Thursday, May 23, 2013

Attention Finally Paid to the Man Behind the Curtain

In the comment section of a recent post, friend of the blog angryparsnip brought up the 2004 computer-animated film The Incredibles and a character in it named Edna Mode, based on the legendary Hollywood costume designer Edith Head. Legendary, that is, if you know something about classic cinema, by which I mean movies made before 1960, when the so-called studio system was in place. In my reply to parsnip's comment, I pointed out that much of The Incredibles audience, children especially, aren't going to get the reference, but that was all right. Kids films are often chock-full of in-jokes and pop cultural references that only an adult would get. Just look at the Shrek movies. I also said that if you were to watch The Wizard of Oz again, you'd find similar references. But now that I think about it, no, you really wouldn't. For one thing, there was much, much less pop culture to raid in 1939 when Oz came out. Especially where movies were concerned. People didn't walk around quoting lines like they do now. How could they? With no TV, DVDs, or Netflix available, they most likely saw a movie only once, not enough times to memorize even the most memorable of lines. A film played a couple of weeks, then disappeared, out of sight, out of mindfulness. However, this doesn't mean Oz didn't have jokes only an adult would get. No, not dirty jokes--you're kids won't get corrupted watching it--but a dollop of social satire. A dollop I only noticed when I saw the film again as an adult sometimes in the 1980s.

Before I tell you what I noticed, let me describe to all the TV-deprived Amish out there what TheWizard of Oz is all about. It's the story of a young Kansas girl named Dorothy Gale, who along with her little dog Toto, is swept by a cyclone to the magical land of Oz, where she meets a talking scarecrow with no brain (Ray Bolger), a talking tin man with no heart (Jack Haley), and a talking lion with no courage (a very funny Bert Lahr.) A good witch named Glinda (a very chirpy Billie Burke) has sent Dorothy on to Oz to see a wizard with a reputation for being wonderful (a very versatile Frank Morgan; he plays five parts) about getting her back to Kansas. Her three companions tag along to see if they, too, can get their problems solved. Along the way, they're continually harassed by an angry witch (a scarily scowly  Margaret Hamilton) who wants to kill Dorothy, but ends up in a watery grave herself. This film was based on a 1900 children's book titled The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum (above right.)There are many adventures not in the movie (otherwise, the film would have a 15-hour running time) and, though a fantasy, it has a certain hard science fiction literalness about it (the scarecrow is also missing a heart and the tin man a brain; there's just a philosophical difference between the two as to which is more important.) Though the book is hardly lacking in humor, the movie overall is more lighthearted--with the exception of one particular actress' performance.

 What I really like about this movie is that it shows the relativity of normality, how it's in constant flux, is always shifting. Characters and places are weird only until we get to know them better. Dorothy is taken aback at meeting a living scarecrow, but the scarecrow is similarly surprised by a living Tin Man. Speaking of that Tin Man, it is he who  reassures the Lion that there's no such thing as spooks. Oh, well, if a man made out of metal says there's no such thing as spooks, I guess that makes it so. All four characters, regardless of whether they grew up in Kansas or Oz, find the Emerald City pretty awesome. Yet the citizens of Emerald City themselves are all too easily awed, seeing as they allow themselves to be governed by some pinhead whom they've mistaken for a wizard ("times being what they were, I accepted the job.") And when the Wicked Witch of the West melts away, even the flying monkey is like, WTF?!

You may have heard of the "auteur" theory of filmmaking. This is the idea, imported from France, that insists a director is responsible for a movie in the same way an author is for a book. Some find this theory ridiculous. Hundreds of people are involved in the making of a movie. Only one person writes a book. Two if you're on Jersey Shore. What do I think of this theory? Depends on the movie. Unless it's Charlie Chaplin filming himself at a roller rink, it's hard for me to say a director is same as an author, but I'll readily admit that a good movie often has a singularity of vision, one person's whose view holds sway over all others, such is the case with Hitchcock, Ford, Hawks, Bergman, Kubrick, Fellini, and that guy that who plays Madea. So who's the auteur of The Wizard of Oz?

