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70 years later, we still feel the echoes of ‘Oz’

Ruby slippers. If I only had a brain. We’re not in Kansas, anymore. I’ll get you, My Pretty, and your little dog, too. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. That’s just the tip of a pop-culture iceberg, a towering mountain of nostalgia and influence that rises above most movie fare in a time when the majority of entertainment seems fairly disposable. On Aug. 25, 1939, “The Wizard
/ Source: Newsarama

Ruby slippers. If I only had a brain. We’re not in Kansas, anymore. I’ll get you, My Pretty, and your little dog, too. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. That’s just the tip of a pop-culture iceberg, a towering mountain of nostalgia and influence that rises above most movie fare in a time when the majority of entertainment seems fairly disposable.

On Aug. 25, 1939, “The Wizard of Oz” was released into theatres nationwide and began its not-so-classic journey toward classic status.

Now, 70 years later, the echoes of Oz continue to reach into all corners of filmmaking and pop culture in general, from the iconic “Star Wars” characters Chewie and C-3PO to frequent references on ABC’s “Lost,” from adaptations for upcoming graphic novels to mysterious ties to Pink Floyd.

Stormy beginnings

Before digging too deeply into the film’s influence, it’s helpful to remember that “Oz” wasn’t immediately and universally acclaimed as an instant classic. The movie, based on the L. Frank Baum 1900 novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” had already seen a couple of screen adaptations, and much tinkering was done with the script of what would become the 1939 version. Filming was also afflicted with numerous difficulties, including the illness and withdrawal of original Tin Man, Buddy Ebsen, a rotating series of directors, and on-set injuries to Margaret Hamilton (she was burned during the witch’s appearance in a column of smoke).

The film turned out to be marginally profitable upon its release, and was well-nominated by the Academy. Though it failed to lock up best picture (which went to studio mate “Gone with the Wind”), it took best song (“Over the Rainbow”), best score, and best performances by a juvenile, a special award for Judy Garland for her work in both “Oz” and “Babes in Arms.”

It wasn’t until 10 years later, upon its 1949 re-release in theatres, that the film generated what was considered a successful amount of money. It also generated more notice, causing people to reconsider the greatness of the film.

For much of America, the real arrival of “The Wizard of Oz” came when the film began appearing on broadcast television. Debuting in 1956, it drew over 45 million viewers. Three years later, it began running as an annual event; with only one interruption (the regular holiday showing in 1963 was skipped as the United States mourned the loss of President John F. Kennedy), “The Wizard of Oz” continued its once-a-year showings until 1991. Now under the control of the Turner Networks, “The Wizard of Oz” airs slightly more frequently, typically around major holidays.

Building a mystique

However, it was under the pre-home video market “annual viewing” days that the film really built its sphere of influence. Showings of the film were considered an event, a rare treat that you had to wait once a year to see. It’s hard for young people to conceptualize that in today’s downloadable, on-demand culture, but that sense of waiting had an undeniable effect on how “special” the film was perceived to be.

The songs, the visuals and, simply, the story kept bringing the audiences back. And certain young members of that audience would not only never forget what they saw, but be profoundly influenced by it.

Echoes across time

One such artist is David Lynch. Known for surrealist film and television that often breaks the line between what is considered reality the world of dreams, Lynch has often evoked themes and moments from “Oz.” His most overt homage came in “Wild at Heart”, which won the Palm d’Or at Cannes in 1990. Not only does the film include references to touchstones like the Yellow Brick Road and ruby slippers (as when Laura Dern clicks her heels together after a nightmarish encounter with Willem Dafoe’s character), Nicolas Cage’s character Sailor is literally told to chase down his true love Dern by a vision of Glinda the Good Witch.

John Boorman’s cult classic science-fiction film “Zardoz” (1974) boasts a pretty big association. The name for the floating god-head at the center of the story is derived from a mash-up of the words “Wizard” and “Oz,” a visual pun that also plays into that movie’s themes of a civilization being manipulated by an outside force. The implication is that the pilot of the god-head actually got the idea for his plot from the story of Oz.

