Yet Louis B. Mayer doubted the song should even be in the film. It was thought too “adult” for Shirley Temple, his original casting choice. But Judy, even as a much younger child, had full command of an adult voice with a heart-breaking ache at its core. She was as much a gifted freak unique to Hollywood as her contemporary the child Elizabeth Taylor, with her uncanny, full-blown beauty of a grown woman.
Under Judy’s care, Over the Rainbow became magical — a combination of the just right singer with the just right song. And though The Wizard of Oz continues to be one of the great communal experiences of an American childhood, it is Judy Garland’s singing at this point that steers the film away from the shallows of sugary children’s fare. Gives it a mature power that endures.
I was amazed when I watched the film recently by how restrained the original performance is. The girl in the haystack was fixed in sepia forever, had not, could not change. But I had. I kept hearing the song transformed, imagining phantom reverberations of Carnegie Hall on the pure stream of sound.
Particularly during the song’s final lyric:
If happy little bluebirds fly…
As children viewing the film, the line is simply a spur to go above the clouds, never doubting that the trick of the bluebird can be mastered. Only now Carnegie Hall Judy bleeds through. We hear how hard the future voice is climbing, drawing up power and volume as if to double its efforts, the better to make it so.
…beyond the rainbow…
Is that a tremble we detect in the film’s still young, still masked vibrato?
…Why, oh why?… The note of desperation.
Then, strong: …can’t I?
Ending in a pitched cry (Judy’s signature), the song speaks to us now of grown-up limits and the Kansas-drab rituals of pragmatism. No, Toto, we’re not in Munchkinland anymore. We’re in some deep-reality quantum world where Judy, as she does on her stamp, exists in both past and future tense, was and will be at once.
Oz has followed Judy down the wormhole: In one sense, Oz is childhood: bright, noisy, big-hearted — but also scary. Unlike the timid counterfeits of childhood usually portrayed in movies where the villains are spoofy comedians, there is a real terror of the dark in The Wizard of Oz. The winged monkeys are actually horrific, and when they scoop up Dorothy in the Haunted Forest, children in the audience scream. The child-size munchkins, with their frumpy Russian faces, are similarly disquieting, and some children (I was one) find them more freakish than playful.
The Witch — ah, the witch — is a masterpiece of childhood terror. The hatchet face, the green skin, the purple tongue. Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West is something out of a fever dream. She will be satisfied with nothing less than Dorothy’s death. The surrender she requires is a total one. To be, as the munchkin coroner might put it, not only merely dead but really most sincerely dead.
That’s another thing that distinguishes The Wizard of Oz from phonier children’s fare. Death is real here. It’s a plot point. Indeed, it is the only possible plot resolution.
Mature viewers will naturally take a longer view. Like a great work of art, the film gathers meaning, deepens and expands, as we pass through time. To us, the witch is charming. To us, Hollywood is the real Oz in this movie, its bright and oversaturated colors forever capturing the MGM studio system in its glory, calling generations of dreamers to its western gates, encouraging them to remake themselves in fabulous ways, as Dorothy is to be remade in the Emerald City, where they can even dye your eyes to match your gown (jolly old town!)
To go to Oz is for us to become the “Hollywood version” of one’s self, where beauty counts more than brains, and luck is everything. Or as the munchkins put it, You just follow the yellow brick road — advice so mystical that the chords of the ditty grow suddenly mysterious and calm.