When Dorothy opened her front door, she let in a swirling, Technicolor maelstrom of absurd gimmickry, as Mervyn LeRoy's half-baked, slipshod plan to capitalize on Walt Disney's success. And well, it was quite literally Technicolor. I'll give LeRoy credit for this much: if he was going to make such a drastic transition from Vidor and Canon's gritty pure cinema build to more Disney-esque cinema entertainment, the switch from sepia tones to Technicolor was an appropriate and well-used one. I cannot be nearly as complimentary to what was being colored. The garish fantasy land Dorothy stepped into was wholly incredible. Even Disney's settings weren't so far-fetched, and he built his promotion around a talking mouse as his top babyface!
It didn't stop there. Director Norman Taurog used this scene to introduce one of his big new signings, Billie Burke. Again, this was a good call in and of itself. Not only was Burke a good veteran hand who had performed ably throughout the decade in films like Dinner at Eight, Topper, and Merrily We Live (the last of which earned her an Oscar nomination), she had previously worked with Judy Garland in the movie Everybody Sing, which was pretty much made as a vehicle to help get over Garland with the fans. She was a natural fit for the movie. So naturally, they had to handicap her by giving her a ridiculous gimmick. Floating in in the shape of a large pink bubble, Burke emerged as Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. Here I was thinking Almira Gulch had it bad transforming from a bitter old lady into a witch. At least she didn't start out as a pack of chewing gum. I suppose I should be crediting them (well, L. Frank Baum, anyway) for taking a chance on booking a witch gimmick - typically reserved for heels - as a babyface. You're still asking me to buy into a witch. No wonder kayfabe is dead.
It was bad enough to have Disney do it. At least he had already established himself as a guy who booked around gimmickry and played to an audience of kids and families who bought into the spectacle. MGM fans had long been accustomed to the more serious fare of Flesh and the Devil, The Broadway Melody, Grand Hotel, Captains Courageous, and Boys Town. Their gimmick films were often historical works like The Big Parade and Mutiny on the Bounty, and they carried much the same weight their more straightforward films did. They were the studio that took the Marx Brothers - a comedy act that had flopped as headliners in Duck Soup (though revisionist historians watching through 2010 eyes will frequently claim that film was better than it's reputation suggests) - and wisely put them in the background of A Night at the Opera behind more legitimate main eventers Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones. And their own animated gimmick draws - Tom and Jerry - were kept in undercard shorts where they belonged. Perhaps only the Tarzan series came this close to exposing the business while still being an effective draw, but even they weren't this bad, and Johnny Weissmuller's look and background as a Gold medal-winning Olympian lent him the kind of credibility that allowed him to pull off such a role. But I doubt even a Weissmuller-caliber worker could have sold MGM fans on this. Yet, Judy Garland had to try, and by gum, that's what she did.
Judy bent over backwards to make every ludicrous turn the story took seem legitimate and believable. At least, Dorothy seemed to believe it, and through her conviction, the audience may have been able to accept it to a degree as well. Her awestruck look as she first stepped out of her house and into the land of Oz was not the look of embarrassment we had seen in the prior tornado sequence, but one of genuine, childlike wonder. Her reaction to meeting Glinda, and their first interaction with each other (Glinda asks "Are you a good witch or a bad witch?" When Dorothy replies that she's not any kind of witch, she asks if Toto is a witch. Way to get your new character over as someone the crowd should take seriously, guys.) is handled in a strangely natural way on her part.
But for everything Judy does right, LeRoy makes two things go wrong. Apparently, Glinda had (very, very mildly) good reason to suspect Dorothy was a witch - when her house crash landed, it did so right on top of The Wicked Witch of the East, killing her stone dead. Do I even need to point out the problem here? You have two obvious programs - Glinda vs. The Wicked Witch of the East, and Dorothy vs. The Wicked Witch of the East. If you don't have the patience to build it up properly, you could cut out the set-up with Glinda (with might have worked as a semi-main under Dorothy vs. The Tornado) and go straight to Dorothy vs. TWWotE. They didn't even do that. They book Dorothy to go over TWWotE completely accidentally, without even knowing who she was, and just go straight to the aftermath. They didn't just abandon pure cinema build, they abandoned build!
Anyway, with TWWotE dead, the village of minis she had been tormenting come out of hiding and sing gleefully, eating up valuable time that could have been spent building up some angle. Any angle. But apparently Mervyn LeRoy thought the real reason people wanted to see The Wizard of Oz was to watch wildly dressed people in fantastic settings sing and dance. Whatever.
But it all comes to a screeching halt when the thoroughly witchified Almira Gulch materializes in a ball of flame in the middle of "Munchkinland". Well, sort of. It seems that Gulch's change in wardrobe has brought with it a change in gimmick. In fact, Dorothy doesn't even recognize her as the former Almira Gulch (even though she saw her transform during the freakin' tornado!), and the previous gimmick is never brought up again. Instead, she now proclaims herself to be The Wicked Witch of the West, sister of The Wicked Witch of the East (they're doing a sibling revenge feud without even letting Dorothy feud with the other sibling first? This is supposed to work how, exactly?). The gist of the thing is that East had a pair of ruby slippers that do...something, and West, being her next of kin, has come to claim them. Trouble is that since Dorothy beat East in decisive - if poorly built - fashion, she now possesses the slippers, a fact solidified when Glinda magically zaps them onto her feet (just go with it). Glinda further states that The Wicked Witch of the West can't hurt Dorothy so long as she wears the slippers, which totally kills any interest in a fight between the two, but this is kind of a lost cause at this point. Still, West cuts a promo warning Dorothy that she wants those slippers, and she'll get them somehow. And with that, we find ourselves in a strange situation: despite the mountain of crap that it's now buried under, we actually have just established a nice little feud here, and between the same two people that King Vidor originally wanted to pit against each other, no less. Sure, the setting, the circumstances, and Margaret Hamilton's gimmick have all been given a major (and idiotic) overhaul, but we do now have two rival characters, one who possesses some sort of prize (the ruby slippers), and one who wants to take that prize from them, and it's going to lead to a fight. It helps that Hamilton may have gotten wrestling almost as well as Garland did. Sure the "Wicked Witch" gimmick was silly, but she seemed to figure that out early on and decided to just have fun with it. She's not exactly Money Mayweather or Chael Sonnen, but she's more than this movie deserved. She is, however, what Judy Garland deserved: a strong heel with whom she had a natural chemistry. Even gimmicked up and not playing the role entirely straight, Hamilton injected just enough menace into her over-the-top micwork to make her seem a threat, and Garland's innocent naivete suggested a very real fear that would make the feud all the more compelling. For every other problem I might have with this film, Garland and Hamilton's scenes together remain a joy to watch.
The Wicked Witch of the West Makes Her Debut: