Tag Archives: the wizard of oz

See Wayne and Swoon


In 1932, John Wayne was washed up. “Since [The Big Trail] Wayne has done nothing of consequence, and his future looks none too promising,” declared Picture Play Magazine columnist Madeline Glass that April, in a piece on disposable “One-day Stars.” It had been six years since the beginning of his film career. Stagecoach was still seven years away. “Hollywood prophesied that John Wayne’s future would be brighter than Peggy Hopkins Joyce’s diamonds. So then what happened?… You’ll see [him] in an occasional ‘quickie,’ ” scoffed Photoplay’s Katherine Albert in August. He was still working consistently; that summer alone he appeared in Columbia’s Two-Fisted Law, Paramount’s Lady and Gent, and Warners’ Ride Him, Cowboy. But for the duration of the Depression, his career trajectory would remain a horizontal line.


In November, Gladys Zimmerman’s letter ran in Picture Play. She was writing from Lisbon, North Dakota, a town about an hour southwest of Fargo which even now holds scarcely over 2,000 people. Its Main Street runs south from the Sheyenne River, a path first charted by homesteader Joseph Colton in 1880. If you follow it for five blocks, you’ll end up at the Scenic Theater, which first opened in 1911 and today bills itself as the “oldest continuously run theater in America.” Perhaps Gladys’s passion first flowered there, in the glow of a 10¢ matinee.

Perhaps she saw an outlet for that passion in Picture Play. Within the magazine’s pages, her missive and its fervor would hardly have been outliers, since every issue abounded with similar declamations: fans trashing Norma Shearer, lusting after George Brent, gossiping about Garbo. What makes Gladys stand out, however, is the object of her desire—a future legend then experiencing his professional nadir—as well as the earnest giddiness of her prose. She opens with demands directed at her fellow moviegoers: “Wake up!” and “What are you going to do about it?” That’s the voice of a woman who’s standing on her soapbox and will yield to no one.

Throughout her letter, Gladys asserts the power of the female gaze. She’s undressing Wayne (who was then 25) with her words: “a real man’s physique… those broad shoulders, that magnificent body… half the female portion of the audience swoons in ecstasy.” It’s a mere degree removed from erotic poetry, and it outlines a fundamental truth about cinema: since the art form’s inception, actors have been put onscreen in part because they turn the audience on. Gladys, though, isn’t content just to watch her idol in cheap westerns. She may not go as far as her friend, who plans a trip west presumably for the sole purpose of bedding John Wayne, but she does end her letter with an entreaty: “please write me about him.”

Like much of the letter, that last line may initially provoke gentle laughter. It’s symptomatic of a young woman’s crush. But (like many crushes) it’s poignant, too; suggestive of loneliness. She wants to get closer to this tall, handsome man she’s seen in shoot-outs and stampedes. He’s smiled at her from the screen, stirred her feelings, entered her dreams. Maybe he’s made her more aware of the shortcomings that tarnish Lisbon’s eligible young men—for what real-life beau could ever measure up to a movie star?

A Star Is Born (William Wellman, 1937)

About five years later, A Star Is Born was released. It’s a show biz melodrama about a farm girl named Esther Blodgett, played by Janet Gaynor, who lives out Gladys’s friend’s fantasy by actually moving to Hollywood and marrying a star. The film opens with Esther coming home from the movie theater, kid brother in tow, gushing about actor Norman Maine. Her father, fiddling with his outdated stereoscope, is indifferent, but her aunt embarks on a full-blown tirade: “Gadding around picture shows, house all cluttered up with movie magazines… and the other day, I caught her talking to a horse with a Swedish accent!” This girl is spending too much time in her dreams. “You’d better be getting yourself a good husband,” advises the aunt, “and stop mooning about Hollywood.”

