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.  


  1. What a great review. I was also scared as a young child but had the advantage that it was pre-VHS or DVD. We could only watch if the TV showed it and that was once a year, I think at Easter. But, I agree that those flying monkeys are deeply creepy and the Wicked Witch was just terrifying. Surrender, Dorothy - oh, my, God.

  2. Phew, what a nightmarish experience! What we expose our children to. My son started screaming during Monsters Inc. so at least I could turn it off. I get the feeling in past times people were less squeemish with what children were exposed to.
    I personally disliked the munchkins and thought they were creepy while I liked the witch because she is super cool and green.

  3. When I first started reading your post I was nodding in understanding. I personally didn't find the Wizard of Oz too scary as a little kid, but to each his own and all that. My dad is the second of four kids, my uncle is third (they have a big sister and a baby sister) and my uncle, in all the time I've known him, has been this big, burly dude who works with his hands and has lived quite a life. And my dad used to love telling me how when he and his siblings were little, they would watch Wizard of Oz (once a year on broadcast) and my dad and his big sister would just torture my uncle, who was terrified of the Wicked Witch. My uncle would run out of the room when she was on screen, and my dad and aunt would yell "it's OK, she's gone!" and he would come back in the den and of course the witch was still right on screen cackling and threatening. Kids are awful. :-)

    But I was figuring the witch was the one and only scary part of the movie. You're right, though - the angry trees, the spooky sets, the flying monkeys, Oz the Great and Powerful's booming floating head, they're all potential nightmare fuel. For what it's worth long after the fact, I'm really sorry you didn't feel you could raise your voice against your own torture.

    I find my kids are pretty sensitive to the scary parts of movies (I wouldn't call them "sissies" but yeah, they sound quite a bit like L'il Siobhan) and I'm trying to be aware of that and not force them to sit through traumatizing fairy tale horrors just because it's "supposed to be for kids". It's good to keep in mind that not everyone has the same visceral reaction to movies, and what seems like no big deal to one person might be a horrorshow for another. Not just true of kids watching technicolor morality plays with larger-than-life villains, but true of everyone across the board!

    - Sunny D

  4. You and I had vastly different childhood, it would seem, because I saw this for the first time last year (aged 26), and before watching it I wasn't even aware it was a musical. I didn't find it terrifying - that would have been odd, I think, for a mid-20s guy to find the Wizard of Oz scary - but I did think it was utterly, completely and totally insane, from start to finish, which goes some way to helping me understand why you found it scary. I never got around to writing my review of it up, so when I eventually re-watch I'll keep an eye out for all the terrifying moments!

  5. I was a child before the age of VHS tapes, so my opportunity to see this was once a year on TV. I do remember (no clue how old I was, but I'm guessing really young) being scared by the Oz scene where the Cowardly Lion leaps out the window and my mother made me go to bed. I watched it every year after that, though, and it became a childhood classic.