THE LISTS: Top 10 “Greatest” lists ‘The Wizard of Oz’ deserves to be on

Posted by · 10:33 am · August 25th, 2009

Judy Garland in The Wizard of OzAs you have probably heard by now, today marks a rather special anniversary in cinema. (And it’s not Sean Connery’s 79th birthday, though we do wish him well.) It is, of course, 70 years ago to the day since a little film called “The Wizard of Oz” opened nationally in the United States. Perhaps you’ve heard of it.

So much has been documented and discussed about this film over the years that it seems redundant to discuss its slow-burning impact on, and importance in, the landscape of American cinema.

The film’s troubled production – from its casting musical chairs to its rocky reception – is now the stuff of Hollywood legend, while its place in the commonly regarded Hollywood annus mirabilis of 1939 only cements its status by association, as the film is forever banded with the likes of “Gone With the Wind” and “Stagecoach” in endless “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” discussions.

You know all this, readers: just two months ago, you voted it the fifth most influential film of all time, after all.

“The Wizard of Oz” may have dictated several of the still-held standards for fantasy and children’s filmmaking in Hollywood (and elsewhere), but even when we’re not watching it – or even thinking about it – the film has made its presence felt in our daily lives.

Phrases like “yellow-brick road” and “friend of Dorothy” have acquired linguistic meanings independent of their source. Sundry American Idol contestants warble the film’s signature song on a daily basis (while artists from Prince to Pink Floyd have filched from elsewhere in the soundtrack). A current series of British cellphone ads features the Wicked Witch of the West alive and well in suburban London.

Still, as ubiquitous and occasionally over-analyzed as the film is, we couldn’t let its 70th birthday pass without baking a cake and lighting some candles: hence the devotion of this week’s edition of The Lists to all things Oz.

In thinking up an angle for the list, I went through several possibilities, all of which seemed either too specific or too broad to fill with 10 entries. I considered a simple round-up of the film’s most memorable moments – some of which do of course feature in the list below – but that too seemed too familiar with a film as embedded in our collective consciousness as this one.

But what did occur to me as I mulled it over was how many cinema-spanning lists the film has a hold on in its entirety, whether you’re compiling a large collective of, say, the fantasy genre or a more niche sampling of film’s greatest witches. So what follows is a list of lists, as it were: 10 “greatest in film” categories that the film either tops, or at least enjoys a high place on the ladder. They range from the serious to the silly, but serve to me as a reminder of the film’s multi-faceted appeal.

Happy birthday, Dorothy and company. Sequel team, proceed at your peril.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum10. Greatest Children’s Literary Adaptations
With the likes of “Where the Wild Things Are,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “Alice in Wonderland” variously around the corner, this may well be a topical list to do sometime – and the inclusion of “The Wizard of Oz” will be both obvious and necessary. The film is rarely given credit for the efficiency and cleverness of its adaptation, which imposes a dream logic upon L. Frank Baum’s slightly more pragmatic fantasy narrative, and adds warmth and self-sufficiency to the character of Dorothy. Changing her silver slippers to ruby ones, meanwhile, wasn’t a screenwriter’s imposition, but it was a wise cinematic move nonetheless.

The Wizard of Oz9. Greatest Reversals of Fortune
As John Foote reminded us recently, “The Wizard of Oz” was neither particularly beloved, nor particularly profitable, straight out of the gate. Upon its release 70 years ago today, it barely recovered its production costs, and while it was no outright catastrophe – the critics were kind, and the film did nab an Oscar nod for Best Picture – it was decades before the American public took it to heart, thanks largely to the power of the small screen. After airing for the first time in 1956, it became arguably the first film to be rehabilitated via the wider-reaching medium of television – and in doing so, still stands as a symbol of hope to films in need of a second chance.

