Pausing for a Look–Over the Rainbow

So . . . which scene is it for you?

The tornado sequence, perhaps, filmed in atmospheric black-and-white, and no doubt the cause of countless nightmares for young children throughout the decades?

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Or maybe it’s the magical moment when Dorothy first enters Oz, as the monochrome of black-and-white suddenly gives way to a vibrant palette of color.

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Not quite, you say?  Then how about the legendary Wizard of Oz himself being exposed for the fraud he is, hiding behind the curtain?

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But of course, who can forget the Silver Screen’s most iconic villain, The Wicked Witch of the West, melting away?  “I’m melting, I’m melting!” is such a famous line, it has been mimicked and re-created many times over on both stage and screen in the years since.

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Indeed.  There are many unforgettable scenes in The Wizard of Oz–arguably the most beloved motion picture in Hollywood history.  There are so many such scenes in the 1939 classic, based on L. Frank Baum’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, that, at first blush, it may seem impossible to choose just one as a favorite.

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But for me, there is one sequence from the movie that stands apart, not only as my favorite scene in The Wizard of Oz, but one of my favorite scenes of all time, anywhere, from any film or TV show–the “Over the Rainbow” scene, featuring the film’s heroine, Dorothy Gale, and her dog, Toto.  The irony is–the sequence was very nearly removed during the cutting process.

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Perhaps that’s because it doesn’t depict houses flying in the wind, witches soaring through the night on broomsticks, or cowardly lions and tin men and talking, walking scarecrows.

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The “Over the Rainbow” scene occurs just five minutes into the movie.  Studio executive Louis B. Mayer and producer Mervyn LeRoy both thought it should be deleted because, they argued, it “slowed down the picture.”  If not for the sturdy resistance on the part of others associated with The Wizard of Oz, “Over the Rainbow,” the signature song of Judy Garland’s career, most likely would have withered and died.

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After Dorothy is unable to get her aunt and uncle to listen to her about an unpleasant run-in she and Toto had (“Find yourself a place where you won’t get into any trouble,” her aunt snaps), she wanders off into the barnyard, loyal Toto at her side.

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“Some place where there isn’t any trouble,” Dorothy muses.  “Do you suppose there is such a place, Toto?  There must be.  It’s not a place you can get to by a boat, or a train.  It’s far, far away.  Behind the moon, beyond the rain . . .”

And here she begins to sing of a place “over the rainbow way up high,” where all your “troubles melt like lemon drops.”

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It must be pointed out that Mayer and LeRoy were right about one thing.  The “Over the Rainbow” sequence does in fact slow the picture down.  I would argue, however, that this effect makes The Wizard of Oz a better movie, and a far more memorable one.

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When the adrenaline rush and creative maelstrom of a novel’s first draft gives way to the laborious and painstaking process of revision and rewriting, we often delete far more than we add.  And that’s the way it should be.  In his memoir On Writing, Stephen King suggests authors should be able to cut at least 10 percent of their total word count from a first draft.  First drafts are generally padded, bloated things, gorged and made fat with too much description, too much repetition, and chock-full of sentences, paragraphs, entire scenes just begging to be tossed into the pit of discarded excess.

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It’s natural, when trimming the bulging waistline of a first draft, to look for scenes that slow down the action of the story, that seem to lack relevance  or that do not advance the plot.  And most of the time, such scenes should indeed go.  But sometimes . . . yes, sometimes, there are exceptions.

The Eye-Dancers, for example, is a novel told through the point of view of four main characters–Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski–and one of my primary goals when I wrote the story was to enable readers to get into the mind of each character, get to know him, and, hopefully, root for him.  There are several “slower” scenes where the boys talk among themselves or where one of them wanders off by himself to think, ponder over his problems, and try to figure out his place in the universe.

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While it’s true action sequences and scenes that serve to advance the plot should and do reveal aspects of character, they cannot capture the thoughts, fears, aspirations, dreams a character might have in a quieter moment.  Nor can they portray an everyday scene, where we can witness the characters interacting over events that are mundane and normal as opposed to earth-shattering.  Without such scenes, little islands of stillness amid the roller-coaster ride of action, intrigue, and death-defying chase sequences, we cannot pause long enough to know and like (or dislike, as the case may be) each character over the course of the story.

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When the forward momentum of The Wizard of Oz pauses, just long enough for Dorothy to sing “Over the Rainbow,” we as the viewers are introduced to one of the primary themes of the movie–magic, fantasy, the promise of a place far, far away bursting with color and life and sights to stir and astound the senses.  We get a foreshadowing of Oz itself, of the quest Dorothy and her friends-in-waiting will undertake.

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And, perhaps most important of all, we get a glimpse of the girl herself.  We share in her dreams, her wishing upon a star if you will, her ability to see and imagine beyond the nondescript reality of her daily life.

This was not lost on history.  On June 22, 2004, sixty-five years after The Wizard of Oz debuted in theaters and exactly thirty-five years removed from Judy Garland’s death, the American Film Institute voted “Over the Rainbow” as the greatest movie song of all time.

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So the next time you’re sweating over the edits of your second draft and are all too eager to cut a scene that does not push the action along, take a breath, read it again, and reconsider.

Maybe, just maybe, the scene in question will transport your readers to a land “heard of once in a lullaby,” where “happy little bluebirds fly.” where the “skies are blue,” and “the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.”

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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