Monday, November 16, 2009

Wonderful Life, Wonderful Wizard: Accidental Classics

In an unusual convergence recently, the San Francisco Chronicle film critic, Mick LaSalle, wrote about the 70th anniversary DVD edition of The Wizard of Oz (taken from the L. Frank Baum book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz). A smaller squib in the same section noted that It's A Wonderful Life was about to be released in a Blu-Ray version.

Most people think of these as unadulterated classics from the moment they were released, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Even as my sentimental side cries every time Mr. Gower slaps young George's ear hard enough to make it bleed, my crankier, more cynical side reminds me that it was sheer repetition that put these in the pantheon. Does this mean that if you force-feed the American public something, sheer repetition erases the initial mediocre reaction and it becomes beloved. Or -- and this is my sentimental side speaking -- does it mean that sometimes, we miss the beauty in some art the first time around?

As LaSalle notes, the original box office receipts of The Wizard of Oz were disappointing; it was its annual showing on television, starting in 1956, that gave it a gloss that it's never lost. And that happened by accident. As Aljean Harmetz notes in The Making of the Wizard of Oz (Knopf, 1977), CBS offered MGM $1 million for the television rights to Gone With The Wind. MGM, still confident that the Civil War epic could make money in the theatres (which it did), turned CBS down. As an afterthought (Harmetz's word), CBS offered $225,000 for the broadcast rights to The Wizard of Oz. MGM granted them, along with an option for annual re-showings.

The same kind of accidental chain of events affected Frank Capra's It’s a Wonderful Life. As Capra recounts in his autobiography, The Name Above The Title, the movie was soundly panned upon its release. Whether this negative reaction triggered a disdain for the movie or not, whoever owned the copyright on the film let it lapse. It’s A Wonderful Life entered the public domain, which allowed independent television stations to show it free of charge at will. It was repetition that led to re-discovery.

Now, don't get me wrong. I love both of these movies, for exactly these reasons. When I watch the Wizard DVD today, I'm always surprised when it doesn't cut to a commercial after Bert Lahr runs out of the wizard's throne room, because that was the way I was used to seeing it. One of the first times I saw Wonderful Life was one Christmas Eve with my parents, my sister, and her fiancée; it was a pleasant moment in an adolescence not known for them.

I'm willing to admit I'm being too cynical about this. No matter how CBS originally got Oz, its ratings were high. And Life became so popular that it began to be shown in theatres on Christmas Eve. I will never forget the year I went with a fraternity brother and his sister; she sat between us with a box of tissues and dispensed them to him and me at appropriate intervals.

Maybe classics aren't made, but borne by the public to that status. Casablanca wasn’t supposed to be anything more than a run-of-the-mill Warner Bros. World War II movie, but Allied Forces had just invaded Morocco when the studio was about to release it. The city of Casablanca was in the headlines, and that fomented interest. (If you read Round Up The Usual Suspects, the making-of book Aljean Harmetz (again) wrote about Casablanca, you'll see how accidental a success it really was.)

This makes me wonder if there other "classics" that have been made but not yet re-discovered by a new generation with a different perspective. Are there so-called bombs that fell by the wayside, waiting to be resurrected by repeated showings on fifteen movie channels and 24-hour cable? I hate to think I'm missing something wonderful out there.

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