It was Easter, 2001. I had been in the hospital since Valentine’s Day, three and a half weeks of that in a coma, and had been transferred from Sunnybrook Trauma to the St. John’s Rehab Hospital. Hit head on, I had been choppered to Sunnybrook with life-threatening injuries, long story, not for here.
Easter Sunday, I woke to the usual. Did my fifty pull-ups, and surveyed my badly broken body. The swelling in my legs was gone, but the eighteen breaks and insertion of metal had badly bruised them. Still flat on my back because of the external fixator drilled into my broken pelvis, I was sore with adult diaper rash, I could see the bright blood when they cleaned me and worried everytime I got a chest pain, concerned that my damaged heart was going to stop. The staple marks on my chest and stomach were still an angry red, they drove me crazy with the itch.
The girls came early, Aurora and Ari were wearing new clothes the Easter Bunny had left, carrying bright baskets, and as always Sherri looked lovely. This had been the first Easter she had done everything on her own and she was very clear she did not care for it. We had never been apart for a major holiday since we got together in 1988.
She set up an Easter Egg Hunt in the room so I could watch fifteen-month-old Ari find the brightly covered chocolate eggs. Her big sister helped her fill her basket, and then that lovely baby dumped half her basket into her sisters. We chatted, laughed, we had fun, but then they had to leave for Easter dinner at her mom’s. Big tears formed in her eyes as she kissed me goodbye, she clearly did not want to leave.
“Maybe I could drop the girls and come back?” she said. No way, she was tired, I could see that and the girls needed her with them on Easter, I told her gently but made it clear I loved the gesture. Lots of hugs for Daddy and then they were gone.
At two that afternoon CBC played The Wizard of Oz (1939) and loving it, I settled in to watch. Watching it, something hit me, something deep and emotional, that I was powerless to control. During the hourglass scene where Dorothy is being held hostage by the witch, she has until the sand runs out to live and is frightened. I was laying there, a forty-one-year-old man, weeping like a baby, tears falling on my shirt in big blotches. Anne Marie, one of my four nurses came in and at once came to me, holding my hand sitting on the bed.
“John, what is it?” She asked.
“I’m Dorothy!” I said between sobs, “I just want to go home, I miss my girls.”
She soothed me, got me calmed down before the other three guys came back (thank God) and I felt very foolish but entirely right. She looked puzzled, which made me feel like a jerk, but then her soothing voice was a huge help.
Like Dorothy, I had been away a long time and some of it had been horrible. Waking up realizing I had lost twenty-one days, memory loss, great lifelong pain, I was bedridden at least another month, and the fear I might not walk again was weighing heavy on me. But mostly I missed my girls. Whenever Sherri hugged me the smell of her hair filled me with warmth, with love, she was my wife, but she was home.
I missed everything about home.
The girls to had a lovely smell, but just hugging their little frames gave me such peace. I wanted like Dorothy in Oz to go home because I had learned her lesson, that there was no place like it. I missed the wide open spaces of our big country house, I missed the home smell, I missed the cats finding me, I missed watching the girls play, or helping them dress a Barbie or Polly Pocket. Mostly I missed night time. For years we had gone to sleep the same way. Sherri placed her head on my chest, draped an arm across me, and wrapped her leg around my middle. She got as close to me as she could to utilize my body heat, and never was she cold. Sometimes we did not move, but if we did she was still close, still attached or hugging me, I missed that intimacy.
The Wizard of Oz (1939) has been in my life since I was four. The first time I saw it on a black and white console the Wicked Witch, had a profound influence on me. She terrified me. I clearly remember a close up of her laughing maniacally and that was it, I was done, fleeing down the hall screaming bloody murder, my father in hot pursuit.
Through the years I cannot count the number of times I have seen the film, and today it is among the greatest films Hollywood ever produced, but more is part of us; having somehow attached itself to our soul. We are with her on that sparse, boring farm as she sings Over the Rainbow, and journey with her inside the cyclone to Oz. As the house lands with a thump, she gently opens the door to reveal a land of bright colors. Inside her house is still dark, sepia tones, but outside that door almost glows with vibrancy. When she steps out, her dress becomes bright blue, her red reddish brown, her cheeks red, she is beautiful.
