Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Wizard of Oz

The Wizard of Oz
Director: Victor Fleming
Starring: Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Margaret Hamilton

The Wizard of Oz is what I call an “exception” movie.  People who don’t like musicals tend to like The Wizard of Oz, despite the fact that it’s a musical.  People who say they don’t like old movies tend to like The Wizard of Oz, despite the fact that it’s 75 years old.  It’s a film that has transcended its origins and become a part of the national film lexicon.  Everyone and their dog knows, and most likely loves, The Wizard of Oz.

The story revolves around Kansas farm girl Dorothy (Garland) who is dissatisfied with her simple life and longs for more.  When a tornado picks up Dorothy’s house with Dorothy inside it and drops her in the magical land of Oz, it seems like Dorothy’s wish has come true, but she is quick to realize that you need to be careful what you wish for.  Dorothy soon wishes that she can return home to her family and friends in Kansas, and enlists the aid of the Scarecrow (Bolger), the Tin Man (Lahr), the Cowardly Lion (Lahr), and the Wizard himself (Morgan) to battle the evil Wicked Witch of the West (Hamilton) so she can find her way back home.  After all, there’s no place like home.

Now here’s where I make a pretty darn big confession: I am not in love with The Wizard of Oz.  And more than that, I never have been.  (Did I just quote Gilbert and Sullivan? Yes I did. Bonus points to those who can tell me which operetta I just referenced.)

Let me explain a bit more: I do not think The Wizard of Oz is a bad or inferior film.  I think it’s great that so many people know and adore this film.  It just never found its way into my heart the same way it apparently has with the rest of the Western Hemisphere.  And before y’all go screaming at me about having ice in my heart for not being enamored of this film, try to give me a chance to explain.  And stop judging, because that’s not very nice.

I have a theory why this isn’t a personal favorite of mine, and it has a lot to do with my disposition as a young Siobhan.  Like pretty much everyone else, this movie was screened quite a bit when I was a child.  I remember watching it over and over and over again. 

A significant fact you must know about me: young Siobhan was a sissy. 

I hated scary books, scary cartoons, and scary movies.  I remember going to a sleepover in elementary school where one of the other girls was hell bent on us watching A Nightmare on Elm Street and I practically had a panic attack from the very THOUGHT of us watching a horror movie.  I watched Star Wars: A New Hope for the first time when I was six, and the trash compactor scene terrified me so deeply, I pointedly refused to watch Star Wars again for another eight years.

And I think the reason I don’t love The Wizard of Oz is because it scared me too much as a kid, but my family kept on watching it anyway and I couldn’t tell anyone.

So, what parts of The Wizard of Oz traumatized me?

Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?

1. Miss Gulch trying to take Toto away from Dorothy.  I’ve always had an affinity to animals, even as a youngster, and to watch Dorothy as her beloved pet is forcibly removed from her hands broke my heart.  I didn’t like that, no I didn’t like that one bit.

2. Dorothy being locked out of the storm shed.  As I mentioned early on, I’ve seen this film many many times, but I still got anxious every single time the tornado comes.  It’s as if I thought that hoping Dorothy would reach safety would somehow change the plot of the film.  Just one time, just ONE time, I’d love it for Dorothy to not be stuck outside in a natural disaster. 

3. The first arrival of the Wicked Witch of the West.  SHE APPEARS FROM NOWHERE IN A PUFF OF ORANGE SMOKE.  AND THEN SHE IMMEDIATELY TRIES TO KILL DOROTHY.  The Wicked Witch of the West wholeheartedly deserves her spot as one of the greatest villains of all time because she basically scared the crap out of me as a child, and she is so very frightening from the very beginning on.

4. The moving trees that throw apples at Dorothy when she meets the Tin Man.  It’s how they stand stock still and then start mercilessly beating on Dorothy and the Scarecrow.  I mean honestly, this is the stuff of my nightmares.

5. When the Wicked Witch of the West throws fire balls at the Scarecrow.  HE’S MADE OF STRAW.  SHE’S TRYING TO KILL HIM.  Do you know how horrible it is for a six year old to imagine a beloved character burning to death?  Because that’s what went through my head in that scene.

6.  The scary forest when we meet the Cowardly Lion for the first time.  The set designers did their job when they made this incredibly creepy forest, and every single time Dorothy entered this place, I wanted to look away.

7. The poppies.  The goddamned poppies.  The Wicked Witch drugs our gang to try to stop them.  What’s truly frightening in this scene is how she manages to do this from far away in her castle, nowhere near the Emerald City.  She’s incredibly powerful and insidious in her methods. 

8. “Surrender Dorothy.”  Because nothing says frightening like death threats in the sky.

