'The Wizard of Oz' Dazzled Audiences 75 Years Ago Today

Wizard of oz
The Tin Man, The Scarecrow, The Cowardly Lion and Glinda The Good Witch, during the world premiere screening of "The Wizard of Oz" in IMAX 3D at the grand opening of the TCL Chinese Theatre IMAX in Hollywood, California. Fred Prouser/Reuters

Whimsical classic The Wizard of Oz premiered 75 years ago Saturday at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood, where thousands of fans lined the streets hoping for a glimpse of Judy Garland or Toto the dog. The musical comedy instantly dazzled audiences with its singular score, sparkling ruby slippers and flying monkey antics. An adaptation of L. Frank Baum's 1889 story, the movie became a cultural staple; according to the Library of Congress, it's the most-watched film of all time.

To celebrate the anniversary of this monumental work, you can read Newsweek's original review of The Wizard of Oz premiere, from the August 21, 1939, issue of the magazine.


The Fabulous Land of Oz: Dream World Via Cyclonic Ride Re-Created in Technicolor

With the notable exception of Walt Disney's Snow White, Hollywood's attempts to snare the mood of fantasies and fairy stories have been indifferently rewarded. Perhaps the fact that the Disney cartoon will eventually gross at least $7,500,000 – an all-time screen record – encouraged Metro Goldwyn-Mayer to risk approximately $3,000,000 on a flesh-and-blood re-creation of another famous children's story.

L. Frank Baum wrote The Wizard of Oz in 1889, and such was its popularity, both as a book and – three years later – as a musical extravaganza for Fred Stone and Dave Montgomery, that he decided to carry on the series. Before he died in 1919, Baum had written fifteen novels about this Shangri-La of the adolescents; since his death the Oz series has been extended by as many more volumes. Today the adventure sof Dorothy, the little girl who was lifted by a Kansas cyclone – house, dog Toto and all – and set down among the Munchkins on the border of the fabulous and fascinating land of Oz, have been eagerly followed by some 25,000,000 readers.

The screen version by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf treads closely enough in the footprints of Dorothy's magic slippers as she follows the yellow brick road to the Emerald City, but its whimsy has been broadened by antics after the musical-comedy manner and the interpolation of patter songs in Herbert Stothart's excellent score.

As in the book, Dorothy (Judy Garland) lives on a prairie farm with her Uncle Henry and Aunt Em. But the world of the film Dorothy (a rather more buxom Dorothy than the child of W.W. Denslow's illustrations) has been augmented by three simple-minded farm hands, an itinerant professor of abracadabra, and a mean and beak-nosed neighbor. When Dorothy is bowled unconscious by the "twister," her adventures in Oz appear as a logical projection of her dream world: the farm hands are reincarnated as the Tin Woodman (Jack Haley), the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), and the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr); the nasty neighbor reappears to cause trouble as the wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton); and the professor proves to be none other than that harmless humbug, the Wizard himself (Frank Morgan). Glinda the Good (Billie Burke), the military Winkies, the flying monkeys, and the Munchkins – played by the Singer Midgets – are apparently non-Kansas contributions to Dorothy's delirium.

Produced by Mervyn LeRoy and directed by Victor Fleming, The Wizard of Oz was two busy years in the making. Magnificent sets and costumes, vivid Technicolor, and every resource of trick photography – including a realistically contrived cyclone – bolster the competent cast that strikes a happy medium between humor and make-believe. The more fanatic Ozophiles may dispute M-G-M's remodeling of the story, but the average movie-goer – adult or adolescent – will find it novel and richly satisfying to the eye.