in his April 1900 Introduction:
“Folklore, legends, myths and fairy tales have followed childhood through the ages, for every healthy youngster has a wholesome and instinctive love for stories fantastic, marvelous and manifestly unreal. The winged fairies of Grimm and Andersen have brought more happiness to childish hearts than all other human creations. Yet the old time fairy tale, having served for generations, may now be classed as ‘historical’ in the children's library; for the time has come for a series of newer ‘wonder tales’ in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incidents devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale. Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident. Having this thought in mind, the story of ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ was written solely to please children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.”
The result is didactic, tedious, episodic and lacking in moral worth. As Chesterton rightly said, “Fairy tales do not give a child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.” Thus a fairy tale without a dragon is beside the point (and a world dominated by people who thought like Baum has given us horrors aplenty, I might add).
Thus the true marvel of The Wizard of Oz is that saw within this drab, misguided novel the potential for a truly great movie in the grand fairy tale tradition, with a witch who is not merely “stereotypical” but archetypal, setting the stereotype for wicked witches from then on, with horrible perils, bloodcurdling incidents and profound moral lessons.
It is the stuff nightmares and therefore dreams are made of. And it’s something to leave you slack-jawed in your seat with amazement and admiration.