For 80 years The Wizard of Oz has captivated audiences with it technicolour beauty, its light shining across countless generations. While its music and performances have entered the realms of cinematic legend. But what makes this 1939 picture a timeless classic of cinema? Is it the cutting edge use of new effects? The beautifully written musical score? Or is it the ability of the film to tap into the truths of human society, belonging and leadership? For me The Wizard of Oz plays with societal themes that have stretched from 1939 to the modern world we now live in, ensuring its ability to speak to new generations on every step of its 80 year journey.
Baum’s 1900 book, which inspired MGM’s film of 1939 has been dissected numerous times to uncover its core meanings. More than simply a children’s story Baum’s book could be seen as a commentary on the American State. From industry (The Tin Man) to farming (The Scarecrow) and the ever increasing but reticent global role of the U.S (The Lion). All wrapped up in the vision of young girl who wants to believe in a utopian Country but finds the truth is charade of smoke and mirrors. Others have drawn parallels to religious iconography and the Pilgrims Progress by John Bunyan. The true nature of Baum’s literary meaning may never be fully understood, its hidden messages obscured by time, with modern interpretations continuing to reflect new perspectives of the 1900 book.
When MGM decided to loosely adapt Baum’s Wizard of Oz for film, they were following several previous incarnations of Baum’s book. From a musical stage version in 1902 to a silent movie version in 1910. But unlike its previous version’s, MGM’s was to be given the full Hollywood treatment, from a studio at the top of its game in creativity and production.
The big vision of MGM studios was however, hampered by the technical restrictions of the time, and The Wizard of Oz would have turbulent beginnings, and an even more turbulent shoot. Multiple script rewrites and four changes of director hampered the production, alongside costumes that rarely allowed movement, effects that went wrong and a set that needed constant attention. Oz’s budget increased day on day, as it reached the heady heights of 2.7 million dollars, double the cost of any previous MGM picture. However despite the obstacles that stood in their way, including the daunting and technically draining process of filming in colour. The Wizard of Oz premiered on the 15th August 1939 at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, following several test screenings that run from 11th August 1939. Thankfully these earlier test screenings helped keep the song ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ in place, cancelling plans by the studio to cut it from the final picture.
Why, anybody can have a brain. That’s a very mediocre commodity. Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the Earth or slinks through slimy seas has a brain. Back where I come from, we have universities, seats of great learning, where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts and with no more brains than you have. But they have one thing you haven’t got: a diplomaThe Wizard
Unfortunately for MGM, despite positive reviews, The Wizard of Oz only made 3 million dollars on initial release, barely covering its 2.7 million price tag. In fact the film was not classed at a success for MGM until several re-releases in 1949 and 1955 finally turned a healthy profit on the original budget.
So why has The Wizard of Oz endured and found new fans during every year since its original 1939 release?
The answer to this question for me sits within the social constructs of the film and its underlying messages. Unlike Disneys seminal Snow White and Seven the Dwarfs released in 1937. The Wizard of Oz is no fairy tale, there is no prince charming, no fantasy ending and no easy answers to its story. Dorothy longs to believe in a world of fairness, equality and joy, the rainbow symbolising the possibilities of a utopian society where people live together harmoniously. Defeating those who bring pain through love, collective action and belonging. However, it soon becomes clear that even the fantasy world of Oz is a mirage, a lie with people aimlessly following an all powerful leader who promises the world but is fact a lier and cheat. Despite this ending, Dorothy believes in the power of goodness, forgiveness and friendship, her journey taking in those who have been rejected or forgotten in the world she inhabits. To this end it is clear why the film became a favourite of marginalised communities such as those facing homophobia, racism and oppression. The core message of the film being, that despite our differences and vulnerabilities we are stronger together than we are apart.
Equally Dorothy’s travel’s from the rural isolation and loneliness of her farm to the glittering towers of the Emerald City highlight that the perceived power of those in control, does not replace the strength of the individual to change their own community and world. Her partners in this journey realising that the very flaws they believed kept them isolated and alone are in fact gifts in creating a better world if used properly.
Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore. We must be over the rainbow!Dorothy
The Wizard of Oz reflects the very fabric of human society and life, that we all have roads to travel. Those roads may never lead to the perfection we strive for, but if we travel them with an open heart, open mind and friendship they can lead us to the sense of home we desire. But beware the con-artists, politicians and liars who may sell you a vision on that journey of a world that is really just a mirage. A message from 1939 that still loudly resonates in our modern day society.