“It is all so well-intentioned, so genial and so gay that any reviewer who would look down his nose at the fun-making should be spanked and sent off, supperless, to bed,” Frank S. Nugent wrote of the film. “Having too stout an appetite to chance so dire a punishment, we shall merely mention, and not dwell upon, the circumstance that even such great wizards as those who lurk in the concrete caverns of California are often tripped in their flights of fancy by trailing vines of piano wire and outcroppings of putty noses.”
That was published nearly 83 years ago, on Aug. 18, 1939, in The New York Times. In honor of Judy Garland’s 100th birthday (she was born June 10, 1922), several local theaters showed The Wizard of Oz on the big screen June 5 and 6. It occurred to me that the lesson of the film is the lesson of Rotary,
“Not since Disney’s Snow White has anything quite so fantastic succeeded half so well,” he wrote. “A fairybook tale has been told in the fairybook style, with witches, goblins, pixies and other wondrous things drawn in the brightest colors and set cavorting to a merry little score.”
The Wizard of Oz made its official debut on Aug. 15. Louis B. Mayer’s strategy for MGM at the time was to produce a lot of B movies, all made on tight budgets. In 1939, MGM released 52 films, many with long-forgotten titles: Bad Little Angel, These Glamour Girls, The Kid from Texas. By comparison, MGM produced just 10 films last year. But in 1939, the studio also made some good ones. Among the 10 movies nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award, four were made by MGM: Ninotchka; Goodbye, Mr. Chips; The Wizard of Oz; and Gone with the Wind.
The Wizard of Oz didn’t win, but it should have.
“Judy Garland’s Dorothy is a pert and fresh-faced miss with the wonder-lit eyes of a believer in fairy tales,” said Nugent, “but the Baum fantasy is at its best when the Scarecrow, the Woodman and the Lion are on the move.”
That was a particularly inspired description of Judy Garland, who was barely 17 when the film was released. And surely, “the wonder-lit eyes of a believer in fairy tales” also described most of the children who got to see it on the big screen at the Capitol Theater that week in New York.
Mayer wanted to win Best Picture, but he also wanted his films to turn a substantial profit. The company was created from the merger of three smaller film companies in 1924 and turned an astounding profit of $4.7 million in its first year. That would be more than $97.8 million in today’s currency. Garland, when she was released from the studio in 1950 at age 28, was earning $6,000 per week – the equivalent of nearly $124,800 today. She was considered too expensive, and Mayer himself was fired the following year.
The Wizard of Oz was the prestige film of 1939, one that gave a shred of credence to the studio’s motto, Ars Gratia Artis – Art for Art’s Sake. It cost $2.78 million to make and to date has grossed about $23.3 million. That $2.78 million in 1939 is equal to $47.7 million now, and some of the film’s earnings would be adjusted too, but even so it has earned only about one-tenth of Gone With the Wind‘s inflation-adjusted gross of $1.6 billion. Despite its status as an iconic American film and its universal critical acclaim, The Wizard of Oz is a distant also-ran on the list of top-grossing films.
Forget the notion that the lesson in The Wizard of Oz is about knowing yourself or that there’s no place like home. There’s a business lesson there, too. Sometimes, you make something great, something cherished and adored, but you barely make a dime. Eighty-three years later, that will matter more than the margins.
We still think, as Nugent wrote when the film was new, that “Mr. Lahr’s lion is fion.”
Although Rotary’s roots are grounded in the business community, our work as a club isn’t about generating profit. If Louis Mayer believed in art for art’s sake, our own motto might be Obsequium Pro Servitio: Service for the sake of service.
Mr. Harris’ club is pretty fi-on too.