#129. The Wizard of Oz (1939)

The first and most formative impression I got of what drug use does to a person, or what drug use even means, was in the D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse and Resistance Education) program as an elementary school student, where the word “drugs” came to connote cracked vials and needles. Tablespoons of vague colorless powder. The idea was so emphatically clear: drugs are bad, lethal, stupid. Don’t let yourself get pressured into trying em. Not even once.

wizard of oz dare

But then in seventh grade I started hearing salacious whispers ab out one kid or another who’d gotten high over the weekend via some older sibling’s hookup. The experience of smoking pot was then blown up into conversation to sound wildly subversive and sexy and relaxing, enlightening, appetizing, arousing.

Then in high school it was perfectly normal and uninteresting to hear of people getting stoned and when the specter of bud grew pale and unsexy, with nerds and cool kids alike all smoke or selling it, the sexiness or danger that it once represented was claimed by the newer whispers about shrooms and LSD and molly.

I never really smoked in high school except maybe twice, mild hits from my then-girlfriend’s tiny glass pipe, decorated with black and deep-green swirls, on my patio one night when my brother and parents were outta town (why can’t I remember where they were?). We ordered pizza while we were doing it and then watched TV and drank desperately from the neck of a Pepsi two-liter, cotton-mouthed, craving sugar. She laughed to tears at the exaggerated tlack sounds I made, peeling my tongue from my palate, so unused to this.

I was freaked out by drug use not because of the D.A.R.E. program necessarily — at least not at 16, 17, 18 — but because I was afraid of getting in trouble, more by the idea of my dad catching me than cops, and what compounded that fear of getting in trouble was what seemed like the conspicuous reality that everybody I knew who smoked weed seemed a lot cooler than me.

And since one of the staples of pot culture seemed to be the allure of “psychedelic” shit, I tried getting wise to it, tried finding pleasure in cacophonous music like Animal Collective (which frankly just sounds like an orgy among shrill dinosaurs and malfunctioning printers) and usually just attributed my disinterest to all this cool trippy stuff to the fact that I was sober. A pathetic, sober little bitch.


One day I heard an interview with Roger Waters on my local classic rock station where he answered somebody’s question about how one of Pink Floyd’s albums unintentionally flows along with The Wizard of Oz. That it synchronizes not only with the mood of the film but the action beats of every scene.

Sounded interesting.

So I went to my friend Robert’s house because he was the kid whose puberty was defined by the discovery of classic rock and, sure enough, he had all of their major albums. He also had a VHS copy of Wizard of Oz. I told him what I’d heard on thee radio, asked if he was down to give it a shot.

He was.

the wall
Not this one.

Brought out a clacking collection of CD cases, splayed em out on his bed, and asked which album it was. I looked over the covers.

“Think it’s this one.” I picked it up, weighed the two-disk heft in my hand, studied the track list. “Yeah. The Wall. This is it.”

That was not it. Dark Side of the Moon is the album.

So that night we put the first disk of The Wall into his desktop computer, Wizard of Oz into the VCR a few feet away, and then, standing at our respective posts, counted down from three and pushed Play on both.

So began the most confusing two hours of my life. At one point we had to pause the movie to put in the second disk from the album.

By the end of the movie we agreed with sheepish resolve that we could maybe kinda see the connection, but that we would probably need drugs to really understand.


Having easily seen Wizard of Oz six or seven times in its entirety I wasn’t too eager to see it again for the Project until I remembered that I’d never properly synced it with Dark Side of the Moon. I also remembered that my friend Bob had these CBD patches he’d picked up in Colorado and that he was willing to share.

So Lynda and Bob have me over for movie night and Bob and I slap some CBD patches into the crooks of our elbows and, after Googling the precise instructions for how to sync the album with the movie, we got the show going.

Does it sync up?

Kinda.

wizard of oz scarecrow gun
Seldom hear any mention of the Scarecrow’s willingness to shoot someone.

The album’s only forty minutes long, though, so once it ended we switched the subtitles off and watched the movie’s last half with volume. And, without waxing too much about the movie’s greatness, I can say that we were all pretty rapt and delighted by it. Had a puzzled but gleeful laugh when the Scarecrow shows up with a gun.

It’s the same beautiful, wonderful story it’s been for every viewing.


But of course every great movie loses some of its magic when you dig deep into stories of its production. One of the details that does pull me out of the experience of Wizard of Oz, and sends my imagination wandering, is wondering about the meeting in which producer Mervyn LeRoy (director of my beloved Little Caesar) told a crew member, during pre-production, to go out and recruit 200 dwarves.

According to TCM there were finally only about 120 on set to populate Munchkin Land, where the young Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) is dropped off by a tornado that lifts her out of a dreary black-and-white Kansas lifestyle and onward to the Land of Oz.

I think Roger Ebert makes a good point in addressing the magic of these old school effects where, as opposed to modern-day spectacles of CGI where every fictional setting expands toward the horizon, we can see here exactly where the set ends. And if that finitude has any effect on the film, its to boost the charm.


Salman Rushie makes an interesting point in his essay, “Out of Kansas”, about Wizard of Oz being one of the closest things to an “authorless text”. This is one of the staple concepts in postmodern literary theory (in which yours truly was mildly, pedantically, annoyingly steeped during his junior year of college) which says that, becuase no text has one single unified authorial sensibility there is nobody to tell you what its images do or don’t mean. It means whatever the reader says it means. Everything and nothing.

Abstraction!

Oz embodies this principle in that it’s the child of many mothers, including about ten writers (eleven if you include Frank L. Baum, author of the novel on which it’s based) and five directors.

It’s the fact of its five directors that most catches my interest on account, mainly, of Oz‘s relation to Gone with the Wind, which was being filmed at the same time.


wizard of oz george cuko
Director George Cukor, right, with Katharine Hepburn

Gone with the Wind is known so widely (and weirdly, I think) as the product of its producer, David O. Selznick, but it was directed, for the most part, by Victor Fleming. Prior to Fleming, however, George Cukor had spent two years on the project, working closely with Selznick to bring that novel to life. Cukor, however, was gay, and when Clark Gable — who’d been appointed to the role of leading man Rhett Butler after literally thousads of readers wrote in to request him — refused to be directed by a homosexual, Cukor got canned, replaced by Fleming.

Cukor, however, was the third director on Wizard of Oz, following Norman Tuarog and Richard Thorpe, and had only been on the set of Oz for a couple weeks before he was called away to work on Gone with the Wind. And who replaced him on Oz?

Victor Fleming.

wizard of oz victor fleming
Victor Fleming

So Fleming gets through most of the production on Oz until Cukor, who’d just been called away from that same film to go and work on Wind, was fired from the new gig. At which point Fleming is called away from Oz to replace Cukor on Wind.

Who, then, gets hired to finish up Wizard of Oz?

Fucking King Vidor. And boy is that fitting. Apprently he mostly shot the Kansas stuff, those opening bits in black and white, and there’s something about its brownish tint, the interaction among characters who stand about in trios and pairs, that — and maybe this is just the power of suggestion — do remind me of how he blocks things in The Crowd and Stella Dallas. Even the narrative arc, where a character sets off for something grand only to find themselves slapped back down to their humble origins, except that now they’ve got a greater and beaten-down appreciation of those humble means.


Hard to say anything of Oz that hasn’t been said in eighty years. What I can say about watching it within the context of the Project, though, is that I’m more appreciative not only of its magic, how transporting and inspiring it was, but also how herculean an effort it was to produce. The threads that tie it to Gone with the Wind are fascinating, and its role int he sacred cinematic year, 1939, is as interesting to study as anything else that falls within its runtime.

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