- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 20, 2000

It's taken a long Yellow Brick Road

This new MGM movie was called a "stinkeroo" by the New Yorker. The New Republic's Otis Ferguson disdained its humor and fantasy as weighing "like a pound of fruitcake soaking wet."
The name of this cinematic offal, this offense to celluloid and Christmas cuisine? "The Wizard of Oz," which in 1998 placed No. 6 on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 Best Films.
The film's history is detailed in an exhibit opening tomorrow at the Library of Congress. "The Wizard of Oz: An American Fairy Tale" celebrates the 100th anniversary of the copyrighting of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," the basis of the movie classic by author L. Frank Baum.
The exhibit features Baum's handwritten copyright application; a 1900 first edition; memorabilia, props and costumes from the 1939 movie; and clips from other versions of the Oz stories.
The exhibit will be on view through Sept. 23 in the North Gallery of the Great Hall of the Thomas Jefferson Building. Parallel to the exhibit, the Library's Pickford Theater will hold a May 5 screening of "The Wizard of Oz" and in May and June will screen other film versions of the Oz tales.
Despite its initial frosty reception, "The Wizard of Oz" did manage to win three Academy Awards in 1940 for best score, best song for "Over the Rainbow" and an outstanding juvenile of the screen award to Judy Garland and was nominated for three others, including best film.
But "Wizard" was not a success with its 1939 audiences. The film cost a then-huge $2.8 million to make, which it barely recouped at the box office. When distribution, advertising and print costs were added to the party, the losses neared $1 million.
Today it is one of a handful of movies to become American cultural shorthand and, according to film critic Andrew Sarris, is "the closest thing we have to a national fairy tale." In the documentary "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: The Making of a Movie Classic," host Angela Lansbury estimates the worldwide audience at 1 billion.
"The Wizard of Oz" has provided titles and references for Elton John albums, late-'70s rock groups, Dunkin Donuts specialties and HBO prison dramas. Federal Express built a megabuck commercial around the Munchkin sequence. The movie is so well known that explanations are seldom needed.
Such lines as "There's no place like home" and "Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore" and songs such as "Over the Rainbow" and "Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead" have given punch lines to sources as disparate as Thomas Pynchon and "Doonesbury."
A tornado last month in Fort Worth, Texas, sucked a family's doghouse into the air with the dachshund still inside. According to the father (and the wire service's suggested headline), "It was like a Toto moment." The hound, like Toto, survived.
The tornado that blew the fortunes of "The Wizard of Oz" into the stratosphere came when MGM dumped the TV rights on CBS in 1956 for a derisory amount. Movie studios generally did not sell their products to TV at the time. The initial novelty, plus a traditional Thanksgiving air date, gave the movie a second chance. "Wizard" hasn't stopped setting records since.
"The Wizard of Oz" has had 38 screenings on prime-time network TV, more than any other movie. Not until a 1998 re-release, with 1,900 screens on opening weekend netting a quick $15 million, did "Wizard" make more money on the big screen than the small one. When that spiffed-up 1998 print premiered on TBS last November, it drew the largest audience ever for a theatrical movie on basic cable: 9 million viewers.
According to the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com), "The Wizard of Oz" has engendered two sequels and two remakes. Another 168 movies have referenced it, 34 movies have spoofed it, clips or moments from "Wizard" are featured in 27 others, and 32 more versions of "The Wizard of Oz" have been filmed.
Robin Williams' "Bicentennial Man" robot and C3PO from "Star Wars" bear clear similarities to the Tin Woodman. In 1990, David Lynch's "Wild at Heart" married his camp-gothic ultraviolence to a "Wizard of Oz" structure, complete with Laura Dern clicking her heels three times to escape.
The re-release of the "Wizard" classic in fall 1998 was rubbing shoulders at the box office with a more contemporary film, "Pleasantville," which had unmistakable "Wizard of Oz" influences.
In both movies, black-and-white represents prosaic reality while color marks the worlds of fantasy ("Wizard") and authenticity ("Pleasantville").
"The Wizard of Oz" influences are not restricted to movies or TV. Author Salman Rushdie has called the movie "my very first literary influence." In his monograph on "The Wizard of Oz," Mr. Rushdie links "Wizard" to his descriptions of green-skinned witches in "Midnight's Children" and the companions to his title character in "Haroun and the Sea of Stories."
The author, forced to live in hiding for years due to Muslim anger at his "Satanic Verses," also drily observes that he has "done a good deal of thinking, these past three years, about the advantages of a good pair of ruby slippers."
"The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" was a quick hit with turn-of-the-century audiences and spawned a 1902 Broadway musical that survived on tour for more than a decade. Between 1908 and 1914, Baum starred in, wrote, directed and/or produced five features and shorts based on his Oz tales.
Baum also had written a series of 14 Oz books by the time of his 1919 death. With later authors completing another 26 Oz novels, the whole series sold more than 10 million copies by the late 1940s.
This 60-year-old movie is one of the few of its era to have carved out a niche for itself on the Internet.
The Oz Web Ring lists 99 Web sites. The sites include fan pages (some very elaborate) with such materials as photos, personal reminiscences, blooper lists, song lyrics and trivia quizzes; promotional sites for comics; and memorabilia and costume-rental sites.
One ring site, "Jim's 'Wizard of Oz' Website" (www.geocities.com/wizozfan/), has had more than 255,000 hits in 3 1/2 years. Another site, "Broomsticks at 20 Paces" (www.geocities.com/almira_g/Almira.html), seeks to defend the wrongly hated Almira Gulch with Dorothy as the real villain.
A film this popular inevitably spawns pop trivia, such as the fact that Frank Morgan's coat in his Professor Marvel guise had belonged to Baum. Or, if you play the Pink Floyd album "Dark Side of the Moon" and "The Wizard of Oz" movie simultaneously, starting with the MGM lion's third roar, synchronicities of songs and lines begin. For example, when Dorothy is running from home, the song "On the Run" begins.
So popular and beloved has "The Wizard of Oz" become that it has become a punch line against its initial detractors.
A Paula Poundstone routine has the comedienne reading some of the film's critical raspberries from 1939 and then giving her 1980s audience a dumbfounded look.
"What if it turns out that 'Rambo III' was really good?" she asks. "And that years from now, they play it every Easter."

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