Tag Archives: judy garland

Beautiful Wickedness

Nothing much happens during “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Judy Garland leans against some hay, then walks, leans against this wheel, walks some more, then sits down. Five shots, about two and a half minutes, and that whole time we’re listening rather than watching because hers is the most wistful voice in all of human history. But minimalism or no, this shot is still surprisingly dense. It’s cut in half diagonally by Judy’s arms and by that wheel, whose arc across the frame guides our eyes toward the upper right—the same off-screen space Judy’s gazing at and singing about. Furthermore, the wheel gives her something sturdy to rely on as she sings her heart out, and its spokes work with the fence in the background to make her look especially imprisoned by Kansas farm life. But of course, like my favorite shot in Easter Parade, this is all about Judy’s eyes, and the sepia is even lightest around her head to accentuate them. Yes, The Wizard of Oz (1939) is this week’s pick for “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” and this is one of my three favorite images in the movie.

This is another of them, though about as far removed from Auntie Em’s farm as you could get. It’s a matte shot of the Wicked Witch’s castle that’s only onscreen for about two seconds, yet can have a colossal impact on the psyche of a child watching it. The Wizard of Oz overflows with marginal details that suggest sprawling, untold stories: What was the Witch of the East like? Where did the red brick road go? What exactly are the Winkies chanting, and why? Similarly, this shot suggests an impossibly tall fortress sprouting out of a chasm that threads its way around a mountain range, none of which ever actually existed. It’s just a single painting by the uncredited Warren Newcombe that nonetheless arouses the viewer’s curiosity and imagination, with reverberations that are tangible decades later in fantasies like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. This shot is visual magic, expanding the film’s already epic scope. (Speaking of camera tricks, I was surprised to realize on this rewatch of Oz that several of my favorite shots involve lap dissolves.)

Finally, sticking to the Witch’s castle, here’s my favorite shot. I really love Margaret Hamilton’s somewhere-over-the-top performance in this movie, and although she’s facing away the camera right now, she’s still oh god so terrifying. Here she’s at the height of her magical authority, screaming “Fly! Fly!” and gesturing broadly to whole squadrons of her simian slaves. This is one woman giddy with unbridled power, using it to exact revenge for her sister’s death. Like that matte painting of the castle, this shot suggests a gray vastness beyond the Witch’s fingertips, but here it’s framed within a picture window. Here we’re privy to the Witch’s war room, whose foreground is dotted with objects—vulture statue, candle, crystal ball, gyroscope—that call to my mind Hans Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors. This shot is an intimate portrait of evil, the kind the Witch herself might hang on her wall, with the camera stationed on the inside and gazing out. It’s a vantage point scarier than any lion, tiger, or bear.

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Easter Eggs

Ah, Easter Parade (1948). It’s one of those Arthur Freed musicals that exists as a delivery mechanism for singing, dancing, and Technicolor. Here, narrative becomes the cinematic equivalent of packing peanuts: kinda squishy, cushioning the goodies inside, but totally disposable. We get an abundance of love stories, with Judy Garland pining for Fred Astaire, who’s still tangled up with ex-partner Ann Miller, who’s chasing after charisma vacuum Peter Lawford. But these subplots only get cursory resolutions, because the movie knows why it’s there—i.e., to look and sound pretty.

Thankfully, it succeeds at both, because it’s this week’s pick for “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” over at The Film Experience. When the film heaves aside its obligatory romances, it becomes a pure performance showcase draped in rich purples, yellows, and greens. Just look at the gorgeous image above, from Astaire’s “Steppin’ Out with My Baby” dance. After running through a series of partners, he takes the foreground alone in his gleaming suit and, cane in hand, sways in slow-motion. With anyone else, this might be showing off. With Astaire, the shot plays like a physics experiment, an attempt to figure out how the hell he does it. But he’s not the only one doing magnificent work here, as demonstrated by my favorite shot.

Frivolous as Easter Parade’s backstage story may be, Judy really wrings the pathos out of it with “Better Luck Next Time.” She belts out the whole song in a single two-minute take, passing through false hope and frustration before concluding that “There ain’t gonna be no next time for me,” and breaking into tears. It’s one of the film’s least lavish scenes, but still one of the most effective thanks to the precision of her every plaintive gesture. Her eyes take over the screen, searching for that elusive “next time,” but after the line “That can never be…”, she shuts them for a second.

It’s as if she’s overwhelmed. As if she has to close her eyes to retreat, to gather energy, to brace herself for the last line of the song. As if she’d decided to personally make up for all the emotional intensity that the film’s screenplay lacks. Easter Parade has plenty of spectacular numbers—Astaire’s high-energy performance of the title song, for example, or Miller’s salacious “Shakin’ the Blues Away”—but I’m a sucker for a confessional solo. She may think there ain’t gonna be a next time, but I’ll watch her sing it again and again and again.

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