Esther’s family lives in Fillmore, North Dakota, which is a real place roughly four hours northwest of Lisbon. (Recent reports make it out to be a “ghost town,” devastated by the loss of a nearby railroad line.) If Gladys ever saw A Star Is Born, she may have identified with its heroine and her yen to migrate west. The movie is very deliberately structured as a small town girl’s wish fulfillment fantasy, allowing lucky Esther to metamorphose from a moviegoer into Vicki Lester, movie star: from the looker into the one who’s looked at. She may suffer, but it’s cathartic suffering that ends with her as the brightest star in filmdom’s firmament. Vicki and Esther and Janet Gaynor herself become avatars into whose stories young women can project themselves.

Hollywood becomes a paradise (“Metropolis of Make-Believe,” as A Star Is Born puts it) about which they can fantasize. It has all the romance and adventure that their Depression-blighted hometowns in the Midwest lack. Two years later, that same longing would find its apotheosis in the plaintive voice of another young woman who’d go on to star in her own A Star Is Born: Judy Garland, singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy may not be pining for a John Wayne or a Norman Maine, but her Emerald City isn’t too far from Gladys and Esther’s Hollywood. It’s somewhere other than a dusty farm. Somewhere she can do what what she wants and fashion herself as the person she wants to be. It’s like something she’s seen in a movie—it’s her dream.


Cartoon from Photoplay in November 1932. Artist uncredited.

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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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Horror is everywhere (2)

Jumping off from last week’s post about horror’s influence across genres, national boundaries, and levels of respectability, I’m going to look at a very specific subset of horror-related images. If you saw my special announcement last night, you’ll know that I have a personal interest in the connection between femininity and monstrosity. And that’s just what I’ve got for you! Culled from the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? list of the 1,000 most critically acclaimed films, here are female monsters in established classics from around the globe…

Rashomon (1950) – TSPDT ranking: #18

OK, so maybe the medium from Rashomon isn’t technically a “monster,” but this is still a terrifying moment. In order to extract testimony from a dead samurai, the court interviews a medium channeling his spirit, and his voice emanates from her like Mercedes McCambridge speaking through Linda Blair. The way she writhes and contorts just compounds the creepiness. As you’ll see later in this list, 1950s jidai-geki (samurai movies) are often informed by medieval Japanese mythology; witches and ghosts frequently intrude on secular affairs. And, although it was inspired by Shakespeare’s very scary Macbeth, similar horror motifs also show up in Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957).

Sunset Blvd. (1950) – TSPDT ranking: #31

Besides being easily one of the greatest films ever made, Billy Wilder’s bitter paean to tinseltown is also a brilliant genre hybrid, mixing black comedy, film noir, and horror. All three are visible in the image above, as faded movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) sinks deeper into delusion. By the end of the film, her tics and grandiose gestures have consumed her, and she looks grotesquely vampiric as she gazes into that mirror – teeth bared, nostrils flared, and face tilted upward. Swanson’s makeup exaggerates her facial features, turning her visage into a monstrous mask, and she completes the transformation with her unhinged, incomparable performance. Earlier in the film, Cecil B. DeMille (playing himself) remarks, “A dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit.” Norma is the monster; Hollywood’s publicity machine (aided by Erich von Stroheim as Max, the servant/ex-lover) is Dr. Frankenstein.

(For the “Sunset Blvd. as horror” argument, it’s worth remembering that the film contains a monkey in a casket.)

Persona (1966) – TSPDT ranking: #42

Let me put it this way: in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Elisabet (Liv Ullmanm) is a fucking vampire. OK, maybe she doesn’t literally suck the blood of her nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson), but she’s still an emotional vampire. She listens to Alma pour her heart out about past affairs, insecurities, etc., and says absolutely nothing, pretty much draining her of identity. With such an ambiguous, atmospheric movie, it’s hard to put it all into concrete terms, but believe me: she’s a vampire. During this scene, she sneaks into Alma’s room while she’s sleeping and they have a very weird, sensual, late-night interlude together. It’s never clear exactly what Elisabet’s doing, but in his own artful way, Bergman is definitely borrowing from the visual language of horror movies. He may have only made one or two “real” horror movies in his career, but the genre was always lurking right under the surface of his austere, spiritual experiments.

Ugetsu Monogatari – TSPDT ranking: #47

To be blunt about it, Kenji Mizoguchi’s lyrical masterpiece is one long ghost story, complete with a twist ending (and emotional sucker punch) that anticipated The Sixth Sense by half a century. Like Rashomon and Onibaba, it takes place against a backdrop of warfare and its collateral damage in medieval Japan. Here, an ambitious potter forgets his wife and son when he’s entranced by a beautiful noblewoman, Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyo, the wife from Rashomon). Granted, she’s a conniving, undead femme fatale with her fair share of ulterior motives, but Kyo also imbues her with a slightly tragic, pathetic quality. Also, note how the Buddhist prayers scrawled on the potter’s body would be repeated a decade later in the Citizen Kane of Japanese horror movies, Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964).

The Wizard of Oz (1939) – TSPDT ranking: #66

This is perhaps the classic example of kindertrauma-inflicting nightmare fuel. Every little kid is told about Dorothy and Toto and the Emerald City, and how they’re going to love this fun, cute movie… and then this green-faced harridan lunges out of a cloud of smoke, and the little kids start wetting themselves. This isn’t the worst of it, either; just wait till later on, when she’s flinging balls of flame and ordering around an army of flying monkeys. Margaret Hamilton is perfectly cast as the pointy-nosed old lady everybody loves to hate. She’s just so evil – and garish, and histrionic, and anti-fun – and she wields black magic to enforce her dictatorial reign over Oz. She’s many a child’s first worst nightmare.

Vampires, ghosts, and witches are all over the place, in Hollywood classics and art film masterpieces. I’ll be back with more “Horror is everywhere” next week!

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“Not even once”: PSAs and horror

So, I haven’t posted in 2 weeks and Ashley has not in 1 week. This is very sad, but the facts are these: we both have significant non-blog obligations (e.g., writing other things, going to classes, illustrating, studying, etc.), which unfortunately must come first. However, since it’s the Halloween season – a season I have been greatly enjoying, whether by watching movies like Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case or by writing scary stories/comics/oral narratives – I’d like to try and post as much as I can on the subjects of fear and horror.

They’re both really near and dear to my heart, for a number of reasons that begin with fear’s huge role in my life. What can I say? I am a generally fearful person. And I think fear is important: first, on an evolutionary level, to keep you from being killed by scary things and second, on a personal level, because fear is fun. Let’s face it. We like being scared. It engages the body, it gets neurochemicals flowing, it’s just really appealing to us as human animals. And so I continue in my extensive study of the horror genre. I’ve recently started thinking about one curious location where horror can be found: public service announcements, or PSAs.

PSAs are frequently government-produced or else made by nonprofit organizations, and their purpose is, for the most part, to direct behavior – to guide people onto one path or another that will presumably be better for their physical and psychological health. Often, this leads to accusations that PSAs are ridiculous on one level or another for their presumptions that they know how you should act, as well as their attempts to “scare you straight.” These are the kinds of tactics I’m talking about. This type of PSA, from what I’ve seen, predominates. They’re basically cautionary tales, but adapted to the medium of advertising, which means they’re usually about 30 seconds long. I have to applaud the organizations that produce them, because they often compact such a huge, effective message into such a small time-span.

Granted, some PSAs may appeal to your intelligence and sense of responsibility – I think, for example, of Smokey the Bear’s “Only you can prevent forest fires!” – but even these would often resort to showing the consequences of the behavior in question (i.e., a forest fire and its horrific implications). The simple fact is that you can sway more people by scaring the shit out of them than by trying to convince them that they should be smart enough not to do drugs (PSAs’ most frequent target), or drink poison. You want to really show kids why they shouldn’t drink poison? Overwhelm their senses with a melange of darkly psychedelic animation, represent household cleaning products as monsters, and top it all off with a menacing voice reciting a chorus of nursery rhyme simplicity: “Mr. Yuk is mean. Mr. Yuk is green!”

