‘Wizard of Oz,’ still magical after 70 years

Aug. 28, 2009 | 5:52 p.m.

This is a longer version of my story that will run Saturday on the cover of the Los Angeles Times’ Calendar section. It was great fun talking to all of these creative minds. 

Emerald City

It was 70 years ago this week that “The Wizard of Oz” arrived in theaters and even in this CGI-jaded era those old red ruby slippers still sparkle brightly.

The anniversary has been celebrated over the past year with numerous events, including a national tour by a seven-story Oz-themed hot-air balloon. The festivities will wrap up with a Sept. 23 one-night theatrical re-release of a newly restored version of the film in 450 theaters and the release next month of an “ultimate collector’s edition” package on Blu-ray and DVD with that remastered version and 16 hours of bonus material.

That may sound like a lot of attention for an artifact from the FDR administration, but there’s a timeless quality to the cinematic adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s novel that still transports new generations over the rainbow. The movie remains an essential reference point — this December in James Cameron’s much-ballyhooed sci-fi epic “Avatar,” for instance, when the main character arrives on a dazzling jungle planet, moviegoers will hear a familiar line: “You’re not in Kansas anymore.” Cameron chuckled when asked about the line. “Yeah, it’s my favorite movie; I had to get it in there somewhere,” he said. Cameron is not alone in his ongoing romance with “Oz.” To mark the anniversary, The Times interviewed creators in film, television, music and books who have never wearied of the cinematic trip down the yellow brick road.

Oz travelers

Guillermo del Toro, filmmaker, “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Hellboy,”  “The Hobbit” (2011)

“I fixated on the scary aspects of the tale — the flying monkeys, the tornado (still a great effects example today), the Wicked Witch of the West, the overwhelming presence of the Wizard and — in my childhood imagination — the nagging biological horror that the lack of heart or brains indicated. The super-saturated colors are forever singed in my memory. This is the first movie where I became aware of scale . . . the sense that you are watching a ‘Big Picture,’ a Hollywood super-production. I was completely engaged by the tale. Dorothy losing it all and having to regain it back on her own — it was a very empowering childhood tale.”

Ray Harryhausen, visual effects pioneer, “Clash of the Titans,” “Jason and the Argonauts,” Mighty Joe Young.”

“Although ‘King Kong’ remains my favorite fantasy/adventure film of all time, primarily because of the influence it had on my childhood and career, I can certainly say that ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is a very close second. I was extremely impressed with the amazing work done on the film by the legendary A. Arnold ’Buddy’ Gillespie, MGM’s top visual effects artist, as well as the wonderful production design by the industry’s best art directors. That the film has endured and still impresses after 70 years is no surprise to me. I expect it to continue to gain new admirers during the next 70 years.”

Oz slippers ouch

Stephen Schwartz, composer, the musical “Wicked” and the films “Pocahontas” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”

“For me, not surprisingly, the most memorable thing about the movie is the Harold Arlen music, starting with that great overture that movies don’t have anymore, and the witty E.Y. Harburg lyrics with all their clever wordplay, which influenced so many lyricists — including me.”

Norman Lear, producer, “All in the Family,” “Maude,” “The Jeffersons”

“You mention ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and there’s a glow. I can’t tell you the afternoon or the evening when I saw it for the first time, but I still feel that glow. Judy Garland was incandescent. And there was a magic to all of it that came together. Why would Jack Haley be so indelible in my mind as the Tin Man? Why would Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion be remembered by everyone? The indelibility of those characters. It’s a great, emotional piece of work. The transition from black and white to color in the film — so powerful.”

Jon Favreau, filmmaker, “Iron Man,” “Elf,” “Zathura”

“The part I gravitate to is hero’s journey, the film as a piece of archetype. It’s the coming-of-age journey in the Joseph Campbell mythic structure. So much of the movie seems so random, with the flying monkeys and the Munchkins, but if you chip all that away it’s the hero’s journey, in this case about a girl becoming a woman and leaving behind the safety and comfort of home. You don’t think about that, which is why it’s so good. . . . The movie’s influence is everywhere. Years ago when I was making ‘Swingers,’ a relatively small, uneventful film, I actually had a ‘Oz’ reference in it because it was about this outsider’s journey into this strange place, the Hollywood nightlife instead of ‘Oz.’ ”

Wayne Coyne, lead singer, the Flaming Lips.

“Like all experiences you have when you’re a child, they are magnified and viewed as either magical or terrifying . . . and obviously ‘The Wizard Of Oz’ is both with its colossal tornado (remember, we live in Oklahoma where tornadoes happen all the time) . . . and its flying monkeys being terrifying . . . and the Emerald City . . . and that great, scary forest being magical . . . and the part toward the end where Dorothy cries. It still is devastating.”

Joe Dante, filmmaker, “Gremlins,” “Innerspace,” “Twilight Zone: The Movie”

“Like the multi-director ‘Gone With the Wind‘ (not as a good a movie), ‘Wizard of Oz’ [with the credited Victor Fleming and three uncredited directors, including King Vidor] isn’t exactly an auteurist triumph. But it is the high-water mark of studio filmmaking. I saw it first at a kiddie matinee in 1954, before it became a network TV holiday staple, and thought it was as memorable as a Disney animated film — high praise from my 8-year-old self in those days. Remember, this was considered a commercial disappointment in 1939! Only in ensuing years was it embraced as a classic by my own and later generations, illustrating the maxim that the true worth of a movie is very hard to assess at the time it’s first released.”

Oz, in the presence

Michael Moorcock, author, “Elric of Melnibone,” “Behold the Man,” “The Metatemporal Detective”

“I’ve loved the movie since I first saw it as a tot. The transition from black and white into color made a huge impression. We didn’t have the familiar U.S. editions of the Oz books in the U.K., and when I at last saw a book version, I was deeply disappointed. The illustrations looked ‘wrong’ (no Judy Garland). I did enjoy the story I heard later that there was thought to be a communist subtext to the Harold Arlen songs. I’m not sure if Joe McCarthy came up with that one or not, but the idea of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ as a commie vehicle seems somehow to encapsulate the complete madness of the Hollywood witch hunts and amplifies my relish for the film. I’m sure the story’s apocryphal, but a good story is a good story, true or false — as I’m sure the Wizard himself would have agreed.”

Zack Snyder, filmmaker, “300,” “Watchmen” and “Dawn of the Dead” (2004)

“I find it most interesting that even after 70 years ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is still an incredibly modern film in many ways. Especially in the sense that it speaks a very contemporary sci-fi/fantasy language. The skill with which the film guides the audience through the layers of an alternate reality and then delivers one of the best mind-bending endings ever is simply timeless. Not to mention, the film has flying monkeys and you can’t beat that.”

– Geoff Boucher

RECENT AND RELATED

Dorothies

FASHION PHOTO GALLERY: The Ruby Slipper Collection

“Wizard of Oz” at SoCal theaters on Sept. 23

David Rockwell on the architecture of Oz

LAT BOOK REVIEW: “The Real Wizard of Oz” on Baum’s life

A visit to Oz Museum in Kansas

Photo credits: Turner Entertainment Co. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

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