1939 was a very good year to Victor Fleming. He won an Academy Award for (co-)directing Margaret Mitchell’s southern epic Gone With the Wind, and helmed what’s arguably an even bigger cultural touchstone in The Wizard of Oz. This is the first portal fantasy committed to the screen that feels wholly American, from the dusty Kansas farm where the action takes place to the melting pot of fantastic influences that inform the crazy landscape of Oz. What’s interesting is that the fantasy suggests a country ill-at-ease with its coming industrialization and a slight distrust of the authority figures that feel bigger than life.
Dorothy Gale (Garland) is a little kid who lives with her aunt and uncle on a farm in turn-of-the-century Kansas. After getting into trouble with her horrendously mean neighbor Miss Gulch, she runs away from home to save her dog Toto from being taken into the pound. On the road she meets a traveling fortune teller who uses a bunch of parlor tricks to make her believe her aunt will fall ill if she leaves home; Dorothy doesn’t quite trust him at first, but her concern for her aunt sends her running back to the farm. A tornado sends the Gales and their hired hands into the storm cellar, though, and Dorothy misses them. Forced to take shelter in her house, she’s knocked out by a window pane and transported to the magical land of Oz.
There, she meets a number of folks all looking for the things they’re missing — while she misses home, the Scarecrow wants a brain, the Tin Man needs a heart, and the Cowardly Lion needs courage. They agree to help each other travel to the Emerald City, where they’ll meet the Wizard and have him grant them their wishes. Along the journey, each one of them (well, except Dorothy) display the very attributes they’re looking for; it’s really their self-image that needs correcting. Nonetheless, both Glinda the Good Witch and the Wizard demand that they take care of the Wicked Witch of the West, who wants to take Dorothy out anyway for killing her sister.
Why does the Good Witch and the Wizard want Dorothy to handle their dirty work while they’re arguably more powerful than she is? Especially when they know that what Dorothy (and the Tin Man and the Scarecrow and the Lion) already possess the things they want most (or at least, have the power to attain them)? It’s a question that’s been asked or at least danced around, and some have even gone so far as to suggest Glinda is the true villain of the story. She suckers Dorothy into killing her rival, all the while knowing how to send Dorothy home. What’s her angle? And what are we supposed to make of it?
I’m not entirely sure Baum meant for the Wizard and the Good Witch to come off as badly as they do if you think about what they’re doing even a little bit. Dorothy and her compatriots are simply willing to do the things that those in a position of power won’t because there’s motivation for them to do so. They’ve been tempted with their hearts’ desire, an ultimate goal that they’ve been working towards through the length of the movie — why wouldn’t they do anything they could to get it? The fact that they each display the qualities they believe they’re lacking is more for us than for them, a reminder that we often judge ourselves too harshly when it comes to our shortcomings.
Regarding the film itself, it holds up remarkably well; I was quite impressed with the tornado sequence, which was tense enough to get my heart racing. The transition from sepia-toned Kansas to the technicolor world of Oz is stark and well-presented, though the set looks a *little* rickety these days. Even still, Dorothy’s three companions are wonderful; they sink into their roles with a vaudevillian’s physicality, and they’re so game in the performance that you’re willing to overlook the stitches and seams in their costumes to believe that they really are a man made of straw or tin, or a fearsome jungle beast who just happens to walk on two legs.
And of course, Margaret Hamilton is perfectly awful as Miss Gulch and the Wicked Witch. She’s mean and revels in it; she provides Dorothy with just the right push to make her stumble into her heroism. While the story itself might not make much sense, and the costumes and sets are a little dated (but state-of-the-art for 1939 audiences), the emotional weight of the performances really take this movie over the top.
Looking at the movie through a historian’s lens, I’m tempted to talk a lot more about what the patchwork of Oz’s fantasy means about us as a society. Is it possible that the reason the story took off is that it taught us to be self-reliant, that we have everything we’ve ever wanted already? It’d be a pretty powerful lesson in Depression-era America, where people all over the country were struggling to make do with less. And my eye is still drawn to the fundamental immorality of Glinda and the Wizard; it feels like there’s a subtext of government distrust there. It feels like Baum is warning us that the powers that be will take our needs and use them to manipulate us into reinforcing their position.
It sounds crazy, right? But it’s not really even a new argument. There’s a lot out there about the potential political and religious subtext in The Wizard of Oz, though I’m not sure how much of that was implanted by Baum, known by the filmmakers or widely accepted by critics. Still, it’s fun to think that there’s this crazy world of meaning right beneath the surface.
Whether or not you believe in the subtext, The Wizard of Oz is a great movie. The performances elevate the enterprise totally, and its impact on movie-making and fantasy in America cannot be understated. It’s neat that after all this time, there’s still nothing quite like it.