Mussorgsky, ‘Metropolis,’ and Magicians — oh, my!
Even at 79 years old, The Wizard of Oz somehow seems real and important in a way most films don’t. A big part of this probably has to do with many of us coming to Oz as kids. As wide-eyed sponges, susceptible and porous to content that speaks the language of archetype and rings with myth.
From Wild at Heart to After Hours, Oz’s cinematic fingerprints run the gambit from overt homage to cheeky sgraffito easter eggs. It made a writer out of Salman Rushdie. It has inspired spinoffs, musicals, prequels, reboots, and just about every form of adaptation under the sun.
With a yellow-brick road-long legacy, it’s easy to forget that Oz itself has been influenced. “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” author L. Frank Baum has cited the impact of Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Lewis Carroll, among others (including “Oz” illustrator W.W. Denslow). He also drew inspiration from the marvels of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and his own personal life. To give one example of many: J.D. Rockefeller was the nemesis of Baum’s father, and Baum modeled one of the Wizard’s more unflattering faces on the oil baron—which is petty as shit, and amazing.
Likewise, the “favorite movie of the 20th century” had influences of its own. And it’s fitting that these influences skewed towards the cinematic. Despite being the definition of an over-cook’d kitchen (five directors??!), Oz is both a proof of purchase and a love letter to the magic of movies; to the shock and joy of watching sepia blow-out into Technicolor.
With that, let’s peek at some of the pop culture that influenced The Wizard of Oz:
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Oz’s debt to Snow White really can’t be overstated. The unprecedented success of Disney’s animated feature debut gave MGM the courage to purchase the rights to “Oz” and risk it all in an attempt to outdo the House of Mouse. And the similarities between the two films are inescapable, to the point where Oz was once advertised as “Snow White with live actors.” Heck, the original design of the Wicked Witch of the West was practically a copy of Disney’s iconic villainess. Oh yeah, and the spoken “Wherefore are thou, Romeo?” in “If I Only Had a Heart”? That’s Snow White herself, Adriana Caselotti, uncredited due to the “never work in Hollywood again” clause in her contract.
Harry Kellar, the Illusionist
In 1900, when “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was published, Harry Kellar was the most popular illusionist in the world. He is the most frequently cited inspiration for the titular Wizard, with various accounts compounded by the fact that Baum was a huge theatre nerd, and W.W. Denslow’s illustrations bear more than a passing resemblance to the bald-headed traveling performer. Kellar’s midwestern visage was a familiar sight on promotional materials, whose simplicity spoke to his fame, bedecked with a singular, grandiose: KELLAR.
Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain”
Wait a minute, what’s the spookiest sequence from Fantasia doing in a Technicolor fantasy romp? Well, even the most cursory peek into the 19th-century composition clears things up: the whole dang thing is about a Witch’s Sabbath. And wouldn’t you know it, an arrangement of Mussorgsky’s tone poem can be heard during the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion’s attempted rescue of Dorothy from, where else, the witch’s castle. With only a few other non-original pieces of music featuring in Oz (including a scherzo by Mendelssohn), Mussorgsky’s hellish drones musically set the gothic stage. And it’s a marvelous intertextual flourish; an aural nod to the pagan-tinged: “How about a little fire, Scarecrow?”
The MGM Lion
A total of seven different lions have portrayed the iconic mascot of Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer. Tanner, whose tenure lasted from 1934 to 1956, was the ambassador of MGM’s cartoons and Technicolor films. But, because The Wizard of Oz’s opening credits were presented in sepia-toned black-and-white, the introductory role fell to Jackie. I’m giving you more detail than you need because I find the MGM lion lineage fascinating. The folks helming The Wizard of Oz, certainly thought their company lion was of interest. For a time, they considered using their mascot as the Cowardly Lion. Bert Lahr’s charm and mannerisms prevailed, but damn it if his costume wasn’t going to be made out of 60 pounds of real lion skin and fur. Being on brand requires a compromise here and there.
Toronto-born silent starlet Mary Pickford was an early candidate for the role of Dorothy. But by the time Oz hit production, she was 46, and unable to conceivably play a child. That said, Pickford still managed to leave her mark on Oz. In 1917’s The Poor Little Rich Girl, Pickford plays an uppity heiress named Gwendolyn. After a slew of unladylike goofs, Gwendolyn is given a lot of sleeping medicine and trips the fuck out, imagining a world inspired by the people and things around her. Then the manifestation of Death visits her because the early 20th century didn’t fuck around. The film is said to have been a big influence on Noel Langley, the key screenwriter of The Wizard of Oz.
This is a bit of a cheat, but I’d be a fool to pass up a chance to talk about cinema’s preeminent pre-war costume designer. Adrian’s fingerprints are all over Oz. At the right place at the right end of a string of resignations, Adrian ran the MGM wardrobe department while Oz was in production. He had a penchant for exaggeration, glitz, and whimsy and felt constrained by period pieces. With Oz, he could let his imagination run wild: he designed each munchkin outfit after flower motifs and emulated and arguably elevated Denslow’s illustrations for the main cast. It was Adrian who changed Dorothy’s slippers from silver to ruby. He recycled his own work (Glinda’s gown is from 1936’s San Francisco). He was a legend. Look him up.
In Baum’s text, Denslow’s illustrations present the Emerald City as both Moorish and medieval. Oz’s lead scenic artist George Gibson wasn’t having any of that Orientalist shit. Modernism was in, and a future-tweaked Emerald City was the perfect showcase for streamlined architectural flair. As far as direct inspirations go, there’s often talk in the Oz literature of a mysterious “German sketch that predated World War 1.” But another, equally German influence lies with Fritz Lang‘s art deco sprawl from Metropolis. A city in the abstract, just as Lang had been inspired by his first glimpse at Manhattan, the Emerald City is also a nod to the Big Apple: a skyline of bustle, spectacle, and scale.
“There’s no place like intertextuality…there’s no place like intertextuality…there’s no pla—”