In this episode, I talked with German film director, and host of Lars Henriks Podcast International, Lars Henriks about a film that truly needs no introduction, The Wizard of Oz (1939). While most Americans are introduced to the wonderful land of Oz very early on in their cinematic lives as it is one of the most influential American film of all time, this is not the case outside of our film bubbles. I was super surprised when Lars picked the musical fantasy as I’m sure most people like myself have fond childhood memories of watching The Wizard of Oz for the first time.
The Wizard of Oz follows the story of Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) and her little dog Toto. After feeling underappreciated on her aunt and uncle’s farm, Dorothy decides to run away. Like most kids that run away, she returns home after being told by a travelling magician how much her family would miss her. Instead of returning home to a thankful family, Dorothy and her guardians’ house gets swept up by a massive tornado and Dorothy is knocked out cold. Dorothy awakes from her slumber and finds herself in a magical world full of color and wonder and where she is received as a hero for her house had landed on an evil witch oppressing the people of Munchkinland. Dorothy receives the deceased witch’s ruby slippers and is then threatened by the witch’s sister The Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) who vows her vengeance on Dorothy when all she wants to do is to return home. Dorothy is then set on her way on the Yellow Brick Road to consult with the Wizard of Oz (Frank Morgan) on how to get home and along the way she bumps into a scarecrow (Ray Bolger), a Tinman, (Jack Haley) and a Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr), all of whom are also looking to see the Wizard to fulfill their own heart’s desires.
From casting changes due to aluminum poisoning or just sheer joy of wanting to play homage to their favorite actors, The Wizard of Oz is not only legendary for being one of the greatest films of all time, but it also is famous for the countless development stories that have emerged over the last 82 years. The Wizard of Oz also featured talents in both the cast and the crew featuring greats like; Judy Garland, Herman J. Mankiewicz, Ogden Nash, George Cukor, Victor Fleming, King Vidor who would go on to be a part of even more of what audiences deem as the greatest films of all time. The Wizard of Oz’s legacy is still prevalent today and is one of the most widely recognizable films as it was not only notable for its writing and directing, but its casting, musical composition, set design and costume design; All of these elements have influenced the world of filmmaking ever since the film was released in 1939.
Seeing this whimsical but convincingly realistic world before our eyes imprints a long lasting effect on our expectations of not only film, but the world around us. I myself have been surrounded by The Wizard of Oz, one of my all-time favorite film characters is the Scarecrow, my family has ornaments and Lenox figurines, and I have fond memories playing with six-inch figurines of the fellowship of Oz. On the opposite side of the yellow brick road, Lars, much like Dorothy herself was stepping out of his sepia house and into the wonderfully technicolor world of Oz for the very first time and his new and unique perspectives may have added even more color to my previous thoughts about The Wizard of Oz.
Upon reflecting on The Wizard of Oz, I thought about how I first reacted to the film. When Dorothy opens up her drab sepia door and steps into the wonderfully colorful world of Oz, with its combination of eerily haunting but magically welcoming music swelling, I could feel both my eyes and my smile getting larger and larger with the warm and homely atmosphere the film puts across. Twenty-plus years later, after not watching it for years, the film still resonates in the same way, but with a slightly more mature knowledge of the films secrets. A feeling that puts Dorothy’s idealistic world into a more realistic viewpoint. I take into account the behind the scenes stories and how the film was created; the feelings I had when first watched the film as a child felt like they were put into perspective, going from vibrant color to that space between color and sepia and that made me wonder how Lars was going to react to watching the film as an adult. Would he be fully analytical in his viewing or would he be open enough to experience it with the same childlike wonder I did as a child? It was a bit of both.
Lars’ reactions were initially full of that child-like joy that one has seeing The Wizard of Oz for the first time. He was absolutely elated at how hyper-realistic and immersive the sets and atmosphere were as well as the performances, and music score. He even felt the desire to visit the land of Oz as it attracts all viewers to its wonder and scenes of grandeur. As a filmmaker he could guess all the tricks of the trade the filmmakers used, but still got wrapped up in its amusement. It was an absolute joy for me to hear his elevated thoughts about the secrets of the film and brought about an interesting topic. The naivety of children is so pure and sometimes allows us to have a completely different perspective on classic films. Especially, hearing Lars adult perspective on one of the most famous childhood movies of all time. It allows us to consider the global persona of Oz and how certain adolescent experiences can shape a regions youth and their approach to large life themes. At the end of my conversation with Lars, I was left pondering: Do children perceive the world of media with an unconditional acceptance unless told otherwise?
We both have experiences talking with children about films and stage productions and how often children don’t often perceive the reality of what acting is. They accept the characters and the world around them unconditionally. Lars shares a lot of stories about his filmmaking history and how he didn’t realize until after watching the film, just how much they reflected events in and surrounding The Wizard of Oz including a story in which he was in a stage production of Puss in Boots and a child asked if the cat in the play was his, despite it being obviously a man in a costume. A similar Wizard of Oz story occurred years before with Margaret Hamilton, the actress who plays the Wicked Witch of the West. After enjoying the success of the films, Hamilton would go to schools and talk to kids about their experiences with the film. Almost every time, without fail, she would be asked two things, “Can you do the laugh?” or “Why did you have to be so mean to Dorothy?” which made the actress extremely sad so much so she went onto guest appear on Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood and Sesame Street to show children that she was an actress pretending to be a witch not an actual one. She even said on Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood that “When I was a little girl in Halloween, that was the thing I always wanted to dress up as, in fact lots of children would rather be a witch then almost anything else, there’s lots of other things you can pick out, but that’s the one I loved, and so when I had the chance to do this I was very very happy about it.” This connection to her childhood would enable her to still impact the lives of children until this very day.
Hamilton’s experiences with children plays into the topic I mentioned previously, the impact that child-like idealism has on the world surrounding us. Over the years, our minds are exposed to the cynicisms of the world whether they be from personal disappointments or events that have occurred and turn most of us into hard scold characters creating a place where the hard survive and those that are still connected to the often described as “blind” adoration of childhood, are thrown by the wayside as they are deemed as weak. If anything, those people, like Margaret Hamilton are strong as they despite being surrounded by the negativity and the heartbreak of the world, they stick and cling onto their childhood where magic and thirst of knowledge reigns making life more exciting and enriching for not only themselves, but those around them.
Ray Bolger ‘s masterful performance of playfulness and child-like idealism as The Scarecrow also was directly inspired by his childhood. Bolger’s hero was comedian Fred Stone who went onto turn heads as the original Scarecrow on Broadway. Originally cast as the Tin Man, Bolger used his skills as a performer and his childhood passion to achieve his dream of following in his idol’s footsteps becoming one of the most beloved on screen heroes of all time.
These two major players utilized their childhood to propel themselves much like Oz, the great and powerful to new heights, that their younger former selves would have been absolutely over the moon if they were told what they would go on to do. They are perfect examples just like Dorothy is, if that you wish hard enough, you too will find your Oz.