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SPECIAL SCREENING

Dorothy's in O.C. (That Goes for Her Little Dog, Too)

April 01, 1993|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lancer who regularly writes about film for The Times Orange County Edition.

I recently read somewhere about a Hollywood shrink who has her clients dwell on "The Wizard of Oz" during sessions.

This Yellow Brick Road therapy supposedly asks them whom they identify with most: Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, the Cowardly Lion or the Wicked Witch of the West. Sorry, apparently Toto doesn't count, even on those shaggy, bad-hair days when you feel especially small and whiny.

Anyway, as I remember it, the idea is that these characters are so familiar that they've become archetypes ready to serve as surrogates for emotional release. Feeling estranged? Dorothy, with her "there's no place like home" mantra, might be your call for the day. No confidence? Go on, growl along with the Cowardly Lion.

I have no idea how beneficial any of this psychology might be (there's certainly a New-Age wishfulness about it), but who could dispute the significance of all those characters? They've become part of our subconscious language--think of the Scarecrow and without thinking much you think of wanting more, of wanting smarts.

That's as good a reason as any to call the joyous 1939 release a classic. This venerable MGM musical screens Friday at the United Artists' City Cinema in Orange, providing a great opportunity for anybody who has only seen "The Wizard of Oz" on TV.

This is one of those films that shouts for a big screen--the sweeping Technicolor, painted visuals and goofy, storybook images make for quite a sight. There's also the pleasure a modern sound system can bring. The songs by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg (some of the most satisfying and giddy ever to make it to the movies) deserves a row of fat speakers and all the fancy technology therein.

Few family pictures have had quite the enduring impact of this one. Remember (not so long ago, really) when it was one of the largest annual television events? Like the better Christmas films, "The Wizard of Oz" has a touchstone quality; there's something comforting about its very presence.

That distinguished it early on, and its popularity continued to grow. Starting in the '40s, fans revealed obsessive streaks, holding "Oz" festivals where folks would attend dressed as favorite characters, mouthing key lines and adopting personality traits. "The Wizard of Oz" was the "Star Trek" of its day.

With such adulation came an interest in the history and several books dedicated to the movie's details. With all that fascination, a trove of "Oz" trivia has emerged.

For instance, that the slippers Dorothy wears in the Frank Baum novel on which the film is based are silver and she says, "Take me home to Aunt Em!" at the end. The ruby red numbers were brought in to satisfy the glory of Technicolor and, I guess, the ultra-famous "There's no place like home" line was considered zippier. Wise moves.

On the casting side, most people probably know that Shirley Temple was the first choice for Dorothy; Judy Garland, not much of a name in those days, gained the part by default. Garland became so synonymous with Dorothy that I can't even imagine the pouty Temple skipping through Oz.

As for that windbag of a wizard, MGM wanted W.C. Fields, but a prior commitment prevented him from coming aboard. Frank Morgan, an expert windbag, got the job. Jack Haley became the Tin Woodman only because Buddy Ebsen couldn't stand the silver makeup. It made him sick after just a few minutes.

Then there's Toto, another tale of Hollywood serendipity. The role had originally been promised to Rin Tin Tin, but a bidding war erupted when Lassie got involved. Hoping to save money (and avoid a scandal in the gossip columns), MGM surprised everybody by going with an unknown, a shoebox-sized mongrel with only vaudeville experience.

OK, I made that last one up.

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