Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Darker Side of Oz: Guest Post by Guy Bolton

Guy Bolton is a novelist and screenwriter; he lives in London. The Pictures (Oneworld/Point Blank) is his first novel, a noir thriller about a detective who investigates the mysterious death of one of the producers of The Wizard of Oz. It has been shortlisted for the CWA New Blood Dagger Award

Guy Bolton
The Darker Side of Oz

Movies about movies are common. From recent hits The Artist and Hail Caesar! to classics Singin’ In The Rain and Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood loves to interrogate and applaud itself. And yet oddly, I’ve not read or come across many novels about Hollywood, at least not many about the Hollywood Golden Age.

Those years roughly between ‘30s and 50s produced thousands of movies. Television was very much in its infancy so the movie theater was the center of people’s social lives. In fact, most people in the US went once or twice a week, with a new movie released on average every single day.

And despite marking the beginning of World War II, 1939 is widely considered to be the greatest year in cinema history. In no other year has there been such a string of great films that people still watch and talk about today: Stagecoach, Gone With The Wind, Babes in Arms, Goodbye Mister Chips and of course, The Wizard of Oz, the centerpiece of my crime fiction novel The Pictures.

But whilst the 1939 setting seemed apt, many people have asked me why I decided to write a noir about the making of a musical. As genres go, musicals and films noir are arguably at different ends of the spectrum. Darkness versus color. Cynicism versus optimism. Singing versus… well, killing.

I’ve always thought that the two have a lot in common. In The Wizard of Oz, a young girl is dragged into a dangerous world where she has to navigate a series of terrors and a psychopathic matriarch before she can return home. Cast a different light on it and it could be straight out of a James M. Cain novel.

Besides, it’s pretty remarkable that a film that’s over 75 years old is still being watched by people the world over, let alone an icon of American popular culture. It’s a testament to the unique characters and world, to the memorable songs and simple and heart-warming message that “there’s no place like home.”

And what many people don’t realize is that the making of The Wizard of Oz is in itself an incredible story, with a series of unusual and almost unbelievable events that seem too outrageous to be true: the first time they painted the yellow brick road it showed up as green in early Technicolor tests; Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch received second degree burns on her hands and face in an on-set accident; the actor who originally played the Tin Man had to be replaced because he suffered an allergic reaction to the aluminum powder in his make-up.

And then there were the Munchkins; MGM scoured the Western world for little people who could play the cutesy Lullaby League and Lollipop Guild who send Dorothy off on the yellow brick road. But many of the Munchkin actors had never met another little person before. Tales of debauchery are rife, with rumours of gambling, prostitution and drunken orgies that many – including Judy Garland – swore were true.

But perhaps, the thing that surprises me the most: “Over the Rainbow,” one of the most celebrated songs of the last century, was almost cut from the picture entirely. Louis Mayer thought it slowed the pacing down and was worried about how people would accept one of his stars singing in a barnyard. Only producer Arthur Freed fought for it to stay in. It could have all been so different.

There’s some pathos too when you watch The Wizard Of Oz with the benefit of hindsight. Sadly, at sixteen, Garland was well on her way to being a drug addict, with the studio giving her amphetamines to control her weight and keep her buoyant for the hectic filming schedule and barbiturates to bring her down and get her to sleep at night. Less than ten years later Garland had a nervous breakdown and placed in a psychiatric ward after attempting suicide. She was dead at 47.

The Wizard of Oz is endlessly quotable. But my favourite line has always been “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”. Because sometimes, behind the curtain is where the true drama lies.

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