Tuesday, December 17, 2013

There’s no place like tome

With the holidays upon us, every classic movie fan has their own favorite seasonal film that they like to watch over and over again—Miracle on 34th Street (1947), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), The Bishop’s Wife (1947), etc.  Many of the movies will be the focus of a blogathon from December 20-22 over at Family Friendly Reviews, with Thrilling Days of Yesteryear participating with one of my favorites, The Lemon Drop Kid (1951) on the 21st.  Meanwhile, at the ClassicFlix page on Facebook, we (I’m using the editorial we) are currently running a “12 Days of Christmas DVD” contest that is giving out free swag like copies of The Man Who Came to Dinner (1941) and A Christmas Carol (1951).  To me, it’s just not the holiday season without the umpteenth rerun of Miracle or Life (both of which I faithfully watch every year)…or a true feature film classic, The Wizard of Oz (1939).

I know it’s seems a little odd to include Wizard of Oz as a Christmas film—the subject isn’t even addressed during the picture’s running time, and the movie that would eventually become a family favorite was actually released at the end of August in 1939 (but then again, 34th Street premiered in May the year it was released); it was CBS-TV that was responsible for bestowing holiday tradition status on the film when it repeated the movie in December 1959 after its initial showing on November 3, 1956.  This year, Oz is scheduled for back-to-back showings on TNT on December 21 at 7 and 9:15pm, with an encore the next day at 1pm.

A month or two ago, Tracey Hulstein at Chicago Review Press was kind enough to send me a gratis copy of Aljean Harmetz’s The Making of The Wizard of Oz, first published in 1977 and later updated in 1989.  Its newest printing is to take advantage of the movie’s 75th anniversary next year (and is being released with the diamond anniversary re-issue of the movie on DVD), and though I was a little hesitant about reading the book (I never seem to have enough time to sit down and actually read all that often) I found Harmetz’s book to be a complete joy.

Aljean covers the history of the movie’s production (#1060) in meticulous detail: the casting, the scripting, the songwriting, the staging, the behind-the-scenes assembly of props, costumes, etc.  What I enjoyed most about the book is that Harmetz demonstrates a nice sense of perspective when discussing how Oz took shape—how Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, “the Tiffany’s of film studios,” may have been run like a nightmarish auto assembly plant but that they nevertheless made motion pictures to be proud of, and the people employed there were fiercely dedicated to what they were doing.  The author was also fortunate in that a few of the cast and crew (Margaret Hamilton, Jack Haley and Ray Bolger were still with us at the time she was assembling the book) were on hand to offer their unique insights on the making of this one-of-a-kind family favorite (Hamilton, a.k.a. “The Wicked Witch of the West,” provides a foreword to the book).  Many times Harmetz relates several viewpoints (a la Rashomon); for example, till their dying days both Mervyn LeRoy and Arthur Freed claimed that they were the one responsible for suggesting L. Frank Baum’s book to L.B. Mayer as a movie.

When the Classic Movie Blog Association made preparations for their recent Film Passion 101 blogathon, I seriously considered tackling Wizard of Oz as my entry—but then I figured someone else might want to do it, so I went with “the monkey movie” instead.  But Oz played a very important role in my love of classic films much more than a lot of movies I watched at that stage of the game; I always looked forward to seeing it every year (even though I knew the doggone thing by heart) and if I’m able to wrest the television away from the ‘rents I’ll gladly sit through it again—particularly if my niece Rachel is there to watch it with me.  (The picture on the left is her masquerading as Dorothy for Halloween in 2009.)  (Actually, I can put the film on any time I want—I own a big honkin’ Region 2 set that I bought because it was actually priced lower than the comparable Region 1.)  Danny Peary once posited in Cult Movies that just about every U.S. film produced since Oz’s 1939 release references it in some way—from A (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) to Z (Zardoz, of course)—and I’m not sure he’s completely wrong on that score.

So I’d definitely recommend The Making of The Wizard of Oz to both the casual fan and true Oz devotee, and since it’s become a holiday favorite by default, putting a copy of the book under someone’s tree would be a nice gesture on anyone’s part.  (Don’t tell anyone, but I’m sticking one in Rachel’s stocking this year.)  Thanks again to Tracey and the gang at CRP for letting me review the book.

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