Tuesday, June 22, 2021

“If Ever a Wiz There Was” – Introducing “The Wizard of Oz” to Today’s Youngsters

I remember when I was small, awaiting my first trip to a local movie house to see a screening of The Wizard of Oz. My mother was excited too, fondly recalling her own youthful introduction to this film classic. My first-ever viewing of The Wizard of Oz occurred long before the advent of color television, with its annual showcasing of the adventures of Dorothy and her friends,, so the return of this film to movie theatres was treated as a really big deal. Newspapers were full of enticing photos of witches and Munchkins. I clipped out a picture of Dorothy meeting the Good Witch Glinda and pasted it into my scrapbook. (Even back then I found Glinda’s outfit a trifle bizarre and her behavior puzzling. Still, my love for the film transcended any qualms I might have about Billie Burke’s weird manner and enunciation.)

 I’ve just had the glorious opportunity of introducing The Wizard of Oz to yet another generation, cuddling on the couch with a rather sophisticated nine-year-old boy and a sweet seven-year-old girl who adores animals. Though, especially after a year of quarantine,  they’re well accustomed to modern electronic games and can call up kid-friendly movies on their iPads, they were both enthralled by a flick that dates back to 1939. Adrian, who knew the basic story and had seen a stage version, kept up a lively stream of chatter, chortling with delight when one of the movie’s witty lines struck his funny-bone. Among his favorites: the Cowardly Lion’s bold assertion that courage is “what makes the muskrat guard his musk” and that if he were king of the forest it would be “imposerous” to be scared of a mere rhinoceros. And Adrian was duly amused by the unmasking of the fraudulent Wizard, the aftermath of the warning to “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”

 Mila, newly seven, was not frightened by the film’s many brushes with death. Most of her concern was directed toward her favorite character, Dorothy’s little Scottie dog, Toto. She watched with rapt attention as Toto escaped the clutches of the evil-minded Miss Gulch, and then helped protect Dorothy from Miss Gulch’s Ozian counterpart, the Wicked Witch of the West.  (I discovered I had forgotten how often the feisty little Toto saves the day, even being the one who unmasks the phony wizard by pulling aside the famous curtain that reveals the humbug behind Oz the Great and Powerful.) Elsewhere Mila reacted like any 21st century child, expressing concern during the opening scenes that the whole picture would turn out to be drab black-and-white. She was disappointed by characters, such as Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion, whom she deemed all too obviously human, despite their elaborate costumes and makeup. The whimsy of 1939-style characters can’t measure up, it seems, to the expectations of a child conditioned by CGI miracles.

 Still, the morning after she watched The Wizard of Oz, Mila could be heard repeatedly singing, “Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead.” She was a bit puzzled by the Munchkins, but loved the all-green Emerald City, appreciating such inventive moments as the “horse of a different color” who pulls our Oz friends through the streets of the capital. My stories about the making of the film -- Buddy Ebsen being replaced at the last minute by Jack Haley due to his allergic reaction to theTin Man’s silver makeup; Margaret Hamilton risking her life through the untested special effects involved in the witch’s disappearance - -didn’t much interest her because the movie felt too real. Which, of course, it is.




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