While I can’t definitively say that I’ve never met someone who hasn’t seen The Wizard of Oz, I can’t remember anyone ever claiming to have never seen it, and for some reason I think I would. I also am struggling to think of an American film with quite so ubiquitous viewership. More often than not, the people I know have some kind of visceral childhood association with this movie. My sister would sing “ding dong the witch is dead” when she fought with my mom to irk her. My college roommate had nightmares about flying monkeys that she can vividly remember to this day. My niece demanded that all of her adult family members dress up as various characters and go trick or treating with her.
The opening quote of the movie continues to gain resonance as each decade marches on, and a new generation of children grows up with forlorn longing for a place over the rainbow, only to be followed by fear and desperation for a return to familiarity.
Part of the magic in the film is the literal magic, and the costumes, and the sets, and the music, yes — it is a movie lovers movie. I say that with the knowledge that the story is adapted from a book and was an on stage musical before being filmed. What differentiates the film from the other versions is that the movie plays with the full deck — the director exploits technical features of film to heighten senses in ways not possible in print or on stage. A tornado sucks up people and animals, and we see them whirling through the air. The visual effect combined with the sound editing is the perfect set up for a drop out of sepia and into a technicolor fantasyland. This context shift is stark, and an ideal technique to communicate to young viewers that a fundamental shift in reality has occurred.
What’s great and confounding about this film is that it can be read as an allegory in many different ways. The movie is a lauded part of the queer community, and many of the characters are favorites for drag queens who refer to their friends as “good Judy”. The phrase “friend of Dorothy” was used as code to identify fellow queer folks. Of course, the rainbow iconography is obvious, but there is also the theme of escape to a land where acceptance is the norm and freedom of expression abounds.
The draw of adventure and risk in pursuit of an untroubled utopia can be applied to many different contexts as well: it can be viewed as a purely religious allegory, or an anti-religious allegory. It can be viewed as commentary on race in America, or of the immigrant experience, or aging in any culture.
Dorothy’s story is one of longing to escape a perceived oppression, and an accompanying disenchantment that comes with that escape. Not only is there the buyer’s remorse element of the film (where you find yourself in the land somewhere over the rainbow only to discover that there’s no place like home) it is also a lesson in disillusionment and a reminder to never meet your idols.
Dorothy and Toto do not escape Mrs. Gulch, she transforms into an evil witch. The friendly, but dubious, charlatan Dorothy meets when she tries to run away, becomes the Wizard himself — but he’s not a wizard at all, just another man. This time when I watched The Wizard of Oz I felt more melancholy than I have in the past, mostly because of one of the final sequences when the Wizard tells the weary travelers that they have just as much brains as scholars, but don’t have a degree, or just as much bravery as heroes, but not a medal.
This resonated with me as a metaphor for the inequity of existence in this country and others — you may have as much talent or skill as someone else but it won’t be recognizable to you or others until a symbol is bestowed upon you by a merchant of power in that society. For whatever reason, in June 2020, I found the film to not be a message of hope but instead a reminder that chasing shiny objects is unlikely to result in the desired outcomes motivating that journey.
This melancholic read of the film is deepened by the truths underpinning the film’s production: the abhorrent treatment of Judy Garland by the studio and the fact that the original Tin Man. Buddy Ebsen, ended up in an iron lung as a result of the make up he wore during filming. Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch, was covered with life altering burns resulting in scars that never healed. The actors who played the munchkins were at first thrilled to escape the freak shows they relied on for their livelihood, only to be equally mistreated on set.
This underbelly and the proliferation of The Wizard of Oz backlash is a natural rebound of a film with such a broad viewership over so many years, and maybe that’s why it is such an integral touch point in our society. We age with this work. It reflects our changing understanding of the world and appeals to the young, the young at heart, and those who can’t help pay attention to the man behind the curtain. It is this shape shifting relevance that truly makes The Wizard of Oz so great and powerful.