Is there a film more famous than The Wizard of Oz? There are films with loftier reputations, yes: as impressive an achievement as it truly is, The Wizard of Oz is still written off as kids’ stuff on occasion. But what other film has embedded itself so firmly in our culture? It’s a reference that most everyone picks up and the one Old Hollywood classic that nearly everyone has seen (and, until recently, one of the few being broadcast on network television in primetime). It’s been remade and spun-off in all manner of ways, 0from a television version populated by the Muppets to the misbegotten disco epic The Wiz, to surprisingly bleak incarnations like the eighties semi-sequel Return to Oz and the Sci-Fi Channel’s recent Tin Man miniseries. It crops up even in unexpected places: as a key reference point in anxiety-ridden fair like After Hours and Blue Velvet, and a throwaway line in Reservoir Dogs’ infamous torture scene (“How’s about a little fire, Scarecrow?”). Heck, Richard O’ Brien originally wanted The Rocky Horror Picture Show to imitate The Wizard of Oz’s iconic – and still breathtaking – leap from black-and-white to color. The film is also a merchandizing perennial, the inspiration for a booming cottage industry of hand-numbered music boxes and collector’s plates.
All of this confirms what many of us have witnessed firsthand, that The Wizard of Oz has the power to capture children’s imaginations, and that oftentimes it never fully lets go. And the reasons for this are a great deal deeper than remembered terror at Margaret Hamilton’s immortal Wicked Witch of the West, or a nostalgic desire to sit one’s family around an old favorite. No, The Wizard of Oz refuses to fade from the minds of us grown-ups because it taps into a longing that seizes adults just as strongly as it does children, perhaps more so: we still have the desire to go over the rainbow. We want to believe that even the most sepia-toned of lives could be transformed into confectionary Technicolor tones. Though that first switch to color is surely a technical landmark, it really resonates on a gut level.
Consider what precedes it – Judy Garland’s Dorothy singing one of the most famous songs in movies, what Salman Rushdie calls “a celebration of Escape, a great paean to the Uprooted Self, a hymn – the hymn – to Elsewhere,” in his superior analysis of the film. “Over the Rainbow” is all of those things, and though she was only a teenager at the time of filming, Garland’s powerful, tremulous voice conveys a very palpable longing indeed. And as dangerous and mad as Dorothy’s Oz turns out to be once she arrives, it is also everything that her unhappy life in Kansas is not: colorful, exciting, and empowering too. In Kansas, Dorothy is a child with no control over even the most awful of events, such as Mrs. Gulch’s threatened destruction of Toto. But in Oz, Dorothy is a figure of great importance, feted upon her arrival and ultimately strong enough to face up the Wicked Witch. It is a world that is – quite literally – the fulfillment of Dorothy’s wildest dreams, and it is wholly exhilarating for viewers of any age.
Which bring us, at last, to one of the film’s most problematic aspects: the ending, back in sepia Kansas, and Dorothy repeating that there is no place like it. Rushdie challenges the soundness of the film’s apparent “There’s no place like home,” moral – citing Dorothy’s home in Kansas as being “informed not only by the sadness of dirty-poverty, but also by the badness of would-be dog-murderers.” (And indeed, the thread that the script leaves dangling is Toto’s fate, making for a far more troubling oversight, to my mind, than Mr. Potter going unpunished at the conclusion of It’s a Wonderful Life.)
Others have had trouble reconciling the conclusion as well. “Why would she want to go back to Kansas, in a dreary, black-and-white farm with an aunt who dressed badly and seemed mean to me, when she could live with magic shoes, winged monkeys, and gay lions?” wonders director John Waters in a short commentary filmed for Turner Classic Movies. “I never understood it.”
Rushdie points out in his criticism that in Frank L. Baum’s series of novels, Dorothy and her entire family did eventually move to Oz, and the farm girl became a princess, and argues, as I would as well, that the film’s conclusion cannot undo all that has gone hence. No one leaves a screening of The Wizard of Oz dreaming of Dorothy’s Kansas. Rather, the film has so much power because it invites us to dream bigger and better than that. Or, as Waters offers in his own reading of the film: “Go anywhere you can in the universe and get a look at it.”
Further reading: Rushdie, Salman. BFI Film Classics: The Wizard of Oz. Lodon: BFI, 1992.