There are some things that just never leave you. Some things are so constantly part of the world in which you inhabit that they remain just inside your mental vision, maybe on purpose. The Wizard of Oz is like that. It’s a comfort for most of us, like a cuddly uncle who is full of wisdom and old world charm, Oz remains a part of the great tapestry of our lives and that might be because it came to most of us when we were children.
Seeing the movie for the first time in a theater earlier this week reiterated my theory that The Wizard of Oz has been seen by more people than any other single motion picture, and the fact that it comes to most of us as children is probably the reason why. I first saw the movie, like most people alive today, on television. I remember that it came around once a year, usually around Thanksgiving. Like Santa Claus, or my birthday, it was a late fall treat, something I knew that I wouldn’t see again for another year.
As I slip rapidly into middle age, the power of the movie still enchants me, and as I grow into what I hope is wisdom born of life experience, I have attempted to analyze why. What I have come up with is this: The Wizard of Oz is the rare movie that taps into the intricate experience of growing up. The dreams that Dorothy sings about mirror our yearnings as children. We identify with our hero, Dorothy. She imagines a bigger place where her problems don’t linger and she is free to explore them. She sees the rainbow as her golden gate to a better place because in her drab sepia-tone Kansas world, the rainbow is the only source of color that she knows. She dreams of a bigger place and imagines a world where troubles melt like lemon drops. Who can’t relate?
The movie works because it represents the colorful palette of our imagination but for Dorothy it is also a place where she does some growing up. The three friends that she meets along the way, The Scarecrow, The Tin Man and The Lion are emblematic of the lessons of bravery, love and devotion and the ability to think for ourselves – and one of the hidden messages is that while the three are looking for these inner values, we can see clearly that they are attribute that they already possess. The Tin Man is an emotional being who cares dearly about his friends. Scarecrow, despite a perceived lack of intelligence, is the one who is always coming up with ideas that get his friends out of a jam. And the Lion, cowardly though he may be, has an inner strength.
The Wicked Witch of the West certainly represents the real dangers along the way. For Dorothy there is a motherly figure, Glenda the Good Witch who intends for Dorothy to discover for herself how to solve her problems. In a way, she seems to represent the parent that Dorothy doesn’t have back in Kansas. Her elderly aunt and uncle love her but this was 1939, in the midst of the depression and we imagine the climate that they live in, where work means keeping the farm. No work = no farm = no home.
For 1939, Dorothy was the perfect character for young girls. She echoes many of the small town country girls who, in the midst of the depression, packed their suitcases and ran to Hollywood seeking fame and fortune in the movies. For them, this film is a cautionary tale that they’d be better off if they just stayed home. Judy Garland was perfect in the role, 17 at the time, but with wide-eyes and a beautiful, open face she carries that sense of wonderment of a child. Like most of us as children, her only true companion is a dog named Toto and the most frightening moment in the film is when she is nearly robbed of her best friend.
When she sings “Over the Rainbow” we know that it is a dream to escape an unhappy childhood (she has apparently lost her parents) and for Garland, we identify. She began in show business as a kiddie act with her sisters and began her long movie career when she was only 13. She was already a familiar face from Love Finds Andy Hardy and by the time of Oz, she was already under contract to MGM. That she was familiar to audiences helped her in the role. That familiarity works well with her ability to project the vulnerability and melancholy that the character needs. We have to believe that she will become frightened and that her life will be in danger, because if we sense that she can work her way out of the situation, then our interest wanes.
If movies are a time capsule, then The Wizard of Oz wonderfully captures a brief moment of happiness in Garland’s life. We know of her problems with studio executives who put her through an exhausting schedule, using drugs to get her going in the morning, then again to put her to sleep at night. We know the legends of her mental and physical problems that dogged her most of her life, but The Wizard of Oz sees her at a moment in her life when it all seemed perfect, just as her star was rising and before her problems really began. There is poignancy in that, and that’s why the casting of Shirley Temple in the role would have been a mistake. By 1939, Temple was the biggest star in the world and her presence in the film would have been too much. She would have stood out and we would only seen Shirley Temple, not Dorothy Gale. Garland’s presence allows the story credibility. If you try and imagine that famous dance down the Yellow Brick Road with a 4 foot child and it just doesn’t fit. This is a movie in which all the pieces come together perfectly.
What generosity these filmmakers had. What ingenuity to create this entire world that is colorful and beautiful and scary. What depth of character they created. What messages they send. This is a movie constructed with loving care. We’re told that those who worked on the film thought of this as just another movie, but that’s hard to believe. Certainly from the screenwriters you wonder if they saw how brilliantly they were tapping our frustrations and our excitement, our dreams, our need and our sense of wonderment. Did they know the impact of what they were working on, that the lovely sentiments that they created would still resonate 75 years later. Did they know that their heart’s desires weren’t that far from our own.