17 September 2008

The MGM Wizard of Oz as a “Meditation on America”?

Ben Alpers's essay on the 1939 Wizard of Oz movie at The Edge of the American West talks a lot about the politics within the movie:

Today it’s easy to see the film, especially its sepia-toned Kansas sequences, as a kind of meditation on America during the Great Depression. But many critics at the time dismissed this aspect of the film. Jane Cobb, in her New York Times piece on the film’s youthful audience, noted that “The more cosmopolitan elements are completely out of sympathy with Dorothy’s grim determination to get back to Kansas. ‘What does she want to go back there for?’ they ask--reasonably.”
The Scarecrow expresses the same thought in L. Frank Baum's book: "I cannot understand why you should wish to leave this beautiful country and go back to the dry, gray place you call Kansas."

"That is because you have no brains," Dorothy answers. "No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home." Showing she has a firm grasp on American clichés.

The MGM movie's shooting script has a line for Hickory, the farmhand who becomes the Tin Man, about the "contraption" he's tinkering with: “It’ll break up winds, so we don’t have no more dust storms. Can you imagine what it’ll mean to this section of the country[?]” That line would clearly have had deep resonances in Dust Bowl America. But it didn't make the final cut.

MGM wasn't as comfortable showing American poverty as other studios (e.g. Warner Bros.). In Baum's books, Uncle Henry is a small farmer with no help who eventually loses his property to the bank. In the studio's movie, he has three hands, an incubator, and too many chicks to easily count.

Alpers closes his essay with some quotations from 1939 using The Wizard of Oz as a source for political metaphors:
Even before the movie’s premiere, an August 12, 1939, letter to the editor in the New York Times compared FDR to the Wizard:
So many people believed in our President’s ability to solve the depression that he was looked upon as a doctor of economics and philosophy...The President wanted to be popular with the people and granted almost every demand to make the country happy.

It brings to mind that juvenile tale, “The Wizard of Oz.” The Scarecrow wanted brains; the Tin Woodman wanted a heart; the Lion wanted courage. The Wizard gave the Scarecrow brains of bran mixed with pins and needles. The Tin Woodman received a heart made of silk and stuffed with sawdust. The Lion was given a potion which was poured into a beautiful gold dish from a green bottle. Oz, left to himself, smiled to think of his success in giving the three friends exactly what they thought they wanted . . .

It now remains for the next Congress to eliminate all the pins and needles from our private economy so that we can start to pay off some of that 25 billion doctor’s bill and save a little money for the rainy day.
Conservative Senator Arthur Vandenberg (R-MI) picked up the same theme two days later. Speaking before the National Fraternal Congress, Vandenberg declared that the Great Depression cannot be ended by “any Wizard of Oz who tries to build a solvent prosperity around an insolvent treasury.”
The Times letter alluded to the Scarecrow's bran-new sharp brains in his head, and the Cowardly Lion's drink of courage--details from L. Frank Baum's book. Within a couple of generations, most Americans would be thinking of the Scarecrow's brains as a diploma and the Cowardly Lion's courage as a medal.


Anonymous said...

In my opinion, the depiction of the Kansas farm derives from the 1903 Broadway show in which there were plenty of farmhands and dairy maids, even a golfer. Amateur and stock companies were still mounting the show in the 1930s, and that's the idea that most Americans would have had of The Wizard of Oz, so seeing a similar depiction in the movie adaptation doesn't strike me as odd. What's odd is that the MGM movie adaptation is as close to the book as it is.

J. L. Bell said...

That's an interesting observation. One of these days I'm going to write about "hidden" versions of our nation's myths that were extremely influential in their times but later forgotten: the stage versions of Wizard and Uncle Tom's Cabin, the Superman radio show, etc.

David Lee Ingersoll said...

It's the stage versions of many stories that form the spines of our common fantasy stories. The filmed versions of Frankenstein, Dracula and Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hydewere all based more on popular play adaptations of the novels than the novels themselves.

J. L. Bell said...

It makes sense for plays to feed into movies since some stories have to change to work off the page: to provide a sounding-board for what in prose could be an internal monologue, for instance, or to tell a story without a narrator or not in documentary form.

And with movies and then television becoming the 20th-century's dominant form of mass entertainment, it also makes sense for those to be the versions that most people know.