So far, I’ve written 33 posts and covered 44 classic films. There’s only one I’d bet that everyone reading has seen.
It’s time for the Wizard of Oz, perhaps the world’s only universally beloved film.
Everyone knows Tarzan’s strange yodel, even if they couldn’t pick Johnny Weissmuller out of a lineup. Gone With the Wind is the greatest cinematic achievement in the history of film. Casablanca has half a dozen quotes you know, even if you’ve never seen the film. I’ve read a dozen novels in my life where the main character (always a woman) loves The Philadelphia Story. No one has ever successfully remade a Hitchcock film (and after watching the 2020 Rebecca I was so excited to see, I believe no one ever will.)
And yet, for all their lore, these films are slowly receding from the public consciousness. Discovered less and less by younger generations, they’re increasingly relegated to a niche market. Instead of flipping through channels and discovering Bogart and Bergman on Turner Classic Movies, we’re working our way through the Hallmark movie lineup or our Netflix queues (where the oldest non-documentary film was made in 1954.)
There is nothing wrong with this, of course. As time marches on, these films become cemented as artifacts of a different era.
But The Wizard of Oz is different. Eighty years later, it is still a living, breathing part of our popular culture.
How do I know?
Every Halloween, I pass out candy to half a dozen little girls dressed in blue gingham dresses and ruby red slippers. Drew Barrymore herself dressed up as Glinda the Good Witch this year.
Just last season Saturday Night Live did a skit with Kate McKinnon as Dorothy.
And Wicked, a retelling from the witch’s point of view, is one of the most popular contemporary musicals that brought us Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel (who played the Wicked Witch before she Let It Go.)
While writing this entry, I texted my friends with young children and asked if they had shown The Wizard of Oz to their kids.
Mine never saw it, replied a mother of two kids in grade school. But they said they knew the story and proceeded to tell me.
You walk into any Barnes and Noble, and even with their gutted out DVD sections, you’ll still find a copy of The Wizard of Oz for sale.
It wasn’t because of its unprecedented success in 1939.
MGM spent a fortune on the film and initially considered it a disappointment. It was the fifth top-grossing film of the year, just behind Dark Victory, but because of its huge production budget it lost money during its initial run. And though it was nominated for five Oscars including Best Picture, it won only two awards for score and song. (Was there ever a more worthy Oscar win than Somewhere Over the Rainbow for Best Song?)
So it was just one of dozens of successful movies made in the Golden Age. Here, then gone. For the next seventeen years, there was nothing to suggest this particular film would become a national treasure.
Then came television.
On November 3, 1956, The Wizard of Oz was the first theatrical film shown on television. Roughly 45 million people watched from home that night, nearly matching the total tickets sold during its entire theatrical run.
The movie ran for the second time in 1959, and thereafter became an annual tradition. It aired once a year on commercial network television from 1959-1991. Even today it continues to run on cable television.
Isn’t that where you first saw it?
It was a network television event, a family tradition similar today only to It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It’s a two hour nostalgia machine for adults with childhoods that spanned from the sixties to the nineties.
Four factors led to its long-term television dominance, and thus a cultural sprawl that reaches today’s children and could never have been achieved in the movie theater alone.
First, it was a family affair. After the initial prime time broadcast, CBS showed subsequent versions earlier in the evening, so that children could watch. It is the rare film that holds equal wonder for children and adults.
Second, its very success insulated it from competition. For the initial viewing, CBS signed a deal with MGM for four viewings with an option for additional showings. Neither CBS nor MGM anticipated much interest beyond the initial viewing. CBS was just looking for content to fill up its new medium.
Once MGM and the other studios realized how popular their films could be on television, they were unwilling to sell them as cheaply to the networks. It had never occurred to the studios that they could make new money—big money—off these dusty old films that were no longer showing on the big screen.
So while the studios bickered with the networks and sealed their best films in a vault, The Wizard of Oz played on and on.
Third, during the early broadcasts most Americans had black and white televisions. When color made its way into most American homes in the sixties, families were clamoring to finally see the gold in the yellow brick road they’d watched Dortothy skip down many times.
Finally, and most important, the film delivers.
I don’t need to review the plot, do I?
We all remember the clicking ruby slippers, the poppy fields (an opium reference that went over my head the first fifty times I saw it), and the Wicked Witch of the West shrieking that she would “get you my pretty, and your little dog too.”
Flying monkeys. Lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) Munchkins. Yellow brick roads. The cowardly lion, the tin man, and the scarecrow, who we all miss most of all.
Watching the Wizard of Oz is like returning to a never-changing hometown. It doesn’t matter how many years it’s been, I know every turn in the yellow brick road like the back of my hand.
You do too.
Want more? Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.