A guest post by David H. Schroeder, originally published in the Port Townsend Leader, reflecting on what it was like before our favorite movies were available on demand.
For many children of the 1960’s, it was almost a religious event.
Once a year, the 1939 MGM film “The Wizard of Oz” was broadcast on national TV.
The other 364 days of the year, no one could watch the movie at all. Not even a short clip. The film could not be rented, recorded, or streamed. I suppose very occasionally an art house cinema showed the movie in some far-flung city, but that was not my home town.
For two hours on those annual evenings, twenty-inch video images of Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, and Margaret Hamilton filled my eyes. The rest of the year, they lived only in my memory, and in anticipation of next year’s broadcast.
It helped to read the original book by L. Frank Baum. I lost count after having read it 25 times. (By the way, I highly recommend the book. While the film is magnificent, it does not capture all the subtle whimsey and wisdom of the text.)
I cannot overstate how deeply the film imprinted itself on my soul. And, based on the flood of clumsy Bert Lahr imitations that filled the school playground at recess the next day, I don’t think I was the only one so impressed.
One year shortly before the broadcast began, I saw my parents dressing up to go out to dinner. What?! At this critical moment, they were actually leaving the house and going out? I couldn’t believe it.
Without trying to, I memorized where each of the commercial breaks were. (The first one came right after Professor Marvel tends his horse in the gathering wind, and says, “Poor little kid, I hope she gets home all right.”)
So I’m crazy, I admit it. But bear with me. Here are four things that might be objectively worthwhile to say about “The Wizard of Oz.” Perhaps they reveal why the story continues to live so deeply in my heart.
(#1) Every female character in the story is strong and confident. Every one. They might be Good or Evil, but they know what they want, and they go after it. Even Auntie Em.
(#2) Every male character in the story is broken, or thinks he’s broken, or is a humbug. Sounds like real life to me.
(#3) Even after the curtain has been pulled back, and the Wizard is revealed operating his machinery of smoke and mirrors, he booms into the microphone, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” Is there a more desperate and futile plea in all literature? In that Throne Room – a room built exclusively for Fear – the Humans are going through their noisy strutting and fretting. Meanwhile, the little dog Toto quietly does the simple, right thing, pulls open the curtain, and the world changes.
(#4) Even after the Wizard is revealed to be a complete fake, Dorothy’s companions still want his help, and he helps them. Obviously trading in mere symbols of the men’s problems, the Wizard does his carnival hand-waving, the men participate in the rituals, feel healed, and to all evidence, they are healed. Or perhaps they were never broken in the first place.
Bear in mind – all this in a “children’s” story – a book written 120 years ago, and turned into a 100-minute movie over 80 years ago.
As I get older, and my persistent fears feel sillier and sillier, I can’t help but wonder. Why did we ever build Throne Rooms? Or, once built, why do we ever spend any time in them? Let’s find the curtain over in the corner and open it. Let’s pay full attention to the man behind the curtain, sit down together, enjoy some refreshments, and chat.
One afternoon in my college years, I told a classmate about my fondness for “The Wizard of Oz.” With youthful confidence, her voice dripping with the intellectual condescension that one can acquire only with a college degree, she sneered, “Oh, sure! You like the old simple story about the weak little girl being helped by all the big strong men.”
I couldn’t believe my ears.
It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments when I immediately thought of the best thing to say – and said it. Not having consciously considered it before that moment, I came up with the two observations numbered (#1) and (#2) above. Her absurd remark had made everything click in my head.
“No, you’re wrong,” I replied, “All the women in the story are strong, and all the men in the story are either broken, seriously neurotic, or a charlatan.”
I’m sure that she is still frozen there on campus, mouth agape, eternally stunned by the brilliance of my reply.
Or so I imagine. Imagination is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?
The Courtyard is grateful to David H. Schroeder for permission to reprint his reflections on “The Wizard of Oz.” Here’s how it appeared in the Port Townsend Leader on July 7, 2021.
Sources for Images
All images are taken from the first edition of the book, published in 1900: Illustrations by William Wallace Denslow, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.