The Wizard of Oz8. Greatest Obliviously Political Films
I’ve lost count of the number of far-fetched academic texts I’ve read over the years advocating “The Wizard of Oz” as a touchstone for any number of socio-political causes. It’s common knowledge that the film is held dear by the gay community, and not just for the presence of Judy Garland: depending on who you read, Dorothy and her misfit friends are all acceptance-seeking closet cases in one way or another. Alternatively, there’s the feminist reading of Dorothy as a female leader and liberator, which even ties into the racial interpretations imposed upon the oppressed population of Munchkinland. That none of this weighed remotely on the filmmakers’ minds is beside the point.

Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz7. Greatest Screen Villains
The tenuous feminist reading mentioned in the previous point tends to ignore the fact that the chief oppressor of the piece is a woman herself. Somebody alert the misogyny police! The rest of us, however, can delight in Margaret Hamilton’s gleeful characterization of the Wicked Witch of the West (via Miss Elmira Gulch), whose pithy dialogue, oddly glamorous hideousness and spirited Grand Guignol delivery would remain strictly within the bounds of high camp if she weren’t so genuinely frightening to a young audience still unacquainted with her countless imitators, spinoffs and parodies across the pop-culture spectrum.

The Wizard of Oz6. Greatest Movie Death Scenes
A second huzzah for the Wicked Witch of the West here, who leaves the film with as much shrill prima-donna stateliness – even as she aggrievedly screams “I’m melting, I’m melting,” she stills finds time to give Dorothy a good dressing-down for killing her – as she enters in a red puff of smoke. (The simplicity of the murder method is also immensely gratifying to powerless kids with no weapons greater than water at their disposal.) She does, however, have to share the credit with her East-side sister: we may not actually see her die when Dorothy “drops a house” on her, but her spindly legs sticking out from the wreckage form one of the most mordantly funny images in all cinema.

Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz5. Greatest Lines of Movie Dialogue
One could almost fill a Top 10 with this entry alone – and if Kris hadn’t done the same for “Ghostbusters” recently, I might well have done so. Anyway, the film stands as one of the most quotable of all time, with any number of chestnuts that have entered the popular lexicon, from “There’s no place like home,” to “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my,” to “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” to the Wicked Witch’s aforementioned death rattle. And wit abounds in the less ubiquitous dialogue: “I am Dorothy, the small and meek” never fails to raise a laugh.

Toto in The Wizard of Oz4. Greatest Movie Pets
I must admit that I’m not much of a small dog person – I never had a pooch I couldn’t pat while standing – but even so, it’s hard not to feel affection for the scruffy Cairn Terrier waddling his way through Oz with his mistress, if only because he seems so ungroomed and unassuming alongside Hollywood’s roll-call of glossier canine heroes. The mutt needs a good bath, frankly. Bonus points for his heedless unhelpfulness throughout: rather than saving Dorothy from scrapes, Lassie-style, it’s Toto that gets her into them, whether through biting Elmira Gulch or scuppering her balloon-escape plans by running after a cat. That’s the kind of dog I know.

The Wizard of Oz vs. The Dark Side of the Moon3. Greatest Stoner Classics
Whether you’ve sat through the film baked on your weed of choice, soused after a healthy night’s drinking, or – for any cleaner-living types among you – high on life and sugar, one truth remains: “The Wizard of Oz” messes with your mind. The hopped-up color schemes, surreally chipper songs about dead witches and the limber, freewheeling pattern of its narrative – not to mention those flying monkeys – combine into a snowballing weirdness as disorienting as anything dreamed up by Lynch or Gilliam … and that’s before you start playing the Pink Floyd “Dark Side of the Moon” synchronicity game with it.

Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz2. Greatest Movie Songs
An obvious designation, but an essential one. Whether or not “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is the greatest song ever written for a film is open to debate and discussion, but there’s no disputing that few films (and, indeed, actors) have woven a composition as artfully and movingly into a movie moment as this one, as one character channels a lifetime of yearning and unhappiness into two musical minutes, telling you everything you need to know about her in the process. Everyone and his mother knows by now that the song has on the chopping block after studio bosses first saw the film; I’d wager we wouldn’t still remember the film without it.

