This is the premiere article for Speakerfone, a new column that focuses on music in film.
The melody came to Harold Arlen while he was driving down Sunset Boulevard. It was 1939, and he and E.Y. Harburg were tasked with writing songs for the upcoming L. Frank Baum adaptation, "The Wizard of Oz." At the time, the two were in need of a ballad, so Arlen wrote down his idea immediately. Afterward, he handed it over to Harburg, who came up with the lyrics and a title: "Over the Rainbow."
The rest, of course, is history: "Rainbow" helped turn "Oz" into a phenomenon, and Judy Garland was left singing the song for the rest of her career. But the songwriting duo's lasting legacy of syrupy-sweet Munchkin singalongs and Dorothy's aforementioned ballad weren't the only musical moments that helped prop up this classic film, which hits theaters once again this Friday, in IMAX and 3D. Sure, "We're Off to See the Wizard," "The Merry Old Land of Oz," and "If I Only Had a Brain" are beautifully written works that continue to have a long-standing influence on popular culture. But let's forget about them for a moment and hand the spotlight over to a short, simple riff called "Miss Gulch's / Witch's Theme," written by the film's composer, Herbert Stothart.
Though you might not recognize the tune by name, you certainly know it by ear: It's a stark, seven-note motif that goes "da-na da-na da-na naaaaa" and plays every time Almira Gulch and/or her Dorothy-dream alter ego, the Wicked Witch of the West, pops up on screen. While it's certainly not the easiest piece of music to reference -- the clunky name doesn't help, nor does its lack of lyrics -- it is still one of the most recognizable in film history, as well as the most important song in "Oz." Yes, the most important. (Cue Judy Garland fans running after me with pitchforks.)
Joking. Here's (really) why.
Composed by Stothart, who won an Oscar for his work on the film, the dark riff of "Gulch's Theme" leaves a more lasting mark than any of Arlen and Harburg's songs. Part of this is due to who the theme is associated with: the Wicked Witch of the West, played brilliantly by Margaret Hamilton. The Witch / Amira Gulch is the villain. Without her, Dorothy's journey along the yellow-brick road would have made for a rather uneventful trip. But with her, Dorothy has a nemesis -- a freakish individual with her own freakish theme song.
Gulch's presence is felt early on in the film. She pops up around the eight-minute mark, riding her bike toward Dorothy's home to take away poor Toto. Ten minutes later, we get the song again, this time as Gulch floats past Dorothy's window during a tornado. These early sequences help set the tone for the entire movie, drawing a clear good guys vs. bad guys breakpoint across the story. Although you immediately know who the villain is thanks to Dorothy -- warning her Aunt Em that Miss Gulch is on her way to take her dog -- it's the theme that makes that message plain: this song is maddening and frightening, so this woman must be evil. This is once again solidified when we see Dorothy look out her window to find Gulch on her bike, with her theme song howling in the wind.
The mere fact that the studio had to cut some of Hamilton's scenes due to a fear of scaring children confirmed how big an effect her performance had on viewers. So wouldn't it make sense, then, that the dark and repetitive music that played every time she appeared on screen would have the same impact?
Add to that the fact that "Miss Gulch's Theme" is heard 11 times in the film -- compared with "Over the Rainbow," which, counting its orchestral version, plays only five times -- and you have a song that doubles as the film's evil backbone. Hearing the theme over and over again, especially with the Witch's disfigured green face front and center, conditions us to freak out; the flutter of violins are a call-to-order: the Wicked Witch is back to reign down fear and flying monkeys on the entire lollipop guild.
Thanks to the performances, the imagery, and the work of Harburg and Arlen, "Oz" has firmly rooted itself into our cultural lexicon. But lurking in the background is that infuriatingly catchy theme, the one that continues to play in all our nightmares and terrible thoughts. It's also irreplaceable. You can take away "If I Only Had a Brain," but you'll still have "The Merry Old Land of Oz." You can take away "Ding-Dong the Witch Is Dead" but you'll still have "Over the Rainbow." You can take away "Miss Gulch's / Witch's Theme," but you'll still have... well, what, exactly? Without that song, you have a less frightening witch, along with a weaker story arc. What you're left with then is just a girl waltzing along the road humming a few catchy, light-hearted songs to herself.
That might be OK in real life, but it makes for a rather boring movie.
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