“The Wizard of Oz” is a classic fantasy film featuring witches both wicked and not, enchanted slippers, singing midgets (today known as little people), talking animals and objects, probably still the coolest tornado in Hollywood history and so many more things that may stick more firmly in your consciousness. (For me, it’s the look on Margaret Hamilton’s face right before she lights her broom and asks Scarecrow if he’d like a little fire.)
As with all fantasy stories, the tale of Dorothy Gale’s spectacular visit to a strange and distant land can be read through the lens of multiple perspectives that result in a vast array of philosophical and psychological insights. The really cool thing, of course, is that the insight may equally penetrate into either the movie or the person conducting the critical analysis. One way to view “The Wizard of Oz” musical starring Judy Garland is utterly dependent upon an understanding of the economic conditions facing the entire country from the time the movie was conceived to the time it was being screened inside the gorgeous movie palaces that dotted the country in 1939. When read from this critical perspective, “The Wizard of Oz” is an almost perfect allegory of what was doubtlessly a dream for many people during the Great Depression. A dream that has remained just as firmly rooted in the American consciousness since then.
Some people claim that the movie matches up perfectly with the musical and lyrical content of Pink Floyd’s album “Dark Side of the Moon” when played in the right synchronization. From what I have gathered, such a statement requires an incredibly loose definition of perfection. When you choose to look at the events that take place in “The Wizard of Oz” as an allegory about the wish fulfillment of ordinary Americans leaving their humdrum lives in boring hometowns and traveling to Hollywood in search of fame and fortune in the movies, however, perfection is the only word to use.
Dorothy Gale is a very average young woman literally and figuratively living in a world without color. Rural living holds no interest for her and the idea of growing up and growing old on a hardscrabble farm is absolutely stultifying. The recurring caprice that there exists some magical world of color that exists somewhere just over the rainbow in the skies over Kansas that actually engages her spirit is what keeps Dorothy going. The rainbow is often seen as a symbol of God’s promise that the future will be better and for Dorothy that hope of something better out there is the only thing keeping her alive.
As often is the case in the real world, a scary and potentially tragic intervention in the normal routine of life serves as the catalyst for a change that isn’t negative, but positive. The twister that uproots the house in which Dorothy and Toto are trapped should by all accounts be the single worst element of nature they will ever face. But as happened before to so many others who headed to Hollywood following the death of a loved one or the loss of a job or the breakup or a great romance, what seems awful at first transitions into far less horrific than feared. Even when things in Oz break bad, at least it’s still more exciting and interesting than when things break good back on the farm. Why? Because the possibility of things getting better even when times are bad no longer seems like a sick joke in Oz like it did back in Kansas.
The allegory continues as Dorothy opens the door of the sepia-toned home of the life she left behind. Suddenly, everything seems brighter, lovelier, full of promise and excitement. The little time that Dorothy spends in Munchkinland can be equated on an allegorical level with the time that those coming to Hollywood in search of stardom and glamour must put up with before the big break. Dorothy is surrounded by the little people. You know: all those other people in Los Angeles who aren’t part of the movie business and so aren’t terribly important.
Dorothy is one of the lucky ones, however. She won’t be forced to spend much time among the little people. Her march toward stardom begins not too long after arrival. The reality of life in Hollywood is concretely symbolized in Oz when it is revealed that Dorothy’s extraordinarily good luck in surviving a ride inside a twister turns out to simultaneously be another’s improbably bad luck. The house falling on the Wicked Witch of the East can be read in terms of all those established stars whose light is fading. Like so many older actresses, the Wicked Witch beneath the house just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and Dorothy, the hotshot newcomer, just so happened to be in the right place at the right time. The ruby slippers are the ultimate symbol of the luck and timing that is so very important in the process of achieving fame in the movie business. By which I mean the movie industry.
The slippers are the result of two allegorical figures working in tandem, but from opposite ends of the spectrum. The death of the Wicked Witch is just the thing needed for Dorothy to make her move away from the “little people” and head off toward meeting her rightful place among the movers and shakers.
At the same time, she can’t achieve that fame without the help of an agent. Good thing Glinda the Good Witch shows up to help her out. And like any really good entertainment industry agent, Glinda uses her magic to assist the newest arrival in Oz in making a grab for the ruby slippers. Of course, Hollywood isn’t a one horse town; just because the new kid in town was able to kill off one dinosaur doesn’t mean she’s made the others extinct. The Wicked Witch of the West sees what happened to her sister in just the way older female stars recognize that the sudden and shockingly unexpected obsolescence of one of their “sisters” could just as well have been them. Threats of taking away all the influence of good luck and timing are thrown at Dorothy. But experience is no threat to youthful desire in Oz.
The Yellow Brick Road is symbolic of the intricate Los Angeles freeway system. Nah, just kidding; there was no freeway system in Hollywood in 1939. But like all great allegories, time only adds layers to the metaphor rather than breaking them down. The Yellow Brick Road is the path along which a newcomer to Hollywood gradually rises up through the system. Fresh from living among the little people, the first artistic type that a young starlet (as opposed to an old starlet?) meets is the lowest man on the totem pole. Or some kind of pole, anyway.
