Wizard of Oz: American Vs. Universal Messages

During the Second World War, “Over the Rainbow,” Judy Garland’s best-known song from “The Wizard of Oz,” became an institution in America and abroad due to the hopeful reading of the song by people worldwide that were suffering.

Dorothy, and the group of friends she establishes, suggests an American community faced with new challenges. She befriends misfits like the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion, forming an alliance or union, to improve their collective lot in an unfriendly environment. In one of the film’s most famous lines, Dorothy tells her dog, Toto, “We’re not in Kansas anymore.” This line perfectly captures the twentieth century sense of confusion about America’s direction; America is no longer the America of the nineteenth century.

At the same time, through the character of Dorothy, “Wizard of Oz” has come to represent for many Americans a sense of not fitting into mainstream American culture, In fact, the figure of Dorothy became a gay icon, as Richard Dyer explains in detail in his book, “Stars. There was a popular poster of Dorothy entering a gay bar, with the caption “We’re not in Kansas anymore.” Judy Garland’s tragic death, in 1969 at the age of 47, contributed to our sense that Dorothy was also a tragic figure, an innocent child doomed to never fit into the real world.

Judy Garland became a cult icon herself, based on her memorable performance as Dorothy. As Wade Jennings writes, “After the success of “Wizard of Oz,” a persona was established on record. Dorothy’s wistfulness and childlike candor became permanently tied to the Garland screen persona.” Jennings argues that elements of Garland’s persona in “Wizard of Oz” followed her throughout her career into her pitiful later years. The sa ending to Garland’s life suggested to fans that “Dorothy” was never able to fit into the world.

In the film, however, Dorothy does seem to find a place for herself in American culture. But it is not without a bittersweet sense of surrender. The image of Dorothy as a wide-eyed foreigner (or alien) in Oz, flanked by loyal friends, is certainly more compelling than the final image of her as a bedridden farm girl in gray Kansas. Dorothy overcomes her “otherness” and “grows up” through encountering the evil of the Wicked Witch, forming a social group with her Oz companions to combat such evil, and dealing with the fallibility of the Wizard. One of the film’s messages is to “Have faith in your own ability to solve problems.”

“Wizard of Oz” also became an international fairy tale. Before 1939 was over, “Wizard of Oz” enjoyed highly successful release in Canada, Latin America and England. “Wizard of Oz” took on special meaning for the British, who were inspired by the film during the blitz. “Over the Rainbow” became a Wartime anthem, giving the British hope that the war would end soon.

Costumes that are exaggerated versions of Buckingham Palace Guards’ costumes will be cut in England. The British censor board also promised to delete the word “sissy” from the song “If I Only Had the Nerve.” Unlike the U.S. England only gave the film an adult permit. In Europe, in countries such as Denmark and Sweden, the censors did cut some scary scenes to qualify as family entertainment.

Australian forces also responded to “Over the Rainbow,” as well as to other songs from the score, and took these songs with them to African war camps. “We’re Off to See the Wizard” was the most popular song with the Aussies, and was sung even as Italian artillery was opened against them. The Allied Troops sang a parody of the same song, retitled “We’re Off to See Herr Hitler,” during the D-Day invasion.

The reputation of “Wizard of Oz” grew throughout the world after WWII, much as it did in the U.S. In the 1980s, the videotape of the film became available in Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Japan, Israel, South Africa, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia. The new technology of international videos allowed “Wizard of Oz” to finally conquer the entire world.

The universal message of “Wizard of Oz” is that the ideal place to solve problems is at home. At the end of the film, Dorothy attests that she has found all she wants at home. “My heart’s desire is in my own backyard,” she claims, almost echoing the sentiment she expressed in “Meet Me in St. Louis,” made in 1944 and released during the War.

The implication is that home is the last refuge of human hope. Faith in family values seems to surface especially in times of economic and/or political crises, be it in the Depression years of which “Wizard of Oz” is a product, or in the Reagan and Bush years, or at present.

The film’s politics are appropriately idealistic and ambiguous, as was the case of most popular films, particularly those made at MGM, the most conservative Hollywood company, during the studio era. From the beginning, Oz clearly represented a political-geographical realm, with its often-repeated divisions of North, South, East and West, and its governance by a dictatorial Wizard.

The directive, “Have faith in your own ability to solve problems,” can be seen as a right wing, anti-government message, in the sense that relying on political leaders is depicted as a weakness of the common people (Capra’s “little people”). The Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion approach the Wizard with requests to improve upon their lives. But the Wizard turns out to be a quack leader whom they cannot rely on. He is all promise, and no action. In other words, the film implies that these three should band together spontaneously and overcome their problems themselves in a unified fashion.

Of course, the Scarecrow is like a farmer, and the Tin Man is like a dehumanized factory worker. These are not just fantasy characters; they represent the American working class. What all this meant to Depression-era Americans is clear: “Take initiative. Don’t wait for the government to solve your problems.”

In the 1970s, during the Watergate scandal, “Wizard of Oz” took on yet another political meaning, as President Nixon was alternately compared to the Cowardly Lion and the fraudulent Wizard. The New Republic magazine wrote that Nixon had been “caught like the little ventriloquist behind the throne in The Wizard of Oz.” In a Milwaukee Journal cartoon captioned “Looking for courage and heart in the Land of Oz,” the Cowardly Lion and Tin Man became the House and Senate, while at the end of the yellow brick road stood the White House and the simple word “Impeachment.”

The main reason why “Wizard of Oz” has survived and even grown in influence over the years is not just due to its universal messages and political applicability, but also to the fact that the film was uniquely suited for television.

In 1956, CBS paid $450,000 to show the film twice, setting into a motion a television tradition, which continued well into the new Millennium. In 1967, “Wizard of Oz” moved to NBC, where it remained throughout the 1970s. By 1977, the film had been shown 18 times on television, thus influencing a new generation, becoming integral to their collective consciousness.

The movie was ranked as one of the highest-rated films ever shown on TV, having reached at least 260,000,000 homes in those years. Actress Margaret Hamilton claims that somewhere around the third or fourth repeat of the film on TV, “all the fuss began.” This is when “Wizard of Oz” began to become a cultural cornerstone. The perfect film to watch together as a family, especially with its insistence that “there’s no place like home.”

“Wizard of Oz thus gradually became a television ritual, usually scheduled over the Thanksgiving weekend. The movie’s story, images, and songs have become part of our collective memory because of their repetition on television, year after year, holiday after holiday.