‘The Wizard of Oz’ at 75: Why We Can’t Take the Black-and-White-to-Color Gimmick For Granted

By  · Published on August 12th, 2014

Wizard of Oz color intro

Warner Home Video

When I was a kid, I thought The Wizard of Oz introduced color cinema to the world. Wouldn’t that have been amazing? Dorothy wakes up in her black-and-white (or sepia) house after it’s been deposited by the tornado and she walks out and – bam – moviegoers get their first ever look at a polychromatic shot. But that was not the case. Rudimentary color cinematography is nearly as old as cinematography itself, and even the three-strip Technicolor process used for the 1939 classic was hardly brand new. It was relatively rare, especially for as much footage as The Wizard of Oz has, but it wasn’t unknown to audiences.

Still, it arrived at a significant time for color films. The Academy Awards had included special achievement Oscars for color cinematography beginning with the ceremony honoring works from 1936. Three years later, there were actual nominees for the distinction. The Wizard of Oz was among the six titles up for the award, the only contender that wasn’t fully shot in Technicolor, but it lost to Gone With the Wind (which also became the first color film to win Best Picture). Other hybrids were also still hot at the time, including another MGM feature released just a few weeks after The Wizard of Oz: The Women, which contained a single color fashion show sequence within the primarily black-and-white film.

Many of the films of the 1930s that featured a single color scene had them near the end, like a climactic spectacle you had to wait for. Often they were musical numbers. Usually they weren’t necessary except as a gimmick to woo the crowds. That might seem odd, that a movie like The Women would have such suplemental appeal with a single Technicolor scene when more and more features were fully in color, but we can look at the modern equivalent of when a couple of the Harry Potter movies featured only climactic sections in 3D while movies released fully in the format were becoming quite common.

There was some reason to have the fashion show in The Women in color. Viewers wouldn’t have a full appreciation of the outfits in black and white. Still, director George Cukor wasn’t into the idea and didn’t shoot it himself. For a while, in recent years, the movie was screened without the sequence, as was Cukor’s preference, though now it’s been restored. The point is that while it sort of made sense for the bit to be in color, it didn’t have to be. Now try to imagine The Wizard of Oz not having its transition to color. Whether the whole movie were all in black and white or all in color, it would be so much of a different movie that it, well, wouldn’t really be the movie at all.

Of course, a lot of people did watch The Wizard of Oz completely in black and white when it aired on television and the majority of households didn’t have a color set. What a shame, because that switch to color is important to the story. Without it, you might as well also watch the movie with all the scenes of the Wicked Witch of the West cut out. To a minor degree, the idea is a gimmick, but to much greater degree it’s narratively necessary. It’s also faithful to the imagery described by L. Frank Baum in his books. It may not have been a shock for viewers to get the color scenes after a lengthy black-and-white first act, but the changeover still has a tremendous power, for the audience and for Dorothy and Toto.

It doesn’t feel like a gimmick, and there hasn’t been a lot of movies since then that mix color and black and white in a way that doesn’t feel like a ploy or at least a device. Could Schindler’s List be as good without the red coat being red? Probably. Could movies with black-and-white flashbacks also work with color flashbacks? Maybe more confusingly for some audiences, but yes. Pleasantville is one of the few films where the mix is narratively motivated, and it’s a clever concept all the way, but it’s also a movie based around a gimmick that was suddenly easy to do thanks to new digital effects – and sort of trendy for a while, particularly in advertising.

One of the most noteworthy hybrids is Powell and Pressburger’s Stairway to Heaven (aka A Matter of Life and Death), which arrived seven years after The Wizard of Oz with a kind of reversal. In the film, the real world is in color and the fantasy sequences – this time set in Heaven – are in black and white. It would be a great device anyway, but it can’t help but seem informed by (or even in response to) and more interesting because of what The Wizard of Oz did beforehand. It’s been noted that eventually it was the norm for black and white to be used for non-real worlds within color movies. But mainly that’s relegated to dreams and flashbacks or stories where the fantasy world is an old film or TV show universe, a la Pleasantville and The Purple Rose of Cairo.

It makes more sense for the real world to be monochromatic and dull and for the dream or fantasy world to be colorful, as it’s supposed to be a heightened plain. In The Wizard of Oz, it’s also tied to the idea of being over the rainbow, a symbol of cheeriness coming after the gloominess of rain and of course a literal image of the whole spectrum of color. But it’s also been done iconically enough with The Wizard of Oz that anything else would seem like a copycat. Disney’s recent Oz the Great and Powerful, which isn’t officially connected to the MGM classic (now owned by Time Warner), mimicked the earlier film in its own transition from Kansas to Oz, and it feels more derivative than tribute.

Preferably, Oz the Great and Powerful should have been made seven years earlier, back when the new digital 3D format was an industry craze rather than the norm. The movie could have been 2D in Kansas and then 3D in Oz, and maybe that would have had a similar effect to what The Wizard of Oz did 75 years ago. Yet that wouldn’t have been as smooth because it’d require a prompt for the audience to put on their glasses. Maybe some other Oz movie, or something else entirely, can take on that sort of significance instead once autostereoscopy (3D without glasses) makes its way to theaters. Or possibly there’s some next cinematographic innovation we can’t even imagine yet that will be more appropriate.

Otherwise, have we ever had something so noteworthy and narratively necessary as what we see in that introduction to Oz in The Wizard of Oz? I can’t think of anything. It’s not only a historical sequence, but it’s also a one-of-a-kind instance where storytelling and cinematic progress came together for a perfect cause and one of the most monumental moments in film. Hopefully it will never be taken for granted due to modern standards and preferences and technological allowances making the transition seem dated or simple. Three-quarters of a century after its release, the sequence remains one of the greatest of all time.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.