TNR Film Classics: ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and ‘The...

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FILM SEPTEMBER 16, 2011

TNR Film Classics: ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ (September 24, 1939)

There Are Wizards and Wizards

The Wizard of Oz was intended to hit the same audience as Snow White, and won’t fail for lack of trying. It has dwarfs, music, technicolor, freak characters and Judy Garland. It can’t be expected to have a sense of humor as well—and as for the light touch of fantasy, it weighs like a pound of fruitcake soaking wet. Children will not object to it, especially as it is a thing of many interesting gadgets; but it will be delightful for children mostly to their mothers, and any kid tall enough to reach up to a ticket window will be found at the Tarzan film down the street. The story of course has some lovely and wild ideas—men of straw and tin, a cowardly lion, a wizard who isn’t a very good wizard—but the picture doesn’t know what to do with them, except to be painfully literal and elaborate about everything—Cecil B. DeMille and the Seven Thousand Dwarfs by Actual Count.

The things I liked best were the design for a witches’ castle, the air-raid of the Things with Wings, the control-room in which Frank Morgan is discovered controlling the light and sound effects that make the Wizard. Morgan in fact is the only unaffected trouper in the bunch; the rest either try too hard or are Judy Garland. It isn’t that this little slip of a miss spoils the fantasy so much as that her thumping, overgrown gambols are characteristic of its treatment here: when she is merry the house shakes, and everybody gets wet when she is lorn.

I’d much rather talk about The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which is credited as being “based on” the Gillette play, but which is actually a new creation on its own, written by Edwin Blum and William Drake, produced by Darryl Zanuck. Its plot deals with a master criminal who is getting bored with the business but who elects to postpone his retirement until he sews up Sherlock for good—he’s going to steal his head and send it to him COD.

Mr. Holmes is Basil Rathbone, and after two pictures (the first was the “Baskervilles” remake) you can’t believe he was really anybody else. Watson is Nigel Bruce, who is not only much more delightful than Watson but much more Watson. His blank confusion, his little triumphs, his earnest wrestle with the mysterious and occasional petulance—none of these is overplayed or minimized to woodenness, and all are played with the added grace of a personal interpretation. Rathbone is capable in both energy or repose without mixing them up, and has that poise in understatement required by the character, plus the same actor’s reserve of qualities that must be implied and felt beneath any actual statement as such. The two work together as though they had never had such a time in their lives. But in the complications of any mystery, much rests with writers and directors to make their intricacies clear to the audience at the same time that the audience is being kept in darkness and suspense. And in this case it is finely done.

It is one of the unfortunate things of criticism that when the highly complex craftsmanship by which a story is kept well in motion succeeds, there is nothing more complex, say about it than just that. However, there are some very nice effects brought off here—some by means of right timing, some by the use of the setting, some by the use of plot music. But the most effective use of the medium as no other medium could be used comes in the sequence where we see death stalking, slowly, and then faster, in a pair of shapeless trousers shown from the knee down to the horrible false shoe, built up three inches under the sole to resemble a club foot, carried awkwardly through the mud and bushes, one, limp, two, limp, etc. It is a device, or gimmick; but it is used with a contextual appreciation of the whole effect which appears only when movies are being made as they should be. As a film, Holmes has its own lightness and speed across the screen, and focuses a close and lifting attention. It is not the sort of thing to be considered as a Work of Art: my point is simply that it is an exciting story told with more real movie art per foot than seven reels of anything the intellectual men have been finding good this whole year or more.

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posted in: film, cecil b. demille, frank morgan, judy garland, william drake, morgan is, the adventures of sherlock holmes, the wizard of oz

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