‘Oz’ songs showcase composer Harold Arlen’s wizardry

“If I Only Had a Brain” is one of the classic songs from the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz,” performed by Judy Garland and Ray Bolger.
“If I Only Had a Brain” is one of the classic songs from the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz,” performed by Judy Garland and Ray Bolger. MGM

“The Wizard of Oz” is one of those rare movies where every element is superbly executed.

The costumes and sets are brilliant and colorful, the special effects are amazing, and, of course, the casting couldn’t have been better.

But perhaps the most memorable aspects of “The Wizard of Oz” are the songs, especially “Over the Rainbow.”

Without the many-hued music and lyrics of Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, the whole film may as well have been filmed in black and white.

Arlen was one of the most prolific songwriters in American musical history. And they’re great songs, like “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” “Let’s Fall in Love,” “The Man That Got Away.” The list goes on and on.

But the songs Arlen wrote for “The Wizard of Oz” have a special quality, making them well-known and beloved even by those who aren’t especially fond of musicals.

“Harold Arlen is one of the great composers of the American Songbook,” said Jerry Harrington, owner of the Tivoli Cinemas in Westport. “He’s in the top tier with (George) Gershwin and (Richard) Rodgers and Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin. The really top-drawer people.”

Harrington, as one would expect of the owner of an art cinema, is extremely knowledgeable about film, but he’s also a lifelong fan and student of American musicals. Harrington considers “The Wizard of Oz” one of the finest examples of both.

“There are very few full scores written for a screen musical, and ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is the best, the most consistent and the greatest,” Harrington said. “The only other two that are kind of on its level are ‘Meet Me in St. Louis’ and ‘Gigi.’”

Born in Buffalo, N.Y., Arlen began his career as a piano accompanist in vaudeville but soon turned his hand to composing songs for Harlem’s Cotton Club and Broadway. He scored some early hits, including “Get Happy” and “Stormy Weather.”

In the mid-1930s, he started collaborating with lyricist Harburg. Harburg’s genius for words matched Arlen’s for music, and the duo began to create classic songs like “Last Night When We Were Young.” In 1938, MGM hired Arlen and Harburg to compose the songs for “The Wizard of Oz.”

“The Wizard of Oz” has an operetta quality that puts it in the lineage of Gilbert and Sullivan and Victor Herbert, which is not surprising, given Harburg’s love for Gilbert and Sullivan. Ever since he worked on the newspaper for Townsend Harris High School on the Lower East Side of New York with Ira Gershwin, he emulated the Victorian wordsmith, W.S. Gilbert. His talent for Gilbertian wordplay came through in his novelty songs like “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” made famous by Groucho Marx.

And just as Gilbert would occasionally set aside his sardonic wit and pen a sentimental ballad, Harburg hit the motherlode of heart-on-the-sleeve emotionalism with the lyrics for “Over the Rainbow.”

It’s hard to believe that the iconic song almost didn’t make it into “The Wizard of Oz.”

“It’s true,” Harrington said. “‘Over the Rainbow’ was cut after the first preview screening. Louis B. Mayer thought it slowed down everything, but (associate producer) Arthur Freed fought for it and won.”

And thank goodness he did. “Over the Rainbow” is No. 1 on the “Songs of the Century” list that was compiled by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts, and the American Film Institute named it the greatest movie song of all time.

Of course it was Judy Garland’s personal theme song, but “Over the Rainbow” has also been performed by a wide swath of the world’s great singers, from jazz artists like Ella Fitzgerald to the ukulelist Israel “Iz” Ka’ano’i Kamakawiwo’ole, whose Hawaii-tinged performance hit No. 12 on the Billboard charts in 2004.

Last year, our hometown diva, Joyce DiDonato, wowed audiences at the BBC Proms with a powerful rendition, giving Britons a souvenir of her beloved state of Kansas.

Although “Over the Rainbow” dodged a bullet, one song was cut from “The Wizard of Oz”: a jazzy swing number called “The Jitterbug.”

“They actually filmed it, and you can see it on YouTube,” Harrington said. “It was supposedly the most expensive scene they filmed, but they wanted ‘Oz’ to be this timeless, magical place, and that jazzy number set it in the ’20s and ’30s, so they cut it. They felt it was too modern for what they were trying to do. It just didn’t fit in with the tone of the rest of the movie.”

Like all great art, “The Wizard of Oz” is timeless indeed. So many songs from the 1930s sound hopelessly sappy to modern ears, but Arlen and Harburg’s “If I Only Had a Brain,” “Ding Dong, the Witch Is Dead” and “We’re Off to See the Wizard” never sound dated and always delight with their wit, charm and inventiveness.

And although families no longer gather around the TV once a year to watch “The Wizard of Oz,” the film will continue to be passed down from generation to generation as one of America’s most beloved cultural treasures.

“It’s a movie where everything comes together and everything works,” Harrington said. “It was a blessed production. They did all the right things. They took out the ‘Jitterbug’ sequence, they put back ‘Over the Rainbow.’ Personally, I don’t see what needs to be changed about it. I’m sure if I thought long and hard about, I might quibble about something, but why? Nothing’s perfect in this world, but ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is pretty close.”

Patrick Neas is program director for RadioBach.com. You can reach him at pneas@jccc.edu


We’re celebrating this month’s 75th anniversary of “The Wizard of Oz” movie with a story a day. For more on this series, see Page 11 of today’s Star Magazine.