Knight at the Movies Archives
KATM's favorite film turns 70, two animated flicks worth taking in
MGM’s 1939 motion picture adaptation of the beloved children’s book The Wizard of Oz is turning 70. To celebrate the
anniversary of this unassailable classic (film critic Pauline Kael once described it as being “nearly critic proof”) Warner Home Video is
presenting a newly restored, hi-def version of the movie in theatres one night only on Wednesday, Sept. 23 (reserve tickets HERE).
This visually stunning, restored 70th anniversary version will then be available (in both standard and Blu-ray formats) on Tuesday,
Sept. 29 in either a 2-disc or 4-disc version that Warners is dubbing the “Ultimate Collector’s Edition.”
“Ultimate” is certainly a good word to describe the 4-disc set which includes all the bonus material included on the previous 2-disc set
and a dazzling array of newly created special features (including a sing-along-version of the movie, silent versions of the movie, and
“The Dreamer of Oz,” the endearing 1990 TV movie about “Oz” author L. Frank Baum starring John Ritter, Annette O’Toole and Rue
McClanahan, and hours more). The 4-disc set also has an exclusive collectible watch and a 52-page hard cover book assembled by
Oz historian and Judy Garland biographer John Fricke – pretty much everything collectors of the movie could hope for (well, almost –
the lost musical sequence “The Jitterbug” and other deleted footage remain unaccounted for).
The fuss over the anniversary of The Wizard of Oz is understandable for a variety of reasons – historical as well as commercial (the
movie has literally been a cash cow from its first release) – and it’s a celebration that will certainly resonate with Our People. The
movie, and Judy Garland’s performance in the title role, has had a particular influence on the older segment of the gay community
and Dorothy’s story – her “outsider” status in barren, bland Kansas where no one understands her, her immediate acceptance by a
host of other outsiders (which she easily and naturally reciprocates) when she travels to colorful Oz (especially her gay male
companions the scarecrow, tin man and cowardly lion), her determined triumph over those who try to obliterate her thereby
exterminating her “specialness,” the movie’s persistent and emotionally rich undertone of wistfulness and melancholy, etc. – has
long entered the fabric of the lives of everyone in the LGBT family.
MGM’s film version is literally a part of gay history. Asking if someone was a “friend of Dorothy” was a way for gays to safely seek
out their own kind or discuss their betters in mixed sexual company without fear of reprisal. Historians date this coded slang term
back as early as WWII. The euphemism is still commonly used on cruise ships (talk about irony!) in their lists of daily activities as a
discreet way for LGBT passengers to meet socially.
It’s not just the 1939 film but the familiar and influential Oz story itself that continues to hold queer audiences in thrall. Out writer
Gregory Maguire’s best selling novel “Wicked” led to the phenomenally successful stage musical (with a score by out composer/lyrics
Stephen Schwartz to boot) which is now being adapted into a film version. The story of Dorothy and friends has inspired many other
queer artists – from Rufus Wainwright’s heartfelt rendition of “Over the Rainbow” to Geoff Ryman’s intricate novel “Was” to Alan
Cumming’s performance in “Tin Man,” the Syfy channel’s award winning miniseries.
So what kind of impact has The Wizard of Oz had on the life of this queer film critic? I’m not sure I can ever put into words the
powerful spell that the movie has cast – and continues to hold – over me. I can only write that after having seen literally thousands
of movies it remains my unequivocal favorite and that I’ve told my husband that when I die my memorial service should conclude
with a screening of the movie – or I will haunt him from Oz!
Two other fantasy films, both animated and both pitched at kids of all ages are aiming for some of that Oz immortality. Though
neither Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs which opens this Friday nor the post apocalyptic 9, which is already in theatres has
much hope of attaining such a lofty reputation, both are delightful entertainments. Cloudy, in particular (which like Oz, was adapted
from a bestselling children’s book) is a laugh out loud winner.
Set on a remote island, it’s the story of Flint (voiced by SNL’s Bill Hader), an intrepid young scientist who struggles to win acceptance
from his father and thinks when he invents a machine that dispenses cheeseburgers, ice cream and other kid friendly foods from
above like manna from Heaven that he’ll finally get it. Instead, Flint and the small island populous who are counting on him to
restore their economy with his invention, get more food than even a glutton could wish for. The movie, which has a lot of delightful
repeat gags, has the look, feel and tongue in cheek humor of Pixar’s The Incredibles but comes from Sony’s animation division, is
wonderfully inspired and will probably be anathema only to vegetarians.
9, on the other hand, while equally visually inventive (it’s perhaps the first animated steampunk film) is less solidly a kids movie.
The rage against the machine story follows a group (nine in all) of tiny ragdolls with mechanical parts (called stitchpunks) who
wander around a post apocalyptic world (the Brothers Quay are an obvious influence on writer-director-animator Chris Acker, fleshing
out his short film to feature length). Plucky #9 (voiced by Elijah Wood), the sweet voiced new member of the group decides to fight
back against the big red eyed machine (reminiscent of Sauron the dark lord in The Lord of the Rings trilogy) that is trying to destroy
he and his fellow stitchpunks.
The movie has breathtaking visual sequences but is a little too familiar and thin in plot and character department to elevate it much
beyond its animated forebears, though it does have one achingly sweet moment. This is when the stitchpunks in a triumphant
moment find a Victrola that plays a scratchy recording of Judy Garland singing “Over the Rainbow.” As Judy’s impossibly lush voice
wafts out over the post industrial junkyard that earth has become in this calamitous vision of the future, it’s a bit comforting to think
that even in a devastated world, devoid of mankind such as this something of the innocent hope the masterful Wizard of Oz inspired
Friends of Dorothy:
The Wizard of Oz at 70-Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs-9
Expanded Edition of 9-16-09 Windy City Times KATM Column
By Richard Knight, Jr.
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