The 'Wizard of Oz' at 75: Which of today's films will be as popular?

08/22/2014 5:17 PM

08/22/2014 5:18 PM

As I walked near Greenwich Village one recent summer night, I was serenaded by hundreds of strangers reminding me that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

The soundtrack for this particular “New York Moment” was Judy Garland’s iconic rendition of “Over the Rainbow,” amplified by an audience singing along under the stars during a public showing of “The Wizard of Oz” near Pier 46.

This unexpected encounter with an interactive, diverse and completely immersed group of filmgoers made me wonder: How much longer will “The Wizard of Oz” – which celebrates its 75th anniversary this month – occupy its prime spot in the hearts of American movie fans? And might any of today’s films prove as popular and long-lasting 75 years from now?

Quick: Which American feature film director enjoyed the best year in history?

Hint: It isn’t Steven Spielberg, who helmed both “Schindler’s List” and “Jurassic Park” in 1993.

The answer: Victor Fleming, who directed both “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone With the Wind” in 1939, an unparalleled achievement because both films were nominated for Best Picture. (“Gone With the Wind” won the award, and Fleming won the Best Director award as well for that film.)

Unfortunately, Fleming didn’t live long enough to see Dorothy get her due. After its premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and despite nearly universal critical acclaim, the first theatrical run of “The Wizard of Oz” lost MGM almost $1 million. (That’s more than $17 million in today’s dollars.)

It wasn’t until Nov. 3, 1956, seven years after Fleming’s death, when the film was first broadcast on CBS that its ascent to iconic status began.

Imagine: That first network transmission was in black and white, eliminating the film’s most famous special effect – the remarkable visual transition from sepia to full color as Dorothy passes through the doorway of her mundane Kansas farmhouse into Oz. And yet the TV premiere was still a landmark event.

As film critic Michael Sragow wrote in his exceptional Fleming biography: “It proved Fleming’s contention that if he did his job right, children will accept the reality of Oz until the movie’s end; Oz carried just as much authentic emotional weight as Kansas, even with both in black and white.”

Because Fleming did his job so right, annual broadcasts became de rigueur. Color broadcasts began in 1961, and ratings rose each year until 1970, when the broadcast that followed Judy Garland’s death drew a massive 64 million viewers.

American households ceased watching movies en masse long ago. Still, MGM continues to reap big profits from Oz, upgrading it to an “IMAX 3-D Experience” in 2013 for its Diamond Jubilee. And “Over the Rainbow” will never surrender the “Song of the (20th) Century” title it was granted by the Recording Industry Association of America in 2001.

Times, clearly, have changed, and I suspect plenty of millennials have never seen “The Wizard of Oz.” They confess little patience with films whose special effects aren’t hyper-realistic. Will films with lines like “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” hold any meaning for future generations of filmgoers?

No one knows, just as no one can predict which movie from this summer’s slate, regarded as lackluster by box-office analysts, might someday be elevated to iconic status through some futuristic method of distribution (Holography? Oculus Rift? 8K Ultra HD?) as television did for “The Wizard of Oz.”

All that seems assured is that everyone who can capture the beauty of childhood, like Victor Fleming and his film’s cast and crew did 75 years ago, deserves to be celebrated.

We need movies like “The Wizard of Oz” because they make families sing together under the stars, in Manhattan and everywhere else, offering them that special place “where troubles melt like lemon drops, away above the chimney tops.”

For those 101 minutes, the West Side Highway was The Yellow Brick Road. And somewhere over the rainbow, Victor Fleming smiled.

Ted Bogosian is an Emmy-winning filmmaker and television producer who teaches cinema at Duke University.

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