Written by: Michael Darvell
There cannot be a child or, come to that, an adult who hasn’t seen The Wizard of Oz. It is an iconic film that appeals to the child in everybody, perhaps because it is more than a children’s story about a little girl who goes on a journey to find a life that’s happier than the one she is leading.
Like most journeys in life, Dorothy meets an odd collection of characters such as Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion, three lost souls in search of something – be it a heart, a brain or courage. Then there’s the Wicked Witch of the West who tries to stop this quartet of innocents from reaching their goal. Ultimately Dorothy learns that happiness can be found in your own backyard.
Although based on a series of popular children’s books by the American L. Frank Baum, the 1939 film is what most people think of in any discussion of The Wizard of Oz. It is the film that made Judy Garland into a star, and it’s the film that everybody recalls seeing as a child – thereby evoking nostalgic memories. And it has a clutch of wonderfully memorable songs, by Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg, which include ‘We’re off to see the Wizard’, ‘Ding dong the witch is dead’, ‘Follow the yellow brick road’ – and ‘Over the rainbow’, surely the most powerful evocation of childhood ever penned.
The movie has been re-released for every generation and always gets good ratings for television showings. It has been evoked as a cultural icon in many other films, too. There have been sequels and it has been re-made in animated form, released on video and DVD, and has even inspired a ‘black pop’ version for the stage, The Wiz, which was subsequently filmed with Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Lena Horne and Richard Pryor. A prequel show, Stephen Schwartz’s Wicked, is currently one of the hottest tickets in London’s West End.
The original was not the easiest film to make and at least four directors had a hand in getting it completed. Victor Fleming took the final credit but King Vidor, Richard Thorp and producer Mervyn LeRoy also contributed. As far as the screenplay goes, there were three official writers, Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf, who are credited, but another dozen also worked on the script. These include writers Herbert Fields and Herman J. Mankiewicz, producer Arthur Freed, lyricist E. Y. Harburg, and actors Jack Haley and Bert Lahr who, respectively, played Tin Man and Cowardly Lion. It was also a film with many complicated special effects that caused problems during the making – and it had a huge cast, mainly comprising 150 Munchkins, the little people that Dorothy and her friends encounter in the Land of Oz.. When the film finally appeared it became a huge success and was nominated for six Academy Awards and won three Oscars for Best Original Score, Best Original Song (‘Over the rainbow’), Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Best Effects.
It is an adaptation of the film for the stage that the Southbank Centre will present for six weeks in the Royal Festival Hall. The cast includes Sian Brooke as Dorothy, Julie Legrand as the Wicked Witch of the West, Hilton McRae as Scarecrow, dancer Adam Cooper as Tin Man, Gary Wilmot as Cowardly Lion and Roy Hudd as the Wizard. The director is Jude Kelly, Artistic Director of the Southbank Centre, whose past credits include Singin’ in the Rain at West Yorkshire Playhouse and Sadler’s Wells, On the Town for English National Opera, and last year’s Carmen Jones at Southbank Centre. The adaptation is by John Kane, which he originally undertook for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
In America the book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has been popular since around 1900, when actor, author and filmmaker Lynam Frank Baum first penned the story which has, along with its thirteen sequels, remained in print to this day. The author acknowledged that his influences were the Grimm Brothers’ tales and the stories of Hans Christian Andersen, as well as Lewis Carroll’s Alice adventures. What makes Baum’s stories different from other children’s literature are the possible social messages lying beneath the surface narrative.
For instance, the Yellow Brick Road represents the gold standard, the silver slippers (they became ruby ones in the 1939 film) represent the 16-to-one silver ratio, and the Wicked Witches represent the banks and railroad authorities which drove the farmers out of business. Scarecrow represents the farmers while Tin Man is a mouthpiece for the ‘slaves of industry’ working hard for next to nothing. It could be that Cowardly Lion represents Wall Street investors who lost their nerve, while the Munchkins are the ‘little people’, the ‘common folk’ much put upon by the Wizard President who is a charlatan-politician holed-up in the Emerald City (or Washington).
On the other hand it could be none of the above and simply an imaginative story for children to help them think for themselves. Baum also produced stage adaptations of his books from 1902 and even made early movies of them, but it is the 1939 MGM production with Judy Garland that holds our affections – the one now brought (with related events) to the Royal Festival Hall this summer.