Victor Fleming (left) received on-screen directorial credit, but he wasn't there the whole time. Richard Thorpe started the film, and in his version Dorothy is a swing-loving sexy blond who wants to paint the Emerald City red. MGM decided this perhaps wasn't the best way to adapt a children's book, and replaced Thorpe with George Cukor, who turned Dorothy back into a little girl (which meant the 16-year-old actress portraying her had to tape down her breasts.) Cukor soon left for what was seen at the time as a much bigger deal, directing Gone with the Wind. So Fleming was brought in. His forte was manly action films like Captains Courageous, so he was an odd choice for a children's musical with a female lead. Still, he seems to have done a well enough job, even if all he was doing was following Cukor's blueprint. He would follow that blueprint yet again when he left Oz a couple months early to take over GWTW after Cukor was canned. So was next? In the 1970s, King Vidor, already a Hollywood legend, revealed that he filmed all the black-and-white Kansas scenes, including the famous "Over the Rainbow" sequence, and thus became even more of a legend.

With all these directors coming and going, maybe it was the producer of The Wizard of Oz who was 
the true auteur. And that person was...? Mervyn LeRoy received on-screen credit, but as he was head of production at MGM at the time, he got on-screen credit for everything. Was there anyone a little closer to the action? Arthur Freed (right) had written the lyrics to Nacio Herb Brown's music for a number of years before he decided to try his hand at producing. Oz was his first film, for which he received no credit. Don't feel too sorry for him. He received credit later that year when he teamed the star of Oz with Mickey Rooney in Babes in Arms, which led to a whole slew of similar musicals. Freed eventually became a major force at MGM. Among his production credits: Cabin in the Sky, Meet Me in St. Louis, Easter Parade, Take Me Out to the Ball Game, On the Town, Annie Get Your Gun, Royal Wedding, An American in Paris, Singin' in the Rain (based on his and Brown's own songs), The Band Wagon, Brigadoon, Silk Stockings, Gigi, and just about any other musical you might find in a That's Entertainment compilation. The Wizard of Oz fits more comfortably in Freed's oeuvre than in LeRoy's. The latter directed and produced plenty of fine films in a long career, including a few musicals in the 1950s, but in 1939 he was best known for crime dramas such as Little Caesar and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. The witch may have been wicked in Oz, but she never resorted to tommy guns.

Since The Wizard of Oz is a musical, how about the man who wrote the music? That would be Harold Arlen. The melodies, anyway (I'll get to the lyricist in a moment.) Arlen previous hit songs were "Get Happy" "Let's Fall in Love" and "Stormy Weather". He later did "That Old Black Magic", "Blues in the Night", "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive", and "Come Rain and Come Shine". His most famous song, though, was the one he did for Oz--"Over the Rainbow". A few years ago it was recorded the No. 1 song of the twentieth century by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). It's a beautiful, haunting song, made even more beautiful and haunting by the wide-eyed MGM contract player who sang it first.  But, as good as it is, I wonder if it's the tune from the movie that truly lingers in the memory. There may be another. What, you don't believe me? DING DONG, THE WITCH IS DEAD. There! That damn thing's gonna be running through your brain for the rest of the day. You'll wish you were the Scarecrow.

Then there's the star of the film, Judy Garland, who brought such intensity, such passion, such pure psychodrama to the role of Dorothy Gale. It's an extraordinarily emotional performance, one that I'm not always sure the material justifies. Judy, this is a movie with talking trees! Frank L. Baum died three years before Garland was born, so never got to see her play Dorothy. I'm not sure he'd approve. In his book the character doesn't come across as the tragic heroine Garland damn near turned her into. The literary Dorothy comes across as, well, a kid. Baum wrote--often begrudgingly--14 Oz books in all. Dorothy is the main character in about half of these, and has cameos in all the rest, except the second in the series, The Marvelous Land of Oz, where she doesn't appear at all. Baum liked the character, but also knew Oz, at times, could get along without her. Like Carroll's Alice or Barrie's Wendy, she's a means to an end. It's the odd places where these little girls find themselves--Oz, Wonderland, Never-Never Land--that matters. As such, they're uncomplicated, untroubled,  self-assured, well-adjusted, and, given all they end up being exposed to, surprisingly unflappable. While they're by necessity misfits in these strange new lands, they get along fine in their own. These girls aren't this way because the authors are trying to promote some notion of human perfection. It just that to do otherwise might distract from all the magic. However, this simply wasn't the way Judy Garland did things. Though she never considered herself as a method actress, she appears to have seen the role of Dorothy Gale as an opportunity to purge herself of all her personal demons. In fact, Garland approached everything she did that way, be it a command performance in front of the Queen, or a booking on a late night talk show. That she should have personal demons starting, by most accounts, from a very young age is a shame, but,  jesus, it sure made for one helluva compelling persona. In this film, Garland actually competes with Oz and all its wonders for our attention. And wins it! We care about Dorothy's plight because she cares so much about it .

