Deep in the heart of Kansas, young Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) finds her little dog Toto is under threat of being destroyed by the wicked Miss Gulch (Margaret Hamilton) after he bit her while chasing her cat. This is the worst thing to happen to Dorothy, but although Miss Gulch takes Toto, he escapes and scampers all the way home. Fearing what will happen when the escape is revealed, Dorothy runs away, meeting up with Professor Marvel (Frank Morgan) who pretends to see her Auntie Em (Clara Blandick) in a distraught state through his crystal ball. Filled with regret, Dorothy hurries back home, but there's a tornado on the horizon, and she can't take cover in time...
Scripted by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf, and based on the popular children's books of L. Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz is now an iconic presence on the silver screen. It's quoted in countless films and television shows, from such unlikely sources as The Kentucky Fried Movie, After Hours and Wild at Heart to The Goodies and The A-Team - even all these years later there's no getting away from it, especially as it turns up on television about every twelve months. And that's not to mention the references in books and songs.
The stories that have grown up around the film are as legendary as the movie, with tales of drunken Munchkins on the rampage during filming, or the urban legend of a suicide caught on camera during one scene on the Yellow Brick Road. Some of the stories are true - Professor Marvel really was wearing a coat owned by L. Frank Baum, picked up by coincidence at a second hand clothes shop. And on the day that Judy Garland died, there was a tornado in Kansas. I dunno about Dark Side of the Moon, though. Anyway, the strange magic of the film is what endures, it looks as if it hails from another world.
Once Dorothy gets clonked on the head by a flying window frame, her house is lifted up by the tornado and deposited in the land of Oz. Greeted by the Good Witch of the North, Glinda (Billie Burke), she is now the heroine of the little Munchkins for landing her home on the Wicked Witch of the East and killing her. Unfortunately Dorothy has also made an enemy of her sister, the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton), who wants the ruby slippers that Glinda has placed on Dorothy's feet.
Friendship is what is important in Oz, and Dorothy makes three good friends on her travels. First, the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger) who wants a brain, the Tin Man (Jack Haley) who wants a heart, and finally the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) who wishes for courage. They're all off to see the Wizard, who they hope will grant them their wishes, and send Dorothy home. But why does Dorothy want to go home at all? What we see of Kansas is noticeably uninviting compared to Oz (and in sepia, too!), and lonely Dorothy doesn't seem to be appreciated enough by anyone there.
It wouldn't be a road movie without the characters learning something, and all four of our heroes discover that they have what they desire all along. But don't mistake the film for being a saccharine story with a trite message, the journey the friends take to get to the Emerald City is fraught with danger. All the actors play their roles to the hilt, and Bolger literally throws himself into his work, but Margaret Hamilton is what you remember most vividly; the Wicked Witch has a nice line in threats ("And your little dog, too!") which she can back up with firepower - when she terrorises Dorothy there's no holding back, it's deadly serious.
However, even the sweetest elements have a bizarre quality - look at the matter-of-fact way Glinda tells Dorothy she has just gained a fearsome adversary after her house-dropping antics. And there are some laughs too: Lahr tends to overdo it, but I like the way he flings himself out of a window in panic after meeting the imposing Wizard. Every song, written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, is memorable, and everyone knows "Somewhere over the Rainbow", which became Garland's signature tune. Dorothy is loyal and good hearted, particularly when her friends are being bullied, but despite her guilt at leaving Auntie Em, she should have forgotten Kansas and stayed in Oz. What do you mean it was all a dream?! So it's a tragedy, then? Music by Herbert Stothart.