Review: The Wizard of Oz

This is a review of the 1939 film directed by Victor Fleming.

by Charlotte Dovey
William Wallace Denslow [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The title page of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, written by L. Frank Baum and illustrated by W. W. Denslow.

My brothers and I loved The Wizard of Oz, as all children do, looking forward to its annual television appearance with more glee than any other film, but we loved the original books even more.  Our parents delighted us with a complete set of the stories, accompanied by a set of LPs with actors reading the stories.  All in all, it took us days of doing nothing else but playing the records, reading alongside, in order to get through them all.  My younger brother even learned to recite the books, much as a young Greek poet of centuries ago would memorize and retell long verses to the amazement of his community.

My husband, who is a Scot, had never seen the film until we met.  He tolerantly agreed to watch the dvd, thinking it was essentially a child’s film, and he was surprised by it.  As with all fairy tales, it is written as much for adults as for children; fairy tales tell us about the darker aspects of ourselves, much as dream interpretation does, but they also introduce children to these darker realms while they remind adults of their meaning (or essential lack thereof).  My husband and I watch The Wizard of Oz at least once per year now, generally close to the winter holidays (Saturnalia, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa…), enjoying it as much as any children would. 

It is well-known that L. Frank Baum wanted to create a distinctively American fairy tale.  He used the typical structure of the hero-quest and elements common to fairy tales, such as witches, enchantments, animal familiars, and inanimate objects coming to life.  This fairy tale is distinctly American, however, because it is set in the American landscape and its themes involve American expansion and the search for wealth in a growing democratic nation that is still young, yet newly recovering from a recent Civil War. 

What better way to depict these themes than to show a young girl growing up in the American heartland and its breadbasket, a nondescript place where the best people are poor simple farmers who stay at home?  Through her quest to seek the wealth present in the greater cities, but lacking in the small Midwestern towns, she sees the country, and her journey reflects the sociopolitical climate of the turn-of-the-century U.S. that she traverses.  Of course, Dorothy is young and inexperienced and believes that her quest is necessary and beneficial.  Only through that quest does she gain enough experience to know that this quest is folly.  Hence, she runs away to seek her fortune in the cities (and upon meeting Professor Marvel decides that this is best done by meeting the crowned heads of Europe) and ends up in the middle of a great cyclone, all hot wind that nevertheless causes upset, essentially taking her nowhere at all, and yet she learns at least this. 

Dorothy, used to grey and drab surroundings, is bedazzled by the flamboyant sparkle of this city life where “My! People do come and go so quickly here!” and she needs spirit guides to start her journey.  But of course, being big-city America, ostensibly (and tongue-in-cheek on the part of Baum) all roads are made of gold; money can be made in all sorts of ways.  Her first guide to help direct her is the scarecrow.

The straw man is one guide that would be familiar enough to a Kansas farmgirl.  As with any “straw man argument,” the scarecrow focuses on something essentially beside the point; he wants to scare the crows that laugh at him, but instead of wishing to be frightening (fear being an instinctive and emotional capacity), he wants reason, giving essentially a “straw man argument” for seeking reason — to scare crows.  Paradoxically, he cannot see the value of reason without already having some rational capacity.  Hence, he looks for something that he both has and does not have, a logical contradiction that breaks the rules of reason.  And he must learn to see why his straw man argument is embarking on a fool’s errand, and yet wise, and a seeming contradiction.  This is the same as Dorothy’s quest; paradoxically, she must quest to discover that the quest is folly. 

And of course, the tin man and lion also suffer from the same idiocy, as indeed do we all.  The tin man is hollow, all surface and liable to rust — is L. Frank making a point about romance?  It does seem to consist of surface show or infatuation without substance (heart) that is liable to decay.  Yet he seeks to love and puts highest importance on it, and that shows that he is already loving.  And we tend to think that the Wizard is either wrong or in jest when he says that “A heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.”  However, there is truth in what he says; many people find themselves incapable of love due to depression or other hurts.  Yet they are loved by others, and their intrinsic value is reflected in that love.  Even when people see that their own lives lack value, they can look to others for that value they cannot see or feel themselves. 

As for the cowardly lion, he actively seeks bravery, and that requires a great deal of bravery indeed. 

As they leave the wilderness and approach the Emerald City, they first encounter poppies supplied by the Wicked Witch — opium, only to be cured by a powdery snow — cocaine, dispensed by Glinda.  Both were legal when Baum wrote his books, but we can see that opiates would be considered bad and aligned with the wicked witch, and that cocaine could be a gift from a good witch:  lethargy will prevent us from getting to the emerald city (making cash) but energetic fervor is more likely to get us there.  Additionally, cocaine, before the longer terms effects of its use were understood and it was eventually made illegal, was used as a cure for opiate addiction.  Baum would have been aware of the effects of the opium trade on both the Indian and Chinese economies, giving increasing strength to British Imperialism; he may have been making veiled reference to the evils of such an economic policy.

The land of Oz, short for ounces, as in gold or its equivalent of cash, making it a green/emerald city, is ruled by those who gain power through tricks or by domination and brute force; we see this clearly with the wicked witches of the East and West.  The story is partly about Dorothy’s interactions with the people (and their rulers) from those lands that would have been a growing threat to America when Baum wrote this story, those in Asia and parts of Europe.   It reflects the growing unrest and power struggles that eventually led to the First World War and the Russian Revolution.  Parts of this land, however, are also ruled by the good witch of the North (Glinda, also a typical faerie godmother), who is obviously depicted as the Northern states of America, making this story also about Dorothy’s relationship with her own country’s governance.  The Emerald City is ruled by the Wizard who is a confidence trickster from Nebraska; Baum was clearly commenting on American politicians.  Since Nebraska was founded in the aftermath of the Civil War, the Wizard is notably from a neutral territory regarding that chapter of American history.  Interestingly, the witch of the South is not mentioned in the film (Glinda was the good witch of the South in the book) — perhaps she could not be regarded a “good witch” because of her part in the still not-too-distant Civil War that the South was still rebuilding from, and because of the attitude towards African Americans still held in the South at the time the film was made?  At any rate, we can see that the United States would need an impartial leader on the issue of post-Civil War Reconstruction, even if that neutrality is based on fraudulent socioeconomic policies.