(Not that the plight itself always makes sense. Why leave technicolored Oz for monochromatic--sepia-toned in some prints--Kansas? Sure, Dorothy's homesick, but can't she just ask the Wizard or Glinda or whoever to bring Auntie Em and Uncle Henry to her, rather than the other way around? There must be a hotel in Emerald City where they can be put up for the night. If not, try Munchkinland, though they may to crouch a bit so as not to bump their head on the ceiling.)

OK, we've now established Cukor/Fleming/Vidor/LeRoy/Freed/Arlen/Garland as the true auteur of The Wizard of Oz. I'm talking the mythic Wizard of Oz. The legendary Wizard of Oz. The Wizard of Oz we've seen a hundred times, so filled with charm and joy and enchantment. But what happens when we watch it the one hundreth-and-first time? Could it be we'll notice something we didn't earlier because all that charm, joy, and enchantment stuff got in the way? Is there another Wizard of Oz awaiting us? An edgier, more sardonic Wizard of Oz? A Wizard of Oz that may actually have something to say about the world--the real world--we all live in?

To answer that we have to look to the screenplay, credited onscreen to Edgar Allan Woolf, Irving Brecher, and Florence Ryerson. Now, these three weren't in one room together banging out this thing on a single typewriter. They all wrote separate drafts, each thinking they were writing the final draft. Things got put in and taken out again, and again, and again, as other, uncredited writers, wrote their own "final drafts". That's just the way they do things in Hollywood, then and now. It's why the screenwriter is never the auteur. Anyway, with so many versions, some loose ends were bound to end up in the final product. For instance, ever wonder why the Scarecrow is the one Dorothy thinks she'll "miss...most of all"? In an early draft, a Dorothy who's more clearly a teenager has a crush on the Scarecrow's Kansas farmhand counterpart. The budding romance got nixed, but not that line. The guy who did final, FINAL draft probably should have caught it, but he was pretty busy and had an awful lot to shift through. And just who finally did that final, final draft? Another fellow who got no on-screen credit. Wait, I take that back. He did get credit, but for all the songs--"We're Off to See the Wizard", "Follow the Yellow Brick Road" "If I Only Had A Brain", "If I was the King of the Jungle" as well as the aforementioned "Over the Rainbow" and "Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead". No, Harold Arlen didn't write the final screenplay. Rather, his lyricist, E. Y. Harburg.

Harburg was born in 1896 and grew up in Lower East Side of New York City, the same place where everything in show business before World War II grew up (a slight exaggeration, folks.)  and was a high school classmate of future lyricist Ira Gershwin (I did say slight.) After World War I, Harburg went to City College, then got married, had two kids, and became a small businessman, writing verse on the side for local newspapers. He lost everything in the stock market crash of 1929, at which point ol' pal Gershwin suggested he give show biz a try, which he did. His first great hit as a lyricist was the Great Depression anthem "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" Moving back and forth between Broadway and Hollywood, he worked with Jerome Kern, Barton Lane, Julie Styne, as well as Arlen. Like a lot of show biz figures whose politics were shaped by the depression, he had a bit of trouble in the 1950s. Though never a member of the Communist Party, he may have known some, or at least the House Un-American Activities Committee thought he knew some. Harburg refused to say, and ended up on a Hollywood blacklist for a few years. He still found work on Broadway, where such lists held no sway. His best know stage work, a musical for which he wrote both the lyrics and book, was Finian's Rainbow, about a leprechaun who comes to the American South and turns a racist senator black. Though it was a hit, and premiered before Harburg got in trouble with HUAC, Hollywood kept its distance. Time passed, the red scare faded, social causes and movements came back in vogue, and Finian finally made it to the big screen in 1968, the same year Martin Luther King was shot.

