During the Great Depression and WWII, the American people flooded to the cinema. For a few hours, a movie could take them away from their troubles, transporting them some place enchanted, where there was no economic depression or war. Love, endurance, and goodness always triumphed. 1938 saw the production of the Technicolor musical The Wizard of Oz. Home, love, and overcoming adversities were a few of the overarching themes. The magical adventure of Dorothy Gale and her friends fighting against The Wicked Witch and searching for their heart’s desires struck a chord with audiences. The songs in the movie are memorable, but one stands out from all the others. And eighty years later, the song “Over the Rainbow” continues to touch lives.
It was the last of the songs written. The peppier tunes came first, but the script called for a ballad for the Kansas scenes. Judy Garland, who portrayed Dorothy, was to lament to her little dog Toto about living in a dreary place, then break into song, relaying her full feelings. Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg were in collaboration, the former writing the lyrics, and the latter the music. Their inspiration came from “a little girl who… was in trouble and… wanted to get away from… Kansas. A dry, arid, colorless place. She had never seen anything colorful in her life except the rainbow.”
At last they composed the lyrics and the music, and Judy Garland’s powerhouse voice did it justice. She brought a vulnerability to the words other singers cannot capture in the eighty years of the song’s existence. The sentiments and the melancholic Kansas atmosphere seemed to reflect the time. America was still climbing out of the Great Depression, and Europe was on the verge of war. Kansas may have been a dry, arid, colorless place, but the condition of the rest of the country wasn’t too far off. In the 1930s, America was rife with dust storms. One storm, in 1935, began in the west and swept through the states, finishing in the west. It destroyed the all-natural beauty in its pathway. “Over the Rainbow” promised hope despite present circumstances. If young Dorothy Gale could find her rainbow, so could anyone else.
Filming continued, and they completed The Wizard of Oz by early 1939. The MGM executives previewed the finished project. Louis B. Mayer and Mervyn LeRoy felt “Over the Rainbow” was out place, slowed the picture down, and showed their young starlet in a degrading light. The song was temporarily cut. If it weren’t for the opposition of producer Arthur Freed and Roger Edens, “Over the Rainbow” might have been lost to us forever. Once reinstated, it remained in every cut/variation of the movie thereafter.
There have been various renditions of “Over the Rainbow,” sung by many artists, each bringing their own flare to the number. However, from the start, it was Judy Garland’s signature song. No performer has ever been so closely identified with a piece of music. For thirty years, she sang it for MGM functions, on the radio, for singles, and later saved it for her final act in her concerts. Even President Kennedy would request her to sing it whenever she phoned him. “As for my feelings toward ‘Over the Rainbow,’ it’s become part of my life. It is so symbolic of all dreams and wishes that I’m sure that’s why people sometimes get tears in their eyes when they hear it,” Garland stated in an interview.
When Judy Garland died in 1969, the song played repeatedly on TV and the radio.Since it’s conception, “Over the Rainbow,” the song deemed slow and degrading, has taken on a life of its own. Having won many awards, including an Oscar for Best Song for Arlen and Harburg, one can only imagine how it will continue to impact the world by 2039, its one hundredth anniversary.