Reel/Real Impact: The Wizard of Oz (More than Just a Movie)

“The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone with the Wind,” both released in 1939, stand together in the popular imagination as the two greatest Hollywood films, one ostensibly for children, the other for adults.

However, the influence of “Wizard of Oz” on three generations of adults, who first saw the film as children, is far greater than that of “GWTW.” In 1990, images from both films came to grace commemorative 50th anniversary postal stamps. While the image of Rhett and Scarlett embracing has come to represent ideals of romantic love in America, the image of Dorothy and friends skipping down the Yellow Brick Road is more complex, containing associations with youth, community, family, and progress.

Images (and songs) from “Wizard of Oz” have become such a solid part of American culture that they are almost a language unto themselves, what Aljean Harmetz calls a “shorthand in the marketplace.” Many cartoonists and advertisers have borrowed the imagery and characters from the film, without needing to explain the references to their audience. The film’s yellow brick road has reappeared in many contexts, including the cover of Elton John’s album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, which featured the hit song of the same title.

“Wizard of Oz” has had an enduring effect on other films, including “Under the Rainbow,” “Wild at Heart,” “The Wiz,” and “Road to Oz,” inspiring both outright homage and more subtle borrowing. “Under the Rainbow” is a comedy about the making of the film. David Lynch’s surrealistic road movie, “Wild at Heart,” parodies “Wizard of Oz,” including a scene where Glinda the Good Witch appears.

John Boorman’s science-fiction film “Zardoz,” about a world of immortals, who want to die, lifts its title from “The Wi-zard of Oz.” In Scorsese’s “After Hours,” Rosanna Arquette tells the frightened yuppie (played by Griffin Dunne) of a lover who was able to have an orgasm only by shooting “Surrender, Dorothy”

Surprisingly, the Production Code Administration (PCA) made several demands on what MGM perceived as harmless, innocuous entertainment. For example, they suggested that “all shouts of the word “fire” should be dropped to avoid panicking in the theaters,” and advised “not make the bad witch too frightening,” and to make sure that her “death should not be gruesome.”

Repeatedly referred to as a film for “children of all ages,” “Wizard of Oz” has become a part of growing up in America, while its narrative offers a definition of what growing up in America is all about. This is achieved through the story of Dorothy, who must find her way home from the childish Never-Never Land of Oz to become a mature woman. “Wizard of Oz” has been sanctioned as a central fairy tale of American popular culture, because it teaches us how become assimilate in a distinctly American way.

Dorothy’s journey from a Kansas farm, down the yellow brick road to the great metropolis of the Emerald City, is at once a journey into maturation and an evocation of American myths about the frontier’s development. “Wizard of Oz” mirrors the myth of American society’s movement from conquering the wilderness to the building of big cities on the frontier. Dorothy’s growth, and the growth of America, thus goes hand in hand.

In the black-and-white sequences that begin and end the film, Kansas is a flat, gray wasteland: the boredom of Middle America, the undeveloped frontier. This unforgettable depiction was one, which the state of Kansas would forever have to fight against in attracting tourists. Meanwhile, the Emerald City offered an image New York City was happy to adopt before Los Angeles got a chance. In the long-running Broadway musical “The Wiz,” a revision of “Wizard of Oz” which eventually became a Sidney Lumet film, New York City literally becomes the Emerald City. The Emerald City of “Wizard of Oz” represents the imagined dream-city of American culture: clean, happy, and glamorous.

However, while on the surface the fantasy land of Oz is a desired respite, it’s ultimately an illusory aberration. Oz represents the illusion of a childhood that cannot last, and the loss of the nation’s frontier youth as well. The classic song from “Wizard of Oz,” “Over the Rainbow,” also describes every Americans’ longing for something that’s lost but might be regained:

Somewhere, over the rainbow,
Way up high,
There’s a land that I heard of
Once in a lullaby.
Somewhere over the rainbow,
Skies are blue,
And the dreams that you dare to
Dream really do come true.
Someday I’ll wish upon a star
And wake up where the clouds are far
Behind me,
Where troubles melt like lemon drops,
Away above the chimney tops,
That’s where you’ll find me.
Somewhere, over the rainbow,
Bluebirds fly,
Birds fly over the rainbow,
Why, then – oh why can’t I
If happy little bluebirds fly
Beyond the rainbow,
Why, oh why, can’t I

The universal message of The Wizard of Oz is that the ideal place to solve problems is in the 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. The implication is that home is the last refuge of human hope. Faith in family values seems to surface especially in times of economic crisis, be it in the Depression years of which “Wizard of Oz” is a product, or in the Reagan and Bush years.