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Valley of the Oz – The Mashup You Didn’t Notice!

September 2, 2010

1939 was a major year for American Cinema. The sweeping Civil War epic “Gone with the Wind” held audiences captive. Jimmy Stewart brought his “aw, shucks” attitude to the Capitol in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Henry Fonda portrayed “Young Mr. Lincoln.” And Lawrence Olivier climbed to “Wuthering Heights.” There was a small matter of John Wayne not getting an Oscar for his performance in “Stagecoach,” and a whole host of notable names, from Alexander Graham Bell to the Hunchback of Notre Dame, from the Three Musketeers to The Marx Brothers all appearing on screen.

But one of the most enduring motion pictures of that year was the MGM classic musical, “The Wizard of Oz,” which is likely the most well known of all of the films from that year, thanks to its endless plays on television as a holiday classic and its star, the young, good hearted and fresh faced Judy Garland, who inadvertently got into a whirlwind of a new kind of world where strange stuff happened and strange people pulled her through those brick-lined paths to find the way to her destiny!

Flash ahead 28 years. It’s now 1967, and Sean Connery’s James Bond gets to live twice. Dustin Hoffman graduates. “Bonnie and Clyde” were making out like bandits. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner!” If you guessed Sidney Poitier, you’re right. And Robert Morse was moving his Broadway corporate takeover to Hollywood in “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying.”

But in the midst of that era, another film, which, like “The Wizard of Oz,” was also based on a popular book, got converted into a big screen film: Director Mark Robson’s “Valley of the Dolls.” And the parallels this film had to that previous one are somewhat surprising.

Of course, it was a poorly kept secret that Judy Garland was at least in part the inspiration for Jacqueline Susann’s novel, a story of women who are trying to make it in show business and wind up hooked on booze and pills to help them relax, the “dolls” in the title.  And perhaps “dolls” was a more common and more sexist, let’s be honest, reference to the three female leads in the story: almost like three new Dorothy Gales, ready to step out of their current lives, into Munchkinland, and set to see where they will wind up.

First we have our narrator, Anne Welles (played by Barbara Parkins). She is the closest to Dorothy in that she is from a mythical small town where everything is quiet, peaceful and pleasant, and her wide-eyed innocence reflects that of a farm girl raised as a hothouse flower. Yet, she dreams of more. Though she doesn’t sing “Over the Rainbow,” she certainly shared the sentiments of that song as she left her brother, mother and auntie on the train platform and headed from her picturesque New England squat down to Grand Central Terminal and a women’s hotel in the Theater District of Manhattan.

Next, we meet our other two, Neely O’Hara (played with alternating sweet charm and scenery chewing prowess by Patty Duke) who is an up and comer with vocal talent, and Sharon Tate rounds out our cast of heroines as Jennifer North (note the subtle Glinda reference there) a showgirl in the production in which Neely is the rising star.  But Neely is drummed out in a pre-emptive “All About Eve” strike by the Wicked Witch of the Great White Way: Helen Lawson, who terrorizes all three of the leads at some point in the film. This was the part Ms. Garland would have played, and actually did play for about a week before getting thrown off, allegedly for being wasted on set. She was replaced by Susan Hayward.

The guys in the cast continue the parallel. Notably, the theatrical agent that is involved with them all in one way or another just happened to be a fella named Lyon. Lyon is fascinated with Anne, but doesn’t have the courage to give up his playboy ways and commit to her. He’s just fascinated with women generally, and when you’re Paul Burke, ruggedly handsome and well-spoken actor, that’s just how the Swingin’ 60s groove.

Neely finds a guy she likes and marries him. Martin Milner plays kindly and patient Mel, who tries to help his wife hobble along the way at the start, but when she begins abusing him, insulting his intelligence and abilities, he grows a brain and walks out on her. She then takes up with Hollywood’s Wizard of fashion, Ted Casablanca (French actor Alex Davion) which starts a whole new speculation: who is that designer behind the closet?

And our intrepid showgirl Jennifer finds Tony, played by Tony Scotti, a lounge singer with a heart of gold. The problem… a debilitating disease called Huntington’s chorea, which is slowly turning him into a tin man.

Instead of a field of poppies, standing between these ladies and their Emerald City we have a medicine cabinet filled with prescription pills. Impossible to avoid, and apparently easy to acquire, the dolls seem as common as the bottles of liquor used to wash them down with, and with equal effectiveness.

With everything in her life going wrong, including a diagnosis of breast cancer, Jennifer, never seeing herself as much more than a body for French “art” films, overdoses on the downers, leaving an intact corpse for the coroner to remove. The irony is that Sharon Tate was arguably the best actress in the film, playing an actor who couldn’t act!