Dorothy and her friends are at first duped and intimidated by the Wizard (and the city itself) and part of their learning involves seeing such things for what they are.  In the book, the Emerald City is only green because people are forced to wear green-tinted glasses and none of them seem aware that this is the sole reason that they see the city as green; sadly, this intriguing detail was left out of the film.  Nevertheless, even in the film, the fraudulent Wizard/conman prevents people from entering the city by acting as gatekeeper; this will ensure that only people who he can dupe will be allowed in.  We could say that this reflects certain nations’ attitudes towards foreigners; they only accept people who are already indoctrinated to/blinded by their particular dogmas and they attempt to keep out people who see through those, as they would be dangerous to their powerbase.  As gatekeeper, the Wizard tells Dorothy and her friends that no one has ever seen the Wizard.  In their folk-wisdom, they ask, “How do you know there is one?”  The story seems to be making a point about politicians (and religious leaders) who profess a faith that is impossible to substantiate but that people nevertheless believe.

The Wizard sends them on yet another fool’s errand, another hero quest.  As such, they quickly find themselves in more hot water, and the wicked witch in cold water.  Water is a purifier, something that baptizes us, so it makes sense that it is the one thing that could destroy evil from a symbolic point of view.  Even so, water could not destroy the witch unless she was essentially insubstantial and, therefore, lacking real power except that obtained from those who follow her; a leader has no power without the power of those under her.  The cold water serves as a wake-up call to the people whom she has repressed, that they are the ones with power after all and the witch’s power is a mere sham. 

It is interesting that Miss Gulch/the wicked witch would have been considered a modern liberated woman at the time that L. Frank Baum wrote the story, and indeed at the time the film was made nearly forty years later — Miss Gulch rides around on her bicycle with a great deal of determination, she owns a good part of the county, she is unmarried and has her own resources, and she maintains her power rather than giving it over to others.  Is this why so many of us love and idolize her even though she is “wicked?”  However, as the Wizard says, Dorothy and her friends managed to “liquidate” her; they exposed her lack of power and perhaps also liquidated her assets in the financial sense — an interesting double meaning.

It is worth considering just what sort of regime is the witch supposed to be running?  It looks suspiciously like a Hollywood version of Eastern Europe and the inhabitants have vaguely Eastern European accents (again, in the Hollywood sense).  Is she an early Fascist or Communist dictator?  Happily, she is easily overthrown because her substance is essentially insubstantial, as with most leaders — she is, like the Wizard, essentially smoke and mirrors; her power rests on the value that humans have placed upon money, itself a mere representation of a genuine good, and that value is fleeting — currencies change and lose value, to be replaced by something else.  This idea is also touched upon in the film when the lion is “crowned” king of the forest, but with a broken pot on his head (a “pot head?”) and a carpet for a royal mantle (people have been walking all over his so-called monarchy?).  The monarchy, then, as with other systems of power, seems to have elements of being a sham.

This brings us to the wicked witch’s minions, the flying monkeys — who or what are they supposed to represent?  They are obedient but they do not seem to be downtrodden, unlike the witch’s guards/soldiers.  The monkeys also fly, like many a religious symbol.  Are they true believers?  As the story The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was written just after the Industrial Revolution and Karl Marx’s Das Kapital was widely published and Communist ideology was on the rise (a threat looming in both the East and the West), perhaps these minions are true believer Communists and the people in her land quashed with the help of these “monkeys.”  But the monkeys are visibly happy when the witch is finally destroyed — were these “true believers” downtrodden after all?  Or did they finally come to realize that their devotion was misplaced?  Is this commenting on “true believers” generally, that they are usually duped and/or coerced and not really blameworthy?

William Wallace Denslow [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Wizard is one who is supposed to be wise, but is all smoke and mirrors and bombast.  This, of course, is a veiled reference to anyone who goes through an indoctrination, or even an educational system — as a leader he is a performance artist in a hot air balloon that must eventually come down, but we know not where.  As with the Wizard, to cover up our ignorance, we spout with convincing confidence what we think people expect to hear, keep quiet about how little we know, and this makes others think us clever.  Or at least, cleverness involves knowing when to say something and how to speak confidently, and when to keep quiet.  And the cleverest are those who know that this is what is involved in education and they develop tricks to impress.  They often become people who, like the Wizard, can dole out university degrees to people who nevertheless get things wrong.  We see this when the scarecrow says, “the sum of the square roots of any two sides of an isosceles triangle is equal to the square root of the remaining side” after the Wizard grants his degree.  Of course, it takes Toto to point out to the others that the Wizard is no wizard at all, exposing the charlatan for what he is.  And yet the Wizard knows that there is no great trick to thinking, or loving, or bravery, or finding one’s way home – these are all things that we carry within us.  He knows that he can only get where he wants to go by letting the winds carry him and hoping for the best, and admitting that he doesn’t know how to control its course.  How wonderfully wise the Wizard is after all…

© Copyright 2019, Metamorphorica

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