Wizard of Oz, The (1939): No Place Like Home?–Best Family Film of All Time, Starring Judy Garland

“There’s no place like home!”

Voted by the American Film Institute (AFI) as the Best Family Film of all time, “The Wizard of Oz” has charmed audiences of every age for seven decades.

“Wizard of Oz” and “Gone with the Wind,” both released in 1939, stand together in the American collective consciousness as the two greatest Hollywood films, one ostensibly for children, the other for adults. However, the influence of “Wizard of Oz” on three generations of adults, who first saw the film as children, may be greater than that of “GWTW.”

In 1990, images from both films came to grace commemorative 50th anniversary postal stamps. While the image of Rhett and Scarlett embracing has come to represent ideals of romantic love in America, the image of Dorothy and friends skipping down the Yellow Brick Road is more complex, containing associations with youth, community, family, and progress.

Images (and songs) from “Wizard of Oz” have become such a solid part of American culture that they are almost a language unto themselves, what Aljean Harmetz calls a “shorthand in the marketplace.” Many cartoonists and advertisers have borrowed the imagery and characters from the film, without needing to explain the references to their audience. The film’s yellow brick road has reappeared in many contexts, including the cover of Elton John’s album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, which featured the hit song of the same title.

Repeatedly referred to as a film for children of all ages, “Wizard of Oz” has become a part of growing up in America, while its narrative offers a definition of what growing up in America is all about. This is achieved through the story of Dorothy, who must find her way home from the childish Never-Never Land of Oz to become a mature woman. “Wizard of Oz” has been sanctioned as a central fairy tale of American popular culture, because it teaches us how to become assimilate, in a distinctly American way.

Adapted from L. Frank Baum’s timeless children’s tale about a Kansas girl’s journey over the rainbow, “Wizard of Oz” opened at Loew’s Capitol Theatre in New York on August 17, 1939. The film was directed by Victor Fleming (who that same year directed “Gone With the Wind”), produced by Mervyn LeRoy, and scored by Herbert Stothart, with music and lyrics by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg. Ray Bolger appeared as the Scarecrow; Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion, Jack Haley as the Tin Woodman, and Frank Morgan was seen in six different roles, including that of the “wonderful Wizard” himself.

Dorothy was portrayed by a 4’11” sixteen year old girl who quickly earned her reputation as “the world’ greatest entertainer”– the incomparable Judy Garland. “Wizard of Oz” received five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, and captured two Oscars: Best Song (“Over the Rainbow”) and Best Original Score, plus a special award for Outstanding Juvenile Performance by Judy Garland.

“Wizard of Oz” was an overwhelming popular and critical success upon its initial release and repeated its ability to captivate audiences when M-G-M reissued the film in 1949 and 1955. The film made a new kind of history with its network television premiere in 1956 on CBS. Nearly 45 million people tuned in for this initial telecast, marking the beginning of a tradition. Ever since, “Wizard of Oz” has been shown virtually annually on network (and then cable) television; its magical story and heartfelt performances have enabled it to grow from a perennial classic to its current status as a treasured icon of popular culture.

The movie begins like a classic fairy tale: “For nearly forty years this story has given faithful service to the Young in Heart. Time has been powerless to put its kindly philosophy out of fashion. To those of you who have been faithful to it in return–and to the Young in Heart–we dedicate this picture.”

At the end, Dorothy explaining what she has learned during her journey, says: “Well, I think that it…that it wasn’t enough just to want to see Uncle Henry and Auntie Em…and it’s that if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.”