But the most outrageous elements come towards the film’s climax, when Neely, fresh from her rehab stint in a sanitarium confronts Lawson in a posh bathroom, yanks off her wig and douses it in toilet water. But, instead of that witch melting away, Lawson strides out of the ladies’, none the worse for the wear.

Eventually it is Neely that completes her transformation into Helen Lawson Jr., collapsing into a sewer-like puddle of a theater back alley, able only to scream out the names of the people she cared most about, much like her green counterpart towards the end of “Oz.” It is notable that the name she screams loudest is “Neely O’Hara!”

But the key to it all is the final message of the film. When Anne has had her experience with the dolls, passing out on the Malibu shore and gently woken up by a Pacific tide, she somehow pulls herself together without the need of any support groups or nurses, packs up her things, flies back to New York and clicks her heels aboard that mythic train right back to her little home town. Eventually, when Lyon comes there to visit, at long last ready to take her as his bride after giving her the runaround for the entire picture, she reneges, and knows in her heart that this was the right decision and where she belonged all the while.

This statement, brought home with specific lyrics crooned by Dionne Warwick to the film’s famous theme as the end titles roll across the New England landscape, might have been appropriate for our young, teen Dorothy Gale, not yet ready to be on her own in a big, bad world where Hitler not only lived, but ruled.

Here, though, this was perhaps the most horrible concept in what proved to be one of the most horrible films (or unintentionally campy films if you would like to be kind) in US cinema history! After experiencing life in New York and Hollywood, seeing Show Business in both the good (Neely receiving some early deserved success) and the bad (being a tv spokesperson for a cosmetics line), and on the eve of what was about to be the Women’s Liberation Movement, having Anne come to the realization that she should have just stayed in her own little town and never gone anywhere or done anything is proof positive that 1939 values were laughable in 1967, but completely cringeworthy in the 21st Century!

We can appreciate “The Wizard of Oz” for taking us to a fascinating fantasy world where the journey was most of the fun. But “Valley of the Dolls” seemed to show us that you might have moments of pleasure along your way, but girls, you won’t really be fulfilled until you stay in your place. So kick those dreams to the yellow bricked curb, because you’ll be ruined or dead if you don’t.

There’s no place like home.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 2, 2010 12:54 pm

    And, just because this is a far more entertaining version (primarily because it’s shorter and has minimal dialog) Here:

  2. September 2, 2010 2:01 pm

    What I adore about “The Wizard Of Oz” is its innate ability to inspire parallels of all colors and stripe shapes. It is one of the books and films that has been one of my “inanimate” muses since I was a child, and so in theory I absolutely appreciate the spirit behind this mashup.

    However, I think this parallel is a stretching one at best. The comments about Judy Garland inspiring “Valley of the Dolls” and her showing up “wasted” on set…Well, the sad truth is that since childhood the poor woman was being injected with methamphetamines and depressants by so-called “Set Doctors” who would tell the kids these were “vitamin injections” to help them work 15-hour (or more) days and then “sleepytime vitamins” so they could get a few hours of sleep. Another injection by the “Doctors” to wake them up for one more day of 15-hour shoots. Lather, rinse and repeat. For years.

    Implying that Ms Garland’s drug addiction was by choice in the same way that the women in “Valley of the Dolls” became addicts should require a public apology and retraction. Dame Judy is dead, so I expect nothing of the sort. However, I am saddened at the lack of context proposed here and the glib way in which a tragic life has been woven into an unrelated narrative that does not fit and misrepresents the reality of Judy Garland’s life and experiences as a child and adult actor.

    I wish I could have fawned over the brilliance of this post, Ozian that I am. I so badly wanted to. I couldn’t.

    *I love you, Judy. I hope you have found some peace.*

  3. September 2, 2010 9:55 pm

    Hi Sezin and thanks for deigning to reply!

    I’d like to point out that Judy Garland’s life and tragic death were not the focus of the parallels of these two movies, though Ms. Garland’s later life was cited as a partial inspiration for Ms. Susann’s book and that has been quoted by many. I’m not covering any new ground with that information.

    So, I’m not sure I can help you with your complaint about what I said here. I never suggested that Garland’s early life was the same as that of the women from “Valley of the Dolls.” I never implied that Ms. Garland was the same as those characters or got involved in drugs in the same way at all. If you felt I did, I am truly sorry you misunderstood. In fact, Judy Garland is only here in anecdotal fashion, just because she was connected to both films.

    The real parallel is within the storylines of the films and how they both seem to reach the same conclusion, despite their vastly different time frames.

    I hope this clarifies all of the above.

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