MGM’s lavish adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz amazingly wasn’t a hit upon its release in 1939. Not until its yearly television broadcast beginning in the 1960s did it became the timeless classic it is today. With all the production problems that the film faced, it’s surprising that it turned out so well. It would be hard to single out one factor that contributes to the film’s legendary status. From the marvelous performances anchored by Judy Garland’s unmatched Dorothy to the superb songs of Harold Arlen and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, all play a role in the film’s success.
The New York Times raved, “A fairybook tale has been told in the fairbyook style, with witches, goblins, pixies and other wondrous things drawn in the brightest colors and set cavorting to a merry little score. It is all so well-intentioned, so genial and so gay that any reviewer who would look down his nose at the fun-making should be spanked and sent off, supperless, to bed.”
I’m sure that Arlen and Harburg’s songs, including the Oscar-winning “Over the Rainbow” (which was almost cut from the film), won Herbert Stothart his Oscar for Best Original Score, but that would diminish Stothart’s contribution. Not only did he adapt the now-classic songs, Stothart also blended in his own rich underscoring with melodic snippets of the songs to form a cohesive whole.
The songs may be what most people remember but you’d be surprised how much of the score may be embedded in your brain. Maybe it’s the bassoon and strings running alongside Dorothy and Toto to a quote from Schumann’s “The Happy Farmer” (one of many classical quotes throughout the score). Or perhaps it’s the English horn and muted brass distorting the melody line from “We’re Off to See the Wizard” to supply the theme for Miss Gulch (Margaret Hamilton) and her fantasy alter egos, the Wicked Witches. Or it could be something as simple as the four-note celeste motif that announces the arrival of Glinda, the Witch of the North (Billie Burke).
The oboe triplets that signal Dorothy’s lighthearted trip to the cornfield will appear in various guises as underscoring to the three versions of “If I Only Had a (Brain),” sung by the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), Tin Man (Jack Haley), and Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr). The scene in the apple orchard uses a subtle quote of “In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree.” Memorable marches are used as Dorothy and the gang emerge from the poppy field into the Emerald City and the “March of the Winkies” voiced with the classic syllables “O-Ee-Yah! Eoh-Ah!” Toto’s chase is based on Mendelssohn and the rescue of Dorothy in the castle uses a quote of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” followed by some exciting action music as our troops is chased around the castle.
Stothart’s Oscar has been debated for years. Considering the film has so many songs, it can be argued that is should have been placed in the Scoring category, thereby opening up a slot for Max Steiner to win for his immortal Gone With the Wind. It’s a tough choice. But as much as I like Steiner’s score, Stothart, who embodied the smooth sheen of the M-G-M pictures, deservedly won.