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Bert Lahr (far right), Ray Bolger (back row, right), Judy Garland (sitting, right), composer Harold Arlen (sitting left), and various MGM and music publishing executives sing songs from the 1939 film musical 'The Wizard of Oz' around a microphone in the NBC radio studio, circa 1939.
Bert Lahr (far right), Ray Bolger (back row, right), Judy Garland (sitting, right), composer Harold Arlen (sitting left), and various MGM and music publishing executives sing songs from the 1939 film musical 'The Wizard of Oz' around a microphone in the NBC radio studio, circa 1939. Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The Wizard of Oz is, of course, a great movie. But it wouldn't have worked without the songs, which came from Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, a couple of guys with a piano, imagination and energy. Their talents and a rich orchestral score from Herbert Stothart helped make The Wizard of Oz one of the most widely seen, best-known and best-loved motion pictures in history.
John Fricke, author of several books about The Wizard of Oz, was among the millions of Americans watching the first time the movie appeared on television. It was November 1956.
He remembers being 5 years old and watching the movie with his cousins.
"All the kids were scared of the monkeys and the witch," he says. "And everybody walked away two hours later having had this great, happy evening. I was the one who had the life-changing experience."
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A lobby card from Victor Fleming's 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, starring Judy Garland.
Fricke explains that Oz was one of the first movie musicals to make the songs part of the narrative, essential to understanding the characters and their motivation. He also says that to have a young Judy Garland playing Dorothy was a songwriter's dream.
"The property of The Wizard of Oz, the script for The Wizard of Oz, the songs for The Wizard of Oz were all written specifically for Judy Garland," he says. "This was to be her first huge Technicolor showcase. And when Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg were signed to write The Wizard of Oz, they realized that there was a desire to have a ballad up front in The Wizard of Oz that would define Dorothy's character. And Arlen and Harburg realized they could write a ballad that had a great emotional range and great vocal range, because Judy Garland — even at 15, 16 — had that kind of power."
Fricke says MGM executives worried that placing the ballad "Over the Rainbow" at the beginning of the movie would slow it down.
"When Wizard of Oz was finished and taken out to be sneak previewed, one of the things they kept cutting out and putting back into the picture was the whole 'Over the Rainbow' sequence," he says. "But there was no way Oz could sustain itself without that song. That is Dorothy's theme musically. That is Dorothy's theme lyrically. I don't think you can overestimate the importance of that song and that performance in that spot in that movie."
Click the audio link above to hear more about the songs in The Wizard of Oz.