The Wizard of Oz1. Greatest Surprise Moments
I’ve saved this one for last as it involves what is still my most enduring memory of the film: watching it for the first time at the age of four or five, I was already rather wrapped up in the monochrome dramatics of the Kansas prologue and the ensuing hurricane, only to be absolutely flabbergasted when Dorothy opens the door of her battered house to find an iridescent world of Technicolor before her. For sheer jaw-dropping, gosh-wow unexpectedness, this simple effect tops any number of elaborate cinematic pyrotechnics Hollywood has conjured up since: you can never recapture the sense of revelation in that one moment, but it stays with you forever.

What milestones does “The Wizard of Oz” own in your mind? What does the film mean to you? Or are you one of the few who doesn’t feel the love? Have your say in the comments.

→ 9 Comments Tags: , , , , | Filed in: The Lists

9 responses so far

  • 1 8-25-2009 at 10:44 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Funny you should mention movie pets:

  • 2 8-25-2009 at 11:48 am

    DJ said...

    In regards to point number eight (Greatest Obliviously Political Films) shall we include that the original book by Frank L. Baum has been under scrutiny and debate in the disciplines of economics, sociology, and American history.



  • 3 8-25-2009 at 12:16 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    Thanks for providing a link to the “Most Influential Films” poll conclusion. I never got the chance to see how it played out, and I must say, I don’t quite share Kris’s disappointment. Sure, some obvious omissions are there and some films made it further than they should have, but the final ten is pretty darn good.

  • 4 8-25-2009 at 2:23 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Kris: Ha! Was thinking of that, actually. Forgot to cross-reference.

  • 5 8-25-2009 at 2:43 pm

    Speaking English said...

    When I hear “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” I think as much about “Australia” as I do the film it originates from. At least they both take place in Oz/Aus. ;)

  • 6 8-26-2009 at 6:09 am

    Bill M. said...

    My memory of TWOO is having my sister play this film over and over in childhood (without exaggeration I must have seen it over 50 times).

    And it’s one of the few movies that is so accessible to such a wide range of audience and you can literally start watching it at any point in the narrative and as much as I LOVE Citizen Kane it’s not as accessible in that way.

    I believe I read it somewhere that it’s most likely the most watched film of all-time. How crazy is it that new generation of children and family are STILL watching it.

  • 7 8-26-2009 at 6:43 am

    John H. Foote said...

    I saw the film for the first time when I was four and the Wicked Witch of the West haunted my nightmares for weeks after — truly terrifying — in ’98 I had the chance to see it on the big screen and it was a treat — you can actually see the indentations of the burlap on the Scraecrow, a brilliant make-up job — all concerned should have been nominated in the acting categories, and the film is simply a masterpiece, perhaps the most perfect classic film.
    And on a personal note — in 2001, I was recovering in the hospital from a head on collision that left my body shattered, my heart had been damaged, there had been initial concern I would die, and the later that I would not walk — on Easter Sunday my family, daughters and wife came to see me and after they left I felt so utterly lonely — flipping on the TV I found The Wizard of Oz and watched the film for the 100th time, weeping openly as I lay bedridden — my nurse came in to see me and asked me what was wrong — “I’m Dorothy” I said, “I just want to go home”…and at one time in our lives we have all been Dorothy.

    I love this film…deeply.

  • 8 8-26-2009 at 10:21 am

    billybil said...

    It was while we were both watching Dorothy sing her song that my mother convinced me I was special – that I could travel beyond the rainbow if I wanted – and forever after that moment I have kept dreaming the dream. That was years and years…decades ago…and I’ll never forget. I’m old enough to remember the first time I saw the movie – next door at my friend Karen’s house – on a color TV. Up until that time I had always thought the Land of Oz was B&W like the rest of the world. What a moment!

  • 9 8-26-2009 at 10:31 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Wow, John, I never knew … that’s an amazing story. Thanks for sharing.