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time on the TV Tropes page for “Nightmare Fuel,” which is basically where people can post supposedly innocuous bits of media from their childhood that scarred the shit out of them. Children have interestingly undeveloped mental processes. While adults may have a relatively full understanding of the world – like knowing that no, Mr. Yuk labels aren’t really anything to be afraid of, and household cleaners are not marching to attack you – children just don’t.

I’m not well-versed enough in child psychology to explain how and why this happens, but I will link to Wikipedia’s page on Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. Basically, children experience the world differently, because there are various orders and properties of objects they haven’t yet discovered. Even preteens will often have strange misconceptions about how the world works, physically and socially. And often, PSAs will play to these misconceptions in order to permanently scare the child away from an undesired behavior.

So we all pretty much have little ads or segments from shows that scarred us in childhood. One classic example is the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz. They’re relatively understandable to adults, acting as the Wicked Witch’s henchmen. But a child, seeing a monkey with wings (an unusual combination), flying through a dark sky accompanied by the Witch’s leitmotif, then picking up the protagonists and carrying them away?

It’s a nightmarish scene that can inspire intense fear, and the same goes for the “Wondrous Boat Ride” scene from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Many Internet pundits can have commented on this scene: it comes out of nowhere, takes up a few minutes of intense, frightening screen time, and is then forgotten by the film. It’s also effective in further establishing the unpredictable nature of Wonka and his factory. But to a child, seeing “Pure Imagination” followed by scenes of graphic mutilation and a trippy light show? My point is that it’s fucking scary. And this doesn’t just apply to children (I can say from experience), but for children these scenes can leave a deep emotional mark, inspire lifelong phobias, and color their still-developing perceptions of the world.

That said, you can see how PSAs aim to reach kids while they’re still young and impressionable, and guide their behavior for the rest of their lives. Yesterday Ashley linked me to the Montana Meth Project, which I first ran into in my melodrama class last year; their methods are similar to the more child-oriented PSAs I’ve been discussing, but their target group is teenagers. Hence, we get ads going after teens’ anxieties about peer pressure, sex, and their futures.

As Ashley pointed out to me, this is like a horror movie in half a minute. It’s got a concise little narrative: the girl’s going to deceive her parents and probably go to a party and try meth. But first she’s going to shower, and it’s in the shower, while she’s at her most vulnerable, that this apparition appears, of her future self, covered in scabs and scratches, begging her, “Don’t do it… don’t do it…” It uses horror iconography to communicate a very real-world message: if you go and do meth at this party tonight, you will end up a different, less happy person within a year or two. (This is the overarching theme of this campaign and the origin of its slogan, “Not even once.”)

The website notes, “This new concept is based directly on input from Montana teens,” and I find that very interesting. They’re addressing the teens’ fears head-on, building the ads around them, but twisting them into terrifying, violent mini-narratives. I think this connects to another series of ads I’ve long found very disturbing, and I think I’ll end this post by talking about them. They’re Canadian PSAs about workplace safety, designed specifically to horrify adults in high-risk jobs, and they’re produced by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board of Ontario.

What exactly about these is so scary? Maybe it’s the slogan “There really are no accidents,” which places responsibility for the gruesome manglings directly in the hands of the victims, their coworkers, and their companies. Maybe it’s the accidents themselves, clearly evocative of horror/disaster movies, or maybe it’s how self-aware the victims are. “I’ve got this amazing fiancé,” says a chief, “who I won’t be marrying this weekend, because I’m about to be in a terrible ‘accident’.” The fact that she knows her face is about to be scalded, yet goes on mechanically about her work, is just spine-chilling.

This is an aspect of the PSA that might be interesting to examine later, in more detail: the voice of reason, or of the government, that pervades them, whether through a narrator or superimposed text stating, “This is your brain on drugs,” or through these victims of meth and workplace carelessness telling their own stories. We have these grisly 30-second vignettes, and it’s all framed in such a knowing, authoritative way. This is the way the world is, the PSAs seem to say, as a woman falls off a ladder or as a scab-riddled meth addict turns up in the shower. Now you have to adjust to it.

Pleasant nightmares.


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