I'll get you my pretty...

Today, bidders at Bonhams will battle to get their hands on Dorothy's gingham dress. Why? David Benedict explores the making of an icon
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It is entirely possible that among those flocking to Bonhams today to bid for the dress that Judy Garland wore in The Wizard of Oz there may be a scattering of those described by arch cabaret artist Steve Ross as "gentlemen doomed never to marry".

It is entirely possible that among those flocking to Bonhams today to bid for the dress that Judy Garland wore in The Wizard of Oz there may be a scattering of those described by arch cabaret artist Steve Ross as "gentlemen doomed never to marry".

Don't get me wrong. There simply aren't enough homosexuals in the world to account for this film being upheld as the most-watched and adored in history. Regular television screenings in 1950s America ensured both love and longevity for a picture that cost a then astronomical $2,277,000 (£1.2m) to shoot and made just $3m on its release in 1939 - a major loss when post-production costs were added. Television, however, sanctified it as the ultimate family fantasy movie. And it's not hard to see why.

For all its highly-coloured fantasies, the film's message is heartwarming. And in case anyone was inclined to miss it, that message was spelled out in the film's penultimate sequence just before Garland's character Dorothy leaves Oz - the imaginary kingdom named after the O-Z alphabetical lettering on a filing drawer in L Frank Baum's study. "What have you learnt?" asks the Tin Man. To which the deeply sincere young Garland replies: "If I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own backyard."

In other words, it's as safely conservative as, say, Brief Encounter, a film made just six years later that also allows audiences to have their cake and to eat it too. The latter gives the perfect wife the opportunity to entertain - and all but consummate - a shockingly forbidden adulterous passion before bringing her back to earth with a reminder of the benefits of middle-class marriage. She chooses safety over the excitements of danger and the dynamic tension between those two opposites drives Dorothy through The Wizard of Oz. She's making intense friendships and having breathtakingly magical adventures but she spends the whole film trying to get home. And not for one single frame does she stop wearing that blue-and-white gingham dress.

Nor is it some overly confected party frock - although had the top box-office tot Shirley Temple (then an ageing 10-year-old) played the role as originally planned, the dress would have been very different. But then so would the film. Garland was just 17 by the end of the shoot, but she'd long been a pro having made her stage debut at two-and-half as part of The Gumm Sisters threesome. Radio had then made her a huge singing star and she'd been under contract at MGM for three years. The qualities that burn off her in The Wizard of Oz, though, are innocence and hope, nowhere more so than in the song the studio cut after it didn't go well at a preview - "Somewhere Over The Rainbow".

Someone senior, most probably producer Mervyn LeRoy, saw sense and restored the number. Hell, all they had to do was watch her sing. Careworn, admonitory farmer's wife Auntie Em, too busy earning a crust to listen to Dorothy's tales, says: "Now you just help us out today and find yourself some place where you won't get into any trouble." "Do you suppose there is such a place?" wonders Dorothy aloud to her dog Toto. "There must be." At which point Harold Arlen's strings and woodwind steal in on to the soundtrack. "It's far, far away behind the moon, beyond the rain..." and she's into the song.

Hair in pigtails, leaning against a haystack, she looks questioningly into the sky, dreaming of leaving. She makes her astonishingly mature voice sound artless as she muses with Yip Harburg's lyric and Arlen's yearning harmonies. The throbbing emotionalism of the false Garland cliché is nowhere to be seen. This is singing as absolute, simple communication.

Despite hundreds of cover versions, Garland's version remains unassailable, to the point that many singers won't touch it. Years later she wrote to Arlen: "'Over the Rainbow' has become part of my life. It's so symbolic of everyone's dreams and wishes."

The same goes for the whole of The Wizard of Oz which is why the memorabilia industry has thrived on the movie and its myths. Collectors alight on everything Oz-like they can lay their hands on. It's the film that made her and, later, sustained her to the point where Garland wasn't loved, she was adored. More than 20,000 people waited hours to file past her coffin, so what price for a more permanent memory?

You can see why. Movie stars offer unrivalled opportunities for vicarious living. Flickering up there larger than life on the big screen, actors play characters released from the mundane petty tyrannies of everyday life. Which was particularly appealing for generations of gay men who grew up when homosexuality was unspoken and illegal. Surrounded by repression, forced to live a life in secret, unable to express your fantasies of love and hope? Go to the movies where stars express the emotions you cannot.

And as any psychoanalyst will tell you, with that degree of identification comes love. Loving, however, as people as diverse as Othello and Sting have taught us, is not the same as ownership. I confess that I do possess the odd piece of movie memorabilia. My (heterosexual) brother rocketed even further up in my estimation when he bought me a signed photograph of Cloris Leachman as reproving Frau Blücher in Young Frankenstein last Christmas. However, I'm not about to head off to Bonhams and not because I don't have a 27in waist, nor an especial fondness for gingham. Were I rich enough to buy that dress, I would. But why have that when listening to her sing gets you under her skin?