Wizard of Oz, The

views updated


MGM's 1939 film adaptation of L. Frank Baum's 1899 book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was to become perhaps Hollywood's best-loved product, although it was not a huge box office success when it came out. The year 1939 is considered by many critics to have been the greatest in the studio era, with such classics as Gone With the Wind, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Wuthering Heights, along with a gaggle of near-greats, joining Dorothy and her companions on the big screen that year. It was, however, the two color extravaganzas, Oz and Gone with the Wind, that became the most enduring movies in history.

The film has a much greater connection with the issues of the Depression era than is at first apparent. Harold Arlen and E. Y. "Yip" Harburg's song "Over the Rainbow" perfectly captured the continuing and long-deferred hopes of a people about to enter their second decade of depression. Dorothy Gale (a 12-year-old played by Judy Garland at sixteen), along with her family, is mistreated by Almira Gulch, the evil woman who owns most of her Kansas county and plainly represents the greedy bankers and capitalists who were widely seen as oppressing ordinary Americans during the Depression. Dorothy yearns to escape the dreary sepia world where such injustice prevails, to find "some place where there isn't any trouble." When a tornado carries Dorothy and her dog, Toto, to a magical land of blazing color, she finds herself seemingly in the land of every Depression victim's dreams, over the rainbow.

The conflicting American values during the Great Depression are evident in the messages contained in The Wizard of Oz. For all the populism of the original story from the 1890s and the meshing of the emphasis on cooperative effort to defeat the Wicked Witch of the West, the take-away messages of The Wizard of Oz are largely conservative. First, the Wizard who promises everything (seen by some observers as representing Roosevelt and his big government programs) is in fact just the man behind the curtain creating illusions with smoke and mirrors. Second, the idea that people must look inside themselves to find the courage, brains, and heart to succeed was a clear reference to the need for self-reliance. Third, the hope that one's problems will be solved and one's "troubles melt like lemon drops" somewhere over the rainbow is an empty promise because, in truth, "there's no place like home." That closing line reflects the Depression era's renewed emphasis on small town community values, evident in much of the decade's popular culture. Those values will prevail, viewers are told, if they will look within themselves, cooperate voluntarily, and defeat the greed and evil represented by Margaret Hamilton in the dual role of Miss Gulch and the Wicked Witch.



Harmetz, Aljean. The Making of the Wizard of Oz. 1977. Rev. edition, 1998.

McElvaine, Robert S. The Depression and New Deal: A History in Documents. 2000.

Nathanson, Paul. Over the Rainbow: The Wizard of Oz as a Secular Myth of America. 1991.

Robert S. McElvaine