Is The Wizard of Oz about the Great Depression?

The Wizard of Oz
Directed by Victor Fleming (George Cukor and King Vidor uncredited)
Written by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf, based on stories by L. Frank Baum
98 minutes, Rated G
4.5 stars

The Wizard of Oz seems to change every time I see it. Or rather, I see something new in it each time, which may be part of its greatness. (It is said to have been seen more often by more people than any other film).

This time around (writing in 2006) watching a beautiful, shining print struck last year from the best existing prints – but not alas, from the original Technicolor negatives – I realised it can be seen as a film partly about the Depression. L. Frank Baum began writing his series of Oz stories in 1900, but the movie was made in 1939, when American unemployment was at 17.2 per cent. There were 8 million out of work and half of the mid-west had been blown away in the dust storms of the 1930’s.

In the sepia-toned introduction, Dorothy (Judy Garland) is growing up in Kansas on a farm that is far from prosperous. She has no parents and her guardians, Uncle Harry and Auntie Em (Charley Grapewin and Clara Blandick) are so poor that the breakdown of their chicken incubator worries them sick. When the tornado strikes, Dorothy loses everything except her dog Toto (one of the greatest pooch actors ever put on film). Even if it’s only delirium, she becomes like the dispossessed ‘Okies’ who would head west to California a year later in John Ford’s movie of Steinbeck’s 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath.

American audiences at the time would have understood these sequences as being about something real, as real as Dorothy’s desire to be elsewhere, somewhere, even over the rainbow. When she gets there, it’s pretty obvious that Oz is a bit like California to an Okie – all green and verdant and full of weird people. I know it sounds strange, but I couldn’t help thinking this time that the Wicked Witch of the East that Dorothy squashes flat is, in fact, the Depression. After all, she has made life miserable for the Munchkins for some time, as Glinda the Good Witch (Billie Burke) explains to Dorothy.

The move to Technicolor at the end of the first reel is still one of the most magical moments in film, and it must have seemed even more breathtaking to audiences then, because it somehow dramatises the idea of hope. Fantasy or not, Oz is Dorothy’s projected idea of a better world, where she is the centre of attention, heroine to the Munchkins and befriended by everyone she meets – except the green-faced Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton).

The idea that the Emerald City is like an MGM version of Hollywood seems to be deliberately evoked by the sequence in which Dorothy and her companions are brushed, buffed and coiffed to see the Wizard. Shirley Temple was originally to play Dorothy but it would have given the film a completely different meaning. Garland was 17, but made to look 12, and that gives the film a sense of hormonal turmoil. Her fantasy is that much more believable because she’s on the verge of womanhood, yearning for discovery. In that sense, her three companions – the Tin Woodsman (Jack Haley), the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger) and the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) are like desexed boyfriends. By the end, and taken together, they make up the attributes of one ideal man, who has brains, heart and courage.

The film had four directors, though only Victor Fleming is credited. Richard Thorpe was sacked after 12 days and his footage dumped; George Cukor did three days of tests, during which he got rid of a blonde wig that Dorothy was to wear; Fleming did four months work before moving on to Gone With the Wind. King Vidor directed the monotone Kansas scenes, including Judy’s most famous song. It might never have succeeded without Garland, who does everything with a conviction bordering on hysteria. Sixty two years later, and knowing what would become of her within 10 years of this performance, the film has a poignancy now that it didn’t have then. It’s a film which has only grown with time.

Postscript: The clip above tells you some fascinating stuff about the 4K restoration on the film, which was done in 2005, I think. I can’t recall what version I was writing about now but I don’t think it was that restoration, because I made specific note that I was not looking at a version taken from the original negs… In any case, I did not write about it as a technical wonder – more as a pyschological one. There are so many ways to interpret this film, which is part of why it continues to fascinate us – or at least, it does me. If there is more powerful set of allegories in any film, I can’t think which one that might be. And yet, you don’t need to think about those at all to love it. I don’t imagine many children see this as a story about the Depression, but they do see a film about their own fears of the wider world.