Why You Won’t See The Ruby Slippers In OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL

Sam Raimi's WIZARD OF OZ prequel skirts the boundaries of MGM's 1939 classic, but footwear is one place it won't go.

You've be forgiven for thinking that Oz The Great and Powerful is a prequel to 1939's The Wizard of Oz. After all, so much of the design and tone of Sam Raimi's new film relates directly to that movie. But the reality is that the new Disney film, while based on the same L Frank Baum books as the musical, is quite different from what Victor Fleming* brought to life. At least, legally it is. While the L. Frank Baum books are in the public domain, the 1939 movie remains under copyright protection.

The most obvious difference is the lack of the famous Ruby Slippers. Like so many elements from the musical movie, the Ruby Slippers were an invention of the production. In Baum's book Dorothy has Silver Shoes, but it was decided by MGM that red would be much more exciting in Technicolor, and so the Ruby Slippers were born. In 1985 Disney released Return to Oz, and while that movie was an amalgamam of Oz book sequels (and featured character designs directly lifted from the Oz book illustrations, as opposed to The Wizard of Oz, which created mostly new designs), director Walter Murch wanted to use the famous Ruby Slippers. Disney paid through the nose to license the image from MGM. 

This time around it seems like nobody wanted to bother. It's possible that Warner Bros, who now has the rights to the 1939 movie, wouldn't want to share, as they've been making noise about resurrecting the property themselves. In any case, Raimi's movie simply avoids the question of footwear altogether. The Wicked Witch of the East does not seem (at least on my first viewing) to have any special shoes at all.

But that doesn't mean Raimi's film isn't drenched in design that recalls the 1939 film. It's everywhere. There's a short moment where James Franco's Oz walks past a herd of multi-colored horses, a callback to The Horse Of A Different Color, which was not in Baum's book and was created just for the movie. The Winkies in this movie look much like the WInkies in The Wizard of Oz, where they're the Wicked Witch of the West's army. That look is completely different from Baum's book. The layout of the Emerald City throne room, and the Wizard's big floating head trick, seem to come directly from the 1939 movie.

The most obvious lift from the 1939 movie, though, is the design of the Wicked Witch of the West. Margaret Hamilton's look - green face, pointy nose and chin, huge black hat and broom - has become the default image for witches in our culture, but the 1939 movie version bears little resemblence to the character Baum created. In the book The Wicked Witch of the West had one eye, and three pigtails. She's a tiny little crone of a woman, quite different from the image most of us have of her.

I have to admit I'm a touch stymied as to why this version of the Wicked Witch of the West is fair game; I'm guessing part of it is that the green-skinned witch has become so ingrained in pop culture that it's become fair use all on its own. There was an interesting copyright ruling in 2011 that said all publicity materials from The Wizard of Oz - one sheets, lobby cards, etc - have fallen into public domain because nobody copyrighted that stuff. Could the Wicked Witch of the West's design be available because she appears on lobby cards? That seems fairly unlikely, as all of the classic Oz characters appear on lobby cards and the court ruled that their likenesses could not be used in other films**.

Oz the Great and Powerful attempts to walk a fine line between being legal and homaging the 1939 The Wizard of Oz. I have to admit that Raimi's insistence on making his film's design match the original film's designs as closely as he could made me enjoy the movie much more. 

* and uncredited directors Mervyn Le Roy, Norman Tuarog, Richard Thorpe, George Cukor and King Vidor. Yes, the production was something of a mess. 

** the ruling essentially allowed a memorabilia company to continue selling reproductions of the lobby cards.