It was in the middle of all the above that E. Y. Harburg got the Oz assignment, with credits for one thing but not the other. How do we know Harburg did the final draft? Well, he himself said so before he died, and people who've written books about the Wizard of Oz and looked into the matter feel the claim is true. Really, all you have to do is compare the song lyrics to the written dialogue to tell it all came from the same mind. Harburg's approach to fantasy was closer to Lewis Carroll (or maybe the Marx Brothers) than to the more sober-minded Frank Baum. In both the songs (including "Over the Rainbow") and speaking parts there are puns, alliteration, non sequiturs and other humorous wordplay. Jokes pop up in even the darkest moments (after the Scarecrow is ripped apart by flying monkeys, the Tin Man remarks, "That's you all over!", to which the Lion adds: "They really knocked the stuffing out of you.") Yet Harburg wasn't interested in yuks for yuks sake. As his own son once said about him, he believed "humor is an act of courage and dissent."

The moral or lesson usually ascribed to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is that one may spend too much time searching for something they already have. Long before the Wizard grants them their wishes, the  Scarecrow has shown himself to be resourceful, the Tin Man's exhibited immense passion, and, for all his shaking and quaking, the lion knowingly put himself in one dangerous situation after another. Oddly enough, this lesson is lost on the characters themselves, who end up still wanting a brain, heart, and courage. So the Wizard humors the three by giving the Scarecrow a brain made of pins and needles, the Tin Man a silk heart, and the Lion an ordinary drink labeled "Courage." In his screenplay, E. Y. Harburg took a different tack. Here's what the movie Wizard tells the Scarecrow (italics mine):

"Why, anybody can have a brain. That's a very mediocre commodity. Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the Earth or slinks through slimy seas has a brain. Back where I come from, we have universities, seats of great learning, where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts and with no more brains than you have. But they have one thing you haven't got: a diploma."

Here's what the Wizard tells the Lion:
"Back where I come from , we have men who are called heroes. Once a year, they take their fortitude out of mothballs and parade it down the main street of the city, and they have no more courage than you have. But they have one thing you haven't got: a medal."

And finally, he tells the Tin Man:

"Back where I come from there are men who do nothing all day but good deeds. They are called phil--er...phil--er...Good-deed doers! And their hearts are no bigger than yours. But they have one thing you haven't got: a testimonial."

Folks, that's some pretty sharp satire there. A wickedly funny critique of the West. One that I'm sure goes over the head of most kids watching. But there parents should get the joke...Or maybe not.  After all, it's their world being satirized, always the easiest thing to turn a blind eye to. As George S. Kaufman famously said, "Satire is what closes on Saturday night."

Fortunately, The Wizard of Oz has enough other virtues--some I haven't even touched on, such as impressive special effects (all the more so being that they're non-digital), fantastic set design, and a magnificent munchkin musical extravaganza--that's kept it booked solid in movie theaters, on TV, videos, DVDs, and Netflix, for the past 74 years. A movie's greatness shouldn't be judged on a single viewing, but whether you liked it on the second or third or fiftieth viewing. And if you see something new every time. So watch Oz again when you get the chance. Maybe this time you'll finally understand why Dorothy was so anxious to get back to Kansas. Really, it's pretty obvious.


Oz proved to be too much like real life. It was in color, after all.


Sunday, May 12, 2013

In Memoriam: Ray Harryhausen 1920-2013

Special effects artist/stop motion model animator. George Pal's Puppetoons. Mighty Joe Young. The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. It Came From Beneath the Sea. Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. 20 Million Miles to Earth. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. The Three Worlds of Gulliver. Jason and the Argonauts. One Million Years BC. Clash of the Titans.

 "Without Ray Harryhausen, there would likely have been no Star Wars."

--George Lucas

"He was the man who made me believe in monsters."

--Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead director)

"I think all of us who are practitioners in the arts of science fiction and fantasy movies now all feel that we’re standing on the shoulders of a giant. If not for Ray's contribution to the collective dreamscape, we wouldn't be who we are."

--James Cameron

 "What we do now digitally with computers, Ray did digitally long before but without computers. Only with his digits."

--Terry Gilliam

Mighty Joe Young (1949) On this, his first live-action movie, Harryhausen assisted a man he'd long admired, Willis O'Brien, who had created the special-effects for King Kong 16 years earlier.