Scarecrow represents, needless to say, screenwriters. Scarecrow’s lack of a brain is allegorical in a twofold fashion: writers apparently aren’t smart enough to be at the top of the Hollywood creative community despite the fact that the writer is the only “creative” member of the production team; all others are mere interpreters of the writer’s ideas.
Once a starlet has gone up the ladder from the little people to the writer, the next step is meeting with directors. If you’ve ever done any kind of reading about famous directors, you won’t question how a tin man without a heart is an allegorical statement of profound beauty regarding movie directors. Heartlessness is perhaps a necessary ingredient involved in the truly breathtaking task of coordinating something as complex as a film. Especially when you need to manipulate actors into giving you a performance that you require but that you aren’t getting.
The producer is the next on the Brick Road taking an innocent from a small town into the gleaming Emerald City that is reserved exclusively for the famous and beautiful people in Hollywood. Many producers doubtlessly view themselves a lion among men, but in reality there have historically been few movie producers who are not at heart a coward. The Cowardly Lion admits that fear is such an integral element in his life that he hasn’t slept in weeks. Allegorically speaking, producers tend to be cowards when it comes to take chances on originality, innovation and sacrifice of risky leaps of faith to hold tightly onto tried methods not always proven true.
Dorothy and her friends without a brain, heart or courage can see the very top of the gleaming spires of the Emerald City. The height of realizing their collective dreams seems within grasp. But Hollywood has other temptations to offer that can sometimes present an obstacle or at least slow down the progress toward fame. Our fearsome foursome come across a field of poppies and give in to them. This analysis of “The Wizard of Oz” is not the first to link the effect of the poppy field on Dorothy and Co. with the effects of drugs like cocaine. Leave it to an agent to get the starlet’s focus back on the prize. After all, that prize will result in a landfall of her own. Glinda waves her wand and the singing gang of four march toward their destiny.
Once they get to their destination, however, their request to see the Wizard is denied. Only upon seeing that Dorothy is wearing the ruby slippers is entry allowed. The same holds true on the allegorical level. Those ruby slippers represent the luck and timing so very necessary to achieve the highest realm of Hollywood fame and influence, remember. The gatekeeper recognizes the slippers as a sign of Dorothy’s stature in much the same way that studio executives pounce upon the luck of some unknown becoming infamous in a sphere of influence completely unrelated to the entertainment industry to exploit them for their own financial gain by forcing them upon a public too undiscriminating to care that they possess no actual talent that justifies their importation into the precious world of Hollywood. As proof, I offer the name of a woman who topped the Judy Garland in terms of box office receipts in 1939: Olympic ice skating champion Sonia Henie.
Entry into the Emerald City results in Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion all getting the beauty treatment. Doesn’t take a genius to see how this sequence parallels allegorically with the movement toward Hollywood stardom. Botox. Nose jobs. Hair dye. Pec implants. Once you can get through the studio gates, you see, everything is done to tidy up the small town dreamer so that they better fit the image necessary to sell millions of magazines, posters and movie tickets.
The Great and Powerful Wizard isn’t what he pretends to be. Guess what? Neither is the movie business. Dorothy is overwhelmed by the image of the large-headed wizard, but soon finds that the image is nothing but the illusion created by the man behind the curtain. What better symbolism has ever been put on screen to allegorically symbolize the workings of the movie industry? Nothing is real. Everything is fake. There is always some little, less than impressive guy behind the curtain who is responsible for the grandeur on the screen.
But before this knowledge is revealed, the foursome must confront the witch and steal her broom. Before Dorothy throws that bucket of water onto the Wicked Witch of the West, they are attacked by flying monkeys. If you can think of a more accurate representation of the paparazzi, press agents, entertainment commentators and all the other members of the army engaged by current stars to build themselves up and keep themselves in the limelight so that they can’t be replaced, I’d like to hear it. It is a truism that every time a new star rises in Hollywood it means that another star falls. Read your Hollywood history and you will discover that so many of those actors who seemed to destined to become stars due to personality and charm actually rose to that next level because some existing star decided not to accept a role that went to some unknown whose rise to stardom not coincidentally coincided with the fall from such heights by the actor who didn’t see the benefit of accepting that role.
Once back in the Emerald City, Dorothy and her friends finally discover that nothing created by the studio executive wizards is real. It’s all fakery and the whole dream could collapse right there. And then the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion all receive awards. An Oscar in your hand can instantly make you forget that your entire life essentially boils down to faking everything you do.
The allegory only falls apart with Dorothy’s desire to return to Home. In the world of Hollywood, nobody who has ever achieved even a modicum of success ever wants to return home. That’s why there are so many reality shows featuring those who came to Hollywood, found fame, and then lost it. Rather than retiring gracefully from the public eye and returning home, in the real world those who have lost their fame are willing to submit to any kind of humiliation in order to regain the merest sliver of public recognition.