But she has an issue. Her house landed on the Witch of the East, who wore bright burgundy ruby shoes, coveted by the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) the most badass witch you will ever encounter. Her skin is green, warts decorate her nose and face, her eyes blaze with inner fury, and when she arrives and leaves she does so in fire and smoke. When Dorothy (Judy Garland) is given those coveted shoes by Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, she becomes an instant enemy of the Witch of West. Knowing she wants to go home, Glinda tells her the only man who can help her is the great and powerful wizard of Oz, who resides in Emerald City far away. Told to follow the yellow brick road she does just that.
On her journey through the counties of Oz, she encounters three creatures who will become her best friends and each need something from the Wizard. They go along to get what they want but also to protect Dorothy from the Witch.
The friends are a Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), a rubber-limbed fellow who has no brains, the Tin Man (Jack Haley) who tearfully tells Dorothy he cannot feel, thus needs a heart, and finally a Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) who is frightened by his own tail, who is afraid of his own shadow. This odd trio head to Oz where the great wizard asks them to bring him the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West and he will grant their wishes. Thanks to the Scarecrow, they manage to kill the witch and go back to the wizard to discover he is a fraud.
But then in a stunning sequence, he shows each of them that what they seek, they already possess. Even Dorothy, though she does not know has the power to return home. She had to understand it was not enough to just want to go home, she had to understand why she needed to go home. And in realizing “there is no place like home” she is finally able to go home.
The Wizard of Oz (1939) was initially not a success, in fact, it flopped at the box office despite strong reviews. Directed by Victor Fleming, who won the Academy Award for Best Director that same year for Gone with the Wind (1939), Oz is a perfect film and in a perfect world would have bested Gone with the Wind (1939). But that Civil War epic was a juggernaut that surpassed everyone’s expectations and proved that a woman could an hour a more than three-hour film. I get why it won and Oz lost, I just do not agree.
The performances are Studies in perfection, beginning with wide-eyed Judy Garland as Dorothy. She is quite extraordinary in the film especially when terror-stricken, she beautifully captures the fragile, wistful, vulnerability of Dorothy. It is a deceptively simplistic performance, far more difficult than it looked and Garland became a star with this despite the failure of the film.
The three creatures she meets along the way are each in their own way revolutionary in film acting. They each display the strongest aspects of Dorothy herself.
Song and dance man Ray Bolger is unforgettable as the Scarecrow, who seeks a brain yet is the one always solving the problems. His crazy limbed dexterity gave the character a lightness, as though he truly was made of straw. The makeup is stunning when seen on the big screen and Blu Ray as every indentation of the burlap he is made of is visible.
The overly emotional Tin Man was portrayed with beauty by Jack Haley, who famously replaced Buddy Ebsen when he reacted to the makeup. Haley is gentle and kind as the Tin Man, fiercely protective of Dorothy and of course, already has the heart he seeks.
Hugely entertaining and the finest of the trio of friends was stage actor Bert Lahr, best known for his work on Broadway in Waiting for Godot. As the constantly petrified king of the jungle, Lahr was brilliant, bringing gales of laughter through the years, warming so many hearts. The Academy missed a chance to honor a truly brilliant performance here.
The greatest performance in the film, now iconic was character Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West. Using her body, her hands, her movements, she often resembles a spider in her movements. The pitch of her voice is eerie, frightening making her threats to poor Dorothy all the more terrifying. The stuff of nightmares, Hamilton too deserved the Oscar.
The wily old man of Oz, Frank Morgan, was originally going to be played by W. C. Fields which I think would have been a monumental mistake. Fields had too much baggage as an actor to be accepted as anything else than the persona he had crafted. Morgan, had the feeling of great warmth, despite being an obvious fraud, yet in fact a very wise man. Only he sees the group who come to him for something already have what they seek.
The art direction was perfect, the costuming wonderful, the music and songs immensely likable. Victor Fleming created two masterpieces in 1939 and then did nothing as memorable again. In ten years he would be dead, and until recently, virtually forgotten as an artist.
Everyone is somehow connected to The Wizard of Oz (1939) even if they dislike the film. I am suspect of anyone who hates the film, they must have no soul. And in some way, at some point in our life, we have all been Dorothy as I was in a hospital bed in 2001. And we all, I hope found our way back.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.