9. Approaching the Wizard of Oz for the first time.  THERE ARE FIREBALLS AND A GIGANTIC DISEMBODIED HEAD WHO YELLS AT EVERYONE.  THIS IS NOT SOMETHING THAT MADE ME HAPPY AS A CHILD.  Y’know the Cowardly Lion in this scene?  Yeah, that was me.

  10. The forest surrounding the Wicked Witch of the West’s castle.  Again, I think I hate the set designers of this film. 

   11.  Flying monkeys.  Fuck no.  Stop giving me nightmares.  “Fly, my pretties!” What you just heard was the sound of child Siobhan running away from this movie. 

12.  The hourglass with red sand ticking away the remaining moments of Dorothy’s life when she’s trapped in the Wicked Witch’s castle.  Having that kind of time limit put on her life made me so anxiety-ridden as a child.

13. When the Lion, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow go undercover as the guards to break into the Witch’s Castle.  The music (which is heavily pulled from Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, a genuinely frightening classical music composition), the costumes, the dark lighting and dangerous set, all made this a big pile of “NOPE” to me.

14. The death of the Wicked Witch.  You’d think that by this point in the picture, I’d be overjoyed to watch the villain die.  Nope, not scaredy cat little Siobhan, oh no.  I found her death traumatizing, watching her shrivel and burn away as if she is being corroded by acid. 

Yep.  This movie basically scared the pants off of me as a kid.  And I had to watch it over and over and OVER again.  So you’ll pardon me if it’s not a personal favorite.

Now, having made that rather exhaustive list, you can perhaps understand why this film, frankly, filled me with terror as a young child and why I never quite managed to fall in love with it.  And while the things on that list don’t really scare me anymore, I had to watch this movie SO many times as a child and I didn’t have the nerve to tell my parents that it scared me so heartily that I made myself sit through this frightfulness too many times to ever develop an emotional affinity for the film.  

I told you I was a sissy when I was a kid.  Seriously, you don’t understand just how much everything scared me.

Which isn’t to say there weren’t parts of this film that I enjoyed.  The stand out setpieces are easily the Munchkinland sequence and the arrival the Emerald City.  These two scenes are still my favorite parts of The Wizard of Oz, and I DO love them, very much.  Both are happy parts of the film, which meant I wasn’t cowering behind my hands as a youngster.  Both are towering examples of brilliant uses of Technicolor to achieve a fantasy look.  The colors are rich and luxurious, and both scenes are filled with a multitude of interesting side characters.  I love the costuming and set design of both of these lands.  It’s the rotund, Seussian, illustration-feel of Munchkinland, and the sleek art deco design of the Emerald City, all sophistication and smooth lines, that I really love.  Add on top of that two fantastic songs that leave you humming the tunes for the rest of the day and yeah, for sure, these are my two favorite parts of the film.

The Wizard of Oz will always be considered a great film, and rightfully so.  It’s a visual achievement with a heartwarming message, full of indelible characters and charming songs.  But it’s not my favorite.  It’s basically the first horror film I ever saw, and because I was terrible at communicating my fear as a child, I was forced to watch it time and time and time again.  No, it doesn’t scare me anymore, but it’s really too late to reverse the damage.  I appreciate The Wizard of Oz and I can appreciate its stature in the film world, but it will never be a personal favorite.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10.  Again, I think this is a legitimately good film, full of so many iconic film moments.  But… JESUS it scared me as a kid.

ETA: I will always remember Margaret Hamilton going on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and getting dressed in the Wicked Witch costume in order to show young children that the Wicked Witch was just a character and not a real monster.  

Additional ETA: and yes, I've seen Return to Oz.  And I rather like it, even as a kid, despite the fact that it's exponentially creepier than this film.  The difference was that everyone around me acknowledged that Return to Oz was a scary film and didn't make me watch it unless I wanted to.  I couldn't vocalize my fear of Wizard, so my parents just kept... putting it on.  

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Summer Stock

Summer Stock
Director: Charles Walters
Starring: Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Eddie Bracken, Phil Silvers

I make no secret of my love of musicals.  MGM musicals of the forties and fifties are like crack to me. They will always be there for me.  They will always make me happy.  I can watch them a hundred times (and I have) and they won’t get old.

So I thought writing about some of my favorite non-list musicals might not be a bad idea. 

I know that I alienated nearly all of my regular readers with the preceding paragraphs, but, well, I’ve had a really rough year and MGM musicals make me happy.  Consider yourself warned.

Jane Falbury (Garland) is the beleaguered Falbury sister who is stuck running the family farm while younger sister Abigail runs around chasing her dreams of being on the stage.  When Abigail, on a whim, brings an entire Off-Broadway show to the Falbury Farm with the idea of putting on the show on Jane’s premises, Jane balks at first, but Abigail’s boyfriend and show director Joe Ross (Kelly) convince her to allow the show biz folks to stay by providing Jane with necessary cheap farm labor in between rehearsals.  Sparks fly between Jane and Joe, but Jane’s fiancé Orville (Bracken) and the fact that Joe is somewhat engaged to Jane’s sister are pretty big barriers.  When Jane shows a hidden predilection for the stage, though, nothing can get in the way of true love.

Gene Kelly.  Gene Kelly.  Gene Kelly.  Judy Garland.  Gene Kelly AND Judy Garland.

Jesus Christ, I never stood a chance.

The plot of Summer Stock is not why one watches Summer Stock.  It’s simplistic at best and requires more than a little suspension of disbelief.  It’s one of the ultimate “let’s put on a show” musicals, a gag that was getting whiskers even in 1950.

But Gene Kelly.  And Judy Garland.  Falling hopelessly in love with each other.  While singing and dancing. 

Of all the gags in musicals, the “let’s put on a show” bit is not my favorite – even *I* admit it’s a bit silly – but… Gene Kelly is SO pretty.  Were it not for him (and Judy), I would undoubtedly not be speaking so fondly of Summer Stock.  For those keeping a record, he (along with Cary Grant) are in my Holy Trinity of Sexiest Classic Hollywood Actors.  My feelings for Gene Kelly run deep, and looking back at my childhood, I’m pretty sure he’s the first adult actor (by that I mean not a teen heartthrob) that I had a crush on.  My tag for him on tumblr is “eternal crush on Gene Kelly” because in the twenty-plus years I’ve been watching Gene Kelly movies, I have never not been in love with him. 

And my goodness, if you love Gene Kelly, you NEED to put this movie in your eyeballs as soon as possible.

Reasons why Gene Kelly was never sexier than as Joe Ross in Summer Stock:

1.  Quite literally, he spends the ENTIRE movie with either rolled up shirt sleeves or super tight short sleeves that show off his ridiculously sexy arms the ENTIRE TIME.  I wish men realized just how sexy rolled up shirt sleeves are.  Every time my husband comes home with rolled up shirt sleeves because it was hot at work, I want to jump his bones.  Men, listen up: no matter your body type, ROLLED UP SHIRT SLEEVES.  It works.  It’s a godsend.  And in this movie, ladies (and some gents, I’m sure), you get your fill of Gene in tight rolled up shirt sleeves.  Unnnnnnnnnf…

2.  Jeans.  He wears JEANS.  JEANS.  ROLLED UP JEANS WITH LOAFERS.  Gene Kelly was certainly known for being a bit more down-and-dirty than his cohort Fred Astaire, but still, he rarely wore jeans.  HE DOES HERE.  And if you don’t understand why I find that so ridiculously attractive, then I’m sorry, I can’t explain it to you.  BECAUSE JEANS.  ON GENE KELLY.  KILL ME NOW.

3. He does quite a lot of macking.  For the first half of the film, when his character is still pretty devoted to Abigail, every time they are in the same room, they greet one another by making out for as long as the Hays Code would allow.  And in the second half of the film, he finally gets to start macking on Judy Garland.  There is a LOT of kissing Gene Kelly in this flick.  GOD BLESS. 

4.  Joe Ross is quite possibly the sweetest character Kelly ever played.  In most of his musicals, Kelly’s character usually has some slightly dark or even misogynistic streak.  In both On the Town and Anchors Aweigh, for example, he plays a sailor intent on getting as much booty as he possibly can until the right girl wins his heart.  Even in Singin’ in the Rain, his character is called out for being egotistical at the beginning of the film.  In nearly all the other films I’ve seen of his, Kelly’s character is one who starts out as brash/arrogant/egotistical until he meets The One Girl who wins his heart and changes his ways.  But not so in Summer Stock.  As Joe Ross, he starts as so ridiculously, endearingly honest and kind and caring that we know from the get go that silly, materialistic Abigail is NOT right for him, that only honest, kind, and caring Jane will do.  He’s so winning from the get go, he’s practically the epitome of Prince Charming.  Joe Ross, as a character, is basically a female wet dream written into one person.  He tells Jane that he won’t marry her sister unless he can guarantee their financial stability.  STAHP IT YOU’RE KILLING ME.  He is overcome with guilt by his feelings for Jane due to his obligation to Abigail and doesn’t want to hurt either lady.  DEAD I AM DEAD YOU DEADED ME.  It’s only when Jane effectively ends her “relationship” with Orville, and when Abigail runs away from the show and Joe (oh sorry, spoilers?  Eh, I don’t care, the movie is 65 years old) that Joe finally feels alright with making a move on Jane.  I adore a man with principle and holy crap, but Joe has principle.

Okay, so I have an undying obsession with Gene Kelly.  But believe it or not, he’s not the only reason to watch this movie (if you like musicals.  Because if you don’t like musicals, just give the whole thing a pass).

Oh dear lord the chest hair.

Judy Garland.

Yes, I love Gene Kelly, but I also love Judy Garland.  And not the Judy from The Wizard of Oz (which, ironically, is probably my least favorite Garland flick).  No, I love the Judy Garland from other movie musicals, the one who was allowed to be an adult and allowed to have breasts and play the breathy, shaky female lead love interest.  Judy Garland had such irrefutable star quality.  I once read a quote that said that she was the only dancing partner Gene Kelly ever had who drew your eyes to her more than to him (debatable, given my obsession with Kelly, but I get the gist of the argument and it’s a valid point).  In Summer Stock, Garland is just as luminous as always.  And yes, although she was going through personal hell off screen during the filming, it doesn’t show on the screen.  She is so pretty, so gorgeous, so loveable, I just want to take her and cuddle her and tell her it will be alright.  I could get lost in those big, beautiful brown eyes.

And shut up about pairing Judy with Gene.  Take a male actor I am desperately in love with and put him up against a female actress who brims with gorgeous geniality, and I’m a goner.  The internet even informs me that there’s a name for the pair of Judy Garland and Gene Kelly: Jugenea.  Apparently.  Well, whatever the name is, Judy is easily my favorite pairing for Gene Kelly, probably because she has such inherent star quality in her to provide a suitable pairing to his RIDICULOUS SEXINESS. 

The dancing is top-notch, but I wouldn’t expect any less from a Gene Kelly musical.  His first number, Dig for Your Dinner, is a Kelly solo, and god bless for that.  His dancing duet with Judy, Portland Fancy, at the local dance, is so ridiculously cute and sweet you’ll get tooth decay.  But the two show stoppers are later solo numbers.  The first is the obvious Get Happy, Garland’s defining moment in more ways than one, where Jane finally embraces her interest in the stage and performs in the production with all the gusto that we expect from Judy.  Judy Garland has never been sexier than she is in that number, wearing a smart costume of suit jacket and little else, letting her legs stretch on forever.  If Summer Stock is remembered for nothing else, it will be that number, and rightfully so.  It’s iconic.  The other show stopper is Kelly’s later solo, You, Beautiful You, a gorgeous empty-stage piece where Joe just can’t help but dance about his feeling after having first kissed Jane.  Kelly choreographed the piece and it shows the brilliance that was to come a few years later in Singin’ in the Rain.  Kelly needs only a creaky floorboard and a few sheets of newspaper to make an utterly beguiling dance number, one that even Steve at 1001plus likes!  Seriously, if you like musicals, Summer Stock delivers on the musical number side.

And that’s just Gene and Judy.  Phil Silvers and especially Eddie Bracken are such superb comic relief in this film.  Eddie Bracken steals nearly every scene he’s in as Jane’s practical fiancé who is allergic to pretty much everything under the sun.  Phil Silvers is as goofy as always (if truth be told, more obnoxious than goofy), but I love him because he brings out Gene Kelly’s goofy side.  One of my favorite things about Gene Kelly is that he was never afraid to let himself look like a fool, and every time he’s paired with Phil Silvers, you know they’ll have at least one utterly ridiculous song together.  In fact, every time I get too wrapped up in my Gene Kelly fixation, my husband likes to show me a picture from Summer Stock of one of his duets with Phil Silvers to knock him off his sexy pedestal just a bit. 

Nope, still sexy.
If I may go off on a tangent (like I haven’t already), I showed this film to my good friend Angie (who shares my Gene Kelly obsession) and naturally, she immediately fell in love.  Like I said, if you love Gene Kelly, you need this movie.  Regardless, there is one scene where Eddie Bracken and Phil Silvers, both of whom wear glasses, bump into one another, knock off each other’s glasses, then put the wrong glasses on.  Angie, in all her fangirl awesomeness, immediately started talking about shipping them together.  And now that’s all I can think.  I love to imagine that Orville and Herb run off together and have very nebbish gay sex together at the end of this movie.  Thanks, Angie.  You did this to me.

Is this one of the best movies ever made?  No.  Is it one of my favorite movies?  Yes.  Do I recognize its shortcomings?  Yes, empirically I recognize that this is not Citizen Kane.  Do I care about its shortcomings?  Hell no.  Will this movie always make me happy regardless of my mood?  YES. 

Arbitrary Rating: I’m giving this a very personal 10/10.  It has flaws, for sure, but my love of it overrides the flaws.  Gene Kelly, get in my pants.