Speaking of King Kong, its re-release in mid-1952 proved to be more popular than three earlier reissues, as well as its initial showing in 1933. It was the highest grossing film that summer, and Time magazine called it Movie of the Year. Why am I telling you all this? Because more than anything else, it was the success of this then-19 year old film that spurred on the giant-creature-attacks-big-city stop-motion picture craze of the 1950s, of which Ray Harryhausen played no small part.

The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953) "Burp."

It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955) "If you're going to San Francisco/be sure to wear some flowers in your hair"

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) Earth would seem to be the underdog.


20 Millions Miles to Earth (1957) We don't fare too well against lizards from Venus, either.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) With the exception of the "red-and-white"  burning house scene in Mighty Joe Young, this was Harryhausen's first foray into color. Green looked rather becoming on her, don't you think?

 Jason and the Argonauts (1963) Probably Harryhausen's most famous (and most bone-chilling) special effect.

One Million Years B.C. (1966) In case you're curious, Raquel Welch is not a Harryhausen special effect. All kidding aside, I think that T-rex holds up well against the computer-animated one in Jurassic Park.

Clash of the Titans (1981) Harryhausen's final film. Heads up!


Thursday, May 9, 2013

Four Alive in Ohio

Ever since Gina DeJesus, Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry, and Berry's little girl Jocelyn, were rescued from the house in Cleveland where they had been held hostage for the past decade, the word "miracle" has been bandied about quite a bit. As in, it's a miracle that they're alive. Or, it's a miracle that they've been found. It is indeed very good news for the women, their families, and even society at large that they came through this ordeal intact. So I shouldn't quibble about semantics, but I'm going to, anyway. It's not a miracle, it's a surprise. A hugely pleasant surprise. I guess it shows just how jaded we've all became that when someone, especially a minor, disappears, we've come to expect them not to be found. At least not found breathing. But a miracle is when something impossible happens. While it may be improbable that someone who's been missing for a very long time will ever be found alive, it's still possible.

Actually, as more details of the absence are known, it seems less miraculous and oddly predictable. That is, predictable if you were in on the details in the first place. These women weren't held hostage way out in the country somewhere. It was a low-income urban neighborhood with old houses and people of all ages crammed together. Furthermore, one of those hostages had a baby. A baby takes a lot of care. I'm told they cry occasionally. Kidnapper Ariel Castro had quite a lot to keep from the neighbors. And the police, whom he was no stranger to all these years, though for reasons having nothing to do with the three adolescent girls disappearance. Castro may have lived in a low income neighborhood, but he himself, until recently, earned $18.50 an hour as a school bus driver. He once left a kid on a bus while he ate at a Wendy's. As a school bus driver is a child's temporary guardian, this was against the law. The police visited his house but no one--including the hostages, who may very well have been bound and gagged--answered the door. Another, even odder, detail is that Castro's then-teenage daughter was the last person, until a few days ago, to see Gina DeJesus alive. No, this was a crime waiting to be discovered. The miracle, or anti-miracle, certainly surprise, is that it took as long as it did.

The always-beleaguered Cleveland Police Department has come under criticism. I don't wish to criticize them myself. At least not just yet. Because, really, everything I've described in the paragraph above is in hindsight. The crime that seems so solvable now may not have been back then. A house-to-house search might have worked, but civil liberties, the bedrock of a free society, have to be observed. As a character says in the 1956 movie Touch of Evil: "A policeman's job is only easy in a police state."

All I can add is this: a miracle is only simple when performed by a saint.

Saturday, May 4, 2013


Overheard in the library, little boy, about four of five:

"Daddy, when I finish with the Kindle, can I read a book?"

Ah, innocence. Or maybe just foresight. As far as he's concerned, a Kindle and a book are two media outlets that peacefully coexist. As unaware of the past as he most likely is at that age, they have always peacefully coexisted. It's probably never occurred to him that one may be considered a threat to the other.

For those of us born before 1990, but after 1950, was it any different when it came to movies, radio, and television? Didn't we see those as separate means of communication, each with a message (or a mindless entertainment) specifically tailored to the demands of its particular medium? It never occurred to us that the most recent of those mediums, television, was once considered a threat to the other two.

Until later on, when we read about it in a book. Or on a Kindle.