Every Sunday in February, Film School Rejects presents an Oscar Nominee for Best Picture that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Last year during Oscar season, I focused on Oscar Nominees that didn’t win – particularly to point out a few notable films that haven’t stayed in our cultural conversation as well as others. Oddly enough, one of those films, Ninotchka, was also from the same pool of Oscar Nominees as The Wizard of Oz.
Oddly enough, I also shined a spotlight later in the year on the film that beat them both: Gone With the Wind.
My fascination with 1939 isn’t an isolated case. The year is well-documented as the best year in film, and I want to take a quick look at why.
This year, film fans and pundits are up in arms over the Academy’s decision to include 10 Best Picture Nominees. Some decry it as a ratings grab, some claim its spurred on directly by the great Dark Knight snub of Oh-Eight, some think it’s an honest move to celebrate more achievements in film. I believe all of these are partly true, but part of me also wants to believe that it’s a return to nostalgia.
There were 10 nominees in 1939 – as was the custom of the time. So what made that year special? Haven’t we had cinematic achievements far beyond the measure of the films made during that time? Haven’t we seen things those audiences could never imagine seeing in their dizziest daydreams? Yes. But the reason, I believe, that that year is so highly lauded is because the masterworks were spread out over many, many production companies and directors and writers and actors. There are certainly movies that have been made recently that can stand up to their quality, but there’s never been a year so stuffed with diverse genius as 1939 – a year where no one could have guessed who would end up walking home with the statue.
Unlike this year, where it seems to be a battle between two (maybe three) flicks.
I know that The Wizard of Oz isn’t like the normal under-the-radar choice that I make, and I realize that I don’t have to do much to convince you to like it – since you probably already do – but it’s still a film to celebrate. And that’s what this column, and what FSR is all about: celebrating great movies.
I’d also like to take a different angle on it. Apparently, that’s also what we’re all about.
Here it goes:
The Wizard of Oz was the Avatar of its time.
First of all, it was a technological marvel, using special effects for throwing sepia-toned Auntie Em into the technicolor crystal ball, having witches disappear in smoke, seeing monkeys fly, and creating giant faces in green lasers. Although technicolor had been on the rise for the entire decade (particularly showcased by Snow White, whose success actually caused the production of The Wizard of Oz), the movie used it in a fantastically artistic way and created an iconic use of it for live-action that hadn’t quite been achieved yet.
Second of all, it’s a fantasy adventure that takes place in an alien world with strange creatures, and is lauded for its ability to completely immerse an audience in that world. The characters are also all fairly archetypal (nothing deep or well-rounded going on there). Have me strung up for Classic Film Treason, but Dorothy Gale is about as flat a character as Jake Sully – she’s a standard heroine who finds herself in a new place and must team with the natives in order to stop an evil menace. Don’t get me wrong. She’s far more likable than Sully, and Oz never attempts to give her much backstory beyond what’s needed, but many of the same character indictments could easily be transferred over.
The one gaping difference is that The Wizard of Oz was not a resounding success when it first came out. In fact, the only reason it became an icon is because it gained popularity on television enough to warrant regular showings – drilling itself into our psyche and winning over millions of fans in the process. And, sure, it probably got a boost from being nominated for Best Song and Best Picture up against the best year of film in history. However, I don’t think its initial gross of $3 million (even when adjusted for inflation) is anything with which James Cameron would want to trade.
Although, according to my grandfather, MGM could have bought 60 million hamburgers at the time.
A huge fantasy epic that wowed audiences with its look and special effects wizardry, this enduring classic doesn’t need much championing from me. There’s nothing I could say to add to the pile of accolades that rests squarely on the foundation of a beautifully told story. But as we turn our minds to the biggest award in film, it would do us well to think back on its achievement (whether you buy my Avatar comparison or not) and remember that it’s one of the most beloved films of all time, one of the most watched films of all time, a huge triumph in the art that we hold so dear.
And it lost.