Casting our science-fiction net a little wider, it’s pretty easy to see reflections of Oz in “Star Wars.” True, we know that much of the story is a team-up of Akira Kurosawa’s “Hidden Fortress” and John Ford’s “The Searchers,” but there’s a lot of Oz on display. Luke Skywalker has a lot in common with Dorothy Gale, as both live on farms with big dreams of seeing what else is out there. Several of Luke’s companions mirror Dorothy’s in particular ways. Chewbacca, of course, is their own Cowardly Lion (if you doubt that, remember how Chewie acted around the trash compactor?). C-3PO is a stand-in for the Tin Man, with his habit of losing limbs subbing in for the Tin Man’s inconvenient rusting. You could say that Han Solo was the one who had to find his heart.

The villains of the Star Wars universe have a bit in common with Oz. What’s the Death Star but a dark fortress? How about armies of identical soldiers, or bushwhacking those soldiers so that the heroes can dress in their outfits to rescue a damsel held hostage? We know that Vader’s complicated (maybe he’s the Tin Man who has to find his heart in “Jedi”), but the Emperor is definitely cut from the same black cloth as the Wicked Witch (and the Wicked Queen from Snow White for that matter). And, of course, there’s that Jedi habit of leaving nothing but a pile of robes behind without ever needing a bucket of water.

Check out the ‘Dark Side’

Stepping back from film for a bit, one of the most infamous associations with Oz actually draws from Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” album. Legend had it that if you began to play it at the “third roar of the MGM Lion” at the start of the film, the music would perfectly match the action on the screen. The story became so popular that Turner Classic Movies actually aired a broadcast of the film in 2000 with “Dark Side” playing. The members of the Floyd have always denied that any connection was intentional, although it is amusing to think of Roger Waters sitting with his bass, intently watching a playback of the film, ready to write a new song.

In terms of general dialogue, it’s very hard to escape Oz. Lines from the film are so pervasive in pop culture that they’re freely quoted almost without a second thought. Television series like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” repeatedly referenced the film (in fact, the nickname of Seth Green’s werewolf character Daniel Osbourne was, of course, Oz). It’s almost impossible to chart the density of those references, but it’s safe to assume that “The Wizard of Oz” is one of the most frequently quoted films in history.

We’d be ignoring a pair of significant Oz descendents if we didn’t also mention two direct tributes: the novel “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West” by Gregory Maguire, and the Broadway musical that it inspired. The novel is a revisionist take on the Witch’s life, casting her as the put-upon protagonist. The musical, more upbeat than the novel, is reportedly set for film in 2010.

The “Wicked” books are far from the only Oz descended novels out there. Among numerous others, writer Eric Shanower has written a number of novels set in Oz. Recently, he’s been scripting “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” and “The Marvelous Land of Oz” for Marvel Comics’ line of graphic novel adaptations, illustrated by artist Skottie Young.

‘Lost’ in Oz

Perhaps the loudest echoes of Oz being heard in popular culture these days would be on ABC’s “Lost.” Well-known as a show that draws ideas and references from the entire entertainment continuum, “Lost” has returned to the Land with noticeable frequency. One of the most infamous moments was when the castaways discovered a man in the jungle who told them that his name was “Henry Gale” (a nod to Dorothy’s uncle). Later, amid the ruins of a shredded balloon, the characters discovered evidence that he was lying; “Henry Gale” turned out to be Benjamin Linus, the man whom from that point has been the series’ major villain.

These are but a few of the literally hundreds of examples of how the film remains vibrantly alive in the minds of the world today. Though the movie first hit home video in 1980, it still remains a potent TV draw. Its overall influence is perhaps incalculable, as we quote the film in daily conversation and artists from all walks of entertainment continue to reference, reinterpret and revere the movie.

In the span of 70 years, “The Wizard of Oz” has gone from a film that needed a re-release to be profitable to a veritable institution. It’s refreshing that we can still find things that last in a culture of disposable entertainment. The truly impressive thing is that television airings continue, updated DVDs are regularly released, and millions of children yet to be inspired by Dorothy, amused by the Lion, or terrified by the Witch will one day have the opportunity to learn what it means to follow the Yellow Brick Road. Happy anniversary, “Wizard of Oz”; it was a dream, and we were all there.