04 November 2009

“Scarcely Anything in It to Please the Eye”

Jeremy Dibbell at PhiloBiblos alerted me that the Times of London website had unearthed the paper’s review of MGM’s Wizard of Oz, in connection with some behind-the-scenes footage. It’s apparent that the Times critic didn’t appreciate the art direction:

It is presumably to the credit of Hollywood that it can afford to deploy a whole army of dwarfs for the illustration of a single incident in a simple fairy story; this innumerable band of midgets reduces to insignificance the collection of the Gonzagas or, if it comes to that, of Philip IV of Spain.

The rest of the spectacle is equally lavish; there are extraordinary vistas of artificial scenery, many amusing tricks and devices of the cinema, witches who fly in a very natural fashion, puffs of scarlet smoke, and a horse which changes its colour from brilliant purple to orange.

In fact the ingenuous fairy story from which the film is adapted, the story of a little girl who wanders in a strange country in the company of stranger creatures to look for a wizard to send her home, is quite overlaid by the fantastic elaboration of the setting.

The only drawback to the spectacle is that there is scarcely anything in it to please the eye; although many of the conjuring tricks will certainly arouse one’s curiosity the scenery and dresses are designed with no more taste than is commonly used in the decoration of a night-club.

The film is, no doubt, a triumph of technical dexterity and especially of skill in colour photography, but what is the use of making a hollyhock out of cellophane, painting it an ugly colour, and then photographing it with complete accuracy?
A portion of the same column not shown on that page introduces The Wizard of Oz as “a lavish American fairy-story told, for the most part, in technicolour,” in contrast to two other new movies described as “British and characteristic.” Which seems to have aroused some resentment.

Though, to be fair, the movie arrived in London in January 1940, the middle of the “phoney war” as the British anxiously anticipated a fight with Nazi Germany. That may not have been the best time for Hollywood to show off its dwarfs and cellophane.

(Lobby card image above courtesy of Conway’s Vintage Treasures.)

No comments: