somewhere over Oz

“Here’s a factoid,” said Ethan Liss, looking at his copy of the Vancouver Sun. He held a cup of Ovaltine Café coffee in his right hand.

“What’s that,” said David Okin concentrating on his own copy.

“Says here,” said Liss, “that L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, later to be made into the movie The Wizard of Oz, got the name of the mythical land, Oz, from the label on the lowest drawer in his filing cabinet, O – Z.”

“Inspiring,” Okin said turning a page.

“It goes on here,” said Liss, “to say that The Wizard of Oz continues to this day to enjoy a popularity few other movies ever have. People are crazy for the flick.”

“Say,” Okin said closing his paper. “You remember Martin Schroeder?”

“Of Hollywood via Medicine Hat? Of course,” said Liss. “He was an assistant director on the Oz crew.”

“That’s right,” Okin said. “And he came under investigation in the 50s, remember?”

“Sure, he was a Red. We all were. Still am, what of it?”

“Schroeder a Red?” Okin said. “You can’t be serious. The rat bastard was a snivelling little fascist; a card carrying member of the American Nazi Party right up until hostilities broke out between Germany and the States. After that, of course, he was just your average all-Canadian in America.

“No, the investigation he was under may have had all of the trappings of a Red Scare inquiry, but it was initiated by MGM. It was actually about the haunted footage they filmed on those sound stages. The scenes with all the ghosts moving around in the background. The place was infested.”

“My granddaughter showed me a clip on the internet,” Liss said. “It wasn’t much, just a smudge, dirty optics.”

“That’s the only piece that survived,” Okin said. “It’s conveniently inconclusive. The rest of it, like the scenes where Judy Garland’s hair gets pulled over and over again by a barely visible spectre, all got the torch. That particular episode, with Judy’s hair, forced the production to shut down for a couple of very expensive days. They brought in an exorcist. That seemed to have done the trick at first, but within a few days Toto was levitating and Bert Lahr swore up and down that he was being stalked by a pale, dead eyed blonde dressed like a flapper who went from solid to semi-transparent, smelled like a crypt and wept in the most sorrowful way. It was driving him crazy.

“What brought it all to a head was when the Munchkins revolted.”

“There was a Munchkin revolt?”

“Absolutely,” Okin said. “And that was no small thing. Even in Hollywood, assembling 350 little people is never a small thing. They had to be bussed in from all over the states. A lot of them couldn’t even speak English. When they arrived, though, they seemed from the start to have a fairly accurate sense of their worth to the project. Can you imagine Oz without the Munchkins? When word got out that the sets were haunted, the Munchkins dug in their tiny Cuban heels and demanded that the sets get unhaunted, and fast.”

“This is all a bit difficult to grasp,” said Liss. “What you’re saying is that one of the most beloved movies of all time was made on a haunted soundstage, that there was Munchkin labour strife, and that, for the most part, none of it got out.”

“That’s Hollywood, then and now. But back then there was more at stake, especially for MGM. You see, the studios were all practising what we flippantly refer to as branding nowadays. The viewing audience knew exactly what they were in for when they saw a studio logo at the beginning of a film.

“Warner Brothers’ flicks were harsh and grainy. Warner stars were Depression spawn, tough nuts like Edward G. Robinson, Cagney and Bette Davis. After a Warner’s film, you left the theatre feeling like you’d just swallowed glass. Paramount, on the other hand, maintained a high-end facade with the likes of Cary Grant and lavish sets and cinematography. It was kind of snotty, and there was a lot to pay attention to for the average Joe. Columbia had Frank Capra but no cash. They did screwy, heart warming fluff. 20th Century Fox was all cutesy, over the top shite with Shirley Temple and Tyrone Power, all of it hard to recall long enough to discuss afterwards over coffee and apple pie. But MGM had it all. Metro was lavish and excessive. They told a good story, told it well, and gave the audience some credit for having a little intelligence. For the most part, MGM did it all better than anyone else.

”That’s why all of the news about haunted sound stages and spooks on film had to be quashed. The term, ‘Any publicity is good publicity,’ remains the pitiful whine of execs that can’t control their own copy.”

“Well what was the cause of all this supernatural activity?” said Liss. “The studios weren’t old enough back then to have that many ghosts.”

“Maybe,” Okin said. “Some say it was the movie, itself. They say the production acted like a spirit magnet. That it’s one hundred minutes of dark, negative energy. After all, when you watch The Wizard of Oz, I mean really watch it, it’s just one death image after another.”

“What?”

“Think about it. Oz is one creepy flick.”

“No.”

“Yes, and I’ll tell you why.”

“Do, please.”

“Near the end of the movie, in the Emerald City, it may be perceived by some as all shiny, bright and hopeful. But it opens darkly, even bleakly, in black and white. The very end is that way, too. In the beginning there’s that run-in with Miss Gulch that could have led to Toto’s demise while all of the characters, except Dorothy, watch despondently. It’s hopeless as a gulag. Look at the art direction. All of the sets, at first, are dwarfing, grey on grey oil painted backdrops, and there’s a tornado coming.

“When the twister arrives and Dorothy tries to get into the shelter under the house with everyone else, she’s shut out by her family. She’s cut off and left to face the calamity to come on her own. After all, that makes a savage kind of sense. What good is a precocious little girl on a failing Kansas dirt farm? She’s one more mouth to feed, but she can’t run a plough. What better way to blamelessly rid themselves of that burden?

“Denied entry into the shelter, Dorothy goes back to her room in the house and is knocked unconscious by an unhinged shutter. Only then does she witness the tornado from the inside as the house is supposedly sucked fully intact from its foundation. And what does she see? Ghostly images of others sucked up by the whirlwind. There’s the old woman knitting, the cow and the two men rowing the boat. How could any of these individuals survive to be seen after being sucked up into the flesh rending, bone breaking brutality of a tornado? The answer is they couldn’t. They’re dead. Their apparent animation and relative calm can only be explained by the fact that they have become ghosts or even tornado zombies.”

“Tornado zombies?”

“Try to keep up, will you. And who do we see last, on her bicycle riding the twister? Miss Gulch, that’s who, just before she turns into the Witch riding her broom. It’s just death and hopelessness, a nihilistic-gothic masterpiece if there ever was one.”

“But the twister drops Dorothy in Oz where everything is colourful and happy.”

“Everything is colourful and happy at the shopping mall, also. Those of us with intelligence and sensitivity, however, are aware of the mall’s artifice, its insidiousness. We’re aware of the sacrifices common people must endure to have such a temple to corporate greed in their community. And like the shopping mall, Oz requires us to turn off our intelligence and sensitivity and swallow the artifice of the thinly painted, slightly cracked gypsum board.”

“That’s just Hollywood and contemporary retail.”

“It’s our soulless contemporary culture, my friend. And what do we get for it? Oklahoma City, Wako Texas, 911 and underwear bombers, that’s what.”

“Okay, fine,” Liss said. “But what about Martin Schroeder? You said he was investigated, but not as a Red.”

“Correct again,” said Okin. “By 1954, Schroeder had moved back to Canada – to Vancouver, in fact. And it was here that the FBI came, in cooperation with the RCMP, to grill Schroeder about what happened.”

“Why?”

“Because they thought he was running from some illicit involvement, something connected to Oz. In a way they were right. The only problem was that Schroeder wasn’t running from anything criminal, just ghostly. And the running never did him a lick of good.

“He lived common law with a woman half his age. They had a place up in Shaughnessy. He’d made some money in Hollywood, but he’d also inherited a fortune from his father. But for all of that, he was tormented by horrible memories of making Oz. He was possessed by an awful, evil energy. Eventually he murdered his wife with a butter knife, and, after feeding her to his wealthy, pretentious neighbours at a summer barbeque, took his own life with a Luger said to have once belonged to Goebbels. The suicide note was long and tedious. It had been written over several days as Schroeder tried to get the pistol to actually fire. He chronicled his failed attempts to end his life with the gun in his suicide note, each malfunction due to a misfire or a dud. This added an even weirder, more macabre tone to his scribbling.

“But the note also revealed that Schroeder believed that he’d been followed from Culver City to Vancouver by the ghosts that had haunted Oz. He described them as a mixture of wretchedly substandard individuals. Most of them were people who’d tired to get into the movies during the silent era, but some were there from the talkies, too. None of them had made it. They were almost all suicides, his note said. They were all unspeakably melancholy and viciously bitter. To his mind, he was being targeted by them because of his success.

“In his note, Schroeder also said that he believed it was the story itself that had attracted the ghosts to Oz. He said they were attracted by the pathos of it.”

“But it was a happy story,” Liss said. “A children’s story.”

“Really?” said Okin.

“Well, of course,” said Liss. “Why, the first thing that happens when we’re introduced to Oz is Dorothy’s house falls onto the Wicked Witch of the East, no? Isn’t that a good thing?”

“Maybe, but answer me this. Do the people of Oz look any worse for wear due to the rule of a Wicked Witch? They all look pretty well off to me. And the houses, roads and overall infrastructure – does any of that look poorly or worn down by a neglectful, stingy ruler?”

“Well….”

“Well not at all, I’d say. Maybe it was pretty swell there until Dorothy arrived and stirred things up. Maybe Dorothy initiated a string of events that led to a premature, even criminal, regime change supported by a minority of illegitimate pretenders.”

“But she’s greeted by the Munchkins themselves who thanked her for falling on the Witch.”

“She’s met by the Mayor and members of various privileged, self-appointed leagues, guilds, sects and cults. Ever take a hard look at the Lollipop Kids? The usual fascist suspects, if you ask me. Where were the rank and file Munchkins, the unemployed, the unions, the anarchists, artists and writers, the disabled, those deeply offended by the Lullaby League? And where are the religious and racial minorities? Where are the tall Munchkins? Who represented them in Oz? No one as it turns out. So, who can say if Oz was any better off with or without the Witch that Dorothy’s house waxed on entry, hmmm? No one, that’s who.

“Then there’s that creepy little Coroner. That diminutive, morbid prick has made it into every artist’s rendering of Oz from the start, with his stupid hat and Death Certificate. ‘…she’s not only merely dead. She’s really most sincerely dead.’ Well thanks a lot for that you sinister, baleful bastard. The Coroner represents everything that’s wrong with Oz.”

“Is this a manifesto?”

“No, but maybe it should be because guess who shows up next. Good Witch Gilda, that’s who. What a monument to bland bourgeois pap she turns out to be. If this is the indecisive, saccharine weakling who’s taking over from the Wicked Witch of the East, then it’s just Condalisa Rice in Technicolor. What’s it gonna be next, sketchy, out of focus photos from a satellite with a dirty lens of the Wicked Witch’s imaginary weapons of mass destruction?

”Meanwhile, everyone is bleating, like it’s some bizarre tribal, doctrinal chant, that Dorothy should follow the Yellow Brick Road. Not once is she offered a roadmap of the area so she can make her own choices, good or bad.”

“I’m afraid to ask, but what about the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion?”

“Like the song says, brother, ‘Oz never did give nothin’ to the Tin Man that he didn’t already have.’

“It’s a story designed exclusively to lead up to Dorothy’s arrival in the Emerald City where the Wizard’s discovered to be another in a long list of Oz frauds and Dorothy finally clicks her heels, not to bring about a happier life in some alternate Hello Kitty universe of her own female adolescent choosing, which we’re led to believe she has the power to do with the Ruby Slippers, but to go back to Kansas to the same people who deliberately shut her out of the tornado shelter. Can that be a happy ending?”

“Well it’s all the ending we have, so it’s good enough for me.”

“Yeah well remember this, when the immature and unsophisticated Dorothy returns to Kansas, it’s all black and white again, and the people gathered around her as she awakens from her so-called dream do their best to dismiss her experience, not value it and encourage her. But even before that, Glinda conveys the party line on the Ruby Slippers. She’s obviously scared senseless of Dorothy’s innate and frightening power.”

Glinda: What have you learned?

Dorothy: If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look further than my own back yard. And if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with. Is that right?

Glinda: That’s all it is. And now those magic slippers will take you home in two seconds.

“Actually, Dorothy, if you can’t find your heart’s desire at home, then it’s not a matter of what you have or haven’t lost, but what you’ve yet to gain through your own brilliance, ingenuity and inventiveness. The truth is, Glinda never liked the idea that you had the Ruby Slippers, and not her. When you so mistakenly follow her instructions to use them to shoot yourself, and your little dog too, back from whence you came, you become the perpetrator of the greatest crime ever to be committed against you. You placed yourself back on the unproductive black and white dirt farm of your unfortunate birth and surrounded yourself with people bent on your destruction. In Kansas you have no choices. You’ll age early and die young after a miserable, grinding life of unremitting poverty, duty and drudgery and an unwanted, loveless marriage to the likes of Bert Lahr. Bert Lahr’s character was a wife beater, you know.”

“Bert Lahr’s character was a wife beater?”

“No, I just made that up.”

“So, what happened to the ghosts?”

“How should I know? What do ghosts do when they’re not pulling Judy Garland’s hair or driving crazy closet-Nazis to murder suicide scenarios?”

“So that’s it?”

“It’s enough for one morning.”

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