Two blockbuster films with big anniversaries this year compete for cinematic staying power.
The year was 1939. The blockbuster films were “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone With the Wind”— two fundamentally different cinematic adventures that, 75 years later, continue to mesmerize the minds of viewers and incite a sense of nostalgia within them.
Both adapted from novels, one is a fantastical journey to a mystical land, the other an epic historical romance set in the antebellum South.
“‘Gone with the Wind’ handles its social issues in a melodramatic, nostalgic way, soaked in sentimentality and, where gender is concerned, creepily conventional,” says Jerry McGuire, professor of English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
“At least ‘Wizard of Oz’ looks at the world in 1939 and, under the guise of a fantastic fable, suggests that the dark clouds shrouding everyone can only be addressed by humane values and a dedicated, passionate commitment to fairness and goodness,” he continues. “That may be corny, but it’s always struck me as interesting.”
“The Wizard of Oz,” adapted from the novel by L. Frank Baum, tells the story of Dorothy’s trip to the Land of Oz and her struggle to return home. The movie was released on August 25 but, because of its expensive production, was not a box office success. Its popularity increased with the consecutive TV showing every year. It only took home to Academy Awards: Best Song (“Over the Rainbow”) and Best Original Music Score.
“Gone With the Wind,” adapted from the novel by Margaret Mitchell, was released on December 15. It tells the story of Scarlett O’Hara’s romantic pursuit of Ashley Wilkes, despite both their marriages, against the backdrop of the Civil War. It was an instant success. The film snatched up eight Academy Awards that year, including Best Picture, Best Director (Victor Fleming), Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actress (Vivien Leigh).
“It was the Depression, and people appreciated a riches-to-rags and back-to-riches story, in which a woman was able to pull her family back from devastation,” says Margaret Bauer, professor at East Carolina University and Rives Chair of Southern Literature who recently wrote a book titled A Study of Scarletts. “The movie’s characters are iconic. I’m sorry that people have largely forgotten the novel.”
According to Jennifer Geer, associate professor of English at UL Lafayette and instructor of a children’s literature and fairy tale class, the song and dance numbers in “The Wizard of Oz” “are so memorable, and might be what makes it timeless. “I love this movie, but I can see why ‘Gone With the Wind’ swept most of the awards, because it’s exactly the sort of grand historical epic the Academy tends to like.”
“I’ve never been a fan of ‘Gone with the Wind,’ despite its exceptional production values and fine acting,” adds McGuire. “The story itself strikes me as melodramatic trash. I’m in the minority, I know. But I think ‘Wizard of Oz’ should have won all the categories it was nominated in, starting with Best Picture.”
Each picture had its own contribution to filmmaking. “Gone With the Wind” anachronistically evaded trouble with obscenity (“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”) in a time when profanity was frowned upon, and “Wizard of Oz” displayed the spectacular transition from black and white to Technicolor.
“Technicolor is just a few years before ‘Wizard of Oz’ and it was extremely expensive,” explains Keith Dorwick, professor of English and Rhetoric at UL Lafayette, who teaches a course on literature and film. “Technicolor is known for its hyper-saturated color. We’re used to color, but for an audience used to more monochromatic films, what we call black and white films, that sequence when she (Dorothy) opens that door and steps into that very plastic — I love it, it is so fake — landscape of Munchkin Land, it must have been an amazing moment.”
In honor of the anniversaries, stores have sprouted 75th anniversary DVD editions. For “Wizard of Oz,” stores also display board games, dolls and other toys. “Gone With the Wind” merchandise includes puzzles, Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler barbie dolls and Christmas ornaments.
McGuire says he thinks “Oz” provides insight on power relations as well as investments in homes and families. These themes come to viewers as “music, image and character caught up in a heroic narrative — the very stuff of myth and ritual.”
Both “Wizard of Oz” and “Gone With the Wind” have been rated the No. 1 film of all time at different points on different lists. Adjusted for inflation, “Gone With the Wind” is the most successful film in box office history. But the test to best them all has nothing to do with money.
“The real test of these films is the way they keep their audiences over time,” says McGuire. “In this, both of them are remarkable, but my money’s on ‘Wizard of Oz’ to have the greater staying power. It’s more imaginative, it’s a more gratifying story and the music is a lot better.”